Sports and childhood go hand in hand. It begins in the backyard, and over the years, transitions to courts and fields. My two sons participating in sports is a slice of life I love to document. I’ve learned a few things about photographing from the sidelines over the seasons, from optimal camera settings to intriguing perspectives. Baseball is the focus here (shamelessly, it’s our family’s favorite) but the tips I give are applicable to many sports and activities, indoors and out.
1. Know your focus modes.
Sports entails capturing moving targets, and I want complete control of how and where my camera grabs focus (above). My camera’s AI-Servo mode (Canon’s continuous-servo autofocus system, AF-C on Nikon’s) allows me to lock focus and track a moving subject, automatically shifting focus as the distance between my subject and me changes. This is especially helpful when the action is moving toward or away from you. If the action is moving parallel to you, and you use a forgiving aperture, you can successfully pan with your subject in One Shot mode (AF-S on Nikons) and get sharp images.
2. Capture one athlete in burst mode.
Single-shooting and continuous/burst mode are both useful tools in sports photography. Burst mode is optimal for capturing one subject through a range of movement (running, throwing, swinging), such as following a pitcher through his entire windup and follow through (above). Be sure you’re are in AI-Servo/AF-C mode when you use burst mode to retain sharp focus through all your shots. Some cameras offer different speed options in continuous mode. Know what your camera can do! High-speed memory cards will help record your images quickly; just don’t exceed the maximum speed your camera can handle.
3. Back-button focus gives you an advantage.
Although it’s not required in sports photography, I went to back-button focusing (BBF) years ago, and never looked back. In AI Servo, with your autofocus and shutter separated (BBF), you can chose whether or not to use one-shot or AI Servo at any moment, without having to change it in your menu. Using BBF, you can lock focus and recompose a moment when your subject is stationary, such as a timeout or a huddle with coach, or a player’s respite on the sideline. Or, as the action unfolds, I can use my thumb to lock and track focus on my subject as he moves, capturing my shot (or burst of shots) at the moment I chose.
4. Light is the name of the game.
Golden hour on a baseball field is utterly beautiful. Look for opportunities to create beautiful backlight on the pitcher, batter or a base runner sliding into third in a cloud of dust. Find pockets of light that can highlight the expression of a pitcher in motion, a batter on deck, or an outfielder anticipating the next pop fly. Watch for long shadows late in the day; if you let the light on the field be a guide, your images will have greater depth and emotion.
5. Think hard about perspective.
My sons play on traveling teams, so we visit a lot of different fields. When you arrive, scout your surroundings, and visualize the unique perspectives you could get. Can you shoot from behind home plate? It’s a terrific perspective if it’s available to you. Compress the action among the umpire, catcher, pitcher, and players in the field. Get telling shots of the pitcher and his expressions. Use a shallow depth of field to selectively isolate the batter or pitcher or base runner.
If the sidelines aren’t fenced, try getting low to the ground. I’ll sit on the grass in front of my camp chair to capture a runner or fielder with bokeh in the foreground.
If the sidelines are fenced, shoot through fencing, and rather than trying to eliminate it, go ahead and include the out-of-focus fencing. Use the shape of the fencing to frame a player. This helps tell the story of the spectator, who often has to watch the game through that barrier.
You don’t have to change your position much to capture a unique perspective of the game. Remember, there’s the shot right before you — and then there’s a better one. Search for it.
Note: If I shoot from behind home plate, I’m careful not to be a distraction to the pitcher. I often take shots here when there are bleachers behind the backstop, and I can sit in the bottom row among other spectators.
In general, I try to stay directly out of my son’s and other players’ line of sight. My boys don’t mind that I take photos at games, but I know they don’t want to see me with a camera pointed in their face while they’re trying to concentrate.
6. Be thoughtful with composition.
We naturally read images like pages of a book, from left to right. In sports photography, pay attention to both movement and direction. If a player is throwing, hitting, or running, visualize where the ball is headed or where the player’s body will be headed, and leave room in the composition of your frame for that space. A player facing you head on can also make a strong centered composition. Use the rule of thirds. Look for a ball in hand or a player’s eyes and place them at the cross points of those lines.
7. Anticipate: It’s the best skill in your bag.
This is the secret to capturing great moments. Be ready for them before they happen. Apply your knowledge of the game to your photography. Might a baserunner steal? Is the celebration of the last out about to happen? Learning to anticipate action takes practice, but I believe it’s one skill that can really help you bring home better images.
I do most of my sports-image post-processing in Lightroom. In the Basic panel, add contrast, bring back the highlights in bright areas, and adjust the white balance as needed. Use the dehaze slider for dusty, backlit scenes. Applying a simple tone curve is also a quick way to strengthen your image. Create your own presets for both outdoor and indoor sports so you can batch edit your shoot.
I’m a nostalgic person, drawn to the timeless feel of black-and-white images. Each summer my sons grow older, I’m struck by that growth when they step onto the field. By converting certain images to black and white, I’m able to quiet an energetic scene and draw focus to something different or specific that I want my viewer to see.
1. Use the HSL panel to work with the bright green tones of summer grass and the bright colors of the jerseys.
2. Use the horizontal lines in courts and fences to align your images. Not every line will or should be straight, but there’s always one that, when properly aligned, will make your image feel the most natural to the viewer. Find that line.
9. What about indoor sports?
In gymnasiums and arenas, the lighting can be troublesome, and there never seems to be enough of it. It’s important to use a fast aperture lens for indoor sports. To balance the shutter speeds needed to capture fast action, you’ll undoubtedly push your ISO. Capture raw images and try metering a stop or two below normal. You’ll be able to correct it in post, so don’t sacrifice the shutter speed you need. Try setting your white balance to fluorescent or tungsten/incandescent, or set a custom white balance. I prefer to use Kelvin.
10. Tell the story.
All of these elements come together to tell a story. That’s the beauty of photography, isn’t it? Moments captured with intention, focus, composition, depth of field, all help tell about experiences in your child’s early years: stories of teamwork and cooperation; personalities and relationships; facing and over-coming challenges; loss and success. Images of high fives, teammates cheering, and such details as a well-used mitt may be outside the action, but they’re equally important to the story. Don’t forget that the dedicated fans and families are part of the narrative.
My sons’ participation in sports represents some the most positive and vivid memories I have of their childhood. They build friendships, develop lifelong skills, and grow emotionally and physically from season to season. I hope these tips will better equip you to preserve your family’s sports memories.
Amy’s tools & tips:
Camera: Canon EOS 6D DSLR
Memory cards: SanDisk Extreme PRO UHS-I SDXC memory cards
Lens picks: “I love the Canon 70-200 lens for sports. It’s sharp, has a fast aperture of f/2.8 for low light and isolating my subject with a beautiful, shallow depth of field. I’m also able to adjust to the action with a wide range of focal lengths. Indoors, I’ll bring my Tamron 85mm. This is my favorite portrait lens, which does surprisingly well in the gym. Though I primarily use my 70-200mm, I also bring my 16-35mm for group photos, stops at Dairy Queen after the game, or the occasional surprise rainbow after a summer shower.”
Sometimes, just leave it all at home: “I don’t bring my camera to every game. And I may bring it to some games, and never take it out of my bag. Remember the balance of enjoying this time in your child’s life. As a photographer, I know how great it feels to catch the perfect shot. It feels even better to just stand up and cheer for your child, without your camera in hand.”