You know what it’s like. You’ve lined up the perfect shot and pressed the shutter at the right moment only to find out later on that everything is blurred. This is one of the biggest frustrations for beginner, and even experienced, sports photographers. It is the moment when people begin to question the camera setup they just purchased, often wondering if those hundreds and thousands of dollars could have been better spent elsewhere.
There is no need for frustration. With an understanding of the environmental factors that come into play, you can anticipate the steps you need to take to capture the moment. Be patient, set your camera up for success, and watch as great action shots emerge.
The most important factor in any action shot is ambient light. The reasoning is fairly straightforward. In order to capture an action shot, you need a very high shutter speed. How high is high? At least 1/500th of a second at a minimum and higher if your camera supports it.
But there is a catch. Whenever you increase your shutter speed, you decrease the amount of light reaching the image sensor on your camera. This can lead to dark, or underexposed photos. If it’s a bright sunny day and your kid is playing soccer at noon, none of this will be a problem. It starts to become a huge issue, however, when you are indoors and trying to photograph your daughter playing volleyball. Most indoor spaces don’t have enough ambient light to support the fast shutter speeds you need. Your photos will either be blurred or dark.
There are a few ways to deal with low ambient light. You can either increase your aperture size, use a flash, or increase your ISO speed. Each option has its own pros and cons, which we will go over shortly. The one you pick will depend on the situation at hand and what you are most willing to sacrifice.
The aperture on your camera lens is the hole that light travels through before reaching the image sensor on the back. If you open it up more by selecting a lower f-stop (like f5.6 for example), you also allow more light in. With more light available, you will be able to use a faster shutter speed. Of course, this doesn’t come without some kind of cost. Whenever you open up your aperture even more, you also reduce the depth of field in your photograph.
Depth of field is the range of elements in your photo that are in focus. With a higher depth of field, more of the scene is in focus. As your depth of field decreases, more of the photo appears out of focus. Typically at an aperture of f22, the entire scene is in focus. At aperture f4 or f2.8, only the subject is in focus while the entire background appears out of focus.
By opening up your aperture as means of getting more light and a higher shutter speed, you have to sacrifice some depth of field. If the background isn’t an important factor in your shot, and you are mostly focused on capturing the high flying emotions of the moment, this is perfectly acceptable. If the background is an integral feature of the photo, you may want to look into other means of increasing your shutter speed.
I should also mention that not every lens has a good aperture range. You may need to purchase a lens with a bigger aperture to get the sort of photos you want. The larger the aperture, the more money you can expect to spend.
Using a Flash
Your second option is to use a flash. Flashes are great. They illuminate the subject and allow us to get an excellent combination of aperture and a fast shutter speed. If it is permissible, they are a good solution to indoor and low light situations.
Flashes also aren’t without their drawbacks. If you use the light from your flash directly on your subject, you risk washing out colors and overexposing portions of your shot. This can make the photo appear less natural. One way to solve this problem is to bounce the light from the flash off of some other surface, like a white wall or an umbrella, instead of shooting it directly at your subject. Though it requires some degree of practice, your photos will appear more evenly lit.
Your camera’s flash also has a very short range. Your flash will only work at most a few feet away from your camera. It won’t operate as far away as the other side of a gymnasium.
So. before the security guards kick you out of the gymnasium for creating a bright and flashy distraction, let’s move onto the last thing you can change.
For those of us who hate acronyms, ISO speed is a fancy word for the speed at which your camera’s image sensor reads light coming in from outside. If you increase it, you will also be able to increase your aperture and shutter speed without darkening or blurring your photos.
Just like a using bigger aperture and a flash, increasing your ISO speed is no free ride. Whenever you increase your ISO speed, you also make your photos a bit more grainy (called digital noise). The increased sensitivity on the sensor picks up more noise to go along with the actual image you want to capture. Use it with caution and mostly as a last resort.
I will be the first to admit that it is oftentimes difficult and frustrating to get a high shutter speed when all of the external factors are not in my favor. If you think your current setup isn’t adequate, do a lot of research before committing your money to a new lens or flash. Be 100% certain that it will help you capture the image you want. And don’t give up. Some days just weren’t meant to be. Get out there when the sun is shining and you’re certain to capture a perfect blur-free image.