How To Take Photos of Fast Moving Sports Without Blurring The Subject

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How To Take Photos of Fast Moving Sports Without Blurring The Subject

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.

This is a classic example of what can happen in low light
Thanks to Traci Scoggins for the image

Ambient Light

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.

Changing Aperture

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.

ISO Speed

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.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (20)

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  1. Marc says:

    I just want to say that this is a really great article and thank you. I’ve been shooting for fun for a few years and have learned most of this by painful trial and error and by looking up other articles. But this is by far the most straightforward and useful article I have found on this topic. Not sure why everyone else couldn’t have been this informative. Wish I found this 2 years ago! But even now, it helped me to better understand the “why” behind it all.

  2. Sara Anderson says:

    I’m trying to figure out how best to take pictures for my daughters dance showcases. They are constantly moving and i usually use the auto option as i’m not a pro by any means. i have a nikon d60 and i do have a nikon sb400 i added to take photos of my son’s baseball. i end up blurry or partial focus and i have not changed any options. these showcases are dark and only the stage is lighted. can you recommend a great lens or how to take the best photos. i have the 18-55, and the 55-200 and 70-300.

  3. Gordie says:

    Some have pointed out that high ISO buys you room to shoot at higher speeds in lower light; very true. If you are in the market for a new camera, take this into consideration. For example, if you can’t afford a pro-level DSLR, one entry level that is lauded for its class-leading high ISO performance is the Pentax K-x. Point-n-shoots have gotten better, too over the years, so don’t rule them out. Do your homework! My next cam will be the K-x.

  4. Anna says:

    I have had very good luck shooting sports in dimmly lit gyms and swimming pools with my Rebel xti by setting my ISO at 1600, the esposure compensation at +2, using TV , setting my shutter speed 100 – 160 depending where the action is. I shoot higher in the stands to take advantage of reflected light from the gym floor. Some areas of my gym are more brightly lit than others, like mid court, under the basket is more dark. And by the way, the use of flash is often forbidden at high school sports events because coches feel the flash disrupts their players’ concentration.

  5. Andy says:

    Tips on indoor basketball-(grandson playing AAU) different light, intensity, and shooting distance are making consistance difficult. Have enough good shots to know equipment is not problem-operator is.

  6. Mark says:

    Panning takes practice, experience makes perfect.
    The trick to perfect panning shots in automotive sports is to start following the car as it comes towards you … at the right moment press the shutter, release it but keep ‘tracking’ the object … that’s the only way to get tack sharp panning shots of high speed race cars.

    I have an entire tutorial online for this, just check out the site

  7. No Phil, the camera will know when you are panning and will still give you a clearer image.

  8. Phil Parsons says:

    My camera (Fuji S100fs) has a reasonably effective image stabilisation system. Should I be turning this off when I am panning?

  9. Manish says:

    Thankx. this really helps me. Please keep on sending the tips,


  10. Tony says:

    When the light is low choose when to fire the shutter intelligently. For example, a footballer taking a header is stationary for a tiny fraction of a second when he is at the highest point of his jump.
    Something moving towards you can be shot at a lower speed than something moving across the field of view.
    Learn to anticipate these moments and you will maximize your chances.

  11. Photobyoros says:

    Nice job of explaining each method and their drawbacks.

  12. Wayne says:

    Panning is another way of trying to freeze the image. I was very lucky with a panned shot of a trumpeter swan in flight. In fact I was finishing my photo shoot and had taken my Nikon D200 and Sigma 170-500mm off the tripod when this swan did a flyby at low attitude. I quickly made sure I was shooting at 170mm (hand held) and did a continuous burst, nailed it, have the print matted and framed in my home.

  13. Mike FD says:

    I have used panning before but you really need a tripod, setting it up prior for height adjustment. If it is something like a sports car on a track then the vertical plane can be fixed so you just pan horizontally and you can give yourself a bit of “room” for the shot by moving further away from the subject. In something like basketball it becomes more difficult by the unpredictable, and relatively close up nature of the movement. In this situation it pays to use a wider angle, but this might bring “too much into the shot”.

    Practice is essential!

    The panning with the intended subject in your viewfinder and the actual pressing the button is the bit that needs practice. One bit of advice is to be as smooth as you can and have the shuuter release button half depressed to reduce the shutter lag.

  14. Jeffrey E Biteng says:

    Thanks David.

    I just want to share some few points, I believe solving the issues on shooting sports photography, notably action shots. We need pro dslr, fast lenses (especially 70-200mm and 16-35mm zoom lenses), high ISO and wide aperture. Like shooting indoor sports (action) photos, you need ISO of 800 to 2000, apertures of f/2.8 to f/5.6 and shutter speeds of 1/250 sec to 1/400 sec. Monopod (or even tripod) can also be useful. These all depends on the ambient or available light indoors.



  15. rick says:

    great stuff and very informative

  16. D. Lambert says:

    In my experience, this is one of the areas that really shows the limitations of my P&S. Fast shutter speed, as you indicated, is the key, but the two most effective ways of being able to do that (open the aperture and increase the ISO) are two of the areas where a P&S is limited.

    Increasing the ISO is do-able, but my camera gets noticeably grainy very quickly — enough so that I try to limit ISO to 200. The P&S obviously also has a single lens with an unimpressive aperture range as soon as you start zooming in on your subject.

    One technique I’ve used with limited success is to shoot underexposed and brighten the photo in post-processing. There’s only so much mileage you can get out of this, because there’s got to be something there for the software to work with, but you can get a little more headroom this way. If your camera can shoot RAW images, try that, too — you might have a little more data for the image processing software to work with.

  17. gurpreet singh says:

    woud like someone to touch the issue of panning..i feel it is also one of the ways to get sharp pic of a moving subject wit blurred background..

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