How To Take Photos of Fast Moving Sports Without Blurring The Subject :: Digital Photo Secrets

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

by David Peterson 28 comments

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.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Denise says:

    I have a Nikon D3100 and am shooting my nephews football games from the stands. Can you give me some feedback on where my settings should be. I appreciate any help! Or should I follow your steps listed in your article, which is very informative. Thanks

  2. Kelly Miller says:

    Hi David,
    Loved the article, very helpful! Although I'm a rookie, I've invested money in a good lens, ES70-200mm F/2.8 USM. Yes, it was a lot, but really hoping it will be worth it. I invested in the new lens because my daughter plays basketball and softball and I wanted to get great shots. In particular, basketball is an issue. So many pictures I look at and say, that would've been great if only it wasn't blurry. Softball is a little easier. Can you tell me settings for the camera to shoot both sport respectively? I have the Cannon T3i Rebel and of course, the new lens mentioned above! Thank you for helping me!

  3. Melissa Davis says:

    What settings would you use for mountain bike racing in the forest or on dirt tracks

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Melissa,

      Probably the same settings as I discussed in this article. If you're in the forest, I'd increase the ISO even more because of the low light.


  4. Ashleigh says:

    I am doing a photo shoot for a girl graduating college next weekend, I'm a little rusty on my photo skills and I want to make sure I do this properly, she wants an action shot of a champagne shake from the bottle, real cute idea, just want to make sure I have the proper knowledge before messing up her entire idea. Any tips? I have a Nikon D3200, pretty decent options, just need some insight.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Ashleigh,

      I highly recommend you take some practice shots BEFORE the big day - particularly if you are asking money for the gig. Get an assistant and some cheap bottles of champagne to practice. Try to get as close as possible to the lighting conditions that will be there on graduation too so you know how to set your camera. I'd also make sure there are a few bottles of champagne at the graduation so that you have a few chances to get the photo right.

      Good luck!


  5. John says:

    It's such a great article.. but I met some issues in taking snaps of my dog playing indoors... as I have low light and my dog plays real quick... I'm using a Canon Kiss X5 with normal lense... What settings should I apply?? Thanks

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi John,

      Use the same procedures as I explain in the article. Use as fast a shutter speed as possible. If your camera won't let you choose a shutter faster than 1/50 second, choose a higher ISO which will help to increase the shutter speed. Another option is to add more light... turn on all the lights in the house and open all the blinds.

      Shutter speed is the key. Depending on the speed of your dog, you'll need a shutter at least 1/50 sec, but more likely faster than that.

      I hope that helps.


  6. Gary says:

    Thanks for a great article. It's probably easier to get fast action shots with a good DSLR but I'm looking for a sub $200 camera for my daughter for shooting her kids in action. She complains about blurry and unclear images. Are the new larger sensor cameras any faster than older ones? Are ISO speeds generally faster? Should she turn off autofocus and image stabilization? Shutter lag is also an issue.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *