Outdoor Sports Photography on a Budget - The Gear & the Settings

February 28, 2017  •  4 Comments


(Photo - Nikon D7200 / 70 to 200 mm / f2.8 @ 200 mm

1/320th Sec / f2.8 / ISO 5000)


Outdoor Sports Photography on a Budget

The Gear & the Settings

As for wildlife & aviation photography, in outdoor sports photography, the long telephoto lens is King.  Football pitches and rugby pitches are BIG!  But, even with normal kit, not the thousands of pounds worth of high quality 600 mm or longer telephotos used by the pros, you can get pretty reasonable results.

Here are some pointers for starting out in the world of outdoor sports photography.

1 - You are going to need a camera with a viewfinder!

Just as for wildlife & aviation photography, using a 'point & shoot' camera and trying to focus & shoot the sporting action using the screen on the back of the camera isn't going to work.  Such a camera will be absolutely fine taking pictures of the teams when they are stationary, or moving slowly, but when the action gets fast - or far away - it will all get too difficult for the 'point & shoot' camera.

So, as for wildlife & aviation photography, for fast moving sports (football, rugby etc) you will need a camera with a viewfinder.  It can be either an optical viewfinder or an Electronic Viewfinder but a viewfinder makes taking photographs of players moving quickly so much easier.

2 - You are going to need a lens of at least 300 mm (in terms of 35 mm).

As football & rugby pitches are pretty large, the longer the lens the better and typically for sports photography on a budget, the minimum 35 mm equivalent lens is 300 mm.  So, if you are using a Nikon APS-C sensor camera, a 18 to 200 mm zoom gives you the 35 mm equivalent of 27 mm to 300 mm - so that is already good enough to start your sports photography career. 

Certainly DON'T go out a buy a specific lens for your sports shooting until you have tried your current kit at a few matches.  You may well find that, with a bit of practise, your current kit does just fine.

(And before you buy a new lens (either new or second-hand), always try to borrow one for a test to see how it feels.  That long zoom might look great on paper but after a few hours it might weigh a ton!)

Often enthusiast sports photographers buy a 70 mm to 300 mm zoom lens - which on a Nikon crop sensor body (x 1.5) is equivalent in 35 mm terms to a 105 mm to 450 mm range - which is a very useful range for outdoor sports photography.

3 - Shutter Speed - High Enough to Freeze the Action eg 1/1000th of a second or Faster

Depending on the sport you are shooting, you will want to use a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action.  Typically for football / rugby I will start at 1/1000th of a second, but if lighting conditions allow (ie if it is bright enough) I will go to 1/2000th of a second or even higher.  I want to freeze the action so I can see the individual beads of sweat as they come off the players forehead! 

If the light fades, I might - in an emergency - go as low as 1/500th or 1/250th but with these 'long' shutter speeds I know I will be shooting mostly 'deleters' rather than 'keepers' as in many cases the players faces will be blurred - which means 'delete the picture'.

4 - Aperture - Keep it Simple - Let the camera choose

To begin with, you will want to let the camera choose your aperture, as you will be controlling the shutter speed.  So set your camera to Shutter Priority.  (Later you might want to shoot in manual keeping your aperture as wide open as possible to get those nice, gently blurred, backgrounds, but let's keep it simple for now.)

5 - ISO - Keep it Simple - Let the camera choose - But Set Your Maximum ISO!

Ideally, you always want a nice, low, ISO setting but it's shutter speed that rules the roost in sports photography and all else is secondary.  So this is where you find out what you camera is like at high ISOs.  The good news is that cameras are getting better at ISO performance all the time.  You will need to do some experimenting at your first few matches to see how high you are happy for your camera to go in terms of ISO.  And this can be a very personal preference. 

In the past I have had cameras that I would not use with an ISO setting of higher than 800 or 1600.  Later as technology improved my more recent gear could operate as high as ISO 3200 before I became concerned that the image was getting too flaky.

With my current camera bodies (Nikon D7200 and Nikon D750) I am happy - if required - to go as high as 12,800 with the D750 (full-frame) and get perfectly acceptable results up to 8,000 to 10,000 ISO.  Due to its smaller sensor, I don't go quite as high with the D7200 but I am very happy shooting at ISO 6400 or even a bit higher.

So, have a play with your camera and gauge on your desktop screen how high you are happy for the ISO to go.  And then either adjust it manually during the shoot.  Or, if your camera allows your ISO value to 'float', set the max value and then shoot away.

6 - Fast Focus

You know that by pressing halfway down on your shutter button your camera focuses.  And in sports photography you will spend a lot of you time with your shutter button half depressed - ready for the 'right moment'. 

Very importantly, for sports, you need to set your camera to 'continuous auto focus' (AF - C) as your subjects will be moving!  Often very quickly!  So your camera needs to know that whenever you have the shutter button pressed half-way down, that you want it to continuously adjust the focus as the player is moving.  (The other typical focus mode is 'single auto focus' (AF - S) which is fine if you are photographing a landscape, but not any use when a burley rugby player is racing towards you!)

I also suggest you set your focus point to 'single' - ie the camera concentrates on what you have under that typically black square focus symbol in the middle of your viewfinder screen.  So you will have to work hard to keep that black square symbol on the face of the player you are interested in - typically the player with the ball! - but if you get it right, the player's face will always be in sharp focus in your photo!

Some folk will use different focus modes eg d9 in Nikon uses 9 points, d21 uses - yes, you've guessed it - 21 points - but I like the single point focus system as I know exactly where the camera will be focussed.

(It's well beyond 'Keep It Simple' but eventually you should be using the back button focus technique - and a great video on this by Steve Perry - can be accessed via this link - Steve Perry on Back Button Focus)

The other part of 'fast focus' is the quality (which sadly translates into cost) of your lens.  A typical enthusiast sports zoom might be a 70 mm to 300 mm zoom - but not all 70 mm to 300 mm zooms are created equal!  So, 3 different 70 to 300 mm zooms from 3 different manufacturers might all have different focus speeds.  As a sports photographer you will want the one that focuses fastest - within your budget.  Even 70 to 300 mm zooms made by the same manufacturer can have different focusing speeds.  So, if once you have done some sports photography and know it's for you, you will need to consider focus speed of any lens you plan to buy. 

(There are plenty of online review sites - www.dpreview.com - www.cameralabs.com - www.techradar.com - www.camerajabber.com - which review lenses etc in minute detail.)

7 - Weather Proof Gear

It may not seem important now - but unless you only shoot sports in the Atacama Desert - you & your gear will eventually get very wet.

Either get - or make - some rain-proof coverings for you camera & its lenses - or - if you're really minted - buy gear which is weather proof.

8 - Practise! Practise! Practise!

And, as Henri Cartier-Bresson said 'Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.'

So practise, practise, practise.

Go to a few games with your current kit and see how you get on.  Don't be too critical, there will be lots of blurred shots at first - but, over time, we all get better.

Shoot at 1/1000th of a second.  Then shoot at 1/2000th of a second.  Then shoot at 1/500th of a second.  Which do you prefer.

Shoot some shots in auto aperture ie shutter priority.

Then shoot some in fixed aperture - say f4 & f8 & f11 - which do you prefer.

And certainly don't spend a fortune on new gear until you have tried your current kit, you might be surprised how well you can do with it.

Happy Sports Photography!

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assignment writing help(non-registered)
Sports having huge contribution in everyone life and people love to explore online about. I also have watched the video of the sport and really enjoy. Thumbs up with your work that is really appreciated to all.
Brennon Treutel(non-registered)
just love your work.
Mark Bunting Photography
Hi James, Glad you found it useful. Let me know how you get on. Just like Wedding Photography, the more you do of Sports Photography, the better you get! Best wishes, Mark
Thanks for the insight - I’m currently a wedding photographer and sports photography is something I want to get into. Some great advice here.
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