The whole point of this blog is to give folks advice on taking better pictures at their kids’ sporting events without getting overly technical. But here’s the trouble: some topics are just technical in nature. Blurring is one of them. Mostly because there are a bunch of things that can cause blur and many of them interact with each other which means it can be kinda tough to figure out what’s causing the problem. I’ll do my best to keep the conversation as simple as possible but if you get confused or don’t understand something, you can leave comments at the end of this blog post or you can email me directly. Either way, I’ll do my best to offer as much help as possible. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the basics.
FAST ACTION, FAST SHUTTER
Regardless of which sport your kids play, there’s going to be stuff moving. Usually, that stuff is moving pretty darn fast. Assuming the goal is to freeze the action, the most fundamental thing you need is a fast shutter speed. The faster the action, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For example, if you’re photographing a baseball player running the bases, you could probably get away with a shutter speed of 250th of a second. But, if you’re trying to capture a player swinging a bat, which is obviously moving WAY faster than someone running, you’ll probably want to bump the shutter speed up to at least 1000th of a second. Even that may not be fast enough to completely freeze everything. Some photographers use shutter speeds of 5,000th or even higher. That said, there are no hard and fast rules for exact settings. It all depends on what you’re shooting, how much light is available and what your goals are. Try a few pre-game test shots and check the results on your camera’s LCD. By the time the game is ready to start, you should be able to dial in the settings that work for you in whatever conditions you’re shooting in.
In addition to the speed of the shutter, another major factor for freezing sports action is the size of the shutter opening. The wider the shutter opens, the more light gets to the camera’s image sensor. The opening in the shutter is called the “aperture”. The aperture is measured in f-stops, which is a whole other topic. For purposes of this discussion, the main thing you need to know is that higher f-stop numbers, such as f/2.8, let in more light. Why is that important? Because a fast shutter speed reduces the amount of light getting to the camera’s image sensor and a wide aperture can help counter that problem.
One other thing to be aware of with aperture is that it can affect the focus in your shots. You know all those professional sports photos you see online and in magazines that have the main action in perfect focus with the background blurred out? That's because they're shooting with a high aperture which narrows the range of focus (also called "depth of field") in your shot. If you're not shooting with a high aperture, it shouldn't be something you have to worry to much about but keep it in mind in case you ever make the investment in a pro-level lens.
And speaking of investments, one of the toughest parts of shooting sports is that high aperture lenses, like the f/2.8 I mentioned above, are very expensive. That said, I’ve seen some amazing sports photos that were taken with very affordable gear so you don’t need a $2,000 lens to get great shots. You just need to take advantage of the equipment you do have.
DON’T BE SO SENSITIVE
ISO is another one of those technical terms some folks find confusing. Luckily, this one is actually pretty straightforward. ISO is a measurement of how sensitive the camera’s image sensor is to light. The higher the number, the higher the sensitivity. For example: if you’re shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, you would use a low number like 100 or 200. On an overcast day, you may bump up to 400 or 800 and if you’re shooting in low-light conditions, especially indoors, you may bump it up even higher. As with all these settings, ISO usually requires some experimentation to get the best results. The downside to a high ISO setting is that it can cause a digital “noise” pattern in your images. Modern cameras have gotten much better at limiting the amount of noise and there are software options that can remove it very effectively but it’s definitely something to watch out for.
It’s also important to keep in mind that all three of these basic settings (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) are intertwined. If you want to shoot with a faster shutter speed but you don’t have a lens with a high f-stop (did I mention high f-stop lenses are super expensive?) you might have to kick up the ISO setting to keep your shots from getting too dark. That’s why it’s important to take some test shots before the action starts so you can dial in the combination that’s going to work for your specific shooting conditions.
THE FINAL WORD
In the end, the best way to learn is to keep shooting and keep experimenting. Try different combinations of settings and make note of what works best in various lighting conditions with your specific camera gear. You’ll eventually get to the point where you’ll find a mix that works well for you.