How to Photograph Action and Sports

By Geoff Harris


There's a lot of talk about smartphones replacing traditional cameras, but it will be a cold day in hell before you see sports photographers sitting on the side-lines with iPhones. Sport and action photography is one of THE most demanding areas of photography, and you need a decent SLR and lens to keep up with the thrills and spills. Not only do you have to freeze the action at precisely the right moment, which is an art in itself, but you have to ensure the images are sharply focussed and well composed. Action and sports photography is not easy, but it's far from impossible – follow our essential guide for more dynamic shots today.

Choose the right gear

Even compact cameras these days can shoot in continuous mode, but if you are serious about sports photographer, you will need a particularly fast SLR – a higher end SLR with APS-C sensor, such as the Canon EOS 7D is ideal. When it comes to lenses, you need at least a 24-70mm and 70-200mm zoom, preferably with fixed wide apertures of f/2.8, and a longer lens like the Sigma 150-500mm zoom will obviously come in even more handy. Most sports photographers also use 50mm or 85mm lenses for portraits and detail shots. A monopod is handy for keeping the camera steady, but don't get so weighed down with kit that you can't move around to follow the action.

Find good spots

No matter how good your gear, it comes to naught if you are stuck in a rubbish position a long way from the action. Try to get to the venue early to scout the best spots (obviously this is easier when covering amateur sporting events) and try to find a spot with a nice clean background. Getting to the venue early is a really, really good tip!

Blur out the background

rugby world cup 2011 NEW ZEALAND ARGENTINA Fotos de Nando Martínez || Twitter @100x100deldepor
Sometimes you have to make do with what spot you are given, in which case, try blurring out messy backgrounds by using a wide aperture – that is why we recommend more expensive zoom lenses that go as wide as f/2.8 or wider. Look at any pro sports image and you'll see this is a tried and tested technique.

Get your focus right

Obviously sharp focussing is crucial, so make sure you are confident using continuous autofocus mode (AI Servo on Canon) or using burst mode. Many sports pros assign autofocus to a rear button on the camera, effectively decoupling it from the shutter release button. This 'back button focussing' technique makes it easier to track the action using continuous autofocus. Whatever technique you use, try to set the focus points over the participants' heads and eyes as the action unfolds.

Be creative


Once you have nailed the basics, don't be afraid to use more creative effects for sports, such as panning, zoom burst or motion blur. Individual sports, such as tennis, fencing or even boxing, seem particularly well suited to motion blur effects and you can also try panning a fast-moving racehorse to give a real sense of speed.

JPEG or Raw?

Sports photography is one area where shooting JPEGs make sense, as the larger raw file format will soon fill up your camera's buffer when shooting in burst mode. Save raw for character shots, such as portraits of the winning team raising the trophy.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

Stay updated

Receive free updates by email including special offers and new courses.

You can unsubscribe at any time


Related posts

Our best selling courses

Awards & Accreditations

  • Good Web Guide
  • Red Herring Winner
  • Royal Horticultural Society
  • Education Investor Awards 2021 - Finalist
  • CPD Accredited (provider 50276)