Shutterfreaks Graphic

Stopping the Motion -- Shooting Sporting Events with a Digital Camera

A few sports shots that I've had the pleasure to take:

These tips are intended to provide forum photographers with some ideas for "stopping the motion" and achieving great motion and sports shots. I like to shoot sports and moving subjects so this topic is at the heart of what I enjoy most about photography.

A good friend of mine shared with me the important concept that good photography is mostly about achieving good light. Achieving good light is particularly important in shooting great motion shots. Perhaps the way I think about shooting motion and these tips will be helpful to some folks. It takes many months and thousands of shots to develop the skills IMO. The cost of film would far exceed digital costs as one bursts thousands of pictures. Therefore digital tools are in the end the most cost-effective way for the serious sports photographer to achieve great results. Also the digital media provides much faster access to the end results.

Shutter Speed and Aperture

Shooting great motion shots is not that easy; most of the time, split seconds for rather rare moments are all you get!  One of the key principles to stopping the motion is a fast shutter speed - hey MAC, this is profound stuff-hehe!

Stop, Blur, Pan - three types of motion photography. Blur is where your subject is blurred because you used a slower shutter speed, but the image gives the appearance of motion. Pan is where you track the motion with the camera and then, for example, the Indy road is blurred, but the car is stopped. Most of the points in this article though are about "stop" -- "stopping the motion" with higher shutter speeds!

It is logical that a fast shutter speed (ss) reduces light to the sensor so this means a higher ISO setting is needed for shooting motion; ie, in a dark arena, a ss of 1/4000 will capture a dark pic, one needs enough light to the sensor. When I shoot motion, I think fast shutter speeds and a higher ISO settings, usually 800 or 400.  A shutter speed of 1/4000 will stop a baseball traveling at 90 mph such that you can see the threads on the ball.  In basketball, a shutter speed of 1/500 will stop body motion.  These are some speeds I use with these sports.  A camera with a histogram is very important to show the photographer that enough light is reaching the sensor with the fast ss and ISO settings that are used.

A standard photographic rule of thumb, the minimal shutter speed for hand holding a lens is 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. Thus a 50mm lens should not be hand held any slower than 1/50th of a second. A 200mm lens should not be hand held at less than 1/200th of a second. If your camera does not have shutter speeds that match, then you round up to the next faster level. With Image Stabilization, you can typically cheat by using a few stops slower. The more proficient you get, the more likely you are to be able to cheat by one shutter speed. A monopod gains additional steadiness meaning up to one to two shutter speeds slower than hand holding.  But ultimately, the photographer needs to determine the shutter speed that will stop the motion while obtaining enough light to the sensor as seen in the histogram. 

I start shooting an event with Aperture Priority Mode (AV mode), where I set the aperture value to typically f2.8 and the camera automatically determines the shutter speed. Then when I learn the venue and the settings that give the best pictures, I switch to manual mode and set both parameters manually. This method I've found provides the most consistent shots.  For well lit Big Ten Basketball, this typically means ISO 400 and ss1/500 (this setting will stop body motion and see the threads on the ball).  For triple A International League baseball before dusk, this typically means ISO 800 and ss 1/4000 (this setting will not only stop the ball, but see the threads on the ball).


You're not in a studio so you can't control the background. Most great motion sports shots are taken wide open for faster shutter speed or within a stop or two of f2.8 to blur the background and focus specifically on the subject. If the subject is separated from the background (such as the subject on the near side of the field) and you have a telephoto lens, you'll have a shallow depth of field and a dramatic effect for your shot.

Farming Pics!

What? Yeah - "Farming pics!" This is a process by which the photographer screens literally hundreds of pictures for that special one or two pictures. You'll need to burst-shoot hundreds at an event on your microdrive or large capacity memory card and narrow it down to just a few great ones. Burn your CD right away after the event. I burn the files right from my microdrive to the CD using Roxio's Easy CD Creator and a USB port. Newspapers want just one picture (perhaps two) to tell the entire story of the two hour event! This is what farming for the great picture means. They also want you to shoot in high jpg vs raw so this increases your bursting capability. I typically almost fill a microdrive with burst shooting during a two hour event. I use Irfanview as freeware to screen or "farm out" the few great pics - Irfanview can handle jpg, raw, and psd files and provides good full screen viewing capabilities for a large number of files. Also you can conduct slideshows with Irfanview by placing a bunch of files in a directory and running the slideshow feature. Finally, you select the one special picture from the event that best tells the story and shows photographic excellence!

Vantage Point

Vantage Point, Vantage Point, Advantage Point - only one more thing to say - don't get hurt, and don't let those sports heroes break your equipment - be alert, and bail out if they come at you! Don't let your equipment get broken or wet, you might not be able to recover the costs to shoot again and that would not be worth you being a hero to get the shot!


I mostly use auto focus versus manual focus and have seen reliable results with single point middle spot focus and centering on a contrast edge. Learning to hold the camera steady and focusing on a contrast edge are critical. Know your sport or subject so well so that you can anticipate where the action will be. Following the subject and focusing on a contrast edge like their numbers is one technique. Also try using zone focus from time to time - on the D30 it is CF2, 2 that will lock in the focus with the * key held down. Then hold steady and burst away as the player enters the zone or leaves his/her feet.  The microdrive is invaluable to insure you don't miss a moment. On the D30, I get approximately 4 RAW bursts before the buffer locks up or about 8 high jpegs. The 1D has the advantage of a bigger buffer and more advanced focusing system to increase the probability of capturing great shots.  But the photographer takes the great picture, not the camera, so enjoy what you have and can afford!

Fast automatic focusing and sharp lenses in low light are important for various shooting conditions such as inside darker gyms and arenas. Lenses with f2.8 or better apertures with fast focusing motors are the best tools for photographers to shoot motion in various conditions. In a dark gym, f4 lenses will have difficulty focusing in the low light. Image Stabilization helps. Also using a monopod over 300 mm is recommended.

Burst Mode

When I prepare to shoot motion, I typically think and use "burst" or servo mode on the camera. Shooting burst shots increases the probability for capturing that great shot at the perfect moment that occurs in just a fraction of a second, typically faster than the eye and brain can specifically digest the detail. Also shutter lag is an issue with some cameras so that burst mode (as players begin to leave their feet for example) improves the chances for great shots.

For burst mode shooting, the frames per second and the size of the memory buffer in the camera is important to provide the greatest reward and results for blasting away as many shots as possible. Also a large capacity memory card is important so that the memory storage does not need to be changed during the shoot - and moments are not lost because media had to be changed.  Knowing your sport or subject is important to visualize your shots in advance, anticipate the moment, and have the camera ready, steady, and with the right settings.


Emotion, emotion, emotion - shoot facial expressions! Fill the frame! The majority of great sports pictures are taken on the nearer side of the arena with the better vantage point.


Ultimately, it is the photographer that takes the great shots!  Although I crave to have a 1D and an expensive lens like a 300 f2.8 with IS, I  enjoy shooting sports with my D30 and 70 -200 F2.8 lens and such events as experimenting with Big Ten Basketball where my seats were 40 yards from the close end of the court in the rafters about as high as one can get!

Hope you enjoyed these points for shooting sports!

Kind regards,

MAC ©2002