Sports Photography Class: How Do I Stop the Action?

November 06, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

STOP ACTION SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY 

Sports Photography Class with Philip G. Pavely/Pavely Photography

 

WHAT MAKES A GREAT SPORTS PHOTO?

When you think of a sports image, what do you see? I see a moment frozen in time. A micro-second captured in peak action. It is of a great play that is forever referenced, or, it is a picture that has grass, dirt, sweat, or a human suspended in the air.

Ben Roethlisberger TDBen Roethlisberger TDSep 16, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) dives for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field. The Chiefs won 42-37. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports Sep 16, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) dives for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field.  Philip G. Pavely (USA TODAY Sports)
 

Nikon D3S 70-200mm f/4  1/2000 sec; f4; ISO 640
 

So, how can you get this type of photo? Well, it takes a little work and a whole lot of frames shot. But, if you learn what you can do with your camera, you can consistently freeze the action no matter what time of day, or whether you are inside a dark gym or on a bright turf field.

 

STOP ACTION

Stopping a moment in peak action is what it’s is all about. That’s what we as sports photographers do and we love the end result when it all works out. Basically, every play we are looking to stop the action to get a rewarding image. 

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh SteelersNFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh SteelersSep 15, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) stretches for a first down against the Seattle Seahawks during the third quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports Sep 15, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) flies through the air for a first down against the Seattle Seahawks during the third quarter at Heinz Field. Philip G. Pavely (USA TODAY Sports)
 

Nikon D750 200-400mm f/4  1/4000 sec; f4; ISO 640
 

You want to isolate a moment in time. Stop the action. But how do you do this? 

 

WHAT SHOULD MY SETTINGS BE?

For the camera settings, we are going to work in manual mode. I prefer to shoot primarily in manual so I have complete control over the exposure. If some files are poorly exposed, I prefer it to be because I had the wrong settings as opposed to the camera being fooled for whatever reason.

 

If you are going to take pictures having the camera decide all of your settings, then set the camera to shutter priority mode, have the shutter at least 1/1000 sec., and hold your breath that you have proper exposures.

 

If you are going manual (my prefernece!) the first thing I work with is the shutter speed. I want my shutter fast. I want to hear a rapid fire clicking coming from the camera as each click represents a shot while the shutter opens and closes. It may be 5, 7, 9, 10, or many more frames a second.

 

There are three controls that determine if your picture will be properly exposed. You have to work the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture together to make a perfect exposure. For stopping action in sports, I start with the shutter speed.

 

First off, you have to set the shutter speed on your camera to a high number. I prefer to go with 1/1000 sec for starters, but I move that number a lot depending on the amount of light at the event I am covering.You can go as low as 1/500 of a second, but anything slower will show motion and blur. You can use a flash in some instances at 1/250 sec and that will sop the action, but for this we are going with all natural light.

 

The higher the number equals the more frames you can take per second. A picture at 1/2000 sec. that is properly lit can show blades of grass or beads of sweat frozen in the air. It also will show in detail the seams of a baseball as it is pitched or hit if it is shot tight enough.

"Schmidt Hit"  1998 Philip G. Pavely (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

 

If you are shooting at 1/125 sec. then those elements would appear a little blurry from the motion. The higher the number equals the higher the odds you will have for isolating a very fast object.

 

The next thing I work with is the aperature. I prefer my lens to be wide open or near wide open. That means you want to shoot at the smallest number on your lens. You want to let in the most light you can. This number may be, 2.8, 4, or 5.6 for instance.

 

I am a Nikon shooter and the lenses I use most frequently for sports are either f 2.8 or f 4. The reason lenses that sports photographers use are big and bulky is because we want to have the ability to shoot at f 2.8 or f 4 to allow the most light. Rarely am I more open than f 5.6. Plus, if I shoot at f 2.8 instead of f 5.6, I gain two stops of light. That may mean I can boost my shutter speed from 1/500 sec to 1/2000 sec.

 

Working the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO

                    Shutter Speed:  1/60    1/125    1/250    1/500    1/1000    1/2000    1/4000

                    Aperature:                f 2.8       f 4            f 5.6        f 8        f 11          f 16          f22

                          ISO:                     100       200            400        800      1600        3200         6400

 

*In order to keep a proper exposure, do this. Manually expose to get a good looking image. Now, each time you move the shutter speed, aperature, or ISO up or down, move one of the other options in the opposite direction. For instance a shutter speed at 1/125 sec at f 5.6 with an ISO at 800 will give you the same exposure as a shutter speed at 1/500 sec at f 2.8 with an ISO at 800. Another example is 1/500 sec at f 2.8 with an ISO of 800. Or, you can be a little more tricky and use 1/1000 sec at f 4 with an ISO at 3200.

        

For a game being played outside in the daylight, I’ll start by setting my shutter speed at 1/1000 sec. if possible. If it is during the day, my ISO will be low. Somewhere in ISO 100-ISO 400 range. If it is cloudy or approaching dusk, you may be in the ISO 800-ISO 6400 range. If it is a night game it may be ISO 4000, 6400 (depending on the stadium lights) or ISO 8000. You may even be higher than ISO 10000 in some instances if it is very dark. The lower the ISO will give you less noise in your pictures.

 

If I am in an arena or gym with good lights and possibly even some daylight, the ISO may be anywhere from ISO 640 to ISO 6400. Ultimately, I am trying to keep the shutter speed at or above 1/1000 sec.

NBA: Miami Heat at Cleveland CavaliersNBA: Miami Heat at Cleveland CavaliersNov 14, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) makes a basket as Miami Heat forward Chris Silva (30) applies defense during the fourth quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Nance Jr. got injured on the play and the Heat won 108-97. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports Nov 14, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) makes a basket as Miami Heat forward Chris Silva (30) defends during the fourth quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.  Nance Jr. got injured on the play and the Heat won 108-97.  Philip G. Pavely (USA TODAY Sports)
 

Nikon D750 200-400mm f/4  1/1000 sec; f4; ISO 8000

 

KEEP THAT BUTTON PRESSED DOWN WHILE TAKING PICTURES

Now that you are properly exposed, let's move to the next step. 

 

One good way to get options from a play is to have many frames to choose from. Keep that button fully pressed while taking pictures as you anticipate a play happening and magic may happen. You may have a bunch of meaningless images, but you may have the opposite. You may have several frames of a person sliding into second base and several more frames of the shortstop in the the air jumping over the runner. And a few more frames of the infielder falling back to the ground.

 

By taking a “burst” of images from one play, it will allow you to get the moment right before peak action as well as peak and the moments right after the play. Sometimes peak action may not be the best picture. It may be how a baseball looks right before hitting the ball. Or, it may be right after a soccer player kicks the ball and the positioning of the ball. But, if you take a burst of photos on a play, you will have options. And believe me, there is power in numbers. Especially when you shoot a lot of frames on one play.

 

For instance, in Super Bowl XLIII, I shot over 100 frames of a single play. James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers intercepted a ball thrown by Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in his own end zone. The interception normally would've been the key moment. But, he proceeded to run the ball over 100 yards to the other end zone for a score as the first half ended. The play at both goal lines made great action shots as did the jubilation of the tired Steelers player in the end zone. But but having a fast shutter speed and stopping the action, I had several images from that one play to choose from for publication in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the next day.

Nikon D3 600mm f/4  1/640 sec; f4; ISO 2000
 

 

3 TAKE-AWAYS FOR MAKING BETTER STOP ACTION PHOTOS

The 3 take-aways to getting better stop action pictures in sports photography are:

 

1. Set the shutter above 1/1000 sec.

2. One up the aperture 

3. Keep the shutter pressed

 

If you do these three things, you will make many memorable images (sometimes it's a sequence from one play.)  

 

If you have any idea, question or topic you would like me to discuss, please leave a comment on Pavely Photography social media, email me at [email protected], or leave a comment in the blog post at www.PavelyPhotography.com

 

Thanks, and happy shooting!

 

-Phil

 

 


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