Photographs by their very nature capture a split second in time. But often a photographer will want to suggest what comes just before or after the shot by portraying movement. There are some very obvious circumstances when you’ll need to capture or freeze motion, from sports photography to a couple's wedding dance, but the same techniques can also be used in other situations to convey a feeling or a mood.
There are several different tricks for shooting moving objects, each of which will result in a slightly different final image. Remember though, no matter how many hot tips you read, photographing motion will always be part technique, part art. Be sure to practice and independently experiment to get the look and feel you’re after.
That said, in my many years working as a professional photographer for both events and creative projects, I’ve learned some tried and tested techniques, together with some useful tips for capturing motion in photography, In this article, I am going to share them out with you one by one:
Best Motion and Sports Photography Tips and Techniques
Freezing (all crisp)
One way to capture movement is to freeze the entire field of vision, just as we all imagine a photo does anyway. This works particularly well in images where both the foreground and background are moving, such as a bird flying through a rainstorm. For this technique you’ll need to use very fast shutter speed, at least 1/1000th of a second, depending on the actual subject’s speed.
Getting a camera with fast shutter speed capabilities and continuous focus is particularly important for sports photography. Did you know that the speed of a badminton smash can go up to 493 km/h? You can’t capture anything at all if you are with a semi-pro camera that doesn’t have a super-fast shutter speed.
Nowadays most cameras allow you to capture a scene at 1/8000th of a second or faster, but the exact shutter speed you want will depend on a variety of factors, such as how fast your subject is moving, how much movement you want to convey and how crisply you want to define your subject. Getting this balance right can result in some awesome motion shots.
I was using the Nikon D4S and Nikon 70-200mm f2.8G AF-S VRII lens when I took this wake-boarding photo (for sure the Nikon D5 and Sony α7R IV have an even better auto-focus system). However, if you are shooting sports, depending on the type of sports or activities, you may want to use different lenses.
For example, I will use a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II Lens or Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens if I know I am going to shoot a soccer or baseball game, because these lenses come with fantastic zoom function.
I’ve noticed that quite some clients and readers have an impression that motion or sports photography is all about freezing moments, however, there are many types of different motion photography, one of them is long exposure:
Long exposure (all blurred)
On the contrary, if you want to blur everything in your scene, you’ll need to use a slow shutter speed, otherwise known as long exposure. Blurring everything is risky, but the best scenes will be those that offer bright or highly contrasting colors. Most fully blurred photos are created for artistic, rather than practical, reasons. Remember, however, that when using long exposure times, you run the risk of excess light bleaching out your photos. You can remedy this by reducing your aperture and lowering your ISO setting.
Long exposure (moving subject blurred)
A lot of photographers use a long exposure to blur just the moving subject of the photograph, thereby conveying movement and/or speed. This is often seen with star trails, car headlights, and other forms of night photography, as well as busy daytime street scenes and moving water. It’s important to use a tripod for this technique so your camera remains steady. You’ll also need plenty of time to wait for the longer exposures and adjust and correct your settings during the shoot. The advent of digital photography makes this a whole lot easier!
Panning (background blurred)
If you want your subject to remain in focus while your background is blurred, you’ll need to employ the panning technique. Rather than using a tripod to keep your shot steady as in the above method, here, you’ll want to follow your subject with the camera during the exposure time. You’ll need to match both the speed of your subject and the direction in which it’s traveling to get the clearest image.
For best results, set up with a clear view of the object approaching and plenty of room to swivel on a parallel axis as it passes by. Follow the subject as it moves through your field of vision and keep tracing their line of motion even after the shot. It takes practice, but this method can result in really cool motion images, especially if you have an unattractive or distracting background.
For more abstract photos of movement, try the zooming technique, whereby you manually change your focal length during a long exposure. Physically rotating the zoom lens creates some cool effects that work particularly well with night scenes, moving neon signs and fireworks. The same technique employed during the day can render your subject unrecognizable, but if you’re going for something more abstract that can be a good thing.
I think a good photographer should at least be familiar with all these techniques even if they don't use them all the time, because, at the end of the day, it's good to mix it up sometimes!
Giving a sense of motion in photos can be a challenge, just like street photography can be both exciting and challenging as well. Check out these useful tips for street photography.
Additional Motion and Sports Photography Tips and Advice
As you might imagine, motion photography such as sports is very different from standard portrait or headshot photos. To support the weight of big lenses and to move around a field, I would highly recommend investing in a monopod.
With a monopod also comes added stability, which at long zoom ranges is essential to getting tack sharp images. A monopod will offer extra mobility since it is very likely you will need to move a lot because you are capturing something in motion! So do try to get something that can do the job and is easy to carry around.
I am using a Manfrotto XPRO 5-Section photo monopod at the moment and I am very happy with it, very light, easy to carry around, and stable!
Get a Fast memory Card
So you have a high-quality camera body and lenses, with very fast speed and excellent autofocus function, high-speed continuous shooting mode… and your memory card is just too slow to load… imagine how many great photos you are going to miss in an exciting game while you are waiting for the buffer to be cleared so you can shoot again.
The memory card I am using for my Nikon D5 camera now is Sony XQD G series and I am very happy with the performance, so if you are looking for an even more powerful set, I highly recommend using a Sony α7R IV and Sony Tough CFexpress Type-B.
Be Prepared for Weather Change
When you are shooting motion or sports photography, it is very likely you may need to shoot in an outdoor environment. So having the right protection for your gear is very important.
The most popular way is to use a waterproof camera bag and bring along a rain cover for your camera and lenses.
In addition, choose weather-sealed cameras like Canon EOS 7D Mark II or Nikon D6, and always bring along a rain cover to protect your very expensive cameras and lenses. The rain cover and waterproof bag I recommend at the moment is Think Tank Hydrophobia 70-200 and Lowepro LP37131, Flipside 500 AW II Camera Backpack, both are with super quality and they have excellent user reviews. I personally use the ThinkTank Streetwalker harddrive.
Sometimes there will be readers asking if they should get a weather-resistant camera for motion photography. I would say yes if you plan to do it often, however, my gear has survived all these years with rain covers and waterproof camera bags.
Honestly, the price for a weather-resistant camera like Canon EOS 7D Mark II or Nikon D7500 is not very cheap, so unless you know you will be shooting a lot of activities in extreme weather like snowy mountains, I don’t think getting a weatherproof camera is a must.
Understanding the Motion Game
It is very important to understand and plan for what you will be shooting, so you can predict their movements and capture the best image from the best angle and location. If you are photographing sports, it is really important to understand the rules too. For example, you are prohibited to use flash while shooting tennis matches, and there are many areas which are off-limits to photographers during the event.
Motion and Sports Photography Tips FAQs
What settings should I use for sports photography?
I recommend high shutter speeds to freeze the action. Depending on the light and lens, perhaps 1/1000s at f4 and then adjust.
Shutter priority mode would help too, try a few shots before the game starts so you can adjust the setting.
How do you become a sports photographer?
Most sports photographers need a bachelor's degree in photography or journalism or at least a diploma or associate degree. The ideal case is they also have certain knowledge regarding the game or sports they are shooting.
What F stop to use for sports?
It depends on your lens and the action you're capturing. Most sports photographers I know shoot around f2.8 to f4, sometimes f5.6
What shutter speed should I use for sports?
High shutter speeds to freeze action, but it also depends on the available light and your lens. In the daytime, anywhere from 1/1000 to 1/2000
What skills do you need to be a sports photographer?
You need to know your camera and settings inside and out. You also need to know how to read a sports game so you can be aware of what's going to happen and prepare yourself for the upcoming action.
I hope you will find this article useful for learning how to take motion or sports photography. Please feel free to discuss it with me at any time if you encounter any difficulties or whenever you have a cool idea. I love hearing from you!
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A big thanks to Phottix for the professional lighting equipment provided to Ali G Studios.
All photographs copyright of Ali G Studios.
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