Demystifying the world of sports photography

Syd: Everyone is different – or Shooting sports with Aperture priority mode

After reading Ryu’s post last week I was surprised to learn that Ryu uses Tv (shutter priority) mode most of the time for sports because I don’t. I use Manual mode about 80%, Aperture priority mode 15% and Shutter priority mode 5%. Here’s why:

  • I usually shoot all my action images at f2.8 (or f2.0 on the 200mm) to have the background out of focus as much as possible
  • I find it’s easier to get consistent exposure in Manual mode
  • The only time I use Shutter priority is when I’m panning or want artistic blurring, and only if it’s changeable light and Manual mode can’t cope

f2.8 all the time
As you know, in Aperture priority mode the camera’s light meter will pick the shutter speed to expose the image properly. For sports, I want the camera to use a shutter speed no slower than 1/1000th. So I will choose an ISO setting so at f2.8 the shutter speed will be in the range of 1/1000th to 1/4000th. This is a full 2-stop range and will normally be adequate in the stable lighting of most football stadiums. To ensure I don’t accidentally change the aperture from f2.8 I even lock it on my Nikon D3 via the lock function.

Aperture priority mode allows me to not have to manually change the shutter speed in changeable lighting conditions. This often happens if I’m shooting outdoor sports and the sun goes behind a cloud or the stadium is partially in shadow. When it’s really sunny the exposure is sometimes 1/8000th @ f2.8 at ISO 200. This is the limit of the Nikon D3. If it gets any brighter I would need to put a neutral density (ND) filter to continue shooting at f 2.8. So let’s suppose I start shooting and the player runs into shadows or the sun suddenly goes behind a cloud, the camera will automatically drop the shutter speed to a slower speed. Magic. That’s why I use Aperture priority mode.

For even more magic, there’s ISO Auto. For example, when shooting soccer under artificial lights I know that ISO 2000 is a good setting to keep the shutter speed at 1/1000th. But if I were at a new stadium and didn’t know the lighting well I would use the ISO Auto feature. Here’s the settings I would use: I would set the highest ISO to 3200 and lowest speed to 1/1000th. This tells the camera that I would be happy for the ISO to go up to 3200 but no more, and I don’t want a slower shutter speed than 1/1000th of a second. I would then set the ISO to 800 and let the camera set the ISO to the lowest it can while maintaining my shutter speed to no slower than 1/1000th.

Here’s an example of using the shallow depth of field of f2.0

Manual is even better
Although I love Aperture priority mode, if the light is stable or if I want a specific effect I will always shoot in Manual mode. This gives me the most control but the downside is that it’s hard to make exposure changes in the middle of a burst of images. For most of my shooting situations like soccer or indoor ball sports in a well lit stadium I would use Manual. I would also use Manual to create specific “looks” like this image of Petra Kvitova:

Shutter priority mode
When I use this mode, it’s only for times when I want to ensure a slow shutter speed for a blurred background or special effect. This is often also achievable, and preferred in my mind, using Manual mode. The times when it’s not is in situations where you’re photographing a subject that’s moving in and out of shadows or changeable lighting. Here’s an example:

Every photographer is different and there’s no right answer. Keep experimenting, practising and have fun!
Syd

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8 responses

  1. Reading the post I thought that it had been written by me, regards.

    D.

    July 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    • biglenssyd

      I’m hoping that’s a good thing!
      Syd

      July 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

  2. Mmm… interesting. I’m assuming you can use A because most of your shoots are during the day. Most of mine are in the evening and since the available light isn’t too bright, the aperture always is at the highest. Therefore I would rather have the option to change the speed of which I shoot compare to something I can’t change (aperture). Had I set it on A, everything will be correctly exposed, but there will be no guarantee that the image will not be blurred due to the slowing down of the shutter speed when shooting a portion of the playing surface with inadequate lighting.

    But this will probably all change when the D4 comes out and I can shoot in noise free. ISO 102400. :)

    July 3, 2011 at 2:18 pm

  3. Wow…. It was interesting to see the difference in shooting preferences between Ryu and Syd. That’s the cool thing about photography. There are many ways to arrive at the same result, good photos, no matter what equipment or technique you use.

    I was glad to see Syd talk about Auto ISO, because I stumbled upon it myself a couple months ago and found it helpful in the right situation. I had an opportunity to shoot my first ice hockey games in May, and it was then that my equipment was pushed to it’s low light limits. I shoot with an Olympus E3, which gives me some nice advantages with the 2x crop factor (my 50-200mm shoots at a 100-400mm equivalency) but the tradeoff is less top end ISO range from my sensor. So, shooting without flash in a dimly lit local ice arena, I knew I needed to shoot my 50-200mm at a wide open f2.8 to grab all the light I could, but I also wanted to hold a 1/400 to 1/500 shutter to freeze the action on breakaways and shots. Also, the arena had the type of lights that Syd mentioned on one of the podcasts, where your color balance is all over the place from frame to frame, in addition to it giving me uneven and inconsistent light coverage across the whole ice surface. Knowing that I wanted to keep the aperture and shutter speed parameters that I just described, I tried something that I had never found any use for before…. the Auto ISO feature. Yes, I put my ISO on Auto and adjusted the ISO range limits in my setup menu to let it float between an 800 to 3200 ISO range. The result was some photos that were properly exposed at a rather noisy ISO 3200 when I was focused on a dark corner of the arena at full zoom, but I got shots in better lit spots on the ice at ISO 1000 or 1200 too, and the noise was much less as well.

    I shot 5 fps bursts in RAW format so I could clean up the noisy images in Nik Define and correct the white balance issues from those crazy gas charged lights using Lightroom 3. And in the end, it worked out better than I expected for my first hockey shoot. I posted some of the corrected shots on my Flickr account, and a bunch more of them in flash galleries on my website. I was able to shoot two games from my knees on the team bench, so the team was happy to see the variety of action shots I was able to capture from my unobstructed vantage point inside the glass. I remembered Syd’s tip about wearing knee pads from an early podcast, and the pads saved my knees from the ice cold concrete floor of the bench area!

    I had never given Auto ISO a thought as having any credible purpose on a high grade camera, but here was a situation where it was the right solution so I could worry about capturing the action instead of riding the shutter speed knob all afternoon. It’s not likely I would ever use it outdoors in the daylight, but it’s nice to know it is there when the light isn’t the best. Funny though, I almost felt like I broke some unwritten code among sports shooters by using Auto ISO (or Auto anything) until Syd mentioned it in the blog posting. So I’ll keep that little trick in mind if I ever need it again, until the day I can afford one of those mega ISO sensor cameras that takes photos in the dark.

    Thanks for the insight into your shooting preferences, guys. I really enjoy reading your posts and the listening to the podcasts!

    Ken

    Flickr set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenreabe/sets/72157627017792859/
    Flash galleries: http://kenreabe.com/mighty-penguins/

    July 8, 2011 at 3:49 am

    • biglenssyd

      Hi Ken,
      I’d love to shoot with the E3. I was seriously looking at the Olympus system when I gave up on the Canon 1D Mk3. If it was better at high ISO I would have jumped. Crop sensor and sports make a lot of sense – much better reach and the Oly is less weight. You should shoot some outdoor sports with it,

      Auto ISO can be a great help in low light situations. Indoor parties are also good if you’re not using a flash. Once you know what its for you’ll start using it more and more as the situation dictates. The hockey pics look fine from a color balance. LR is great for fixing color casts in batches isn’t it. Don’t know how we lived without it.

      Don’t worry about shooting wide open, that’s what expensive lenses are designed for. Your shots look nice and sharp – are you using a monopod?

      Couple of other things to try with hockey:
      - do some slow shutter speed pans and blurs, should look nice
      - love to see some shots with a team that have red or bright colours
      - get in really tight, just their faces through the helmets, get the expression, don’t worry about the puck or their arms and legs

      Have fun!
      Syd

      July 8, 2011 at 8:31 am

      • Hey, thanks for looking at my photos, Syd! I’m just breaking into sports shooting myself and having fun learning the ropes, so I appreciate your comments and shooting suggestions. I’ll definitely try working some of the different angles and compositions you suggested for hockey when the Mighty Penguins get back into action in a couple months.

        I did have a monopod with me at the ice rink, but I decided against using it in this situation for a couple reasons. Upon seeing that I could lean out and shoot right over the short wall of the team bench, I was able to shoot into the corners of the rink while stabilizing my forearms against the wall. Shooting handheld also allowed me to shoot down at sharper angles without the monopod restricting my movements leaning over the half wall. That was helpful given that the players all have a physical disability and play the game on ice sleds, as you saw in the the photos, so I thought my shooting POV needed to be low too. If it had been players who were upright on skates I might have wanted a little more camera height and used the monopod for stability. That being said, I know I need to work on my monopod technique for this fall when I hope to shoot some high school football (American football) games under the lights.

        I’m going to take your suggestions to shoot some outdoor stuff and have some fun practicing my technique. We have a vintage sports car grand prix in Pittsburgh this month, and I think it will be a good test of panning and motion blur skills. I’ll try to catch a few local baseball games too, and football season is just a month away in the USA. I’ll post some shots in the Flickr pool as I get out more.

        Oh…. it’s kind of ironic that I wrote the previous comment about Auto ISO before I heard the July podcast. But I learned from you another reason to use it….. outdoor venues that are mixed in shadow and sunlight. I always learn something new from you and Ryu on the podcasts. Keep ‘em coming…. we appreciate your professional insights!

        Have a great weekend….
        Ken

        July 9, 2011 at 1:48 am

  4. Syd, glad to see that I’m not the only one making heavy use of aperture priority. Keep blogging; I’m learning a lot and the 12-year-old is starting to show an interest too.

    Back in the day, Canon offered aperture priority only and Nikon offered shutter priority only. I’m presuming that influenced the choices of a generation of sports shooters.

    July 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  5. biglenssyd

    Hey David – nice to hear from you. i didn’t know that about the Nikon and Canon in the film era. I’m sure it did influence a generation. But then again, most of us learnt to shoot manual exposure!
    Take care – Syd

    July 21, 2011 at 3:49 pm

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