With our current sports-focused Critique the Community, now seems like a great time to share some tips and best practices to help you improve your sports and action photography in 2016. Read on for 11 solid suggestions to help you become a better shooter.
1. Learn the Sport
I mean really learn the sport. A big part of sports photography is anticipating action. You will (almost) never get that great shot of a diving shortstop spearing a line drive by simply reacting; you have to be just as ready for that play as the player is himself. You need to have a strong and instinctive understanding of a sport to really shoot it well. Shooting baseball? Watch the defense and see where they shift. They know the scouting report on the batter and are moving accordingly. Pay attention to whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed, same for the pitcher. Know the situation and plan accordingly. Football is the same thing, watch how the teams line up, know where they are on the field, and position yourself to take advantage of that. Basketball? Basketball can be a lot of fun because it's more confined and somewhat more predictable. Pay attention to the tendencies that players display throughout the game. Watch for people that seem to be emotional or play a certain way.
Soccer, hockey, tennis, golf, fighting, racing: it's all the same. Doing some research and knowing the sport will provide a big lift for your images. Getting a feel for a sport also allows you to nail a shot with a single frame instead of spraying and praying (nothing wrong with that, but it's fun to grab a frame at the exact moment you wanted). Both of my shots below were by timing a single exposure vs. just holding down the shutter release.
2. Back-Button Focus
If you bought your camera new, then chances are it came set up to initiate autofocus a certain way: by half-pressing the shutter button. This is all well and good, and many great photographers function just fine with the default setting, but here's a little secret: there's a better different way! There's a good chance you've heard of back-button focusing, most (I'm looking at you D750) higher-end cameras actually come with an "AF-ON" button on the back of the camera, right around where your thumb would normally rest. Even if you don't have that button, you should be able to go into your camera's custom settings and enable whatever button is back there as the button to initiate autofocus. I even go ahead and disable autofocus from my shutter release completely; I set the half-press to lock my exposure, but I autofocus with the back button.
So, why would you want to do this? The short answer is it's just better different, but there are several good reasons to move to this setup. Half-pressing the shutter while shooting sports, action, photojournalism, etc., can often lead to accidentally triggering your shutter when you don't mean to. This is an annoying and sometimes rage-inducing experience. Moving focus control to the back button ensures that you're only taking photos when you want to. Shooting sports means constantly engaging and disengaging your AF, and having a single button right under your thumb dedicated to just that task is a life saver. Think about it; two of your camera's most important functions, focusing and exposing, are both controlled by the exact same button with only a the tiniest bit of pressure separating the two. That's kind of crazy! Separating the two functions helps to minimize mistakes in situations where you don't have time to make up for them.
3. Tell a Story