One of the most effective techniques for photographing any sport is to freeze the action with a high shutter speed. You’ll need around 1/500sec as a minimum; 1/1000sec or above is even better. It can help to have your shutter speed set as high as possible so you can suddenly catch an opportunistic shot without having to worry about changing settings.
Switch your autofocus setting to Continuous so it will track the action to keep the photo in focus. You may also want to set the AF points to dynamic autofocus, as this makes it easier to keep the focus on your subject. Alternatively, if your camera has scene modes, select the sports mode and it will automatically use the best settings for optimum results.
You may also have to raise your ISO to get the higher shutter speed you want to use. A higher ISO setting is more sensitive to light and allows you to use a faster shutter speed. And make sure you’re using a fast card to enable your camera to record as quickly as possible.
Another way of achieving a frozen image is to use flash, whether that’s from your camera’s built-in flash or from an accessory Speedlight. While your camera will display a slow shutter speed in the viewfinder when it does this, it will actually expose for only the much quicker duration of the flash burst.
The larger a lens’s aperture, the more light passes through it and therefore the faster the shutter speed you can use – which is very helpful when you’re freezing action. Lenses with a very wide maximum aperture, such as f/1.4 or f/2.8, are called ‘fast’ lenses for this reason.
Zooms often have a variable aperture, meaning that the longer the focal length you set, the slower they become, although you may find that the sheer convenience of a zoom outweighs this downside. Otherwise, a fixed focal length will generally outperform a zoom and be lighter to handle. If you’re using a telephoto prime or zoom with your Nikon DSLR (or a COOLPIX camera with a large zoom range), the more you fill the frame, the better the pictures will generally look.
Slow and steady
Sometimes you’ll want to choose a slower exposure to capture the sense of movement by creating some dynamic blur. Try panning at around 1/125sec or less. This is also a good way of transforming an unavoidably chaotic background into dynamic streams of colour.
The key to a great image is in the preparation, including thinking about your choice of lens and shutter speed for your desired result. So visualise the image you want to capture, then work backwards to how you can get it, rather than simply firing off multiple images and hoping you’ll get something good. Where do you want to position yourself? Often, moving around and shooting from different spots will get the best results, particularly if you can get away from a cluttered, distracting background.
If you’re having trouble following the action and keeping it in focus, pre-focus on one spot and wait for the action to get there. Use either the focus lock button (often labelled AF-L or AE-L AF-L) or switch the autofocus to manual and adjust it by turning the focus ring on the lens.
Instead of just photographing the action, why not record it as a film? This could be especially good for children’s school sports days. Nikon COOLPIX or DSLRs are ideal for this, with many offering full HD plus plenty of creative features such as slow/fast motion. Keep the camera as stable as possible when filming, using Vibration Reduction (VR) or a tripod/monopod when zooming and panning; the alternative is to steady yourself against a sturdy support like a wall, or to hold the camera out so its strap pulls taut around your neck, framing via the LCD.
Remember to vary the angles, from wideangle ‘establishing’ shots, to close-ups, and if you want to preserve the atmosphere of the day, don’t cover up the mike on the front of the camera while shooting – if you don’t like what’s recorded, you can always edit it out afterwards. And if you want to take a still picture while shooing video, just press the shutter and the camera will continue recording after you’ve got your photograph.