As parents we’re always trying to capture and freeze moments in our kids lives. From the time our kids are young and into the teenager and young adult years, we live to capture every birthday, every school award, and every sporting event. Win or lose, first place or last, it doesn’t matter—these are the images we can look back on and remember.

Athletic and sporting events are the trickiest photos to capture. Movement, speed, and lighting are all out of your control as a photographer. With the help of some awesome 9th grade junior varsity athletes, I’m going to share with you a few of my favorite photography tips that will help you achieve fantastic looking action shots that are sharp, crisp and will make you look like a pro.   

1. Freezing the Action

One reason that professional sports photographer shots look so sharp is that they use a fast shutter speed. A fast enough shutter literally freezes every piece of the action. So how fast is fast? You will need at least a setting of 1/1000 of a second or faster, which if you’re shooting in daylight should be no problem at all. Just make sure that on your settings, you use a low-numbered f/stop such as f/4 or f/5.6. In fact, with a low f/stop like that, don’t be surprised if you see shutter speeds of 1/2000 and 1/3000 of a second or faster. Keep in mind that the lower the f/stop number the better that setting is for action shots and fast shutter speeds.

If you’re shooting indoors like inside a gym or at night under the lights, you still will need a 1/1000 of a second or faster shutter speed, but since it’s darker, you’ll have to raise your ISO (sensitivity to light) until you see your shutter speed reach that magic 1/1000 of a second mark. Yes, this might cause your photos to be a little “noisy” (specs that aren’t there) because you’re using a high ISO, but if you have to choose between a noisy shot that’s really sharp, or a blurry shot with low noise, I bet you’ll choose the noisy and sharp shot every time.

5 Sports Photography Tips
At 1/1000 a second or faster, your shot freezes the motion and gives you super sharp images.

5 Sports Photography Tips
If your shutter speed falls below 1/1000 a second, expect to see blurry shots.

5 Sports Photography Tips
Here I cropped in tight so you can see how blurry that shot really is. Yikes!

2. Zoom in Tight!

Getting in close is the name of the game when it comes to shooting sports. You want to clearly see the athlete’s detail from sweat to emotions. Great sports photos allow viewers to see things that they wouldn’t normally see sitting in the stands. Since your images will most likely be seen on the web, you’re definitely going to want to get in tight because the shots will be small in size once uploaded. Shots taken from a distance won’t have much impact online for this very reason. Just remember, the closer you get, the more impact your photos will have – even in small sizes seen on the web.

Pro Tips -- Ways to get closer to the action:

1.     Try using a tele-extender. This tool magnifies the reach of your lens by 1.4 times, getting you closer without breaking the bank on an expensive lens.

2.     If you don’t have a long lens (300mm or longer), then position yourself close to the action and be patient until the game comes close to where you are located. When the athletes get close, that’s your cue to zoom in and shoot.

5 Sports Photography Tips
This is zoomed in kind of close, and the shot is OK...

5 Sports Photography Tips
Here I’ve zoomed in really close and the shot has tons more impact!

3. Separate the Players from the Background

One thing that makes professional shots look, well, like professional shots, is the way that pros use an f/stop setting to make the background very soft and blurry. This makes the athletes appear separated from the background, instead of blending in with the background. The trick to achieve this look is to use the smallest number f/stop your lens will allow. If your lens will go as low as f/2.8, then use f/2.8 all day! If f/4 or f/5.6 is your lowest numbered f/stop, no sweat — use that, but remember to keep it at that low number throughout the entire game. This will create the visual separation and give your photos that “pro” look.

Pro Tip: This “blurry background” trick only works if you’re zoomed in tight on the athlete. If you use a wide angle lens, or zoom all the way out to capture a wide shot, you lose that separation effect, even if you are using a low-numbered f/stop. It’s the zooming in tight, and the low-numbered f/stop that together creates this sweet pro look. 

5 Sports Photography Tips
Here’s I’ve zoomed in tight using f/11 (a high-numbered f/stop). You can still see plenty of detail in the background, which is not what we’re trying to achieve with this type of shot.

5 Sports Photography Tips
Here I’ve zoomed in tight using f/2.8 (a low-numbered f/stop). Look at how nice and blurry the background is now, and how the player stands out from the background. 


4. Shoot Low So They Look Big!

If you look along the sidelines of an NFL or college football game, you’ll see the photographers taking pictures down on their knees, and in some cases, literally lying on the ground. The reason they do this is because the change in perspective makes the players look “larger than life” and it also helps eliminate distractions in the background. At your kids game, shooting from a kneeling position alone will make a huge difference in the quality of your shots.

Pro Tip: If there’s a concrete track around the field where your kids are playing, stop by your local hardware store before the game and pick up a pair of gel-filled knee pads. You’ll thank me for this one.

5 Sports Photography Tips
Here’s the view from a standing position. See the reddish track in the background?

5 Sports Photography Tips
Look at how different the scene is, shot from the exact same spot, but getting down low. Now it’s just trees behind them — the track is hidden and the players look bigger.

5. Looking for a Nice Portrait After the Game?

There’s a simple recipe for getting a nice portrait – even in the dreaded harsh direct sunlight. The secret is placing your athlete’s back toward the sun. That way, the sun acts as a backlight. Next, use the exposure compensation dial on your camera to over-expose (make it too bright) by 1-stop. That will fill in any shadows on your subject’s face and you’ll walk away with a nice shot.

Keep in mind, you still want the background blurry and out-of-focus as discussed, so stand way back, zoom in tight, and use the lowest-numbered f/stop your lens will allow so that you’ll have that nice pro look for your portrait.

5 Sports Photography Tips
The sunlight is giving his hair a nice back light, and you’re using the right f/stop to make sure the background is nice and blurry. 

5 Sports Photography Tips
If you’re not comfortable with using exposure compensation, then just increase the brightness (overall exposure) a bit in your photo editing program for a similar look.

Use these quick, professional photography tricks during your kid’s next game and you will be sure to become the pro photographer of the season!


Scott Kelby

Scott Kelby is the editor and publisher of Photoshop User Magazine and President of He is the co-host of the highly acclaimed weekly videocast The Grid, and teaches photography, Lightroom and Photoshop workshops around the world.

Scott is an award-winning author of more than 50 books, including The Digital Photography Books, The Adobe Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers, The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book for Digital Photographers, and Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It: Learn Step by Step How to Go from Empty Studio to Finished Image

For more on Scott, see his blog

Scott is part of The Opener, an exclusive, invite-only contributor network that will bring the best food, culture, and innovation writing to the pages of Coca-Cola Journey.