Exposure in Sports Photography

9 Aug

In this article, we learned about exposure: what it is and how it affects your images. If you haven’t read that, go back and read it first. It provides some necessary background on exposure. If you’re already familiar with exposure, and want to know how to apply it in sports photography, read on.

First off, we’ll make sure our camera is in manual mode (M on the dial).

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is very important in youth sports photography, because it controls motion blur. In most circumstances, we want no motion blur. We want frozen action shots, and motion blur is the opposite of frozen action.

To freeze action, we need fast shutter speeds to make sure we have no motion blur. Generally, this means at least 1/500th for slower sports, and 1/1000th for fast-paced ones. You may want to go higher than this, depending on the situation.


images (1)

Now see what we did with shutter speed – we dialed it up a lot. This means our image is going to be a lot darker. So the logical solution is to use aperture to bring the image back to normal brightness – and as it turns out, this works really well for us.

This is because to increase brightness, we have to turn down the aperture setting. The lower the number, the brighter the image (aka larger aperture – the opening that lets light in). Remember what else aperture controls – that’s right, depth of field (background blur). The lower the aperture setting, the more background blur we get. This is great in sports photography, because it isolates the subject from the background, makes the background less distracting, and gives the subject nice “pop.”

So lowering the aperture is a win-win: it levels out the shutter speed to make a good exposure, and it gives us nice background blur.

aperture (2)

After you’ve set your shutter speed to 1000 or wherever you want it, dial down your aperture as far as it can go. The lower the number, the more background blur. This is a huge advantage of expensive f/2.8 lenses.

(One final note on aperture: For the purpose of this article, we’re assuming you want your aperture the lowest possible. This is true most of the time. However, there are certain limited circumstances where you wouldn’t want this, such as if you have a low-quality lens. In this case, setting the aperture around f/8 will give you much better image quality than f/4. Of course, you can only do this if there’s plenty of light to play with.)



So you’ve got your shutter speed around between 500-1000, and your aperture as low as it can go. Depending on the lighting conditions, this may not be the perfect brightness for your image. 1/500th at f/2.8 on a sunny day is much brighter than the same exposure at night.

To level out the exposure, you’ll use the 3rd part of the exposure triangle – ISO. If the image is too bright, decrease the ISO. If the image is too dark, increase the ISO.

This is where it gets interesting. Depending on the situation, it may be too bright or too dark for ISO to get a perfect exposure. Maybe you’re shooting a night game, and you’re at ISO 3200 but it’s still too dark. You don’t want to go too high with the ISO (high ISOs cause noise/grain – how high you can go depends on your camera), but you can’t go lower with aperture either – you’re already at the lowest setting. There’s only one option left: shutter speed.

You have to be careful here, because you’re going to have to decrease shutte speed in order to make the image brighter. This also makes the image more prone to motion blur – the slower the shutter speed, the more motion blur. So you can’t go too low. It’s tough, but you have to find a good balance between shutter speed and ISO – not too slow a shutter speed, and not too high an ISO.

Of course, aperture always stays at the lowest setting. If you’re in a low-light situation, the lower the aperture the better. Like I said before, this is one reason people pay a lot for fast f/2.8 lenses.

Now let’s say it’s really bright outside – noon on a sunny day. You’ve got f/4 (or however low you can go) with a 1/1000th shutter speed. You’ll have to decrease ISO to 100, the lowest setting, but the image will probably still be too bright. In this case, you’ll want to increase shutter speed. There’s no harm at all in this, because it will simply ensure that your action is completely frozen. It’s fun when you can dial up your shutter speed to 1/4000th. 🙂

Are you beginning to understand the massive effect exposure has on sports photography? Actually, exposure is important for every type of photography, so it’s great if you learn it now. If you don’t get it, don’t worry – the fastest way to learn is to practice. Next time you get a chance to shoot, try playing around with manual exposure settings. The more you practice, the faster you’ll learn.

Should you always use manual mode? We discuss that here. Regardless of the mode you use, a good understanding of exposure will help you massively in youth sports photography.

All photographers should understand exposure, and the best ones apply their knowledge and use exposure to their advantage to take awesome sports action shots.

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