Photographic Techniques

Shooting Outdoor Sports

Published March 8, 2009

Its getting to be Spring (at least in most of the country) and soon we’ll all be outside taking pictures. For a lot of people that’s going to include taking pictures the kid’s sporting events (or if you can afford the ticket prices, the professional sporting events). If you’re a professional photographer with a 400mm f/2.8 lens, a couple of camera bodies, and a sideline pass there’s no need to read further, you’ve got it covered. If you’re trying to learn how to get great pictures of Billy hitting a home run, this may be worthwhile.


When I wrote about shooting indoor sports it was obvious that the most important thing was getting a wide enough aperture lens to allow fast shutter speeds. In the relatively dim light of indoor shooting we made compromises everywhere else to get at least an f/2.8 (and often an f/1.8) aperture lens to give us fast shutter speeds. In outdoor sports our emphasis will change. With the large expanse of outdoor sports fields a long focal length and the ability to zoom are more important than the absolute widest aperture. At least while there’s sunshine.

First Priority is Focal Length

Deciding what focal length you’ll need is actually fairly straightforward with just a bit of calculating. We’ll assume you can photograph from near the sidelines (if not, then just add whatever distance your seat is from the sideline to the formula). We’ll want to be able to get a shot where the subject fills about least 2/3 of our frame vertically, so lets assume we want to take a picture that includes 9 feet of vertical area when we’ve focused on our subject (again assuming a 6 foot tall athlete – if the kids are 4 feet tall than multiply our focal length by 150%). Football, Soccer, and Lacrosse fields are are all 55 to 60 yards in width. A baseball diamond is 30 yards across the infield and another 30 yards or more to the outfield. The summary is we’d like a lens that will give us about a 9 foot field of view at 60 yards.

Here’s a table that shows how far away (in yards) a 9 foot vertical field of view is for lenses of different focal lengths:

Focal LengthDistance (Full frame)Distance (Crop frame)
50mm10 yards6 yards
100mm19 yards12 yards
200mm38 yards23.5 yards
300mm56.5 yards38 yards
400mm75.3 yards50 yards


The bottom line – on a crop frame camera a 70-300mm zoom (Canon, Nikon, Sony) will get you pretty good coverage from 15 yards to 56 yards away, the ‘sweet spot’ for outdoor sports. If you’re shooting a full frame camera – the Canon 100-400mm gives similar coverage. If you’ll be sitting further back from the sidelines, or want some ‘head and shoulder’ closeups, then you might want a bit more length.

Lens Autofocus Speed

One thing that becomes important when selecting a lens for outdoor sports is the lens focus speed: When you depress the shutter button does the lens ‘snap’ right into focus or does it focus so slowly that the subject has already moved two steps before the lens has caught up with them? Unfortunately we can’t look up a number to find the lens autofocus speed like we can its aperture or focal length. There are some strong hints though (or you can just call us and ask).

  • Lenses with Ultrasonic Motors focus faster than lenses with standard electric motors. So the designation USM (Canon), SWM (Nikon and Olympus), SSW (Sony), HSM (Sigma) usually indicate fast autofocus.
  • Lenses with Focus Limiter switches allow you to limit the lens to autofocusing longer focal lengths only, which can cut the autofocus time in half.
  • The longer the zoom range, the longer autofocus will take to lock on. This is one reason Pros shoot with primes instead of zooms much of the time. Its also why 18-200mm zooms generally aren’t great sports lenses.

For this reason the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8, for example, an otherwise excellent lens, is not a very good sports lens. Its autofocus speed is just too slow for fast sports (although its probably just fine for pee-wee soccer).

Camera Shooting Speed

How fast the camera will take photos can also be important. Instead of getting a single shot of the batter swinging, getting a series of 4 images might allow you to get the actual moment the bat hits the ball. Most modern SLRs are capable of at least 3 frames per second and top of the line cameras can capture 10 or more frames per second. There’s a lot of variation in how many frames the camera can take at this rate before its buffer fills though. Whatever the buffer size, though, the camera will take a lot more JPG images than RAW images before filling the buffer, so outdoor sports shooting is one of the few times when shooting JPG may make more sense than shooting RAW images.

Shutter Speed

In order to get ‘stop action’ shots you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/250 second. If the action is fast and you want to stop high speed action (the bat hitting the ball) you’d want a shutter speed of around 1/1,000 of a second. In good daylight this is generally not a problem, even with f/5.6 lenses. If its overcast, f/5.6 may not be enough (the difference between bright sunlight and heavy overcast is at least 4-5 stops of light). And if you’re playing a night game under the lights, then you’ll need very fast lenses, f/2.8 or so.

Many people use ‘time exposure’ mode (Tv on most cameras) to dial in a rapid shutter speed, but if you do so, make sure you at least look at the cameras other settings. If lighting is bad the camera may increase your ISO too high to get that shutter speed, resulting in grainy pictures. If its too bright, the camera may reduce the lens aperture to f/16 or more, resulting in blurring from diffraction effects. Personally I prefer to set the aperture at the lens’s widest settings and then check to make sure my shutter speed is fast enough. But lets face it, in bright daylight, setting the camera on ‘full auto’ will probably be fine too.

A Few Other Hints

Set your camera to center point autofocus and spot metering
There are too many high contrast subjects in outdoor sports to let the camera decide where to focus. Center point autofocus lets you pick the focus point, not the camera. Similarly bright sunlight can cause a huge shift in metering between lighter objects and shadows. Spot metering helps make sure the exposure is accurate for the subject, not the 10 yards of brightly lit grass behind the subject.

Try to keep the sun behind you
Or at least 90 degrees to the side. If the sun is behind your subject you’re likely to see only a silhouette and a lot of lens flare.

The best shots usually come on overcast days.
Cloudless summer days result in a dynamic range too great for the camera to handle sometimes. High clouds and hazy overcast help limit how bright the highlights are and how dark the shadows get. Heavy low clouds, of course, may make things too dark for high shutter speeds though.

Position is everything
Standing at the mid sideline at a soccer game may seem logical at first, but the action takes place at the ends of the field. From mid field all you can see are the kid’s backs (unless your kid is the goaltender). The corner of the end zone is going to get better shots (and give you a break to chimp your pictures when the kids are at the other end of the field). Behind home plate is the place to take pictures of the infield, but its not where you want to take pictures of your child at bat.

The non-action shots are often the best shots
Pictures of a home-run celebration, of your dejected child walking off the field after a loss, of that fat mom in a tube top screaming at the umpire will be looked at far more often (especially a couple of years from now) than that shot of Billy making the tag at second base. Trust me on this one, my kids are grown now.

If you’re going to a professional game, check the camera regulations
Many stadiums have rules about how big of a lens will be allowed in the stands.

One other note for those of you who aren’t aware
Taking photos at sporting events sometimes requires a bit of tact. If your child is playing in a large, multiteam tournament, at certain venues, or in some leagues there is usually a professional photographer who has paid the league a fee to be allowed to photograph the event and sell those photographs. For this fee (which helps support the kid’s league) they have the exclusive right to sell photographs, and their contract may not allow anyone else to photograph from the sidelines. You always have the right to take photographs from the stands, and in most cases from anywhere of your child. But its a BAD idea to loudly tell 4 other parents “I’ll send you that picture of Billy and Sally” in front of the professional.

Rules and contracts vary, but there has been more than one instance of a parent being escorted out of the tournament for raising a fuss about taking their pictures. And I know of at least one incident where the entire team was disqualified and removed from the tournament after a parent had a screaming fit insisting they could take photographs from the sidelines when the photographer contracting the event had exclusive rights to that. Right or wrong, I’d hate to be the kid who’s parent got my team thrown out of the tournament.

Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Photographic Techniques
  • sho

    Hi Roger,
    Typo on the table– the column headers for “Distance (Full frame)” and
    “Distance (Crop frame)” are switched.
    Focal Length Distance (Full frame) Distance (Crop frame)
    50mm 10 yards 6 yards
    100mm 19 yards 12 yards
    200mm 38 yards 23.5 yards

    I think it should be:
    Focal Length Distance (Crop frame) Distance (Full frame)
    50mm 10 yards 6 yards
    100mm 19 yards 12 yards
    200mm 38 yards 23.5 yards
    300mm 56.5 yards 38 yards
    400mm 75.3 yards 50 yards

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