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Improve your outdoor action photos

Take a clue from what the pros use

A football flies through the air to the wide receiver in full sprint. In the end zone, six people in photographer’s vests track the arc of the ball with long lenses the size of a little-league bat, then scatter as the receiver busts through their line, grasping his prize. Touchdown! Did you get the shot?

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The Canon EF600mm f/4 super telephoto lens — a pro sports photographer's favorite

Let’s back up a second. Exactly why do pro sports photographers' shooting rigs look different from what your average enthusiast would have on the sideline? And what clues can we get for making better images of our significant ones at play or in athletic competition? Shooting fast action is one of the most common shooting situations there is — and it’s also precisely the situation that delivers the highest percentage of disappointing shots to novice photographers.

So how do we up our chances for fast action shots that will communicate the impact of the moment? You don't need to break the bank like the pros do, there are quality alternatives. But keep those end zone photographers in mind; we’ll get back to them and their gear at the end of the article.

Conquering time and space

From the start, you have two distinct problems that test the limits of your camera/lens combination: distance (you want to see something far away), and time (you want a small slice of time so you can freeze action).

Say you use the most basic approach to tackling these two problems, and take a basic telephoto lens that just magnifies the shot and couple it with a generic camera set to a fast shutter speed. You’ve addressed the basic problems — time and distance — but you’ve created a new difficulty.

Just add light

You see, magnifying the shot means you’re gathering light from a smaller slice of the world around you. And increasing the shutter speed means you’re taking a smaller slice of time, and therefore decreasing the amount of light available to your camera’s sensor. So while you solved problems one and two, your result is a picture that’s too dark to see. You can slow down your shutter speed to allow more time for light to enter your camera, but now motion blur can make the picture unacceptable. Both your subject's movement and your unsteady hands work against you. And bear in mind, your challenges increase if your venue changes to a large indoor space, as the available illumination decreases.

How do we fix this?

Addressing the problems

The high-zoom Canon SX-50 features great magnification and portability

The high-zoom Canon SX-50 features great magnification and portability

Well, if you have a typical point-and-shoot or a mobile phone camera, your options are pretty limited. There may be some settings that optimize your camera for sports shooting, but don’t get your hopes very high. Many of those cameras’ solutions, like dramatically increasing the image sensor's sensitivity to light, increase other undesirable traits, like noise. Often, electronic noise reduction is applied by the camera's circuitry, but the trade off there is that the image loses detail and texture. Cameras like these do a lot of things well, but we're talking about a specialized job. A multi-tool knife won't help you when you need a pipe-wrench.

Point and shoots with longer zoom lenses help you to fill the frame, improving your chances with one challenge, distance. High-zoom cameras (also called long-zoom or megazoom cameras) add larger lenses to address the light gathering issue. Together with their sports settings, these cameras can deliver decent results, especially in bright light.

Using lens choice to improve your chances

Let’s talk about lenses and what they can do to help you with the problem. Whether your camera has a fixed, non-removable lens, like the two categories mentioned above, or the ability to use multiple interchangeable lenses as the DSLRs and hybrids do, your chances at capturing fast outdoor action improve by expanding your lens’ light gathering power and by choosing an appropriate focal length, or degree of magnification.

The amount of magnification a lens can provide — essentially, how much it can conquer distance and fill the frame with a faraway subject — is called its focal length. It’s often referred to in photography jargon as how long a lens is, and the amount is expressed in millimeters. The specifics of what the numbers mean and how the figures are calculated is well-explained in Tara’s excellent article on our site, Choosing and Using a Lens for an SLR. For our conversation now, it’s enough to know that the higher the number in millimeters in the lens’ description, the higher magnification you’ll have. And if the lens’ length is described as a range, for example “30mm – 200mm,” then it has variable magnification and is therefore what we call a “zoom” lens.

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This Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens offers good light gathering ability for its focal length

A lens’ light-gathering potential is primarily a factor of its aperture — how large the variable metal iris opening inside the lens can get. The larger the hole, the more light gets through to the sensor. The ratio of the hole’s maximum size to the lens overall is measured in "stops" and is generally expressed as an “f” number, with lower numbers meaning more light reaching the camera’s sensor. So, when comparing two lenses of similar focal length, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 is going to be able to gather more light than a lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5.

Speaking of sensors, they have something to do with this complicated equation too. Very generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the more light it can gather, and as you've probably figured by now, light-gathering ability is a good thing in this situation.

Many telephoto lenses offer image stabilization as part of their feature set. Sensors in the lens detect motion and move optical elements in the lens to counteract that motion — giving the sensor a more stable image and thereby allowing slower shutter speeds. This is good for sharp telephoto images, but not always good for action photography. Slower shutter speeds mean more light, but also more motion blur, because your "slice" of time is longer. Still, it's always good to have image stabilization to minimize handheld shake — just leave the shutter speed fast.

It's all simple, right? All you need is a lens that has a lot of magnification, image stabilization, and a wide aperture, and a camera with a big honking sensor! Easy. And wrong.

It's the law

A little something called the laws of physics intervenes here. If you want the best of all these worlds, you will pay a significant penalty in size and weight as your focal length and aperture and sensor sizes increase. Remember this: a great lens cannot be simultaneously long, wide-apertured, designed for large sensors, and small. Something’s gotta give.

Camera manufacturers have tried millions of combinations over the years to give you the best telephoto performance from the most portable package. Some strategies work better than others, but if you look carefully you’ll always find where the compromises have been made. Here’s what physics teaches us about maximizing your chances for fast, action telephoto shots outdoors:

Action steps for your camera

If you have a mobile phone camera or basic low/no-zoom point-and-shoot: your results will be largely disappointing. Cameras like this simply don’t have the attributes to address this challenge adequately.

If you have a longer lens point-and-shoot or a high-zoom fixed lens camera: choose a brightly lit day, and learn to use your camera’s sports-optimized settings. They’re designed to give you the best-case scenario from their particular blend of sensor, electronics and lens.

If you have an interchangeable lens hybrid or DSLR: get a fixed focal-length telephoto or zoom lens that offers a maximum length of 150mm (35mm equivalent) or longer, and the lowest “f-stop number” maximum aperture you can afford. Seriously consider a lens with good optical image stabilization. These three things will go far in making your sports photography shine.

This is important. The more light your lens gathers while still giving you adequate magnification, the better your outdoor action shots will be. Yes, a lens that meets these criteria may cost you a bit more than your standard kit lens, but consider the cost in missed moments with a lens that’s not up to the job. Almost every camera in the hybrid and DSLR categories offers a range of lenses that meet this description.

If you're interested in this type of photography, consider a hybrid or DSLR with a larger sensor. It will open new artistic possibilities in addition to giving you some extra leeway with light sensitivity. Also, most digital cameras today offer a wide variety of sensors and modes that are specifically targeted to this challenge. Learn these options — they’re there for a reason. Manufacturers tweak their software and firmware constantly to improve your chances for success.

Last, but not least: improve your camera's mounting stability. Invest in a good tripod and use it. Or, if you're on the move, a good monopod.

Meanwhile, back in the end zone

Remember that group of pro photographers in the end zone in our scenario above? The ones with the lenses longer than a child’s leg? This is what happens when you let physics go the way it wants to. They get fantastic image quality from their big-aperture, super-long, ultra-stabilized lenses, and they should. But they, too, have made compromises: those lenses have really big glass elements, and so they are simultaneously costly and bulky.

No one says you have to equip yourself like a pro; there are plenty of versatile telephoto lenses for hybrids and DSLRs that will make you look good out on the field, without sending you to the credit union’s loan department.

But speaking of finances: it’s worth noting that lenses typically hold their value, and sometimes increase in value over the years. Camera technology changes, and sensors keep getting better, but the initial point of entry for light going into your camera will always involve some form of old-school optical tech, so explore the many options out there. Lenses are an investment that will pay dividends for a long time, in both treasured moments and resale value.

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