Sports photos – how much gear is enough?

Steve Nash plays with a "professional" basketball.

04-02-2013  (Click on photos to see a larger view.)

I’ve been shooting quite a few sporting events lately. Actually, it was action photography that got me started in photography, um, 39 years ago. Motorcycle racing, to be more specific.

 

Kenny Roberts, circa 1975 (The continuous shooting rate was as fast as I could crank the lever.)

Sports photography requires specialized photo gear if you want to improve your chances of getting something good. Some of the basic requirements are:

  • – Fast shutter speeds to minimize unwanted motion blur
  • – Enough lens magnification to fill the frame with action that is usually happening at some distance away
  • – Rapid continuous shooting rates to give you more choices
  • – Decent low light/high ISO image quality
  • – Usually more than one camera body/lens combination for a variety of viewpoints

Sports photography also requires some specialized techniques:

  • – Panning techniques to follow moving subjects
  • – Knowledge of the sport to anticipate when/where things may happen
  • – Ability to change camera settings without fumbling or peeking
  • – Ability to pay attention and move quickly if the action gets too close
  • – Patience

 

Anticipating the action and patience will combine to give you great action photos.

In anticipation of all possible scenarios  it is pretty easy to load up with too much gear. So, how much is enough?

Last year I tried out some smaller format gear to shoot sports. While I was pretty happy with the results of using Micro 4/3 cameras and lenses, I still needed to bring a standby-setup for the fastest action at low light. This made the gear combinations a bit awkward with two different setups (different lens mounts, different battery and memory card formats, etc) I decided to sell off the M4/3 gear and stick with one system. Using one system would make packing multiple camera bodies and lenses the most efficient.

Recently I have been shooting with smaller camera bodies and fewer lenses. Instead of lugging around two Canon 7Ds, I am using two Digital Rebels, a T3i and T4i, with two or three lenses. The difference in weight between the camera bodies alone is about 1.5 lbs. This may not sound like much, but after spending a day humping a pack full of gear around a baseball field or football stadium, and hoisting the cameras 400-500 times, it adds up quickly.

 

This is a time when 1/8000 was helpful.

The Rebels perform nicely. Going down the checklist above, they meet the challenge.

  • – Fastest shutter speed: 1/4000 second. Usually fast enough to stop most sports action
  • – Continuous shooting speed: the T4i shoots at 5 fps, the T3i lags a bit at 3.7 fps. (to be fair, I used to shoot sports with a motor-drive on a film camera that screamed at 1 frame per second. We didn’t complain, that was FAST.) Compared to 8 fps on the Canon 7D, the Rebels seem much slower. This is the one area where the difference could matter.
  • – Low light/high ISO performance: The Rebel sensors have very good resolving power in low light. I frequently shoot Sacramento Kings basketball at ISO3200 and the sensor noise is not objectionable to me. Most of my shots end up at 800px on a website anyway, so the images can certainly take it. I have enlarged some of these shots up to 11×14 with very little visible noise.
  • – Two similar camera bodies make swapping almost painless. However, there are enough differences in button location and feel to make them not quite seamless.

 

The Canon Rebels perform well, even in low light/high ISO situations.
Using ISO3200, I can get 1/1000 shutter speeds at f/2.8.

There is one non-tangible difference when using the Rebel bodies at sporting events. Some of the other photographers might sneer at you. After all, you’re not using a professional camera. Anymore, I’m not sure what a professional camera is.  The best explanation I’ve come up with is this analogy: a Spalding basketball in my hands is not a professional basketball. Put that basketball in the hands of Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant, and I think it becomes a professional basketball.

The canon T3i was light enough to carry around a golf course for the full day. Tiger Woods at the US Open in 2012.

 

I’ll keep using the Rebels for awhile. As long as the images look good, then I’m happy and my clients are happy. My back is happy, too.

These days, I don’t worry about whether or not my camera is big enough, now I want one that is small enough.

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