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Blurry Sports Photos: ISO? F-Stop? Give Up?

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography

Van from NC writes:

I take a lot of sports pictures with a Cannon 60D. When I first got this camera, it seemed to have trouble getting good (non-blurry) shots. I changed the settings to use a lower megapixel level, thinking the camera could “react” faster if it had to record less data. It seemed to work, but I lose any benefits of higher pixels. Was this a legitimate way to get better actions shots? Is there a better way? I have tried using manual settings for ISO, F-stop, etc., but it was worse than the automated “Sports” setting.

Sports photography can be difficult, especially when you start out with a dSLR camera like the Canon 60D (or Nikon D5100, Canon T4I or any other digital SLR style camera.)

Let’s go over some term’s you’ll need to understand before being able to take good sports photos:

F-Stop: This number, in basic terms, relates to the amount of light that the camera will let through the iris on to the cameras sensor. A smaller F number means more light will be let in and a larger F number means less light will be let in. The F number also has an effect on the depth of field or “blurriness” of things in front of and behind the focused subject. F numbers half the amount of light every “stop” they increase and the F stops are: F1.0, F1.4, F2, F2.8, F4, F5.6, F8, f11, F16, F22, F32.

ISO: This number is, in basic terms, how sensitive to light the camera sensor will be. The lower the ISO number the more light it will take to expose the picture properly. Every time your ISO number doubles the amount of light you need to get a properly exposed photo decreases by half. Common ISO speeds are 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200. Some cameras can go higher than 3200 and have ISO settings in between the major stops.

Shutter Speed: This is the amount of time the camera’s sensor will be exposed to capture the photo. Shutter speeds are measured in seconds or fractions of a second. Common shutter speeds range from 30 seconds all the way down to 1/8000th of a second. When someone refers to “fast” shutter speeds they are referring to smaller fractions of a second. 1/15th of a second would be a slow shutter speed compared to a “faster” shutter speed of 1/60th of a second.

So now that you know what each of these numbers is for, here comes the hard part: balancing the f-stop, shutter speed and ISO setting. You want to stop movement in a sports photo and capture the person as if they were standing still, so you need a fast shutter speed to do that, and you want the lowest ISO possible to reduce unpleasant noise and image quality reduction.

The simple solution would be to use a lower F number, but the problem is most lenses have a maximum (smallest F number) they can open up to – on consumer zoom lenses usually F4 to F5.6. Professional zoom lenses can usually go to F2.8 but they often cost many thousands of dollars and weigh many pounds.

F5.6, ISO 4000, 1/500th of a second

F5.6, ISO 3200, 1/320th of a second

So what does a regular person do?

Try shooting in S (shutter priority) mode with Auto ISO on. This will let you pick a shutter speed and the camera will try to choose an apature and ISO speed which will enable that photo to be properly exposed. The camera has limits to how high the ISO can go and the lens limits how small of a F number it can support so the camera may not be able to expose the photo properly indoors at 1/500th of a second.

Try shooting in M (manual) mode and adjusting ISO and shutter speed manually. This will let you balance the ISO and shutter speed to find a sweet spot of where the ISO isn’t too high (high iso lowers image quality) but the shutter speed isn’t too slow where you get blur. Leave the aperture at the smallest F number the lens will allow you to use. (F5.6 is twice as much light as F8).

Try renting a faster F stop lens. The reason professional photographers get such amazing results is largely due to talent and skill, but expensive lenses – which support very low number F stops – help a lot too. F2.8 is the “standard” for most sports photographers, while some even use prime (fixed focal length, does not zoom) lenses with F numbers of 2.0 or 1.8. You can rent lenses from many reputable online companies. My favorite is If your photo is properly exposed at 1/500th of a second at ISO 6400 at F5.6 you could take the same photo at 1/500th of a second at ISO 1600 on a F2.8 lens.

P.S. Use your LCD to review photos as you’re experimenting. You don’t want to get home and find out your guess at settings didn’t work out and nothing is useable. Better to miss a few photos and capture dozens more then walk away with nothing at all.


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