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[Article] How to shoot sport


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This applies to all autofocus SLR cameras, film and digital. I write about Nikon, however with Canon and Pentax and Minolta etc. you just need to change some of the terminology.

With Nikon this all applies to the popular

D200, D70, D2H, D2X, F100, N75, and everything. It doesn't apply to point and shoot digital cameras like the Nikon 8800, Canon G6 and Pro-1 since these fixed-lens cameras are completely different different from SLRs and not very good for sports anyway. The SLRs are magnificent for this. You can read the details here on the differences between SLRs and fixed lens cameras.


Frame rate tells you a lot. 5 FPS is a good compromise. Even a

Canon 20D or 30D does that. My favorite is the Nikon D200.

If you don't mind spending five grand look at the

D2X, D2H and the Canon 1D Mark II, all of which run at about 8 FPS.

Forget the obsolete

Nikon D1H I used to own. It's fast, but low resolution and batteries are always a problem. They run down fast, are big and heavy and require a lot of babying. The D1, D1X and D1H batteries give about five shots before they read LOW and turn off the in camera display unless you hold your finger on the shutter for the rest of the charge.

A used

D2H is a great idea. They are fast and very high quality.


Nikon D70s and D50 are fine, but you'll want the faster frame rate if you shoot a lot of sports and can afford it. If you're patient about the frame rate and on a budget I find the focusing of these two just fine. Even the D50 is worlds better than any camera whose lenses don't come off to interchange.


See my lens suggestions on my

lens suggestion page.


Use AF-C

The continuous AF mode lets the camera track the subject and change the focus as it moves towards and away from you. This works extremely well. On most Nikons you move a switch on the front of the camera to "AF-C." On some cameras like the D70 you set that in a custom function purple shooting menu and leave the switch on the camera set to AF. On the very least expensive film cameras you set that through a scene mode marked "Sports."


On cameras with multiple AF areas (this is most every camera today) set DYNAMIC mode. Dynamic mode lets the camera automatically select among the various AF sensors as your subject moves left and right and up and down in your composition. The camera doesn't care if the composition changes from the subject moving or you moving. This works far better than you'd think and really tracks the moving bird, motocross bike or soccer player better then you'd believe. This is usually set in a menu for digital cameras and a custom function for film cameras, although the very top models like the D2H/X have a switch on the back. The pictograph symbol is a solid rectangle in the purple shooting menu of the D70 or the switch on a camera back. On a camera's functional LCD or viewfinder you'll see all the little crosses telling you that all the AF sensors are fired up. The very least expensive cameras set this as part of the "Sports" mode.

AF Area Selection

The AF area you select with the control on the camera back is the first one the camera uses each time you half press the shutter. Once the camera focuses on that sensor the dynamic mode set above takes over and automatically selects among AF sensors to track the subject if it moves around. Ensure your subject is in the selected AF zone when you first press the shutter since that's how the camera learns which is your subject.

It's perfectly OK to leave just the center zone selected all the time. You acquire the target with the center sensor and the camera hands it off among the others automatically.

It's easy for the camera to track subjects against a blank background like the sky. Photographing birds in flight is trivial. Likewise with an f/2.8 telephoto things too close or too far away are out of focus and it's easy for the camera to track fast action of your intended subject. On the other hand if you have a slower or wider lens and a busy background or foreground items intruding then the camera will have a harder time figuring out which is your subject. Even if the camera loses lock it will try to guess where it is for about a second before hunting again for it.

If you lose lock you need to let go of the shutter and press it again with the target in the selected AF zone.

Even if your target is flying behind obstructions most cameras will hold and track the focus until the target emerges from behind the obstruction. Try it, you'll see they work really well.

The only thing that confuses these systems are subjects against busy backgrounds at about the same distance as the subject, or trying to shoot through heavy foliage. In these cases it's tough for the camera to discriminate between the subject and the chaff.


It's more difficult for the camera to track moving targets as they get closer. This is because the focus system has to work harder and faster to change the focus as targets approach. Pro cameras and lenses like the F6 and an AFS telephoto rarely run out of steam. An amateur f/5.6 lens on an N75 may not be able to track moving subjects if they get too close. No problem, just know this and wait till subjects are further away if you have to.

You can see this with a camera on a tripod tracking focus on moving cars. The focus ring moves slowly when cars are far away and moves furiously as cars approach you.

This has nothing to do with the absolute speed of the subject. It's trivial to hold focus on an airplane doing 550 knots 10 miles away and very difficult to hold focus on a 6 year old kid running towards you from five feet away. Don't get frustrated if a soccer player is running towards you and the camera can't hold focus as you're tackled; this is normal.

Just learn your system's limitations, if any, and work around them.

Targets heading directly towards or away from you are most difficult. Targets keeping the same distance traveling at 90? from you are easiest, since the focus setting doesn't have to change at all.

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