The anatomy of a sports shot

The ability to capture peak action is a necessity for a sports photographer. Sure, one should know how to get things like action away from the ball, sports portraits, victory/defeat shots, among other techniques, but peak action is a sports shooter’s bread and butter.

The best sports photographers not only know where to position themselves for the best angles, but they can visualize when peak action will happen. While there’s talent involved, knowing when the precise moment when to press the shutter button comes through lots of training and practice.

Peak action, as the name suggests, is when the photograph captures the apex of motion, expression and body language of a sports play. Think of a bell curve that arcs upward then back down again. There’s a build up, then a flurry of action, then it all subsides, all in a fraction of a second. Nearly every play in nearly every sport happens in this fashion. One has to be ready and then anticipate it happening.

The casual observer may think that when you see it happen, then just press the button, but that’s not the case. The design of a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera doesn’t allow one to actually see what’s happening when it happens.

Light from an image travels through the lens. Then, in the camera, it bounces off an angled mirror up into the pentaprism (that bulge at the top of all DSLRs), which diverts the image to the viewfinder so one can see what the lens sees. When a picture is taken, the mirror quickly swings upward out of the way, allowing the light to pass through to the camera’s sensor. This momentarily creates a blackout in the viewfinder until the mirror drops back down again.

It all happens within a fraction of a second, so quickly that one almost doesn’t notice it. But if you see something happening in the camera, then it means you’ve missed the picture. So you have to press the button a fraction of a second before the action actually happens.

I recently covered a game of the Joe Nava Delta King Classic boys basketball tournament at Stagg High between West and Sonora. I captured a sequence of 5 frames that’s an example of peak action. I was using a Nikon D3s DSLR, which shoots at 9 frames per second (fps).

The first frame shows the play developing with West’s Michael Hayes going to the hoop between Sonora’s Jace Decker and Kaden Sparks-Davis. It has decent action, but Hayes’ eyes are closed and you can tell the players are still on the floor.

The second frame is a little better. Hayes’ eyes are open and he’s started to lift off for a layup but everyone’s still on the ground, though probably not flat-footed.

The 3rd picture is where things get a little tricky. It and the next shot are both close to the peak. Hayes is leaving the ground and the Sonora defenders are close and also starting to leap.

The 4th shot is the one I picked as peak action and submitted to the paper for publication. Hayes is clearly soaring through the air to take his shot. Decker and Sparks-Davis’ action isn’t quite as good as the previous image, but its close and Hayes’ pose and expression makes the photo. You can see the tension in their bodies, especially Decker and Hayes.

The last shot is almost as good but this is on the downside of the bell curve, just after the peak. Although the ball is still in Hayes’ hands, all their bodies are slightly more relaxed. There more of a sense of inevitability and resignation in the photo.

Now at 9 fps, all this literally happened in a little more than half a second. There are high-end cameras today that shoot even faster, from 10 to 14 fps. You may think that you need to spend big bucks for one of them if you want to shoot sports, and sure it would make things easier for sure. But in the old days of film, cameras were rated from 3 to 5 fps, which meant you had to and anticipate and time your photos more precisely.

What is most important is to get out there, shoot a lot and practice, practice, practice. Following those principles will help you to get better peak action pictures whether you have a speedy high-end camera or an ordinary consumer model.

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