Camera Settings for Sports…

A question I’ve gotten quite a few times over the last several years isn’t one about lighting, but more often one about shooting Sports.  The question is simply in regards to camera settings and honestly it’s one that I myself have asked other professionals along the way too so in a way I’m not at all surprised as to the number of times it’s been asked.  I’ve even gone as far as emailing Dave Black to ask about how he has his camera set up, just to make sure my settings are set up as best they can be, and that I knew what each of them was doing when I used them.  This question was asked of me again last Friday night while I was shooting the Lawrence Central Homecoming game against Center Grove here in Indianapolis with friend and fellow photographer James Willis.  It was not the first time I’ve shot at Lawrence Central and it probably won’t be the last.  It was a great night to really push my self and my gear to the limit since it was crazy dark, and very wet.  This combination of things answered a few very important questions that I have had.  The big question being; how well will my Nikon 200-400F4 operate in a incredibly dark and fast paced environment.  I’ve loved the Nikon 200-400F4 for a long time, so when it came time to add a telephoto to my bag it was high on the list.  I chose to go with it instead of a Nikon 400F2.8VR for a few reasons.  The first and foremost is Price.  Hands down the Nikon 400mm F2.8 is an incredibly sharp and fast lens.  In fact it’s Nikon’s Longest F2.8 aperture lens and I will most likely own one at some point.  It works with Teleconverters really well, is incredibly sharp, and is also $9,000 brand new (as opposed to Canon’s which is almost $11 grand!).  Not only that but finding a Nikon 400F2.8VR used is seemingly impossible (A testament to how good it is!).  The only 400mm F2.8 Nikon lenses that you’ll find are the AF-S I and II versions, which are good; but not the 400 that Nikon is known for.  I also considered going with a 200F2 to go with my 2x Teleconverter.  The internet says that this combination is a winner, but I like the On the fly versatility of the 200-400, plus I can still put the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter on it if I really want giving me even more range (yea it’ll happen at some point).  Friday night’s game was a true test of camera, lens, and Aquatech rain gear as it was truly a tough game for anyone, or any gear to shoot.

(Nikon D4, 9,000ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@400mm, 1/1000th@F4)

So getting to the game it was Raining.  Rain for shooting sports is good and bad because crappy weather usually makes for great photos, but standing in the rain for four hours is terrible.  When I got the weather forecast I was a little worried since I didn’t really want to get all my gear soaked so out comes the Trusty Aquatech rain shield that I got from Roberts.  Worth every penny.  Takes a little getting used to shooting with, but once you’re there you have no worries about your gear getting wet.  It’s wonderful.  James had the Aquatech gear as well, and was also shooting with a D4 and 400F2.8 from the Roberts Camera rental department.  If you’re ever in a bind  or just want to try something out, it’s great they have seemingly everything over there.  Anyway, the Aquatech gear is amazing, and it worked flawlessly in the rain and darkness of Friday night’s game.

(Nikon D4, 12,800ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@400mm, 1/800th@F4)

First of all, the game was rough.  Center Grove really hammered on Lawrence Central, even though it was their homecoming game.  Not only that, but in the rain everybody seemed to be playing conservatively until the end.  At one point a ball was snapped, it missed the punter who ran after it into the endzone turned around and then kicked the ball after evading a few of the opposing players.  There were a handfull of fumbles lots of turnovers and overall it was kind of a sloppy game to watch.  In the end Center Grove won 42 to 10 and they seemed very excited about it to say the least.  It really is too bad that the game wasn’t more interesting though, both James and Indystar Photographer Matt Detrich both agreed the game just kind of dragged, and the photographic opportunities were somewhat lacking.

(Nikon D4, 12,800ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@400mm, 1/800th@F4)

So how is my camera set up?  James asked me that on Friday night, for the same reasons everybody asks and that’s to make sure they get the shots they want.  So lets talk about this.  Not all cameras are the same, but a lot of the settings carry over from brand to brand and model to model so just find something close if you’re going to give it a shot.  That being said the most important settings are as follows:

My Camera’s mode is almost always set to MANUAL, and the shutterspeed varies depending on what I’m shooting, as it should for you too.  For football I prefer to keep my shutterspeed at 1/1000th to stop every bit of action possible.  I quickly realized that in the dark confines of a Friday night High School game, 1/1000th was a dream while using my 200-400F4 and ended up mostly at 1/800th or 1/640th.  At F2.8 my ISO would have been 6400 instead of 12.8k which is a huge difference and one that both James and Matt had as an advantage over me in Friday night’s game.  The Nikon D4 can handle Iso’s up to 12,800 very easily, but it doesn’t leave much room for cropping due to noise of the image.  This means being required to shoot even tighter since you know you won’t be able to cut out much after the fact, but you should be shooting to fill the frame anyway.  Shooting with the intention to crop is a bad practice no matter what you’re shooting.  If you’re shooting something under strobes you won’t be able to take the shutterspeed past 1/250th at a maximum but this one is very camera dependent.  The Canon 5D Mark II I had at the Indystar would only Sync up to 1/160th.

Camera set to Maximum Framerate ( 10fps on the D4, 9fps on the D3).  Self Explanatory. I usually don’t machine-gun the shutter at full speed, but instead fire a few frames at a time.  Saves editing later.

Using the Continuous drive on your your camera the autofocus and shutter can be set to Focus Priority , or shutter priority.  That means that the shutter will aim for maximum machine gun speed vs trying to get focus before it fires.  I ALWAYS have mine set to Shutter priority because your camera is incredibly quick, and more often than not your camera has the shot in focus but the little indicator isn’t on meaning if it was set to Focus Priority; your camera wouldn’t fire.  That means if, in this case, someone fumbles the ball your camera might not fire at 9fps but instead at 2 or 3 because it’s trying to guarantee focus; which it can’t always do anyway.

(Nikon D4, 12,800ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@400mm, 1/800th@F4)

I have my focus tracking time to LONG.  Think about this one.  This was my problem when I had focus issues.  I always assumed I wanted to keep the tracking to short, so that way it would quickly follow the player or the object as it traveled in my frame.  This was an incorrect mindset, as when shooting something like football you have lots of players moving in and out of your way and any little bit of movement on a short tracking setting will throw your focus out.  If you’re photographing an individual playing a sport (like tennis) then I’ll set my tracking to 1 or 2.  For team sports though, LONG (5) is the way to go.  This is the setting where Dave Black set me straight when we talked about my camera settings.

I have my focus points set to 9 point groups in my D3 and D4 camera bodies.  If I’m shooting Roller Derby I’ve been known to switch it to 21 point groups, but honestly I’m not sure it gave me any benefit one way or another.  Mostly I prefer 9 point groups for action because the camera has less to do.  If it’s using 9 points to track something it’ll track basically what your focus point is on.  If you’re using all 51 in a D3 or D4 anything that passes through the distance plane of your subject has an opportunity to steal the focus from what you’re tracking.  It’s just too big of a risk in my opinion and with 9 points I keep the sensing points totally on my subject, not searching the whole frame.  The 3D tracking on the Nikon camera bodies is awesome for shooting unpredictable individual things like wildlife, individual sports (like tennis mentioned above) or small children who aren’t sitting still.  Many a family portrait sessions have been saved by Nikon’s 3D 51pt autofocus.

(Nikon D4, 5600ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@220mm, 1/640th@F4)

So that’s most of it.  Most of the other settings are left at default, or have nothing to do with tracking or shooting sports.  The VR on my 200-400 was turned off, and my shutter and aperture were locked using Nikon’s Lock buttons on the D3 and D4 series bodies as to not change my shutter or aperture with my leg or butt while running back and forth down the field.  Hopefully this helps anybody trying to shoot more sports to get that last little bit of sharpness that some hunt far and wide for.  It took me a long time to figure out how to best set up my camera, and these settings may not be perfect for everyone but they are what work for me.  If you think the gear is holding you back (or just want to try a 400mm F2.8?) Don’t forget Roberts has a rental department and it’s really great to be able to try something before you decide to buy! Best of luck, and more soon!

(Nikon D4, 12,800ISO, Nikon 200-400F4@380mm, 1/800th@F4)