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|| News Item: Posted 2008-01-29

Ask Sports Shooter: Stopping the action and cleaning up those S**TY backgrounds
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

A fast shutter speed stopped the action: San Francisco Giants Barry Bonds hits career homer 756 against the Washington Nationals at AT&T Park, breaking Hank Aaron's all-time record for home runs.
I recently received two emails about shutter speed and aperture settings in shooting sports. Since these two areas are semi-related, I thought I'd combine them into one column for this issue.

(Robert Seale, Bob Deutsch and Peter Miller please close your eyes.)

Bert: Could you tell me what settings you used for the Barry Bonds 756 home run sequence for USA TODAY? I noticed the action and baseball was "frozen" even though it was a night game. I use a 300mm 2.8 L series lens so I know I have the lens speed to do it I'm just not sure about the shutter speed and aperture settings. You must have known exactly what to use since you had three cameras going at once!

Hey Kahuna: I watched a portfolio critique by you and others at a workshop and you kept hammering the poor students about their s**ty backgrounds. How do I get rid of those s**ty backgrounds?"

Let's first discuss the topic of shutter speed in sports photography: Generally speaking, you want to use the highest shutter speed you can so you stop the action...meaning avoiding blurry images because of the motion of the player wasn't stopped.

Night games or games inside arenas or gyms using available light pose the biggest challenges to stopping the action. However with the newer digital SLR camera bodies, using high ISOs in the 1600 up to 6400 range these days is very doable. The Nikon D3 and D300 and the Canon Mark III all produce very good quality images at higher ISO.

With that said, you still want to balance the need for the high shutter speed with image quality.

For instance the sequence of Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record was shot at ISO 2000 at 1/640 @ f/4 with a 600mm lens. Why not crank the ISO up a littler higher and get another "click" or two of action-stopping shutter speed? I knew that even with a 600mm lens, the frame would have to be blown up considerably to get Bonds bigger in the frame.

I experimented with using a TC1.4 extender to give me a bit more magnification, but it also loses a stop of light (f/4 to f/5.6). So I decided that 1/640 was enough to stop the action plus the shaking of the tripod supporting the three cameras and lenses, rather than shoot at 1/800 or 1/1000 and gain more noise in the files by boosting the ISO.

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

A long lens and a wide aperture clean up the background: San Diego wide receiver Chris Chambers goes over the top of the Lions' Dovonte Edwards to haul in a 28-yard pass from Philip Rivers in 1st half action at Qualcomm Stadium.
Basically in this instance, it was a trade off.

Under most shooting situations in sports, you want to have your shutter speed at least 1/500 and preferably higher.

Now addressing the s**ty backgrounds question: Most of the time you want to shoot at the WIDEST lens opening possible. I usually shoot a day baseball or football game at f/4 - f/5.6 to limit my depth of field and cleaning up that crappy background (which in this day and age is usually a huge advertisement).

I know a lot of photo teachers out there ... usually ones not versed in photojournalism and sports... tell their students that they should get MORE depth of field by closing down the lens so MORE is sharp.

If you want to isolate the players and the action ... like a Peter Read Miller, Brad Mangin, Rod Mar or Bob Deutsch ... you should shoot as close to wide open as you can.

This goes hand-in-hand with what I wrote above: Shoot at the HIGHEST shutter speed you can ... which in turn, means you're shooting at a much WIDER lens opening and cleaning up your background.

Another important thing to keep in mind about cleaning up backgrounds is the focal length of the lens you're using. The longer then lens, the less depth of field at a given f-stop ... in other words there is much less DOF with a 400mm versus a 300mm.

I know this is pretty elementary stuff ... basic photo 101 ... I've seen a lot of blurry sports photos with crappy backgrounds in my life (some of them mine I admit) and for you newbies and students, following a couple of easy points will solve these problems:
• Highest shutter speed possible to stop the action
• Widest lens opening to limit the depth of field

(Each month Sports Shooter will take a question sent in or a topic from the message board and get an answer.)

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