How-To: Camera Specifications
Types of Cameras
I'm not going to lie, you need a decent camera to shoot good sports photos. Your phone camera isn't going to really cut it and neither is the camera your mother got you from QVC a few years ago (which I used to take the picture below). Even with the best settings there is blur on the ball and on her foot as well as not exactly being the sharpest shot ever taken.
What I would suggest is a better fixed lens camera (often called a "bridge" camera) or one with an interchangeable lens (either a Digital Single Lens Reflex or a mirrorless camera). Bridge cameras are not quite as capable as the better interchangeable lens cameras, but you can find a decent one if you pay attention to the specifications. DSLR cameras are the old standard (their non-digital versions have been around for decades) but they are still very capable and often the best choice for sports. Mirrorless cameras are improving quickly and hold the advantage in speed and size/weight while often being marginally worse than DSLRs in auto-focus and battery life. Also, you're likely to get a better value with a DSLR on the lower end of the budget scale than you will with a mirrorless camera.
The important thing is to find something in your price range (and don't forget you will need a memory card and perhaps a lens when budgeting) that meets as many of the specification suggestions that I'll cover here as possible. And don't worry that I'm just glossing over these now, I'll touch on each of these areas in more depth in later posts.
Getting Your Photos in Focus
Unless you want something artistic, you will undoubtedly want your photos to be as in focus as possible. The key to that is predominantly the continuous auto-focus (AF) system on your camera. Because your subject will be moving around unpredictably (and if you shoot team sports there will be others potentially confusing your camera), you want to find a camera with a continuous AF system that does a good job of tracking moving subjects no matter what direction.
Unfortunately nearly every camera has a slightly different AF system so the best way to find a good one is to research. Reviews will usually mention how well a camera shoots action shots (and if they don't that's a sign the camera doesn't have what it takes). See if you can find a camera in your price range that has a few reviews that mention it's good ability to handle action shots. And if you can afford it, look at some of the cameras that are more specifically designed for sports (for example the Canon 7D Mark II, which is what I use).
Capturing the Perfect Moment
Okay your camera can't get you to take the photo at the perfect moment, but it can help you freeze the motion and also shoot enough pictures quickly that you'll have a choice of that perfect moment.
The first factor is shutter speed, which is how fast the picture is taken. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second for faster shots. Most cameras will handle the minimum you need for this, which is about 1/800 to 1/1000 second. Also, if you plan on shooting any birds in flight you'll want at least 1/2000.
The other factor is frames per second (FPS). The more photos you can get in a second the better chance you have of getting that moment the ball goes by the goalie's hand or the exact shot when the ball comes off the bat. It's amazing how fast human movement is and how much happens in a second. If you can afford a camera that shoots at least 7 FPS you'll be doing well, but more is better (my camera shoots 10 FPS). Just be careful that FPS doesn't come at the cost of less auto focus ability as it does in some mirrorless cameras.
Exposure is the balance of light in your photos. To get optimal exposure you not only need to stop shooting in Auto mode (and I know that's scary) but you need a few capabilities to be sure you can handle the rigors of shooting under bad lighting conditions. In just the first year I've shot under a midday cloudless sky in July and well into the night with a good rain coming down. Finding the right settings and balance can be affected by a number of settings on your camera. There is also a setting that is controlled by your lens, aperture, that impacts exposure. I will discuss aperture in my next post.
Shutter speed isn't just good for stopping motion, it can also help reduce the harsh light of a bright sky. The shorter the shutter is open the less light it lets in. So you'll find having those fast shutter speeds of 1/2000 or even higher will help cut the bright light.
Next is the ISO (named after the International Standards Organization), which is how sensitive the sensor is on your camera. Sensors are where the photo is recorded so having more light sensitivity helps shoot under dark conditions. You want a camera with a relatively high ISO if you'll be shooting night games, but the most important thing is how much noise (graininess) your camera records at each ISO level. Look for reviews that show photos taken at various ISOs and look at the higher end (3200, 6400, even 12800 or higher) to see how much noise each level has and if it is acceptable to you.
Speaking of sensors, cameras have different size sensors and the bigger the sensor the more sensitive it is going to be to light. Full frame sensors are better than crop frame in this regard (although crop frame cameras are generally cheaper and there are other advantages to a smaller sensor that I'll go over in the lens section).
Finally, if you'll be shooting under artificial light in a gym or a lit field (especially if it's not a high end stadium), the lights might imperceptibly flicker, which you'll notice because some photos will be darker than others. Some cameras have an anti-flicker setting that helps with this, although it will often slow your FPS down a little because the camera has to time the shots to avoid the darker light cycles.
Just a few other things to keep in mind that usually won't be deal breakers but might tip the scales toward one camera or the other are: battery life, video recording capability, type of viewfinder or display (does it flip out and tilt?), weight and size (especially if you have small or large hands), GPS, WiFi, and weatherproofing.
Last updated 19 January 2017