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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.
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.
The 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. If you're too lazy to read, get the 70-300 G ($99 - 150 USD) if you're on a budget or only shooting outdoors, the 80 - 200 AF-D ($900 USD) for indoors, and the 70 - 200 VR ($1,500) if cost is no object.
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."
Use DYNAMIC Mode
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 than 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.
On Nikons with the ability to set this, set the AF-C Focus Priority to "Focus Priority." It's in the menus.
The default is "Release Priority." The D70 and D50 only work in this mode.
In default Release Priority mode, Nikons fire anytime you press the shutter. They fire even if they're not in focus. If you're shooting a sequence, most of the shots except for the first two will be out of focus!
I set Focus Priority, which only lets the Nikon fire when it's in perfect focus. It slows down the camera, and ensures all the shots are perfectly sharp.
Good news: the D80 doesn't allow adjustment, but defaults to Focus Priority for the AF-C 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 90º from you are easiest, since the focus setting doesn't have to change at all.
TRICK: you can get most AF Nikon cameras to wait and release the shutter only when an object has moved into a preset focus distance if you set the AE-L/AF-L button to AF ON (set in a custom function) and then keep the shutter pressed all the way down while NOT pressing the AE-L/AF-L button. This is called Trap Focus. How does this trick work? Presuming you have the camera set to AF-S mode the camera won't shoot until it thinks the subject is in focus. By setting the AE-L/AF-L button to AF-ON the camera won't focus itself unless you press that button. If you don't press the AF button the camera has to wait for the subject to move and when the "in focus" dot lights up the camera will shoot so long as you've been holding the shutter button all the way down. This trick works so long as you have the camera and lens set to AF-S mode and keep holding the shutter all the way down. If you set the camera to manual focus or touch the focus ring on an AF-s lens while holding down the shutter it will shoot at the wrong time. It's a primitive hack and I doubt it's smart enough to predict subject motion for good results photographing something like horses jumping over a fixed object, but worth a try. It also doesn't work if the subject is moving so fast that the camera doesn't notice it's in focus as the object flies by. Of course you need to prefocus the lens where you want it while not holding the shutter down.
Leave it set to Matrix (evaluative on Canon). Lighten or darken the images with the +/- control if you have to. Of course if you really know what you're doing and you're stuck with a subject in constant light running between dark and light backgrounds you may want to use manual.
SHUTTER SPEEDS, APERTURES and EXPOSURE MODES
Shutter and Aperture
The shutter speed to freeze motion or to get a deliberate blur depends on your subject, its distance, its speed, its relative direction of motion, the focal length of your lens and more. You select this through experience. 1/1,000 and your largest aperture is usually a good place to start. Make test shots, take notes (or look at the digital camera data) and see what looks right to you.
If you have an f/2.8 lens in daylight you can shoot at f/2.8 and your lowest ISO and get great results and have a lot of flexibility. If you're using an f/5.6 lens indoors you have to shoot at f/5.6 and your highest ISO and take what you get for shutter speed.
Motion looks like motion when you use a slow speed, like 1/30, and pan the camera with the subject. The background becomes blurred and your subject looks like it's hauling.
It takes a lot of practice to keep the subject sharp while panning. VR and IS lenses are very helpful in getting a sharp subject whilst the background blurs.
I prefer Program. Shift it towards higher shutter speeds with the dial on the rear of the camera. Feel free to use Aperture priority or whatever else works for you.
Rear Flash Sync
To get a deliberate blur behind a highlighted moving subject choose REAR SYNC. This way the subject is highlighted by the flash and has a blur behind it suggesting speed and motion.
Default flash sync pops the flash at the start of exposure. This makes a subject look like it's moving backwards because the subject is flashed at the start of the exposure and then precedes to draw a path in front of itself. It's better to use REAR sync which allows the subject to trace a blur path behind it before being popped by the flash at the end of the exposure.
I have a whole page here on how to use flash for rapid sequences.
Obviously use Continuous and fire away. With digital you can do what we couldn't afford in film and just blast away with long sequences.
Know that if you lose focus lock in a sequence you need to let go of the shutter, compose to get the subject in your selected AF sensor and press the shutter again for the camera to reacquire focus. This is faster than waiting for the camera to figure it out for itself. Honestly in the heat of watching a surf sequence I often don't notice that I've lost lock since it all happens so fast. Only on the longest sequences will I notice. You'll see this when you look at your images later since the first shots will be perfect and the last ones totally wrong. Don't worry; this is normal.
Skip the filters. You usually need all the light you can get. Use a filter for protection and skip the polarizers unless you really need them for a deliberate effect.
Use whatever ISO you need with digital cameras. Don't be afraid to pump it up to get shorter shutter speeds and smaller apertures since digital SLRs look great at ISO 400 and 800.
Of course if you're in daylight and have an f/2.8 lens then keep the ISO as low as you can, but if you've got an f/5.6 telephoto zoom crank it up.
Indoors and at night feel free to crank it all the way up, even to ISO 1,600 or 3,200. It's far better to have a sharp, grainy picture than a noiseless soft blurry one. Nikons look fine even at the +1 push setting if you need it and look really nasty at the +2 push setting.
No need for ISO Auto, although feel free to use it and set the shutter speed below which it operates to 1/500 or your slowest desired shutter. The D70's default of 1/30 is obviously too slow for sports. You set these in the menus.
Same as you'd do otherwise. Modern cameras like the D2 and D70 work fine in AUTO. Older cameras like the D1H were awful in Auto so set them manually to your taste. See here for complete info on setting WB.
Fluorescent and Metal Halide Lighting
Beware: if you're shooting under fluorescent or metal halide lighting you'll probably get inconsistent exposures and colors no matter how hard you try. This is because these lights flicker in both brightness and color at 120 Hz in the USA and 100 Hz in Europe so there's no way to set the camera for consistent results at or above 1/250 second. This is because each photo captures only part of a cycle of the light, and you'll never know which part. Our eyes respond similar to a shutter speed of 1/30 second so these lights look OK to us or at slow shutter speeds because their flickering is averaged. To work around this you need to light the whole arena with your own strobes or have the venue install special high frequency ballasts used in motion picture work, or try running three phases of lights from the same fixture. Good luck. Tungsten lights don't have this problem.
I only use JPG. You'll be shooting hundreds or thousands of images at each event so we'll all be dead by the time you open RAW files. I have a page here on that. By all means do what works for you if your opinion differs.
Also feel free to use the BASIC JPG setting. Even though pros all tell each other they shoot FINE JPG you'll be able to download, view and archive everything much, much faster at the NORMAL and BASIC settings. Since you'll be shooting hundreds or thousands of images at each event you'll save a lot of time. BASIC JPG images look fine and can be blown up just as much. I regularly make 12 x 18" prints from my D70's BASIC JPG setting and they look great. Do what you want and make tests for yourself; this can save you a lot of time.
See Shooting Rapid Sequences with Flash for speed tips.
I rarely use flash. It often slows me down with recycling time. Today cameras often use preflashes, which slow things down so the shutter may not go off until after you've pressed the button. That's bad.
Try manual mode, which eliminates preflashes.
Also try Flash Exposure lock, which allows you to make a test shot to set and lock the exposure. All shots from then on use the same flash exposure and skip the time-wasting preflashes. This only makes sense if your subjects stay at about the same distance. This is Custom Function 15 on the D70.
This also applies with wireless flash.
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Thanks for reading and have fun!
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