Buying a Digital Camera: How to Choose

Choosing a Digital Camera for Action or Sports Photos

Expert (97 Recommendations and 21 Compliments)

The key to fast action is speed - reacting to sudden movements, timing your shots precisely, and freezing the motion of your subjects. Shooting fast action is one of the toughest things to do in photography, and you’ll need a camera with several key features to come away with the best shots.

Long telephoto lens: Most fast action events, whether it’s a marathon race, a day at the ballpark, or your kid’s soccer game, take place far away - even if you’re sitting up in the front row or standing at the sidelines, the action takes place far off in the middle of the field or venue. To get anything better than wide shots with your subjects as tiny specks, you’ll need a long telephoto lens that can zoom in and get close-ups of the action.

Telephoto lens comparison

At the very minimum, you’ll want a 300mm+ focal length on the telephoto end of the zoom, and ideally 400mm or even higher. This usually means a 10x zoom or higher.

High ISO capability: Freezing fast motion means short shutter speeds, and for many sports, especially indoors, you’ll need to utilize high ISO almost exclusively to do this. Thus you’ll want a camera that has low noise at high ISO, so all of your shots won’t be unusably noisy:

Fast Action: High ISO noise Fast Action: Low ISO

Short shutter lag: Oftentimes fast action happens in a split-second - if you can’t react at a moment’s notice and fire off a shot, you’ve missed it. All digital cameras have what’s known as “shutter lag” - a delay between pressing the shutter button and the camera actually taking the photo, and cameras with a long shutter lag mean imprecise timing and a slow reaction speed, making it nearly impossible to shoot anything but the most predictable sports. While there’s no standard way to measure it, look for recommendations or reviews that point out a camera’s shutter lag and responsiveness.

Fast Action: Image at 0 seconds Fast Action: Image after 0.4 second delay

(For a camera with a long shutter lag, you might press the shutter at 0 seconds, but your camera won’t take the picture until 0.4 seconds later, missing the moment and the shot.)

Continuous shooting: Continuous shooting is a feature that allows you to fire off multiple shots in a row, and is useful tool to make sure you get the best shot. Continuous shooting partially makes up for imprecise timing - in situations where it’s impossible to anticipate the exact timing, you can fire a series of shots and pick the best-timed one later. The action can sometimes play out over several seconds as well, and continuous shooting allows you to capture the entire sequence, instead of being stuck with one shot.

Look for a camera that can take at least 2 shots per second (2fps), and can ideally sustain that speed for 5+ shots. If you’re serious about fast action photography, there are many SLR cameras that can shoot at 5fps or higher.

Fast Action: 5fps sequence

Autofocus: A tricky aspect of following moving subjects is focus - not only do you have to follow the subject yourself to make sure they’re in the frame, but your camera’s autofocus must be able to keep up as well, or you’ll simply get blurry out-of-focus images. For non-SLR cameras, most are similarly slow, but the AF systems on SLRs range from conventional motor lenses with few focus points (slow) to ultrasonic motor lenses with many focus points (very fast).

Conclusion

Fast action cameras are all about speed - short shutter lag, good high ISO, rapid-fire continuous shooting, and responsive autofocus. To consistently come away with good action photos, you’ll need a camera with all of these features. If you’re serious about action or sports photography, this is one category where a DSLR is a must-have; DSLRs simply provide another class of speed and high ISO quality that no non-SLR can match.

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