How to photograph action sports: Part 1 – Which camera should I buy?

Wil flies past the camera in fading light - taken with the iPhone 5

Wil flies past the camera in fading light – taken with the iPhone 5

Part 1: Which camera should I buy?

Part one in a series of six posts where I’ll be discussing how to get the best shots of your mountain biking friends, kids, and even heroes. We’ll be covering off on what gear works best, and how to use your current gear to the best effect; what camera settings to use; how to frame your shot, and when to add camera movement; Finding the best locations; How to use off camera strobe to make your shots stand out; and finally a bonus post full of other little tips and tricks to help you get the best results.

And while we’re mostly using mountain biking as an example, most of these tips can be applied to any kind of action sport.

So on to part one – What is the best camera?

Your phone

The one that you have with you (thanks CJ – I’ll be using that a lot!). If that’s your phone, then great! I’ve shot some great photos using only my phone, and it’s definitely the camera that I always have with me. A lot of these tips will still be relevant, apart from maybe the next post on settings (although certain apps give you a bit more control, and I’m sure you’ll still learn something, so don’t skip it!).

My picks*: iPhone 5 or 5s, Samsung Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumia 1020 (I know it’s not all about the megapixels, but seriously – 41 megapixels in a PHONE?!)

Wil successfully threads the needle through densely treed singletrack at Lake Mountain - taken with the iPhone 5 in full sunlight

Wil successfully threads the needle through densely treed singletrack at Lake Mountain – taken with the iPhone 5 in full sunlight

Point and shoot

The next step up is the point and shoot – now while these cameras vary wildly in the their size, zoom range, image quality, and how easy it is to access their manual controls, again, all of the following will be applicable. You still want to make sure you’ve zoomed in or out depending on what you’re trying to achieve (covered in part two), how to frame your subject and when to move the camera to follow them (part three), where is the best place to stand (sit/squat/climb a tree!) – covered in part four, when to turn on the flash for some fill (which I’ll touch on briefly on part 5), and even how to use the in-built countdown timer to get great selfies (part six). So if all you’ve got is a point and shoot, there’s no need to feel left out – you can still take fantastic action photos.

My picks*: Fujifilm X20, Sony DSC-HX50V (or the RX100 mk2 if you can swing it), Canon G1 X

Mirrorless Cameras

This growing segment offers up a lot more control over your point and shoot cameras, with larger sensor sizes for greater image quality and light sensitivity, while leaving behind the bulk and weight of the next category, the DSLR. These cameras have come along in leaps and bounds, and I am personally watching this category with a lot of interest – the next camera purchase for me is going to be a tough decision. Some of these cameras are approaching the features that you would typically look for in a DSLR, such as fast autofocus, rapid frame rates, and even weather sealing. Other advantages for action photography you’ll typically gain by going for one of these over a point and shoot are more accessible control over the camera settings (usually via dedicated buttons or dials, rather than delving through menus), often they’ll have a viewfinder, which helps keep the camera more steady (additional contact point). You’ll also have access to a wider range of lenses, giving you better choice over the type of photo you’ll be taking.

My picks*: Olympus OM-D E-M5, Fujifilm X-T1, Panasonic GH3

Digital SLR Cameras

Stepping up to the biggest camera typically seen at these events. This is what you’ll see slung over the shoulders of all the pros. What you’re gaining here is an optical viewfinder, helping with stability when handholding, and also responsiveness – there is minimal lag time between pushing the trigger and actually taking the photo (important for fast moving riders!). You also typically get a vast range of lenses to choose from. Fast autofocus, better accessible manual focus, big sensor so another improvement in image quality – this is the only way to get a full frame sensor (at this stage, apart from Sony’s expensive A7?). Once you move to the higher end DSLRs, you also get weather sealing (great for dusty race tracks, or shooting in the rain). And because you’re not relying on the LCD screen as a viewfinder, you’ll get much longer battery life.

My picks*: Canon 7D or 5D3, Nikon D7100 or D610, Sony A77 or A99

So, which camera?

Whatever camera you currently have will work just fine. But if you’re looking at buying a new camera, and action sports will be a lot of what you shoot (awkward wording), this guide should help make your decision much easier. It’s certainly where I’ll be pointing anyone who asks me “What camera should I buy?” – which is at least a weekly occurence!

Let me know in the comments if there’s anything about camera choice you’d like me to explain further, or tell me what you like to use for any sports photography.

*With the exception of the iPhone and Canon 7D and 5D3, I have not used the cameras mentioned in this post – they are simply my picks of the first cameras I’d look at if I was going out tomorrow to purchase something in each category. Saying that, a friend has recently bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, so I’m looking forward to borrowing it for an afternoon for a quick review. Likewise, if anyone out there wants to lend me any of the above I’d love to have a play and write up my thoughts.

Don't try this at home! No, I didn't really ride one handed down these rocks while taking a selfie - I paused on top of this feature to take a POV shot showing the technical line.

Don’t try this at home! No, I didn’t really ride one handed down these rocks while taking a selfie – I paused on top of this feature to take a POV shot showing the technical line.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *