How to get sharp, in-focus football action shots

Editor’s note: This is the second of two blogposts on improving football photography at high school games.  The first one deal with how to handle bad lighting at high school stadiums. You can find it here.

In my last post, I talked about general ideas and hurdles that surround shooting a high school football game.

Now let’s look at what camera settings you could use.

More often than not, editors are looking for that one crisp action photo that tells the story of the game.

Some cameras have a “sports” settings, or as a friend once referred to it, “running man.” It’s a factory setting that will do all the guesswork for you to expose your image correctly. 

While that might seem great, my experience is that the camera guesses incorrectly more often than not when faced with one of my many dimly lit fields. 

Taking that setting out of the discussion, there are three settings most cameras have that we’ll look at in particular: AV, TV and M.

Before we get much further, a camera’s exposure is made up of three variables: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. A basic understanding of these three items will be important to understand the AV, TV and M settings.

Shutter speed is shown on your camera as a fraction, or sometimes just as a number like 250, and allows you to record a slice of time.

The higher the number, the shorter amount of time your camera captures — leading to more of those crisp stop-action photos. Obviously for sports, that’s what we’re looking for most of the time.

Recall from my last post: In general, you’ll need at least a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second (sometimes represented as 250) to stop action.  

Example shutter speed scale: (records a long time period) 1 second,…1/60, 1/80…. 1/250, 1/320, 1/400…1/2000 (records a short time period – sports and action)

Aperture deals with depth of field, or what’s in focus. The larger the aperture (the smaller the number like F2.8 – or just 2.8) the more blurred the background will be. The inverse would be true for a very detailed background. A narrow aperture, say F11.0, would give you a lot of focus. You’d use F11 for something very detailed, like a city skyline.

Example aperture scale: (Not much in focus – sports) F2.8, F3 F4 F5.6 F6, F8, F11 (Lots in focus – city skyline)

Most of the time, you’ll want the former so you can single out the player with the ball.

The last part of the equation is ISO, which measures your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower your ISO, the less sensitive your camera will be to light. If you were out shooting on a sunny day, you could use an ISO of 100 because your camera has a lot of light to work with. Because you’re most likely shooting an evening football game, you’ll need a higher ISO because you have less light. As the game goes on, you’ll probably have to increase this because you’ll have less light to work with than when you started. 

Example: (Less sensitive – sunny day) 100, 200, 400,…..1250, 3200 (Very sensitive – evening) 

Why is this important? Because you’ll want the high shutter speed to stop action, your camera will take in less light because the shutter won’t be open long. To counterbalance that for correct exposure, you’ll need to make your camera more sensitive to the light it does take in for that short period of time.


TV or “S” as it’s sometimes labeled is a setting that stands for shutter priority. What that means is you will manually set the shutter speed and the camera will pick the aperture. Out of the three variables, you’re only adjusting two, meaning shutter speed and ISO are directly related.

The higher the shutter speed, the higher your ISO will need to be. If you’re shooting and find that you stop enough of the action to get a good shot at 1/400th of a second, you’ll need a high ISO (making your camera more sensitive to light) than if you were shooting at 1/250th. 

If you’re not ready to try your camera’s manual setting “M” yet, I’d suggest this for sports.


AV or “A” as it’s sometimes labeled is a setting that stands for aperture priority. What that means is you’ll manually set the aperture and the camera will pick the shutter speed. I typically don’t use this setting for sports, but it’s important to know what it does. If you wanted to show the crowd cheering or displaying the school hand symbol in unison, you could use this setting. You don’t have to worry about them moving as fast as the players on the field, and you want to show a lot of faces in the stands. Plus, you’ll probability need a slower shutter speed to let in more light because most of the light is directed toward the field.

Note: Some zoom lens change the aperture as you zoom in, meaning you’ll have less light to work with when you zoom all the way, than when you’re zoomed out. I’d suggest waiting for the action to come to you, instead of zooming all the way in, leading to more underexposed images (darker images). You’ll be able to shoot with higher shutter speed and still have a well-lit image if you stick with the zoom length that gives you the widest aperture (lowest number).


M stands for manual or massively-intimidating setting. You are in complete control, which is both scary and empowering. You’re telling the camera that you know better than it does, so shut up and just take the darn picture. In the case of sports, I’d treat manual as dealing with two of the three variables. I’d set my aperture as low as it could go and then play with the shutter speed and the ISO like we did with TV. The difference is your camera won’t get to guess if it should use F2.8 or F8.0 to exposure your image. You’ll have already told it what to use.

Remember, one of the great things about shooting with digital is the LCD screen on the back of the camera. You can do the eyeball test. If you don’t like what you see, change the settings and try again.

By Jason Fochtman

Jason Fochtman is the photo editor for the East Group of Houston Community Newspapers covering 11 papers. Prior to his current responsibilities, he served as the sports reporter and photographer for the Cleveland Advocate, Eastex Advocate and Dayton News covering seven schools.

Jason graduated from Texas Christian University in 2009 and is a former multimedia editor of the TCU Daily Skiff, as well as photos editor for the TCU Horned Frog Yearbook.

You can follow him on Twitter at @JFoch.