Semi-Automatic Shooting Modes

Did you realize that your camera has three levels of control for you to choose from? We all know about the fully automatic shooting mode. Chances are, you have set you camera to Auto as you started to learn your camera. In Auto mode, your camera makes all of the exposure choices for you. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO. It even decides on whether or not to trigger your flash. On the other end of the spectrum, you have full Manual mode. This is where you have ultimate control over every setting. But did you know that there are a few semi-automatic modes and one of them might be your best friend as a sports photographer?

There are two semi-automatic modes that sports photographers use quite often. They are Aperture Priority (A or AV on your camera dial) and my personal favorite, Shutter Priority (S or TV). When you use one of these semi-automatic settings, you choose a specific element you want to control and then let the camera do the rest of the work.

Aperture Priority is a lot like it sounds. You are allowed to make the Aperture a priority. As a refresher, aperture refers to how wide the lens opening expands for each photo. Either wide open or only a small dot. Advanced action shooters can use that to their advantage to control the background focus (depth of field).  In the Aperture Priority mode you tell the camera to stay put on an aperture setting of your choice. So if you want to keep it locked wide open for blurry backgrounds (f2.8 or f4), you can set your camera to Aperture Priority and lock in the aperture. The camera will set the shutter speed depending on how much light you have in the shot. Now personally, this makes me nervous as I consider shutter speed (freezing the action) to be more of a priority than aperture or depth of field when photographing action.

That is why I like to use Shutter Priority.

Shutter Priority allows you to lock down the shutter speed and then the camera decides the aperture. Now there is no question about whether or not you will be freezing the action. With a shutter speed of 1/500 or higher, you can feel fairly certain you will freeze the moment. For outdoor events, I find I use this mode quite often. My speed is locked but the camera metering system will be flexible should the sun dip in and out. I love it. For indoor shoots however, I would suggest the Manual Mode. See my article on Photographing Indoor Sports.

Feeling confident? Want to take it one more step? There are two main elements of most classic sports photos. Frozen action and short depth of field (that is where the main action is sharp and the background is soft giving the photo impact). Let me give you a step by step guide for how to use Shutter Priority and still keep a short depth of field.

Set your camera to the Shutter Priority Mode (S or TV on your camera settings).

Set your ISO depending on the weather or lighting conditions.

  1.   200 ISO – Bright and sunny
  2.   400 ISO – Overcast or cloudy
  3.   800 ISO – Dark overcast or sunless conditions

Set your Shutter Speed to 1/500.

Aim your camera at the field of play and look through your camera. When you look into your camera, you will most likely see the shutter speed and the aperture lit up on the bottom or side. Ex 500 f8.

While still looking through your camera, slowly raise your shutter speed until that f stop number drops down to your widest aperture possible for this lens (f2.8 or f4 or f5.6).

Now your ISO is correct, your speed is fast enough to freeze the action and your    aperture is as wide as it will go giving you a short depth of field.

  • Shutter Priority
  • ISO
  • Shutter Speed  1/500
  • Aim and raise your speed
  • Stop when you hit your widest f-stop number

By following these simple steps you have controlled the most important settings in action photography. Here is a quick cheat sheet you can carry in your camera bag. Write down these steps and tape them to your lens sun shade. 

Don’t let the fancy “photo lingo” throw you. Try stepping through these settings one day in your backyard. It is not as difficult as it sounds and once you get there, you are truly set up to capture a fantastic action photo using all the same tricks a professional uses.

Have a blast!

bio pic

Scott Quintard is a professional photographer based in southern California and a 25 year sports photography veteran who specializes in teaching parents and aspiring photographers about how to capture sports imagery. Credits include 12 years as the official team photographer for the UCLA Bruins and a seasoned contributor for NFL Properties, MLB, NBA and NCAA. Scott is a husband and father of three young athletes. See more of Scott's offerings at

Release Date: Feb 03 2014

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