Applying sports photography skills to family photography


Applying sports photography skills to family photography

Helen Bartlett
Helen Bartlett

Canon Ambassador and Portrait Photographer

Sharing skills and knowledge with our peers is one of the best things we can do to improve our photography. 
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a morning with Tom Jenkins – World Press Photo winner and chief sports photographer for the Observer and Guardian newspapers – to chat about the Canon R5, all things autofocus, and how I could apply some of the techniques of sports photography to my family photography work.
After a couple of hours in the freezing cold in our local park, I’ve come home with a newly customised camera and new insights into the workings of the autofocus system.
In this post, I’m sharing these insights into the inner workings of focus presets and the opportunities within the custom modes which I will be applying to my family photography.

Photo by Helen Bartlett

The Pre-Programmed Focus Modes

I’ve long used the different focus modes available in Canon’s 1-series cameras, utilising their descriptions to choose the right option for what’s happening in front of me. Indeed, I used to love “case 5: on the EOS 1DX because “erratic subjects moving quickly in any direction” felt like the perfect description of photographing children.

If I had to take home just one message from my morning with Tom, it would be that the more we understand the technical aspects then the more we can tell the camera what to do. The more decisions we take, the quicker the camera can respond and so by improving our understanding of the technical aspects we give ourselves more opportunities for creativity.

I’m not the most technically minded photographer however, I hope to explain, in simple terms, how these pre-programmed elements work in a practical sense and how they can be used, or tweaked, in real world scenarios and what that means for us as photographers.

Photo by Helen Bartlett

Focus Point Selection

When using these pre-programmed modes, I’m using the “AI Servo” focus mode and back-button focus. Back button focus is a way of customising the controls on your camera so that autofocus is activated by pressing one of the buttons on the back with your thumb (*AF-On for most people) rather than by half-pressing the shutter button, which gives you the freedom of separating autofocus and actually firing the shutter. This makes it easy to track a moving subject and fire the shutter at the decisive moment, or to take more pictures without starting the autofocus system when you know that you’ve already set the focus correctly.

This means that when I press the back button, the camera focuses on what is in the defined focus area, the square that lights up in your viewfinder. We can choose how specific this active focus area is by our autofocus point selection and this can vary all the way from a single point to larger areas or, on the latest cameras, face detection over the whole focus area.

If we use a single point then the camera is only looking in just that area, it’s really specific and really quick. But, if it can’t focus easily on that point (Tom used the example of a cricketer in white in bright sunlight where there’s no contrast, nothing for the camera to lock on to) then that detailed single point wouldn’t be the best choice. We’d want to use the expanded focus point option (i.e. the square with either the four little squares around or nine little squares around) to give the camera a wider area to find the subject if it can’t lock on with the central focus point. However, if you are focusing on a face and want precision focus on a specific eye then single point is a great option, it’s quick and easy for the camera to focus on just the right area in your frame. Single point is a great option when photographing through a fence or a net (such as a goal) because you won’t risk the camera locking onto the net in the foreground.

With the Canon EOS R5, the face detection mode is amazing because we can assign the initial focus to our preferred subject and the camera will find the face and the eye and track it, this is a game changer for me.

So, we have found the subject and, while holding down the back button (or half pressing the shutter if we don’t have back button focus set up) the camera will track the focus until we release it.

Photo by Helen Bartlett

Pre-Programmed Focus Modes: Tracking Sensitivity

The pre-programmed modes are designed to make our lives easier, to make focus tracking faster and more accurate. They are based around two main concepts:

    1. How sensitive the autofocus tracking is, by which we mean how tightly locked on to the subject it is.

    2. How quickly the autofocus tracks acceleration and deceleration. 

The idea of sensitivity was the fundamental thing that I needed to get my head around. Low sensitivity means our focus is locked on, so it won’t easily jump to another subject. High sensitivity means it’s sensitive to change, so it will quickly swap if different subjects enter our active focus points.

If our tracking sensitivity is low (e.g. -1) we are telling our camera to stick with that one thing, don’t jump around if something else enters our focus area, particularly in front of our subject. For example, in a tennis match where a ball might fly in front of the player, or a football game where another player might run in front of our subject. We want our camera to hold focus on our main subject and not jump to something that passes in front, so we want the tracking sensitivity to be low.

If the tracking sensitivity is high (e.g. +1, or case 3 on the EOS R5) then the focus will jump to new things. Canon use the example of a cycle race. We can be tracking one cyclist but if another overtakes them coming between us and our original subject then the camera will shift to the new subject that’s closer to the camera.

We experimented with these modes while Tom’s son cycled through some trees in our local park. By lowering the tracking sensitivity, the camera continued to track his face as he wove between the trees, rather than jumping to focus on the tree trunks when he disappeared from view.

Photo by Tom Jenkins

Pre-Programmed Focus Modes: Acceleration/Deceleration

The other setting for these pre-programmed focus modes is whether the subject is changing speed, i.e. are they accelerating or decelerating quickly? If, for example, you are photographing a cyclist or a family walking together, the chances are they are going at a fairly constant speed. If you are photographing a child on a swing, the speed is going to be changing quickly from the speed going up, to that pause at the top, and then gravity bringing them down again. Therefore, we might want to increase the speed that the camera responds to changes in acceleration and deceleration (+1 on our accelerate/decelerate scale) to make it more sensitive to our needs.

Assessing the environment

On a photo shoot we can assess the environment and the likely activity and make our focus mode choice based on the situation.

What were the chances of something coming between us and our subject? A child running around a garden that is filled with garden furniture, toys such as slides and swings, and other active family members.  That child is likely to be often partly obscured by an object between me and the camera so case 2 would work well.

But if the child is leaping along a path, running, jumping, stopping and starting and there is nobody else in sight and no obstacles, then I wouldn’t need the low tracking sensitivity to stop the focus jumping to other, closer, things, instead I’d use Case 4.

It’s important to look for possible obstacles between our subject and the camera, to assess the environment in which we are taking a picture as much as the activity when choosing pre-programmed focus modes.

Photo by Tom Jenkins

Custom Modes

Once we start to move between focus pre-sets frequently, custom modes really come into their own because we can preprogramme different scenarios so that we can jump between them quickly rather than having to take the time to make several changes.

So, what is a custom mode? Custom modes are a feature of many Canon cameras and allow you to set up your camera in a specific way and then save those settings for future use. A wedding photographer, for example, might want to use manual exposure in the church, but when exiting they might find it helpful to have the camera on aperture priority and auto ISO so they don’t have to worry about them in the fast moving moments when the bride and groom emerge into a very different lighting situation, there’s confetti being thrown and the beautiful chaos of action and movement. Having their “outdoor” settings available at the touch of a button means they can switch to them in a fraction of a second, without needing to take their eyes from the action to look down at the camera or adjust settings in the menus. 
We can include a huge range of settings in our custom modes, going beyond the obvious elements such as our autofocus and metering modes. We can include our focus point selection and whether we want to be in “One Shot” or “AI Servo” autofocus mode, we can even have different custom functions for different modes, they are hugely customisable. They’re such a useful tool, and one that I had barely scratched the surface of before Tom showed me how he uses them.

Applications of Custom Modes 

Talking to Tom about how he sets up his custom modes was eye-opening: he changes them regularly, depending on the type of job he’s shooting and the location and lighting conditions. I hadn’t thought that this might be something you would do on an almost daily basis, but it allows him to be ready for the specific conditions he’s working in. 
I had already set up a custom mode for panning when I first got my EOS R, but the idea of assessing a location and dialling in settings for quick adjustments hadn’t crossed my mind. Of course, when Tom described a football field with areas in deep shadow or bright sunlight and different conditions on pitch or where the management were sat, it made perfect sense to be able to shift settings at the press of a button during the fast moving action of a match.. Of course, I can change settings as I go along, but this way I can alter not just the exposure but the way the camera is taking those pictures with much less delay as I don’t need to go into any menus. 
To make switching between custom modes really quick, you can set the Mf-n button to cycle through them. Here are the three custom modes that I’ve set up for myself:
  • C1 is “getting to work” settings. Over the years I’ve developed a habit of setting up my cameras the night before a shoot so that I know that when I take it out of the bag it’s roughly ready to go whether the first shot is indoors or outside. I set it to mechanical shutter, ISO 1,600, f2.8, 1/500, with face detection which is a good starting point for me in most situations.
  • C2 is my panning mode, turning the ISO down to 100, f11, at 1/20th using the electronic shutter. For panning, Tom recommended using manual focus and pre-focusing at the point where I would be pressing the shutter for consistent results. A small aperture and a wide depth of field made this pre-focusing and panning an effective technique when photographing Tom’s son cycling along a path in our local park.
  • C3 is my speedy movement setting, with electronic shutter (for 20fps), ISO 2,000, 1/3200, and f2.8 as a starting point. For this mode I use the “case 4” autofocus tracking sensitivity setting for subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly, perfect for kids jumping on the bed or moving around fast.
 Being able to flick through these custom modes quickly saves time on my shoots and allows me to be more creative as well as, most importantly, ensuring I don’t miss any unexpected moments.

Photo by Tom Jenkins


Spending time with a photographer who shoots so differently from me was an incredible opportunity to learn and develop my skills. Talking through how the functions work and why we might wish to use them in different ways gave me a new insight into how Tom achieves his incredible images but also how I can utilise these techniques in my own work to improve my family photography.

Helen’s Kit Bag

  • 2 x Canon EOS R5
  • Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L
  • Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L
  • Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro
  • Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 II

Tom’s Kit Bag 

As for my “usual” kit bag, this is my bag for football at the moment. The bag changes slightly for different sports.

  • 1 x 1DXmk3
  • 2 x 1DXmk2
  • 2 x 1DXmk1 for remotes
  • 400mm, 2 x 70-200mm, 24-70mm, 16-35mm, 24-105mm, 24mm, 2 x 1.4x converter