When shooting sports, using a shutter speed fast enough to stop action is very important. My general rule is to use anything faster than 1/1000th of a second. It used to be slower, but with the quality of the newer digital cameras and their sensitivity to light, I go higher now to stop action. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper your image. When considering shutter speed, we must keep in mind that aperture is also very important in sports photography, more so than just proper exposure. Fast shutter speed stops the action, while the aperture defines the depth of field in front of and behind your image. That translates to the amount of area that is in focus besides your subject. Keeping images clean and using longer lenses helps compress your image, but you also want to keep the aperture towards the wide-open end of your lens. With the lenses I use, a Canon 400mm f/2.8L or 200-400mm f/4L 1.4x, my widest aperture is f/2.8 or f/4. But the only time I go to the widest opening is when I truly need the extra light, like a game at night under the lights. We use the really fast lenses as sports photographers so we have the ability to shoot wide open, to have a corresponding fast shutter speed. For example, if I shoot a night game I have to at least shoot at 1/1000th to stop action, and will likely shoot at the lens’ widest opening — again, usually f/2.8 or f/4.
But I don’t always want to shoot wide open. It’s nice to have really shallow depth of field, but in many situations while shooting sports you have a main player and then a second or third player in the frame in front or behind that lend themselves to the image. I like to keep a little depth of field in my images so I have a bit more in my frame in focus. So in daylight I will likely shoot at f/4.5 to f/5.6, getting that little extra sharpness, but not so much that the background is sharp too. I want that background completely blurred so my focal point is always on my subject with no distraction. If I were to shoot at f/8, the background starts to come into play and I definitely don’t want that. This is what I mean by keeping it clean. Long lens equals compression, fast shutter speed equals stopping the action. Shallow depth of field adds to the compression and keeps focus for the viewer on your subject and not the background. The shallow distinction between subject and background is what can separate an okay sports image from an excellent sports image.
Ten years ago it was risky to shoot at 6400 ISO, but Canon makes so many great cameras now with the ability to shoot at much higher ISOs that it’s no big deal anymore. This enables photographers, especially aspiring professionals or serious enthusiasts, to use less expensive yet excellent-performing zoom lenses that don’t open up as wide. This is a huge advancement in technology in image sensors to shoot in high ISO and with low noise. We can photograph sports with lenses that have maximum aperture of f/5.6 and still use a fast enough shutter speed to stop action.