It's baseball season! It's hockey playoffs! And soon, it will once again be Steeler season (what, too early?). So, let's talk sports photography.
With digital cameras providing lighting fast focus speeds, auto tracking and upward of 20 frames per second firing rates it's hard to imagine the days gone by when you had to use hand-eye coordination to keep your subject sharp and tiger-like reflexes to capture the singular moment. A time when firing three frames per second with your Nikon F36 motor drive felt powerful. Even at that blazing speed you quickly learned a lot could happen between those frames if you don't capture the right moment on the lead exposure. Despite technology, then and today, it's first about timing. Just holding down the shutter release (spray and pray) will only take you so far. You'll get lucky once in a while, but those who truly excel at the craft perfect the ability to slow down time in their mind and fire first at the exact right millisecond.
If you want a challenge, set your camera to single frame and go out to a highway and try to capture a vehicle hitting a single mark. Up the anty and switch off your autofocus and try to nail the target and keep it tack sharp. Now do it over and over for an entire football game, rugby match, or any other intensely physical sport.
Believe me; my old eyes are exceedingly happy for autofocus today, but I'm also glad I came up at a time when it was all with the photographer. When putting yourself in a Zen state was the only way to use a long lens like the 500mm f/8 mirror efficiently. It may sound corny to some, but to follow focus on a running subject zig-zagging across a playing field using a mirror lens with a depth of field of just inches is exceptionally tricky. Call it Zen or "the zone" or whatever you choose, but to do the job at the highest level, you had to transform into something more than yourself. Looking at the best of sports photography today, I'm confident that part hasn't changed one bit.