In my opinion the most important setting on the camera when shooting a fast moving subject is the burst mode, when selected, this will let you hold the shutter down to take a burst of photos instead of pressing to take one at a time. Useful when you are can’t predict the exact moment for something to happen.
The focus mode should be AI servo (AI stands for artificial intelligence). The camera will try to predict the speed and distance of the moving subject. In this mode the camera will keep re-focusing on what is in the centre of the frame.
Keeping the camera set to aperture priority at a fast aperture (low f number) like f/2.8 or f/4 will let the camera decide the shutter speed (at the fastest possible setting), so you don’t have to keep adjusting the exposure and can concentrate on the timing of the shots. It won’t be perfect all of the time (especially when shooting into the light), but will give better results overall than if you pick an average exposure and leave it throughout. Of course you could keep adjusting the exposure for each shot, but you would get far fewer shots to work with, and it is definitely a numbers game with action photography.
Another reason to shoot with a fast aperture is the shallow depth of field which will give separation of your subject from the background.
If you set the camera to jpg format instead of raw, the camera can shoot images much faster as there is less information to record to the memory card. When shooting outdoors in daylight there is much less need to have the later edit ability that raw format offers. If shooting indoors in darker / artificial / mixed light sources you can lock in camera most of the picture settings you might want to adjust when processing a raw file (white balance, sharpening etc).
If your lens has IS (Image Stabiliser), you should definitely have it turned on, If it has 2 modes (like the canon EF 70 – 200mm f/2.8L IS) the second mode is the recommended setting for action, mode one is recommended for portraits / still subjects. If you don’t have IS and your main photographic interest is sports, you should give consideration to getting one.
When the action is taking place, the main consideration for the photographer is where to position yourself. You have to be able to anticipate where and when the action is going to happen and be in the best position to shoot it. Over the course of a whole game you’ll usually find your instinct for where & when to shoot will improve as you see patterns in the way the game is being played.
When you start shooting a burst, depending on your memory card & camera’s speed you will have a limited number of shots before the camera will have to stop temporarily in order to clear the camera’s internal RAM
Canon EOS 5d Mark III has a 6 jpg per second shooting rate for up to 65 photos in a burst, raw format has up to 13 photos in a burst, but other factors like camera temperature and ISO can reduce these numbers further. Consumer cameras generally shoot far fewer frames per second in much smaller bursts. This means if you start a burst too early, the camera might stop at the critical moment in order to clear the RAM.
Shooting from a low angle will look much more dramatic as your shot will contain less of the field and other players. Consider using a monopod as this will help you keep steady with a heavy camera / lens.
There is an old sports photographer’s adage that says: ‘If you see the action through the viewfinder then you’ve lost it’, and this is largely true.
This is because when you are taking an image the internal mirror retracts to allow the light to hit the sensor (or film), therefore, if you see the key moment through the view finder, then you have missed the chance to record it.
Finding the balance between when to burst and when to hold back is a key skill. Timing is everything.