|My daughter providing a "facial" for Dad when she finds me pointing the camera at her.|
Even though equipment is a terribly important thing for a photographer, there is a lot more to getting quality action shots than just owning a DSLR. Lenses, exposure, white balance, focal length, location, etc.,
The first thing that is essential is your DSLR. I shoot with a Canon EOS Rebel XS. This is a discontinued bottom entry level DSLR. This camera works well with one exception. The max ISO that I can shoot at is 1600. ISO is the sensitivity of the camera's image sensor. For a better explanation, check out THIS article at Digital Photography School. DSLR's these days are getting awesome quality at higher ISO settings and every camera that Canon sells will shoot at a ISO of 6400 or higher.
Most cheer competitions are in gymnasiums and they are usually poorly lit. In order for me to get a shutter speed of 1/600 of second or faster, I have to shoot at max ISO settings. Unfortunately, this makes for some noise in the shots. I would rather trade noise for a blurry shot any day when it comes to action shots.
This brings me to the next most important piece of equipment. You have to have a fast lens to shoot indoor sports. You need a lens that will shoot at an Aperture of f/1.8 to f/2.8 combined with the high ISO settings to get the shutter speeds necessary to stop action. I shoot with a Canon 85mm 1.8 USM prime lens and a Canon 50mm 1.8 II prime lens. These are both fast and very good lenses for these applications. I have found that these lenses have "sweet spots" for focal length. My 85mm is deadly accurate at a distance of 20-30 feet. The 50mm is really good between 10-20 feet. When I try shooting all the way across the floor with these, it is very difficult to get crisp focus. Ideally, I would love to have a Canon L series 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens because not only is it fast, but it has a wide 77mm diameter and you have the obvious zoom and Image Stabilization capabilities. This lens is expensive though, $2000 or more, so business will have to pick way up before I can grab one these.
Obviously, the best location to shoot from is right in front, usually next to the judge's seats. It is usually centered on the court so coverage from left to right is fairly equal. This is also the direction the girls will be facing when doing their routines. This pays off heavily when the girls do their "facials", which is making faces to the judges and crowd. These are great to capture.
One thing that I really suggest is turning the camera in the portrait or vertical position. When I photograph people of any kind, I shoot in this position. You can completely fill the frame with your subject and people are taller than they are wide so it helps them look leaner. I'm not saying that you can't shoot in landscape, there are several occasions where this is needed, such as team pics, but I find that most of the time I am shooting in portrait orientation.
Knowing the routine of the cheer squad performing is a big bonus! If I had not been taking Jocy to her practices and paying attention to where she was on the floor at each movement and set, I would have not gotten the facial pic of her at the top of this post. I knew that when they did their dance routines and cheer that she was going to be in the front left of the formation so that is where I sat. She found me pointing the camera at her and knowing the routine, I caught her making a cute face at me.
In the second pic, Kalie Haynes turning and making a facial, I was completely lucky. I had no idea what was happening in their routine other than seeing them go through it briefly over to the side a bit earlier. I definitely had no idea that she was turning and strutting forward. I was just pointing the camera in that direction because I only knew a handful of girls on that squad and was rotating through each one of them and just happened to have the camera pointed at her when she did it. So luck counts too.
Taking pictures at cheer competitions is just like any other aspect of photography, you must shoot as much as you can and experiment as much as you can to get the results you like. There is no one true set of rules. If you have remote strobes, which I will have someday, they are great tools. I don't have any so I will not delve into them in this post.
I definitely don't have all the secrets and will never claim to. Hopefully, this will help the next person who wants to catch that basket toss, facial, or back tuck. Your comments are very welcome here. Good luck.