Sports photography is fun and accessible. You don’t have to be a pro to want great shots from your child’s game or your favorite local team.
Sports photography can also be a lucrative addition to your freelance business. Almost every week of the year, school teams meet to compete, and parents love photos of their kids in action. Due to the specialized nature of sports photography, it will take a lot of practice to master, regardless of your background.
This tutorial will help you identify the skills you will need to develop to be successful.
Know the Game
The most important thing about sports photography is understanding the many nuances of the sport you’re covering. Moments in sports happen very, very quickly.
In order to make really strong sports images, you need to be able to predict what the players are going to do and how they’re going to react to specific circumstances. If you don’t understand the rules, your reaction time will not be fast enough to capture the action you want.
Use An Appropriate Lens
Take a look at the sidelines the next time you’re watching a sports match on television. Those photographers are packing heat. While you might not have the budget to purchase one of the howitzer cannons they have strapped to their cameras, you do need to plan to have an appropriate lens for the sport you wish to shoot.
The first thing you need to consider is whether the sport is played indoors/at night or if it’s played during the day outside. If the game is played inside or at night, it’s best to have a lens that opens up to f/2.8 or at least f/4. If you’re shooting outside during the day, then any f/stop will work.
For most sports, you’ll want a lens length of at least 200mm on the telephoto end. Then you’ll either need something around 35mm to 50mm. This could be another lens or the wider end of your zoom.
If you’re stuck with a “normal” or wide angle lens shooting most sports, you’ll get pretty bored waiting for the action to come to you.
Control Your Shutter Speed
Most sports involve some element of speed. The players are running fast, throwing fast or hitting fast. You’ll want to use a fast shutter speed to “stop” the action. Photographers use this phrase to describe the freeze-frame effect fast shutter speeds create. Ideally, you’ll want a shutter speed around 1/400 of a second or faster, but in dark situations 1/250 can work.
In other situations, experimenting with slow shutter speeds can fun. Try dropping your shutter speeds to 1/30 or 1/15 and pan with the action. Whichever approach you use, you need to be conscious of your shutter speed. In these fast action scenes, choosing the wrong shutter speed can easily ruin a shot.
Pre-Focus When Possible
In some sports, you know where the action is going to happen, you just don’t know when. In games like baseball, cricket, volleyball and track, you know that the action is going to take place at certain base or wicket, or at the net or finish line. Set your focus to that point and wait.
Forgive me if action doesn’t take place at the wicket, I’m an American and know about as much about cricket as I know about abstract physics equations. What you call futbol or football, I call soccer. Forgive my Yankee ignorance.
Back to pre-focusing. When you know where the action will happen, ambush it. Instead of trying to track your subject, wait for it to enter your pre-determined plane of focus. Sometimes switching your camera to manual focus or using focus lock helps with this.
As I mentioned earlier, you need to be able to predict what the players of your sport are going to do. Anticipating what will happen is another extremely important aspect to sports photography. Keep your eye to the camera and follow the action.
When you think something is about to happen, mash that shutter button. Having a fast “continuous” setting on your camera is nice advantage in these situations.
Once the action has stopped, don’t immediately check your camera to see if you got the shot. Keep following the action. You’ll miss something if you’re always checking the back of your camera.
Traditional sports shooters working for magazines and newspapers are always looking to capture peak action. This is the moment that shows the most conflict and/or athleticism.
It’s the moment of the game-changing slide tackle. It’s the slide into home barely beating a throw from the outfield. It’s the moment the sprinter glances to his left to see the face of person he’s about to beat.
Those are the moment all sports shooters want to capture. Sometimes they involve the context of the game or the season or event the career of the player, but they just as often capture a fleeting second of fierce competition.
Capture the Conflict
It has been said that games of sport and physical ability were created to replace war between tribes: a chance to prove prowess and strength without the risk of death. You can still witness intense loyalty and even national pride when it comes to sports.
Sport and war are very different, but one similarity remains. Conflict. In a photo, this usually means physical contact between athletes. A single player running down the field can be compelling, but not nearly as dramatic as two players colliding and battling for the ball.
Feature the Face
If sports weren’t intense, we wouldn’t watch them. Team sports especially allow the players to express anger and joy without penalty. This is why it’s especially important to show the faces of these players. If we can’t see their face, we can’t tell what the players are feeling.
Making that emotional connection between viewer and subject is your job in every kind of photography. When shooting sports, the task of showing a clear face can be harder than it sounds. Athletes are often looking at a ball or wearing helmets. Fields, stadiums and courts are not lit like a theater stage, so often that is also working against you. But I think you’ll find that a photo with a face is often far more powerful that one without.
Find the Ball
So there are three things I look for in most sports photos. First, I look for conflict or contact. Second, I look for a face. Third, I need to know what sport I’m looking at. I need to know what these people are fighting over. That means, you need to show the ball.
Now, there are a lot of sports like track, gymnastics and other individual sports where this principle may not apply. In these sports, you’re goal is to capture the grace of the sport or the physical skill or strength required to compete in it. But if the sport has a ball, try to include the ball in your shot.
Tight Is Right
The phrase “tight is right” is commonplace in sports photography. Tight refers to framing or cropping. When shooting a game, zoom right in on the action. This also takes quite a bit of practice. You have to move quickly with the action, and be aware of the entire game.
Don’t get tunnel visioned with your telephoto lens. Literally, keep both eyes open, so you can tell where the action is going. Look up and over your camera quickly when you lose track of where the action is happening. When you take your photos into post-production on the computer, use your cropping tools to further apply this concept. Crop in tight as well.
I mentioned earlier that sports are emotional, so sometimes it’s important to capture that by itself. When the final buzzer or bell sounds, don’t put your camera down. Shoot the happy or sad reactions of the athletes.
The end of the game is also usually the only time photographers can be on the field. Get out there and join the team. Get in close with a wide angle lens if you can. This becomes even more dramatic when the game or match is an important one.
In many high school and amateur indoor venues, you’ll find that the lighting is horrible. In some cases, the best way to overcome this is to use a flash. The most important thing to remember is that the flash cannot be on your camera for most sports. The bright light flashed into the eyes of athletes is distracting and dangerous.
When using flash in these venues, you’ll either need a wireless system like those offered by Pocket Wizard or Cactus, or you’ll need to link your camera to your flash with a long cord.
Before I invested in wireless, I used a modified extension cord that you’d find in any hardware store. Once your flash is far enough away from the court, the athletes and referees won’t even notice it.
But it can dramatically improve your photos. Keep in mind, you cannot use your “continuous” shooting setting unless your flash recycles very quickly.
Some Position Tips For Specific Sports
There are thousands of different sports across the world, and I’ve only experienced a handful of them. For each of these sports, there are common places where photographers post up to shoot. Knowing these positions can give you a good starting place when shooting sports. In the comments, feel free to add some more common positions in other sports that I don’t list here.
Baseball: Position yourself by first base or third base, so you can just see second base. Use the sun’s position to choose between first and third. You want the sun to your back in order to get those faces illuminated properly.
Basketball: Avoid shooting from the sides of the court and instead position yourself under the basket just to the left or right of the center, if you prefer using a shorter lens. If you prefer using longer, more telephoto, lenses, position yourself in a corner of the court.
Football (American): You’ll need to progress down the field with the line of scrimmage, so you’ll be moving. Position yourself 10 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage. Once the line of scrimmage has reached the 20-30 yard line. Reposition yourself behind the endzone in case of a touchdown.
Soccer (Football): If you have a very, very long lens (400mm or above), position yourself at the endline directly to the left or right of the goal. If you’re shooting with a shorter lens, stand on the sideline halfway between the endline and halfway line in the center of the field. Reposition yourself on different sides of the field occasionally throughout the game. Similarly to baseball, keep the sun to your back.