Sports play an enormous role in society and have permeated areas that reach far beyond the athletic arena – from video games and virtual sports to economics and politics.
However, the societal impact of the industry would not be possible without sport itself and it is the role of the media to publicize and bring awareness of athletic endeavors to the public, whether it is at the elite level, grassroots sports or anything in between.
Photographers play a crucial role in this as it is their job to capture the action and effectively tell the story, particularly for those not in attendance. In fact, powerful photography can have a far greater impact than words or videos.
Besides bringing benefits to society, it’s a great career or pastime for those who always wanted to be involved in sports, but did not pursue it as a professional athlete or coach. If you want to turn your passion into profit, becoming a photographer is a much healthier choice than other ways to capitalize on sports. Definitely better than trying to make money by placing bets and losing, or even developing a gambling addiction in the process.
However, sports photography can be tricky, with plenty of aspects to consider in order to snap the perfect shots. All those iconic sports photos throughout history? They were not achieved by accident but by seasoned professionals who understood precisely what it took to capture those moments – from timing and position to equipment and post-production. Below is a guide to help you on your way to becoming a successful sports photographer.
Learn and understand the sport
Before even picking up your camera, it’s important to learn a lot about, and have a good understanding of, the sport you plan to photograph. Knowing which athletes to focus on, which moments to capture, where to position yourself, and how to anticipate the crucial moments is vital to producing effective sports photography.
This can vary greatly from sport to sport. Individual sports, like tennis, for example, require a photographer to capture the match from courtside, take pictures of both players hitting various shots, and prepare to snap the moment of victory and subsequent celebration.
Team sports, like soccer or basketball, present a few more challenges. The center of the action is constantly shifting from one side of the pitch or court to the other, so positioning and anticipation are even more important.
Then there are racing sports, which will see photographers positioned at the finish line to capture the end of the race, while also taking pictures of the horse- or motor-race in action around the track.
Additionally, it is important to be mindful when attending a sports event. If it is a junior game or there is a chance you will take photos of children, seek permission from parents. Also, make sure you are positioned in the correct areas so as not to infringe on the game or get in the way of coaching staff or other people working.
Focus, Face, Action, Equipment
It is a mantra or guideline that every sports photographer lives by in order to take the best shots at a sports event:
Focus: Ensure the image is in sharp focus. Blurry pictures have no place in sports photography.
Face: Capture the athlete’s face and facial expressions and make sure the eyes are in focus. This applies to both action images and celebration shots.
Action: Make sure you film the athlete in action – making a shot, kicking a ball, running around the track, etc. – or in an emotional state – the joy of celebration or heartbreak in defeat.
Equipment: Capture the athlete holding or using a piece of equipment – the soccer player with the ball at his feet, the quarterback holding the ball ready to throw, the cricket batsman playing a shot (this can have both bat and ball in the frame).
Tell a Story
Sport is like an unscripted drama with a start, middle, and end, complete the twists and turns along the way. This is the case for any event – whether a 10-second 100m sprint or a five-day cricket match. It is the photographer’s responsibility to relay that story to their audience.
Shoot the athletes entering the arena, take pictures of the crowd and the venue filling up with supporters, capture the action throughout the contest, shoot the coaches on the sidelines and the athletes after the contest. All of these elements will ensure you can tell the story in full.
Have a focal length of at least 200mm
OK, so now the basics of how to approach sports photography have been covered. Let’s move on to some technical aspects to ensure you capture the perfect shots.
Firstly, you will need a digital SLR camera or a camera that can allow you to set your own shutter speed. Once you have that, you will need a lens of at least 200mm. Depending on which sport you are covering, you may need a greater zoom range based on your vantage point.
Use Fast Shutter Speed
The key to sports photography is being able to capture fast-moving images at speed and to capture unexpected images without hesitation. To achieve this, fast shutter speed is essential. Ensure your camera is capable of a minimum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second – the required speed to freeze movement.
Use Aperture Priority Mode
By setting your camera to aperture priority mode, you are letting the camera determine the shutter speed. Most professional sports photographers use aperture priority, particularly on a brighter day. By setting the aperture priority mode, this ensures that the most amount of light possible is allowed in, which tells the camera that faster shutter speed is required.
As aperture priority mode is only available on digital SLR cameras, you will want to use shutter priority mode on non-SLR cameras. This will allow you to set the shutter speed which in turn allows the camera to determine the aperture mode.
Control the ISO
To set your camera to the right exposure levels based on light levels, there are three factors to consider: aperture and shutter speed – which we discussed above – and ISO settings. The ISO levels need to be set by the photographer themselves and will be determined by such variables as location, time and weather conditions of the sports event.
On a sunny day where there is lots of natural light, it is recommended to set your ISO at between 100-200. On a cloudy day, evening, or night shoot where there are less natural light and sunshine, set the ISO at between 800-1200.
However, this could vary depending on the aperture settings. For aperture settings of f3.5, the ISO may need to be set at 3200 or higher at night, but if you are using an aperture of f1.4, this could be set at around 800. Take time to experiment with the various settings and learn what works best for your equipment and surroundings.
Use fast auto-focus and burst mode
As mentioned a few times already, capturing plenty of shots at great speed is paramount to successful sports photography. To make this possible, make sure the auto-focus and burst options on your camera are switched on.
You will have the option to select how many frames per second your camera can capture. Whatever the limit on your camera, set it to the maximum.
Take Lots of Photos
The great advantage of our digital age is the ability to take hundreds, or even thousands, of photos and subsequently delete or save the images after the event. Once you have your subject in the frame and you are capturing a moment, go wild and take as many photos as possible. It is always better to take too many photos and delete than not take enough and lack good photos. Quantity will equal quality in sports photography.
Once you have captured your many shots from the sports event and it’s time to save the best and discard the rest, spend some time doing some post-processing. While it is certainly not recommended to go full Photoshop on your photos and start manipulating the images, a bit of cropping and some light adjustments to make your photos pop are worthwhile endeavors.