This post is the last in a three-part series dedicated to teaching sports photography at all levels of competency. In part one I covered the basics for photographers who are just getting started. Part two was geared towards intermediate amateurs who have mastered the basics and want to gain additional competency to bring their images to the next level. This part is for advanced amateurs looking to enhance their existing skills and create professional-looking images.
Table of Contents
A well-composed sports image will quickly attract the viewer’s attention and hold it. Filling the frame with powerful subjects is the goal. The guidelines for composing a sports image are simple: create a balanced picture free of distractions that tells a story. Let us go through those one by one.
The easiest way to achieve balance is to put your subject in the center of the frame. Some photographers will balk at this assertion because they have been taught to rely on compositional tricks, such as the rule of thirds. Sports photography is distinct from other genres, like landscape or architecture, because the subjects we capture tend to be singular. With few points of interest we look to fill the frame from the center outwards. To be clear, the subject(s) should fill the frame, not just occupy a small area in the center.
Sports images should capture the viewer’s attention immediately, and keep it. Maintaining attention means eliminating distracting elements, such as bright spots in the background or a mishmash of subjects. An easy way to remove distractions is to blur the background using a long, fast lens. But, do not stop there. Fast telephoto lenses only downplay distractions. One must rely on their shooting position to keep distracting elements out of the frame. Fences, porter potties, and cars are examples of distracting elements. Try low and high shooting positions to see what works best.
1.3) Telling a Story
Balanced and distraction-free images may sound boring, and that is because without an interesting subject they would be. The key is to frame a scene, whether it be one player or many, where action is taking place in a meaningful way. Here is a bad and a good example of story telling:
Bad: A pile of football players attempting to gain control of the ball. Chances are that there will be no clear subject, making the image uninteresting.
Good: Two soccer players with visible, emotional faces vying for control of the ball.
One of the easiest ways to make your pictures stand out against the crowd is to do some quick and easy touch-ups in an image editor. I do not advocate for Photoshop-style image manipulation, but some cropping and lighting adjustments can do wonders. Here is my recommended process:
- Make a selection of your best images from the event. I will shoot about 1000 images and choose no more than 50 to send to an organization/client.
- Crop and straighten your images. A straight horizon and some cropping will do wonders for your composition.
- Adjust brightness and white balance, if needed. Most images can benefit from boosting shadows, dimming highlights, and making colors look natural.
- Add a touch of sharpness. Most digital cameras have an anti-aliasing filter that prevents moire patterns, but slightly reduces sharpness. Make your subjects look crisp.
In the first two parts of this series I attempted to downplay the importance of good gear in sports photography because I feel that most photographers would be better served by improving their skills than buying fancy cameras. However, there comes a point when gear, not skills, holds you back from accomplishing your goals.
3.1) Camera Bodies
Full-frame: If you are not already in possession of a full-frame body, it is time to get one. The simple fact is that a full-frame sensor has over two times the surface area as an APS-C sensor, leading to about twice the image quality. This is especially important for indoor sports where light-gathering ability is at a premium.
Frame rate: I am not a big advocate of the “spray and pray” methodology for capturing sports images. Good timing is more important than your camera’s frame rate. However, if you can capture more frames in a burst you are more likely to get a keeper image. Consider bodies capable of six or more frames per second. If you can get above ten, that is wonderful.
Physical size: Professional/flagship camera bodies (Nikon D5, Canon 1D X) are much larger than your typical camera. They feature a vertical grip, enhanced weather sealing, huge battery life, and other features not seen on most other cameras. Large bodies with built-in vertical grips make handling large lenses (200mm f/2.8 and larger) easier than when using a small body. For example, I can hand-hold my D4s and 300mm f/2.8 for extended periods. It is more difficult to do that with the much smaller camera bodies that do not balance well with large lenses.
Multiple bodies: Switching out lenses is not only time-consuming, it puts your gear at risk of collecting dust and dirt internally. I recommend using two bodies at any event where you expect to be creating images with subjects close by and far away. For example, during basketball games I will put a 70-200mm f/2.8 on one body and a 24-70mm f/2.8 on the other. The ability to switch between two cameras opens up many possibilities.
Wide and normal: A 24-70mm f/2.8 lens works well for sports that compete in relatively small venues. Swimming and basketball are two examples of sports where photographers can get close to the athletes and make use of wide and normal focal lengths. I have used my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G to shoot team huddles, swimming turns, basketball action close to the baseline, and venues/fans on the sidelines.
Telephoto: If you do not already have a good 70-200mm f/2.8, then you need to get one. Not only does this lens work well for most sports, it is a great general-purpose telephoto. This focal length is appropriate for just about any sport where action does not take place too far from the sidelines, like baseball. For a bit of extra reach you can add a 1.4x teleconverter to get an effective 100-280mm f/4. Another option for photographers working in extremely low light environments is a prime telephoto, like an 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, or 200mm. These primes offer a larger maximum aperture than a zoom at the cost of being less versatile. Be careful because huge apertures reduce depth of field which makes fast focusing a challenge.
Super-telephoto: Even though you can get pretty good results when limited to 200mm, I would advise serious amateurs to consider a super-telephoto lens to improve their ability to get tight shots of subjects from long distances. I chose to buy a Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II plus 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters. Having a light-weight 420mm f/4 and 600mm f/5.6 with good image quality made it possible for me to get some really tight baseball shots this spring. If you primarily shoot field sports, then you might consider a 400mm f/2.8. The downside to this lens is its huge cost and weight. Photographers that work mostly in daylight might enjoy the versatility of a zoom, like Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6 or Canon’s 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6.
Sports photographers should be prepared to deal with any weather conditions, from freezing rain to blazing sun. Here are some accessories you might consider using:
Hat: I wear a Tilley hat to most outdoor events to protect myself from sun and rain.
Gloves: A warm pair of gloves is critical for cold environments.
Plastic covers: Most professional camera gear is resistant to moisture, but do not take this for granted. Get a few cheap plastic covers to save you the headache of a waterlogged lens when shooting in the rain.
Folding stool: I do not have one of these, but I often wish I did. Sitting on the ground for long periods of time can get uncomfortable.
Monopod: If you are using a heavy lens, then you need a monopod to save your muscles. You can get a good carbon fiber monopod for less than $200, and aluminum for under $100.
ExpoDisc: If you commonly shoot in tough indoor lighting, a custom white balance tool can be helpful.
4) Finding Events
If you do not have children that participate in sporting events, then you may be wondering how to get involved with a team. For most of us, sports photography is a hobby and not a full-time job. The best way for hobbyists to find events is to make connections in their community. Friends involved with athletic teams and fellow photographers are great assets. Through these connections you can find opportunities to shoot.
If you are new to an area or are otherwise scarce on connections, then consider reaching out to high schools and colleges in your area. Many of these organizations will welcome you to their athletics events in exchange for free photographs. Ideally, you should be able to show a basic portfolio when you make contact with the organization. Explain who you are and why you are interested in shooting for them.
Note: Some professional photographers dislike the practice of others giving away images free of charge. From my experience, most photographers at college and high school events are amateurs. Major league sports tend to have very few amateurs, and this is where professional shooters should focus their attention.
5) Event Format
It is best to get to athletic events early in order to sign in and/or get your credential and get settled before the action starts. Say hello to your contact on the team, and ask what locations you may shoot from in order to avoid issues when the action starts. Be respectful of the athletes, coaches, officials, staff, and fans. Your job is to capture the action, not to become part of it. After the event, if you are shooting for an organization, then getting your photos sent or uploaded in a timely manner is important.
6) Closing Words
I hope that you have enjoyed the final addition to my three-part series about sports photography. My goal in writing these articles is to provide helpful information to sports photographers at all ability levels. Sports photography is so much fun; getting close to the action and capturing iconic moments can be more rewarding than just watching the game. If you have questions or feedback I would welcome them in the comments section below.
I know that your collection of sports pics is nice but you left out one major event, motorsports. In doing so, you missed advising interested photographers, how to take pics of cars in acttion. There are two classic “money shots”. These are shooting pics while cars (etc) are in a turn. In this case shutter speed is not very important. The other money shot is made with cars on the straight. Action ranges from 60 mph to 150 mph depending on track and type of event (class of cars). Making a money shot for cars on the straight requires a shutter speed of 1/30th or so. The trick is learning how to pan. (This applies to animals in motion also) You stand and move the camera to keep the car framed. Press the shutter when it is directly in front of you AND keep the camera in motion. This gives you a sharp focused car and a nicely blurred background. I call this “shooting at speed”.
I certainly enjoyed reading your informative and well written articles. Thanks for taking the time and sharing your knowledge.
Thanks for the series, Matt.
I think efforts like this from people like you really start the next generation going, overcoming their initial fear of “coming out” (if I may so call it :) ).
I have one extra on accessories. Everybody must find their own preferences here. Mine is one of these diagonal camera straps (Black Rapid, Sun Sniper, whatever). It allows you to run around all day with a 70-200 on your body without any problems. Having your hands free to drink coffee with someone and never forget your cam when suddenly walking away in a hurry. Costs a bit of money, but I will never go back.
Thank you! I’ve seen many photographers use the straps you’re talking about. Definitely a good idea.
I try to check with game officials before contests as some are more strict than others. Talking with refs usually gives me more leeway in movement around the field or gym.
Absolutely a good idea, Scott. A good relationship with the officials can make or break your experience.
Thanks for this series on sports photography! Very useful and informative indeed!
I would add a few comments if you do not mind.
This is really important. First of all, if one body fails, you have a back-up. But no less important is to have a combo of 1 body + super telephoto AND 2nd body + 70-200mm lens on it. It enables you to switch between cameras quickly when subject comes to you quickly.
One important consideration here – in a perfect world, you will need the same camera bodies, as nothing is more annoying than having different button layouts or frame rate on the second body. I have missed a lot of shots with D500 being my first body (10 fps) and D750 my second (6 fps).
Get a rain cover for yourself and your equipment. Clients do not care if it was raining or snowing. They need pics after the event. So, do not save on extra protection of yourself and your camera/lens
Also, have an extra of everything you can afford. Extra battery, extra memory cards, extra card readers… I know it sums up to $$$ but once you start making money, they will pay off.
Having a well thought, consistent workflow is important from the very beginning you get into sports photography. After a year of shooting sports, you will easily have up too 100k pictures, which you need to back-up, store and find later when you need them. This involves proper naming, tagging, keywording and organizing in folders the way it works for you. Make sure it is consistent and time-resistant.
just $0.02 from me
Good tips, Levan. You definitely have the mindset of a professional. I agree that equipment redundancy is important in case anything goes wrong. Thanks for the comment, and good luck out there!
Thank you for your great advices!
Here in Finland is it very difficult to enter a sports arena as a amateur photographer. The best places are usually occupied by photographers that have shoot sports for decades. So I usually contact a sport society that is in the competition to be allowed to represent them. In exchange, they get the 10 best photos for free.
Even with slow cameras you can shoot attractive pictures. I have been a active sportsman in basketball, swimming, icehockey, riding, sailing and football, so it’s easy to foretell the next moment in the game for a perfect shot.
The best cameras for sports photography has been (for me) Sony A99 M2 and Pentax 645Z: dismason.org/2017/…ntax-645z/
Greetings from Finland
Thanks for the comment, Dismason. Cool basketball photos!
Thank you Matt, great article and photos! Having two bodies, like seen above: A D4S and a D810. Am I assuming correctly that the long lens is normally on the D4 and the short (like 24-70mm) on the D800? I’d choose this combination because the D800 with its 36MP allows cropping while the D4 with its 16MP (or in case of the D5 20MP) and the long lens fills the frame with the subject anyway?
Some photographers carry three bodies. Is there really an advantage?
Hi Jan. I usually keep my main lens on the D4s and any secondary lenses on the D810. This is mostly because the D4s is a dedicated sports camera. In most cases my main lens is a telephoto.
I’ve seen photographers use a third body with a remote trigger near the goal/basket. I haven’t tried this, but I’ve seen some cool shots this way. Carrying three cameras on your person would be challenging.
Go Bears! Great shots at various venues at Cal! Have you encountered any issues bringing in your camera & lenses into Haas Pavilion (or any other facility, such as Memorial Stadium, at Cal?) A couple of years ago for a women’s volleyball match in Haas Pavilion I was not allowed to bring my camera in because the lens was longer than 6″. And now, if I recall correctly, the sign on the outside of the building indicates that no professional cameras are allowed (which I assume to mean cameras with interchangeable lenses). Any insight on how one can bring in camera equipment into these type of facilities?
Hi Michael. I work directly with the Cal athletics dept, so I go in through the media entrance. These days most big venues have restrictions on bags, cameras, food, and all sorts of other things. I’ve seen spectators bring fairly large cameras before, but I think they got special permission before the event.
enough is enough!!!! I am still getting your stupid emails, 3 a day!!!!! I UNSUBSCRIBED!
Do you place much importance on Vibration Reduction (VR or Image Stabilization) for your 24-70 and 70-200 lenses? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? Did you buy the new 24-70 2.8 VR to get the VR?
Hi Anthony. Typically VR is useful for preventing image blur at low shutter speeds. Since sports photography generally necessitates high shutter speeds I don’t think VR is too important. Where I find it most useful is for steadying the viewfinder when composing a shot with a long lens. I have not upgraded to Nikon’s new 24-70 with VR.