With digital cameras and long glass being relatively accessible, sports photography has become something the everyday photographer can do. To stand out in the field, you need to produce photos that are different. This means you will want to push yourself – and your gear – to the limits.
Everybody sees the same thing when they look at the world, whether they are a photographer or not. But as Mr. Sherlock Holmes points out in A Scandal in Bohemia, seeing is different from observing. It is our job as photographers to document observations using the photographic tools at our disposal.
To begin creating your own style of work, start photographing the world as you observe it. This will become the basis of how you individualize yourself as a photographer. Show the viewer what they might not have seen while watching the sporting event.
Below are a few techniques to try that can help elevate your work and give your portfolio visual variety. I highly recommend you master these techniques on your own time prior to implementing them into a professional workflow. This lets you to have stress-free trial and error, without the pressure of missing something.
Light is one of the most essential tools in photography. When shooting sports, it can be easy to forget to pay attention to it. Take time to observe the quality of light, the color, how it shapes the subject, where the light doesn’t fall, the subject’s placement within the light, and how it interacts with the surrounding environment.
Turn light into an element that works with the rest of the photograph to make it more visually interesting. Once you make these observations, use your camera to sculpt the image through your settings, lens choice, and shooting position.
Great light can be found both indoors and outdoors. Inside, you often must rely on spotlights for more dramatic images, but outside presents more possibilities. When shooting outdoors, you can have hard light, soft light, shadows, and everything in-between all in one game. The most beloved light for photographers is golden hour light, found just after sunrise and before sunset, because the sun is lower in the sky causing rays of light to have a less harsh angle and the light has a redder quality to it.
This rodeo photo is a good example of light being used to the advantage of the image. In the frame, the golden hour light falling on the lasso makes it pop off the brown background. The type of light also gives the image a certain mood, making us feel as if the cowboy is riding off into the sunset. Change the time of day, or add a cloudy sky, and this photo becomes a generic photo of a cowboy using a lasso.
Change Your Angle
Something that will help distinguish you from the masses of sports photographers is your willingness to move around and capture different angles of the same scene. Putting in the effort to lie on the ground or go to an elevated position will demonstrate your willingness to go the extra mile to create a more interesting and unique image.
Changing your angle will do wonders for your images. As you can see in the image on the left, due to my low angle, the runners look taller and more powerful. The background is also much cleaner with the blue sky. If I had been standing or sitting, the fence and trees would have been much higher in the frame, near the athletes’ waists, making it much more distracting.
I don’t recommend you lie on the ground all the time, or even at every sport. At football, you’re likely to get run over if a play comes your way. Kneel if possible and buy some knee pads, trust me on this – you’ll want them.
Your best bet for taking photos from a high angle is to try getting where the video crew is, or to the highest point in the general seating areas. Often in high school, lower leagues, or college, there will be an elevated platform where they set up the video cameras. This could be part of the media workroom or the press box roof. Try to get up there and shoot down with a long lens.
Very rarely will you be allowed to walk around in the catwalk (if the arena even has one) during competition like I did for this swimming photo. Usually, if you can even get into the catwalk, it will be well before the game, and you will only be allowed to set up a static remote camera. Remotes (especially overhead ones) require a lot of special knowledge, equipment, and tedious set-up, so I only recommend them if you really know what you are doing.
In the words of Robert Capa, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This is important for sports photographers to think about. As I discuss on the cropping page, you want your photographs to have the most impact on the viewer. By getting in close with a wider lens, the players’ emotions become more prominent in the frame. The viewer feels as if they are there with the athletes.
This technique is especially important when shooting trophy and celebration photographs. For example, if I had shot this football state championship celebration from the sidelines, instead of running onto the field, chances are low that I would have been able to see many expressions. The faces are what make the photograph interesting, and since there were a lot of people standing between the sidelines and the athletes, I would not have been able to get this photo without getting closer.
Consider taking some time to hang out near the bench or in the dugout (if you have access) with a wide-angle lens. When their team scores, the players will celebrate, creating a perfect situation to get nice, close, wide-angle shots.
Getting close is not reserved for celebration shots. I frequently shoot action with wide-angle lenses. This lets the viewer see the game from a place they cannot be. Like with celebration shots, the use of the wide-angle draws the viewer into the photo more.
This will be easier to do at low level competitions because the higher the level of competition, the more restrictions there are on where you can shoot from. You also must be very careful not to be somewhere that will injure an athlete or yourself. With a sport like swimming, the pool creates a natural boundary, but you should always keep one eye on the field.
Panning is a technique that has become less unique for sports photographers. However, I still believe it is an incredibly important skill to have because it will inevitably give you a more creative image than shooting at 1/1000 of a second. A general rule of thumb is to get something in the photo tack sharp. This acts as an anchor for the image and will give your eye something to lock onto. Usually this is an athlete’s face, like in this soccer photo. Panning does take practice, but here is a good way to learn.
Challenge: Go to a track or cross country meet exclusively to shoot panning images. Start with your shutter speed at 1/125 and use a lens around 200mm. Find a place where the runners will be running parallel to you and fill most of the frame. Stay in the same place for the whole series of photos you shoot following these guidelines: Start at 1/125 and shoot until you get a photo where a face is sharp. Then bump down the shutter speed a stop to 1/60 and shoot until you get a sharp face. Drop it another stop to 1/30 and repeat until you get to around 1/2 a second. It will get exponentially harder with each stop slower you go, but this is how you will learn. By about 1/4 you may not be getting anything tack sharp, but try your best.
Once you get the hang of panning, start thinking about how you can incorporate it into other sports. How can you make a panning photo of something other than just a runner?
A specialty of mine has become wide-angle pans. These are harder than a typical panning image because the subject is changing size relative to the camera at a much faster rate than they do with a longer focal length. This is why I recommended you start with a lens around 200mm.
Scene Setters & Details
When covering every game, I try to get four different types of shots: wide, medium, tight, and detail. Medium/tight shots typically make up most of the photos since on-field action images fall into those categories. The wide and details photographs are still extremely important to capture, since they provide visual variety and help tell the overall story of the game.
When capturing wide shots, please do not just take a photo of the field with a wide-angle lens. Incorporate an interesting element from the event into the composition. This could be a player or fan in the foreground of a nice sunset or skyline. The more interesting you make it, the more it will complement the rest of your coverage.
Detail images can be a little trickier to observe and capture. They can require longer glass, but it is not required. I have shot detail images with my 24-70mm. When you initially go out looking for details, start by trying to capture the thing that makes each player unique. Maybe they have long colorful nails, cool hair, or make a funny expression while competing. Once you start getting the hang of how to capture details, start observing details at all events you cover.
To get in the habit of observing details, find them in your daily routine outside of sports photography. Take in all the visual information you can. Let your eyes bounce around and focus on different elements of the scene you are looking at, especially when it involves other people. You might observe the color of someone’s eyes, an earring, a tattoo, or a unique article of clothing. Get in the habit of doing this all the time so when covering a game, you notice details others might miss.
Challenge: Pick a sport you know well and take your longest and widest lenses only. If it's a zoom, use gaff tape to lock it so you can't zoom. Go to the extreme ends of your range. For example, take a 16mm & 600mm or 24mm & 400mm. Start with the wide and capture a scene setting image that is visually interesting. This will also require that you move your feet and get close to the subjects (but don't go anywhere you're not supposed to!). For details, find something that makes each individual player unique. Is it how they throw a pitch? Colorful hair? A sixth finger? Once you find the detail you want to photograph, try to make the photo visually interesting.
Beyond the Obvious
Young sports photographers can get stuck thinking their photographs aren’t good because they are not covering professional sports. While it can be true that professional games can have more intense action and better lighting, they also have a lot more photographers capturing the same moments.
Look past the big four (basketball, baseball, football, hockey) and find the local sports and backyard events. As well as allowing you to capture more unique images nobody else will have in their portfolio, they will be much easier to get into. Another great part of covering these small-town games and events is that the organizers and participants will usually be happy to have someone there taking photographs. This can result in them giving you unrestricted access to the event.
Facebook Events is one of the best places to find local and backyard events. Organizations will post an event to see how many people are interested in attending. This allows you to message the organizer to confirm you can take photographs or get credentials. A few examples of off-the-wall events I have found on Facebook are arm wrestling, bikini barrel racing, bikini snowmobiling, Father’s Day Dad Bod Olympics, MicroMania Midget Wrestling, and mud volleyball, to name a few.
Another advantage of Facebook is that individuals post events for local leagues of more traditional sports. I frequently see posts for weekly pickup or club softball, beach volleyball, and flag football. These are great places to start learning the basics of sports photography.