Thinking Ahead

Thinking Ahead

You should not walk into a sporting event and hope you are going to get something great. It is true that, on occasion, you can get exceptionally lucky, and the perfect photo will fall into your lap. But this is not usually the case. Without a doubt, luck does play a part in sports photography, but have you ever noticed that the same photographers seem to get lucky repeatedly?

This is because they know the best places to increase their chances of “the shot” happening in front of them. The rest of the time they are constantly thinking of the best way to capture the image they want. A lot of this comes from experience, but doing research and thinking about the images you want to capture beforehand helps immensely. In other words, go into each shoot with a plan for what you want to capture.

This photo of a Nebraska wrestler was shot at a regular season bout when he was competing against UNC Chapel Hill’s defending National Champion. Once it was clear Nebraska was going to come out on top, I knew there was going to be a great reaction. Even if you hadn’t known ahead of time, you could feel it in the arena’s atmosphere as the two were wrestling.

Nikon Z 6II | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm | 1/1000 | f2.8 | ISO 3200
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D500 | 400mm f/2.8 x 1.5 DX @ 600mm | 1/1500 | f4 | ISO 6400

The next photo was shot at the 2021 College World Series and requires a bit of setup to understand the situation I was in. Vanderbilt had just scored to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on third (#34). Due to COVID-19 precautions, all photographers not associated with the NCAA or teams had been moved to the concourse level, which meant we were continuously being blocked by spectators celebrating when their team scored. At this point, I needed to figure out my plan of action. I only had a few minutes between plays to think about how to get the best photo possible, regardless the outcome of the next play. Feeling that Vanderbilt might win since they had been on a roll the whole ninth inning, I positioned myself over a Stanford fan, making the most of our poor shooting position.

The next play, Stanford’s pitcher threw a wild pitch out of the catcher’s reach. This allowed #34 to steal home and win the game. His reaction was over in a split second, and my next frame is partly obscured by fans. The few seconds difference between Vanderbilt fans jumping up to celebrate and the Stanford fans getting up to leave was the only reason I was able to get this photo.

When shooting, constantly be aware of the light surrounding you and how that light will affect the images you make. Often you will find a sliver of light, or a beautiful sunset, and wish there was something worth photographing in the frame. This is where patience comes into play. Frame up your photograph before anything happens in it. Then wait until someone runs through the light you have found. Nine out of ten times this will not happen. But on that tenth try, you will create a beautiful image.

The image to the right is a prime example of finding light and waiting for the action to come to it. I noticed this strip of light slowly moving up the field and into the stadium as the sun set. I framed up the photo when the line of scrimmage got to about the 30-yard line. At that point, I knew I’d have one shot at making the photo before halftime. So I waited, hoping they would run the ball into the far side of the end zone. That day my preparation paid off, rewarding me with a unique touchdown photo.

Nikon D4 | 70-200mm f/2.8 + 1.4 TC @ 280mm | 1/1500 | f/4 | ISO 280
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star
Nikon D4 | 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 34mm | 1/2000 | f/2.8 | ISO 100
Shot for the Lincoln Journal Star

It is important to pay attention to each individual athlete on the field. Often, they will each have a unique way of playing their sport. Here, I noticed during my first game while covering the University of Nebraska-Lincoln soccer team that #37 preformed flip throw-ins. On top of that, she only did them when the Huskers were close to the opposing team’s goal. In that first game, all her throw-ins took place on the opposite side of the field, but I did not give up after the game.

It took a few games before it happened on the side of the field I was allowed to shoot from. Since she was a defender, when they called her up to do the throw-in, she needed to run half the length of the field. This gave me a few seconds to position myself in a way that allowed me to compose the photo before she arrived.

As you can see from the few examples I discussed here, it is very important to think about how you are shooting, instead of simply “spraying and praying.”

Challenge: 

Go to a game and don't take any pictures for the first period or half - just observe the players and take notes. Do they do anything differently from their teammates? Celebrate in a specific direction or way when they score? Do they move their body in a unique way when playing? Are they more expressive and/or emotional than their teammates? 

After halftime, keep these notes in mind when you take pictures. Try to capture images of the observations you made while watching the game.

The more you photograph a team, the easier this will become. You will notice something one day and be able to take the photo the next game.
Nikon D4s | 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 90mm | 1/1500 | f/2.8 | ISO 4500
Shot for RIT SportsZone