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The Best Way To Learn Sports Photography

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Read Time: 10 min

Whether you're a sports fan or not, it's hard to deny the huge popularity of sports in modern culture. In today's tutorial, instead of giving you tips about directly shooting sports, we're focusing on giving you tips on learning how to shoot it. We hope you enjoy this new approach.

Sport has a significant influence on thousands of lives, from professional athletes at the heart of the action to the fans who dedicate their lives to following their favorite teams. Those fans will argue that the entertainment value and drama rival any Hollywood blockbuster, which is why the media strives to cover every second of action on and off the field of play, with websites, newspapers and magazines requiring up-to-the-minute photo coverage of the latest action.

Through each of these steps, I'll aim to give you some insight, resources or a synopsis of what you're likely to find in the world of sports photography. This should enable you to start learning those valuable skills and begin building your way to capturing some breathtaking sporting moments.

Step 1 - Study Great Sports Photography

If you have an interest in sports photography, I'll assume that you enjoy watching with sports and therefore may well be already engaging with sports coverage in the media. If you want to start producing your own coverage, you'll need to study the images in a different way.

Try and get hold of a book of great sports photography, such as the Reuters network "Sports in the 21st Century." Take time to observe the pictures that they have selected. Think about what information you can gather from each shot, who's involved, where is the event being held and what was the outcome?

Most importantly, try to visualize how each shot was made. Can you guess what lens was used? Can you guess if the photographer was sitting or standing. A great sports shot should capture the story of the whole event in one frame, it will be able to tell you all you need to know about what happened and who made it happen. It is also made up of parts, lens, angle, shutter speed, ect…

I'd also encourage you to visit mainstream media sites that have sports coverage. That could be ESPN or an official site such as or the NY Times for up to date shots, and again, really take time to study the shots used.

Photo by Gordon Flood

Step 2 - Research Telephoto Lenses

If you want to capture the best of the action, you'll most often need to get up close. The two best ways to ensure that are by finding yourself a good vantage point that is close to the action and equipping yourself with the right equipment. A long telephoto lens in the range of 200mm to 400mm will be an invaluable tool to give you the best chance to capturing great sports shots. Unfortunately there are dozens of lenses that fall in this category.

If you're passion is a daytime sport f/stop won't be the most important thing. A f/5.6 zoom lens might work fine. If you're a big high school football fan, then light is the biggest challenge. You'll want to aim for f/stop. If you like baseball, you might be able to get away with using a manual focus lens allowing you to extend your focal length for the same cost.

Remember that lenses will outlast your camera. Many people will buy one set of lenses and use them for decade. By reading a lot of online reviews and browsing a wide selection of brand name and third-party lenses, you'll find the right fit for you and your preferred sport.

Step 3 - Learn to cope with shutter lag

Unfortunately, for cameras at the low to middle end of the scale, we're not quite at a point where a camera's shutter will open instantly when the shutter button is pressed. This is known as shutter lag and if you want to take great sports shots, you'll need to learn how to deal with it.

Shutter lag isn't an issue if you are shooting still life or landscapes, but as soon as you attempt to shoot any movement or action, you are going to find yourself struggling to capture the moments that you are watching through the viewfinder.

Sports is all about timing. None more so than tennis. If you go to a tennis match and try to capture the moment the ball is hitting the racquet. The rhythm and sounds associated with tennis will really help you get to know your camera. Being able to look at your camera's screen will tell you if you're pressing early or late. Once you start nailing shots, you'll timing will be set for other sports as well

Photo by Daryl Sim

Step 4 - Understand your equipment

In the world of sports photography, you won't have time to be fiddling with settings and buttons. If you're looking at your camera, you're not watching the action! This means you need to comprehensively understand your camera and lens set before you even think about heading to the nearest sports field. Work with your camera so that you get to a point where you can change exposure settings with out a second thought and without looking at your fingers.

Similarly, being able to switch autofocus points in a split second will be invaluable, so ensure you understand the variation between the autofocus nodes so that when you need to utilize them, you'll be able to without any fiddling! Try practicing in darkroom or while watching TV. Start on once setting, then set a goal to change the exposure and focus point a couple units. Do it without looking at the camera, then check to see if you got it right.

Photo by Goulao

Step 5 - Learn to control motion blur

Within most sports, the action is fast and furious, which makes life difficult for us photographers, as there's not much we can do with a blurry photo. It's up to us to be prepared to freeze the action at whatever speed it occurs. There are two main ways to do this. First, you can make sure you shutter speed is fast enough by keeping your other settings adjusted appropriately. Secondly, you can embrace the blur and keep you subject sharp by panning.

Motorsport is a great place to practice this. It's repetitive and very fast. Panning involves the photographer holding the camera ready to shoot and moving in tandem with the object, and depressing the shutter button during the fluid movement of tracking the object. Simply head to a local race track or even just walk out to a busy street. Find a good vantage point and try following the cars movement as you shoot.

Photo by Julien Reboulet

Step 6 - Know the rules of the game

When you begin shooting, you'll give yourself a significantly better chance of success if you are working with a sport that you know and understand. Appreciating the basic rules, tactics, movements and workings of a sport will allow you to predict where the action will happen.

You'll be far more equipped to anticipate the action and pre-empt the flow of each play. As you grow comfortable shooting a sport that you know, try moving on to a sport that you are less acquainted with, ensuring that you take time to learn all the rules before you head out. If you are at college or professional game, talk to the other photographers to see what they think is going to happen.

Photo by Leijonat

Step 7 - Find and practice with your "burst" or "continuous" shooting mode

I've mentioned previously the speed at which you'll need to work in order to capture the action. Burst mode is our little secret cheat mode which will help us capture the action as it unfolds. Find out how to set burst mode on your camera and practice using it on moving objects. Pets and kids are ideal subject matter. Remember though, that you'll need to a very large memory card to accommodate the vast amount of shots that you'll be taking using burst mode through a whole game.

Photo by Kevin H.

Step 8 - Learn to scout for good locations and angles

As you follow the game, you'll find yourself drawn to particular players or points of action, but it is essential that you don't fall into the rut of only focusing on certain aspects of the game. As you know, games can be won or lost in pivotal split second moments and it's up to you to aware and ready to capture it. It's also easy to begin capturing moments in the same way over and over and get sucked into watching the game as a spectator.

Try studying photographic composition with sports photography in mind to help you approach subjects with a fresh compositional perspective. Consider the rule of thirds, using negative space, shooting at ground level and using the depth and layers on offer. Head over to POYI (Pictures of the Year International), a global photography contest. Look at the winners of their sports categories to get inspiration for your approach to the game.

Photo by Steve Parkinson

Step 9 - Learn autofocus modes and techniques

You camera probably has a variety of autofocus modes. The two main ones are usually labeled "Single Servo" and "Continuous Servo." Single servo focuses and then locks. It often prevents you from shooting when things are out of focus. Continuous servo allows the camera to track and change focus. This is much more advantageous for sports.

Canon, Nikon and many other camera manufacturers and created even more sophisticated focusing modes. So be sure to read your manual and learn about what your camera can do. Many sports photographers also designate a button on the back of their camera as the autofocus button and turn the half-depress shutter button function off. This is also an option you can explore. Search "rear button focus" on Google to find more information.

Photo by FamilyMWR

Step 10 - Start small

So now it's time to head out and give it a try for yourself. Maybe find a college or high school game (bearing in mind that you may have to ask permission) to cover. These venues offer a place where you can get close to the action without getting in anyone's way and practice the basics without too much pressure. Pick a sport that's accessible, something you understand and have an interest in to help you get to grips with the speed that you'll have to work at. Remember to put the whole event in context, as with any photo assignment, you need a variety of shots, some to establish the scene and put everything in context, detail shots, shots of the main game players and the shots of the action itself.

Once you've edited your images down. Get in contact with other photographers, either at a local paper or even on web sites like Flickr or Sportshooter. Once you get some feedback, you'll be able to start improving. Once you feel you're good enough, contact blogs, fan sites and even the universities or high schools to see if they might be interested in have you shoot for them. You may not get paid right away, but you can credentials for bigger and bigger sporting events.

Photo by Shawn Clover


Developing quick camera skills and even faster reaction times is important in sports photography, but in all forms of photography, creative vision is the most essential element. Once you get the manipulations down, you can begin to look at your images from a different angle. This creative vision is what sets average sport photographers apart from the legendary ones. All it takes is practice.

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