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Photography

Beginner's Guide to Sports Photography

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Sports Photography.
Stretching Your Creative Comfort Zone: Sports Photography
8 Tips for Taking Sports Photos Like a Pro

In this tutorial you will learn the basics of shooting professional sport images - whether at your local high school or a professional sports stadium. Sports photography can be one of the hardest forms of photography to master, but with time, patience and practice you will be creating professional looking images every time. This tutorial goes though equipment basics, composition, what to expect at the game, and post processing images.

Equipment

Although you don’t need "top of the line" gear, having professional or semi-professional equipment will make your life a lot easier. Here are a couple of things you should consider when choosing equipment:

1) A camera that has a continuous focus servo motor. The continuous focus servo will allow the camera to constantly focus on, and re-adjust focus on, a subject as they move closer and farther away from you without having to constantly half press the shutter release button. This is very good to use for any sport where the players are moving continually (i.e. football, soccer, lacrosse, etc)

2) A camera that has a continuous shutter motor. The continuous shutter motor allows the camera to take multiple photos (or frames) per second as long as the shutter button is depressed. Typical consumer cameras will be able to take three frames per second in continuous mode, whereas professional cameras will be able to take 8 frames per second or more. The ability to take multiple frames per second is crucial in capturing the climax in the action.

3) Although this isn’t necessary, a lens with a constant aperture (i.e. 80-200 f/2.8), as opposed to a lens with a variable aperture (IE 70-300 f/4.5-5.6), will also make shooting sports much easier. This is because you will have more consistency in the images because the aperture wont be changing as you zoom in and out. During daytime games the ability to have a constant aperture is not as crucial as it is during night time games or indoor games.

For any sport I shoot I always take at least one camera body and a long zoom lens (i.e. 80-200 f/2.8 or 70-300 f4.5-5.6 lens). This range will give you good distance to shoot across most fields and is wide enough to capture action when it is up close. For larger sporting events I will also carry a second camera with a long prime (non-zoom).

Composition

One of the "number one" things that separates amateur sports photography from professional sports photography is the ability to properly compose an image.

Vantage Point

When composing your image the first thing you want to think about is where you are shooting from. Before you start shooting you should always think to yourself “Am I in a place that will allow me to capture the best possible images?"

For any sport, being able to get on the same level as the players can dramatically improve your images. Shooting from the same level will allow you to capture player’s faces, emotions, and actions better - the absolute key to a great photo.

The shot to the right was taken from the sidelines of a football field. This angle allows viewers to see the ball carrier’s face as well as the defensive players behind him.

sports photography guide

You might not always be able to get onto the same level as the players due to restrictions at the venue, but shooting from above can also yield some very dramatic images.

This shot was taken from the roof of the press box. Although you are above the player, the face is still visible and the shadow provides an interesting aspect to the image.

sports photography guide

Background

The next thing you should consider is your background. Is your background clean, or is it cluttered and distracting? You want to find a background that doesn’t have random cars, people, fences, etc. When you arrive, take the time to walk around and find a spot that will have a clean, clutter free background.

This won't always be possible, and in that case you want to find a background that is the least distracting. Some examples of clean backgrounds include woods, sky, empty fields, or if you are shooting from above the field, the field itself can provide a clean background.

Here the dirt infield provided a good clean background that allows the viewer’s eye to focus on the action happening at the base.

sports photography guide

In this shot, the background is distracting with the bright red umbrella on the right, the person wearing the purple shirt on the left and the gentleman wearing the white shirt directly behind the golfer. The metal fence behind the golfer’s upper body can also be a distraction.

sports photography guide

Complex backgrounds can also add interest to an image, but you want to make sure your viewers are not too distracted by it. In this image the background is filled with people in the stand but because they are out of focus the viewers will not be distracted from the pitcher kneeling on the mound.

sports photography guide

Horizon

Another point you want to keep in mind is your horizons. You want your horizon to be level as possible. This might have to be corrected during your post processing. You don’t want to have shots of a player with a horizon that is not level or it might look like they are sliding out of the image.

sports photography guide

Preparation

For a sports photographer, the game always starts before anyone steps on the field. Before you leave your house make sure you have everything you will need so you don’t have any surprises. Always make sure your camera and lenses are working properly, the batteries are charged, and you have a fresh memory card. When I shoot I always make sure I have the following equipment with me at the very minimum:

  1. Camera body
  2. Lens
  3. Extra memory cards
  4. Extra batteries
  5. Rain gear (if there is even a slight chance of rain)
  6. Notebook
  7. Pens
  8. Business cards
  9. Bag to put it all in

For bigger games or games indoors I also carry the following equipment:

  1. Second camera body
  2. Second lens
  3. Speed lights (and everything to hook them up)

When You Get There

When you arrive at the game, it's always a good idea to find someone in charge, introduce yourself and ask what their rules are concerning photographers. Every venue has different rules surrounding who can be on the field, where on the field you can be, and what you are allowed and not allowed to do. In many cases the saying “It's better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission" may get you in trouble and possibly kicked out and/or banned from a venue. Once you know the rules, take the time to pick your spot (keeping in mind you want to be in a position that has the cleanest background and will maximize your view of the action on the field). Also, use this time to take test shots to make sure your exposure, white balance and other settings are correct. This will save valuable time once the game starts.

Settings

What settings you use to shoot sports is going to vary widely from sport to sport and from venue to venue. No matter what sport or where you are shooting, you always want to freeze the action. I rarely shoot slower than 1/320th of a second shutter speed. This is because any slower without the assistance of external flashes will most likely lead to motion blur.

Here is a list of settings I generally start with for different locations. Just remember that these are only suggestions, and you should experiment to see what works for you.

Daytime, outside, sunny - 200 ISO, 1/2000, f4

Daytime outside, overcast - 400 ISO, 1/1600, f4

Night time, outside, stadium lights - 1600 ISO, 1/320, f2.8

Inside, no external speed lights - 1600 ISO, 1/400, f2.8

Inside, external speed lights - 400 ISO, 1/250, f4

If any of these settings are too bright for a situation, I always try to decrease the ISO as low as I can before increasing the shutter speed. If these settings are too dark, I always try to decrease the shutter speed before I increase the ISO. That said, don’t be afraid to push your ISO. Yes, the image may be noisy but it's better to have a slightly noisy image than to have a noiseless image that is underexposed. If you have to shoot at a high ISO setting, you can always run the image through noise reduction software.

When the Game Starts

Once the game starts you have a limited amount of time to shoot. The time can range anywhere from about 40 minutes for high school basketball to over 2 hours for baseball and professional sports. You want to maximize every minute. Here’s a couple of pointers that will help you maximize your time:

  1. Always follow the ball - Find the player with the ball, lock on using continuous focus, and fire away following the player till the play ends.
  2. Shoot entire series of action - Use continuous mode to shoot multiple frames before during and after the action that way you can choose the best frame.
  3. Anticipate what’s going to happen - Try to anticipate where the ball is going to end up so you know where the action is going to be. If you regularly shoot a particular team, you'll begin to anticipate the team’s tendencies and know where the ball and play is going.
  4. Take a lot of frames - The more frames you take, the higher chance you have of getting “keepers".

Post Processing

Your work in post-processing is very important because the way you process a photo can either make it amazing or completely ruin an image. I prefer to process images in Adobe Lightroom, because everything from selection to correction to saving can be done using one program. If you dont have Lightroom you can use Adobe Bridge and Photoshop to accomplish the same tasks. Here are the steps I use to edit photos from a sporting event in Lightroom.

First, upload the images to computer and open in Lightroom. This view shows the main “library view" of all your images. You can then select and mark (use labels like green, blue, yellow, etc) all the photos you like.

sports photography guide

Open the photo you like and zoom into 100% to check for sharpness.

sports photography guide

Crop the image and level your horizons. Remember when cropping an image you want to avoid cutting off parts of the main subject’s body (arms, feet, legs, top of head, etc). You also want to make sure your viewers can still tell what is happening at that moment.

sports photography guide

Once the image is cropped, adjust the exposure, brightness, white balance, and sharpness to your liking. Remember you don’t want your whites to be blown out or your blacks to be underexposed. The better you get the exposure and white balance in-camera the easier this step is.

sports photography guide

Once the image is how you like it, export or save the image and move onto the next image. Here's our final image:

sports photography guide

Tips and Tricks

Here are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that might help you from time-to-time!

  1. Shoot landscape for action far away and portrait for up close action. Landscape orientation for far away action will help with the cropping and aspect ratio of an image
  2. Shoot as low as possible. Shooting from a low perspective will give a more aggressive look to the images. It will also allow you see under hats and helmets to capture faces which is key.
  3. After a string of action is over, shoot the jersey numbers of the players so you can remember who was involved. This will help in captioning if you can’t see the numbers during the play.
  4. Get outside your comfort zone. Once you get comfortable with the basics don’t be afraid to try different things. Try different angles or shoot from different locations. You want your photos to show viewers things they can't normally see.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Don’t get discouraged if you go out for the first time and your photos don’t turn out great. Figure out what you did wrong, how you can fix it, and get back out there!
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