Sports photography is one of the most exciting, challenging endeavors one can undertake. It involves the creation of images that freeze a split second of action in time without the luxuries that most other photographers enjoy. Sports photographers can’t pose their subject; they can’t re-shoot the image if the exposure or composition isn’t right the first time; nor can they move to a different vantage point for a better perspective once the moment passes.
In order to create a good sports image, three things have to come together for one split second – skill, luck, and the right equipment in hand. Skill and equipment are within our control; luck is not. Fortunately, there are things you can do to have Lady Luck on your side as much as possible, such as having familiarity with the sport you intend to shoot. Knowing the sport makes it easier to anticipate where the peak action will likely take place. With that insight, you are more likely to be in the right place at the right time when a payer leaps to make a catch or dives for a ball.
So where do we begin once you’ve decided to take the leap into sports photography? Let’s start by identifying what makes a sports photograph a great one. Before addressing this topic I want to throw out some overviews. First and foremost, the following is nothing but my personal opinion. Opinions are like elbows - everybody has a couple of them. If you disagree with what I'm about to say, no worries. You're entitled to your opinion as am I. My opinion is based only on my personal experience, nothing more, nothing less.
In addition, the images included in the blog post are images I consider to be some of my better shots. In no way am I elevating them to the category of "great" sports images. They are simply some of the best I've managed to capture with my limited skills and technique.
What Makes A Sports Photograph A Great Sports Photograph?
Good sports photographs tell a story within the four corners of the image. A viewer of the image can tell what is happening at a glance. A great sports image takes it one step further. It takes sports fans into the very heart of the game and captures elements that are not visible to them in the bleachers. Accomplishing this task is your mission and you can do so by following a few general rules of thumb.
- Get the face and the ball in the frame. The eyes are the window to the soul. What sets a great sports image apart from a good sports image is being able to see the face and the eyes of the athlete in the image. An image that captures the back of an athlete’s head may have an artistic use but it will be outdone by the same image depicting the athlete’s face and emotional expression. The icing on the cake is having the ball in the frame – in the glove, in the hands, or in the net. Capture these two elements and you’re golden.
- Shoot as tight as you possibly can. Fans in the stands have a wide angle view of the game. They don’t see the grimace on a player’s face when the bat makes contact with the ball or when going airborne to head the ball into the net. You, and only you, can provide a viewer that intensity by shooting as tight as you can.
- Freeze the action. Blurred or “soft” images are no better than if you had missed the shot altogether. There may be some parts of the image that won’t be perfectly sharp due to depth of field considerations but it’s critical that the key aspects of an image are sharp. That’s typically the face of the athlete, but many times it will extend to the hands and feet, depending on the sport.
Now that you have an idea of what makes an image a great one, let’s identify how to you can maximize the opportunities to get those great shots.
- Shoot from the lowest possible position. Shooting “up” at athletes creates images that have a distinctively superior look than those that are taken at eye level. Kneeling along the sidelines or sitting along the baseline allows you to shoot with this ideal perspective. That’s why you see the good pro sports photographers wearing kneepads or sitting under the basket when they shoot. It’s not because they’re trying to rest weary bones, it’s because shooting from the lowest vantage point yields the best images.
- Position yourself where the play will be, not where it begins. Long before the play begins, put yourself in the best possible location for getting that face and ball in the frame. When I’m shooting a specific team or a specific player, I always position myself downfield so that the plays are coming in my direction. If you’re positioned behind the play, you’re far less likely to get both elements in the image. Another reason to position yourself well ahead of the play is that the players will be coming towards you instead of away from you and thus they will become larger in your frame. The larger they become, the tighter you will be shooting.
- Shoot with the sun at your back. When you arrive at a venue, always ascertain where the sun will be during the course of the game. Once you determine this, position yourself so that the sun will be at your back. When shooting with the sun at your back, the players and the field will be lit much better than if you shoot into the sun. When shooting into the sun, players will be backlit which will only serve to create an exposure nightmare for you. If you set your exposure for the available light, the players will likely be underexposed; conversely, if you expose for the players faces, the background behind them will be overexposed. Neither of these scenarios makes for good images.
- Use the right equipment. Let’s say you don’t have any ambitions to shoot for Sports Illustrated or aren’t looking to join the photo staff of your local NFL or NBA team, at least not today. You simply want to get some really good shots of your kids playing on their youth soccer team, or maybe you want to start making some extra cash by taking photos during local Little League games and selling them to the parents. Can you do this without breaking the bank?
You betcha. So long as your expectations are reasonable and you stay within your equipment’s limitations, you can shoot sports on a reasonable budget, especially if you limit yourself to sporting events that take place outdoors during the daytime. In the next segment, we'll take a look at equipment.