Some of the most iconic images in the world are sports photos: Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, Usain Bolt celebrating his world record breaking sprint in the Olympics, Joe DiMaggio batting against the Washington Senators in 1941…whether you know these images by my descriptions or not, you’ve almost certainly seen them.
There’s something about sports images that makes them stick out. So, let’s look at how to take our own great sports photos.
I mainly shoot winter sports and the odd bit of rugby and MMA, so those are the photos I’ll be using as examples in this article. However, most of the principles are pretty general, so you can apply them to whatever sport you want.
What Makes a Good Sports Photo
Sports are emotional. People are standing in a field (or court, or ring) giving everything they’ve got in front of a crowd, whether it’s ten people or ten million people. There is nothing subtle and restrained going on—it’s raw. And your sports photos need to show that.
A technically perfect photo of someone throwing a football is boring. You want to see the calculation in the quarterback, the determination and power in the linebacker bearing down on him, the skill and effort the players have put in over the years, and the tension in the whole scene.
A good sports photo should make you feel like you’re there. You should look at an image and almost be able to hear the crowd cheering, to feel the pain of the losing team, and so on. It should capture what it is like to stand their and watch things happen in real time.
It should get to the heart of the particular sport. If it’s a technical discipline like gymnastics, every line should be smooth and muscle tense; the subject should look poised. If it’s something more brutal like weightlifting, you want to see the sweat run down the lifter’s face, the ridiculous expression they make when they exert themselves, and so on. For motor sports, you want to show the speed of everything; for snooker or chess, it’s all about the deliberate concentration. Think what is at the heart of the sport you’re shooting, and try to capture that.
The Technical Details
Technically, sports shooting is quite simple. You normally need a fast shutter speed and…well, that’s about it. Things like depth of field and digital noise are secondary concerns.
The easiest way to get a fast shutter speed is to use aperture priority mode. Before the game starts, take a few test shots to dial in your settings. Depending on the sport, you’ll need a minimum shutter speed somewhere between 1/100th of a second and 1/1000th of a second. The faster the sport, the faster the shutter speed you need. Use whatever aperture and ISO combination will let you get the speeds you need.
Especially if you’re shooting indoors, this could mean pushing the ISO higher than you would like. The image below was shot at a wrestling competition. There’s a lot of digital noise because, to keep my shutter speed high enough in the low light, I had to have my ISO up above 6400.
The other two things that matter are autofocus and shooting speed. When you’re shooting sports, things happen quickly and change fast. Your camera needs to be ready for that. Set your autofocus to Continuous and the shooting speed to the highest burst mode your camera has. This way, when you point your camera and push the shutter button, it will start shooting as many photos as it can straight away while adjusting the focus to track whatever is happening.
Other Tips and Tricks
When you’re photographing sports, always keep shooting. You never really know when something dramatic or interesting is going to happen. What looks like an average play could suddenly, with one linebreak, turn into the game winning one. A boxer could land that knockout punch at any moment. Keep your camera out, your finger on the shutter button and be ready to snap a burst of photos at any instant. 95% of the photos might be duds, but the few good ones will more than make up for it.
We’re huge fans of uncompressed RAW images, but unless you’re a professional, it can make sense to use JPEG when you’re shooting sports. During an 80 minute rugby game, I’ll shoot thousands of photos. If each of these is 40 MB, that’s a ridiculous amount of storage space. When you’re doing it professionally, you need the extra flexibility, but most amateurs don’t need to buy a new hard drive ever month just to store sports photos.
Sports photographers generally use long lenses so they can get a better view of the action. If you’re at one end of a football field and something is happening all the way down the other end, your 18-55mm kit lens won’t be that much use. If you can buy, rent or borrow a telephoto lens, it will make things easier, but don’t let that stop you. You can always follow things by running up and down the side of the pitch, or pick a position that will have good action and wait.
While zooming in close is good, make sure to show what’s happening. A close up of a players face at a crucial moment can be interesting, but people need to look at your images and know what’s going on. Make sure to include the ball, other players, and other parts of the action in your photos, even when you’re only focusing on one player. In the photo below, it’s pretty clear exactly what’s happening.
With most sports, you’ve got no control over what happens. The players go out, do their thing, and you just try to capture it. For some sports, like skiing, you actually will sometimes have a say. I can work with the subject, tell them what to do, position myself, and make them do things again. If you have a small amount of control, use it. It will make it easier to get awesome photos.
There’s more to sports than the on-field action: there’s also the culture and the crowd. Take photos of the players and athletes before and after the game, turn your camera around and take photos of the fans. Just because it’s not a photo of someone throwing a ball, it doesn’t mean it’s not a great sports photo. Use your skills with portraits or street photography to document things.
Finally, one of the best ways to get better at sports photography is to look at great sports photos and get inspired. Look at the moments that are being captured, how the players are positioned in the frame, and so on. Just having a flick through the sports section of your local paper or favorite news website every few days, can really keep you thinking.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting an NFL game or your kid playing football on a Saturday, it’s all sports photography and the same guidelines apply. As always, take what you need from this article, feel free to break every rule, and enjoy.