Sports photographers love telephoto lenses because they let you get close up views of your subject without having to be physically close to them. While they certainly make taking great sports photos easier, they’re not essential.

Here’s how to take sports photos without a telephoto lens.

Be Realistic

While taking sports photos with a normal or even wide angle lens is possible, you have to be realistic. You’re not going to be able to shoot a live football game without a telephoto lens; that, however, doesn’t mean you can’t shoot football photos.

Without a telephoto lens, you won’t be able to stand 100 meters away and shoot bursts of photos as players crash into each other on the pitch, hoping to get a good one. You’ll need to plan your shots more carefully, either through a well-chosen position or by working with the people you’re shooting.

Pick Sports Where You Can Get Close

There are lots of sports where you don’t have to stand on the sidelines to shoot a live game. I mainly shoot skiers with a wide angle lens because I can get super close to the action as they do their thing on the jumps and rails in the park.

There are lots of other sports where you can get really close to the athletes. Golf, boxing, fencing, cycling, running, to name but a few—especially at the amateur level—are all easily shootable up close with a wide angle lens. In fact, by getting super close, you’re probably going to come away with more interesting images than someone who follows the default advice and stands off with a long lens.

Finding subjects is also really easy. If you don’t know someone doing the sport you want to do, reach out to people. Instagram is a great place to start. You could also talk to your local amateur boxing club and ask about being able to capture images from ringside at their next event. They’ll almost certainly let you, especially if you agree to let them use the images you take to promote their club.

If You Can’t Get Close Live, Stage Your Shots

There’s a difference between “sports photography” and “shooting photos of sports.” Most people who shoot sports do both; they’ll shoot live games but also when there’s a specific photo they want, they’ll stage the shot. Look at the NFL promo image below. It’s an awesome football photo, but it certainly wasn’t shot live. I’ve never seen a jungle on a football field.

I’m working with skiing examples because that’s what I normally shoot, but if you’re looking to build your football or hockey or whatever portfolio, you can do the same.

For this photo, we set up a small kicker off the roof of a building. It was dark, and the snow was falling so I had a flash on my camera. My friend stood to my left holding a synced flash, and another friend stood under the kicker with a synced flash. We also attached a small flare to the skier’s skis.

Nothing about this image wasn’t thought about or considered beforehand.

Here’s another more extreme example.

This photo is six combined images all with the same guy in them. He’s doing everything in the pictures (except the squat, I used Photoshop to make it look like he was lifting more there). This is definitely a sports photo, but it couldn’t be more staged.

Here’s another from the same shoot.

This kind of looks like a gym ad or something but again, it’s got a huge amount of what we’d associate with a sports photo—an athlete, gritting their teeth, struggling to do something impressive—while being an entirely staged shot.

Tips and Tricks

Aside from getting close to the action or staging your photo, most of the other advice in our article on sports photography holds true, but here are some specific tips and tricks for non-telephoto sports photography.

  • Remember, wide angle lenses bring distortion. You can use the skewed perspective to create dramatic shots, like the image above.
  • Be aware of your background. Since you’re closer, you won’t be able to use a wide aperture to blur the background out completely.
  • Think about capturing your subjects in motion. We’ve looked at how to capture moving subjects in detail before so check it out. Just because you’re close, doesn’t mean you can’t show speed.
  • Communication is key. The worst thing about shooting live sports is you can only react to what’s happening on the field or in the ring. When you’re up close to individual sports or staging shots, you can talk to the athletes and tell them what you want.
Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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