Being a great sports photographer takes a tremendous commitment, countless hours of hard work, and an intangible quality which isn’t readily identifiable and probably something you can’t learn.
Sorry about that, but don’t fret because all is not lost. There are plenty of things you can learn which will help you be a good, or even excellent sports photographer. Its still going to take some hard work, but it’s plenty doable.
First, a little perspective...
About ten (maybe fifteen) years ago, Peter Read Miller, one of the best sports shooters from the past thirty years, was talking about the autofocus capabilities of the new generation of cameras. He mentioned that he was excited to see what photographers, now that they were more likely to get images in focus, would produce in the upcoming football season. I was excited too. At the time, making a decent sports image required preparation, foresight, catlike reflexes, command of ones gear, a good deal of luck and an almost inhuman ability to consistently focus large pieces of glass (with a minimal amount of depth of field) on extremely fast moving targets. So the idea one would have an easier time with the focusing part was quite appealing.
And with that, a generation of photographers raised without autofocus headed out to sporting venues around the world with high hopes, but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.
Instead of taking sports photography to a higher level, it was the playing field itself that was leveled. It became easy to make a usable picture, or worse, the image that duplicated tomorrow’s sports page headlines, but the great images, which aren’t necessary useful or have much “news” value, started to disappear.
Before autofocus it wasn’t a lack of desire or want that determined a photographer’s success. It was more a question of “can”. As in, “I know this play is happening right in front of me, I wonder if I can make this picture.” I think what happened is photographers stopped being amazed, or maybe they become less respectful of sports and the happy accidents which needed to happen to capture a great sports image. They started shooting to not miss anything, instead of shooting to capture something that would otherwise have gone unseen.
The wow factor was removed from the equation. Instead of pushing the new technological limits of the equipment, which has always been at the forefront of sports photography, we settled for covering our bases. We (as a profession) stopped aiming for the spectacular. We stopped taking risks and in doing so stopped reaping the rewards.
Which is a recipe for mediocrity regardless of what you’re shooting.
Which leads me to my first recommendation.
Be excited about what you’re doing.
Your camera gives you an excuse to be closer to the action than anyone else who’s not on the field of play. You’ve got the best seats in the house. The athletes are performing right in front of you. Be thankful and count your blessings.
Study the masters.
Neil Leifer’s work will never be duplicated, if for no other reason than the world has changed. Coaches and spectators may no longer dress like Mad Men extras, but Madison Avenue’s influence is seen everywhere else. Leifer’s overhead shot of a victorious Muhammad Ali is a classic because it’s a great moment seen in an extraordinary (well thought out) way. Now imagine if Ali was raising his hands over a Budweiser branded boxing ring instead of the plain white canvas of the day. It might have made a great advertisement, but it would have ended as that. Going back in time is the only way to compete with Leifer, but you can certainly learn from him and apply his wisdom to today.
You should study the work of Walter Iooss. In my mind, he was the first photographer to acknowledge sports as entertainment. He makes images that are visually pleasing, yet still manages to capture key moments like “The Catch”.
Earlier pioneers George Silk and John Zimmerman should be studied too. Leifer and Iooss didn’t reach their respective peaks without standing on the shoulders of these fellows.
Know your camera(s).
I understand. User manuals are difficult to read and only make sense if you already know how to do what you’re trying to figure out. I don’t get them either so I just ask the youngest person in the room for help with these new fangled gizmos. They usually chuckle, take pity on the pathetic old guy and help me to get the things running right. If your not old enough to play that particular sympathy card learn how to fake a limp.
When setting up your camera, the most important thing to do is separate your shutter release from the autofocus. These are two different functions that don’t have much to do with each other.
Know how to hold a camera.
Your right hand goes where it goes, with one finger on the shutter release and your thumb on the focusing button the young person helped you program. The other fingers on this hand should know how to change your focusing spot.
Try to keep your left hand under the lens of the camera. Palm up with your fingers resting lightly on the manual focus ring (but not so firm as to disengage the autofocus). Its almost like you’re carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres. This creates a platform to help stabilize your camera. It also allows you to quickly override the autofocus (if you like) plus it teaches you a valuable secondary job skill.
(Being away from the pack allowed me to capture a different view of Bolt as he crossed the finish line <the photo above this one>. Then when he came around the track I was able to catch this moment with a different camera. I love it when a plan comes together.)
Carry more than one body.
Changing lens is a drag, plus it’s slow and allows dust to fall on your sensor. Two cameras is enough. I prefer to carry three. The one with the long lens will be supported by a monopod and balanced in my left hand. I’ll have a short or normal lens on the camera around by neck and a medium telephoto on my right shoulder. This is heavy load. You’ll feel it at the end of the day, but no pain, no gain.
You’ll need an assistant for anything more than three cameras and you’ll probably find yourself holding the wrong camera most of the time, but the choice is yours. I think the old rule of thumb is, “Cameras are like martinis, six is enough but you’ll need someone to drive you home.” Then again, maybe this doesn’t have anything to do with cameras and is just something to help sports photographers get through those extra innings.
Don’t neglect your 50 or 35. The long stuff is nice, but the short glass is what separates the varsity from the scout team.
There’s no chimping in baseball, football, rugby, badminton, or any other sports. Except maybe soccer, but then there’s usually not much happening out on the pitch anyway (hey at least I acknowledged it as a sport). The person sitting next to you doesn’t want to see your latest masterpiece that you’ve just captured three seconds ago. They’ll look, to be polite, but the reflection on your screen keeps them from actually seeing the frame anyway. The truth is, when you’re chimping you’re not shooting. Nor or you paying attention to what’s happening on the field. Only use your screen to check your histogram like it’s meant for. Save the ogling for later on the privacy of your own laptop.
Film was never cheap, but it was a lot cheaper than missing a great shot. Modern cameras shoot ten frames a second for a reason. I’m not saying to just spray and pray. That approach will guarantee you come back with nothing, but when something is happening lay down on that button and squeeze off a healthy burst. It sounds good. It’s good for you and if the ghost of Bear Bryant is smiling down on you, you might just make a frame. Oh, you should be shooting in RAW by the way, so mindful of the buffer.
Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013
Shoot at every level.
Sports is sports. The quality of athletes might get better as you get into the college and pro levels, but access declines and there are other road blocks, usually wearing snappy yellow jackets, that are thrown into your path. There are sporting events happening everyday, regardless of where you live. Pay a couple of dollars to get through the gate, and then use the magically powers that comes with carrying two or more professional looking cameras, and make your way to the sideline. A fringe benefit of events like this is you won’t need a parking pass and nobody will ask you to wear a silly looking bib.
Seriously, I’ve shot nine Olympics and I can tell you shooting a grade schooler’s baseball game brings me the same amount of professional satisfaction. Actually, that’s not true at all. Still, you can find much joy in photographing the younglings and it will greatly help you polish your craft. Honest.
Speaking of levels, bend your knees. Really, that little change of altitude can make a huge difference in your final image.
Use the light.
Having looked at a ton of sports photography over the years, you probably already have a good idea where you’re expected to place yourself at any given event. Try to forget all that. If you really feel the need to make that perfect image of a shortstop turning a double play, set up on the first base side, get it done and move along. It’s only going to happen ten or fifteen times each and every game. Spend a few innings getting it out of your system. Shoot it tight. Shoot it loose. Shot it at 1/15 of a second. When you get tired of that start paying attention to the light and what’s happening elsewhere. The first base side might not be the best place to be. Find the light and then choose your spot.
(This was shot at 1/30th of a second, but you get the idea.)
Just because every other photographer is sitting in the same place doesn’t mean they’re right. Take a chance. Find your own angle and work it. If nothing else, you’ll have something different than the rest of the pack.
(Northwestern's Ryan Field with flowers.)
Choose your background.
Some stadiums have notoriously bad backgrounds. Others like Northwestern’s Ryan Field are a pure joy to shoot in (they’ve got flowers and everything). Be mindful of this. Find a background that doesn’t distract from your subject matter. Better yet find one that adds something to your images. Shooting with a 600/4 throws anything not in focus completely out of focus, but that doesn’t mean a concrete barrier catching the sun full on isn’t going to overpower your shot.
Once again, bending your knees might help to clean up your background. Also, keep a look out for elevated places you can work from without bothering the fans.
(The photographer working next to me shot this moment from about the top of their heads to just below their hips and won a World Press award, so I could be wrong about the whole shooting tight thing.)
Fill the frame.
You can get plenty of mileage out of cropping an image that was shot with too little glass, but this practice leads to bad habits. You can mess with a cropped file and make it look good on screen, but that doesn’t mean it will look good on paper (I suppose this might become harder to do, as screen resolution continues to increase). I think you’re better off creating good habits by practicing proper technique. The ability to make a small piece of your image look good has lead to an overall weakening of sports photography. If the person sitting next to you is using a 300, slip on a 1.4x or go with a 600. Your misses will certainly increase, but your hits will be that much better.
(I was looking at this light and saw the couple kiss, but missed the moment. I watched them through the lens until they kissed again. Creepy I know.)
The thing with sports is if it happens once, there’s a good chance it will happen again. You don’t need to be an expert at the sport you’re shooting, but you do need to pay attention to what’s happening out there. Learn to recognize patterns, not just in how the game is played, but in the little habits that certain players will repeat.
(If you tried to shoot this close with an iPhone, you'd probably get arrested. I'm just saying.)
Try not to shoot anything that can be easily duplicated by a fan sitting behind you with an iPhone. If you’ve managed to get into a prime shooting position, take advantage of it. Otherwise find yourself a seat, dig into a $6 hotdog and enjoy the game. You won’t go home with a neat image, but you’ll probably have more fun. Yeah, the problem with shooting a sporting event is you have to put fandom aside. It’s fun and all, but it is also work. Save the cheerleading for when you’re at home watching Sports Center.
Most sports include a fair amount of people and/or objects moving at a high rate of speed. Keep your head on a swivel and keep your gear hanging off one of your extremities. You don’t want to get flattened and you don’t want an athlete tripping over the gear you’ve left on the ground. This holds true for practices and warm-ups. I have a friend who was almost killed by a baseball to the head when he wasn’t even near the field of play. Be careful.
I hope this (longer than I thought it would be) list gives you a nudge in the right direction. I’m not a great sports photographer, but I have my moments. The good part about these tips is they (pretty much) apply to all kinds of photography.
I have a book available where I tried to follow much of my own advice.
(Five star reviews are always appreciated!)