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14 Ways to Shoot Better Sports

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

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.


Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013


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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013


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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

(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.


Don’t chimp.

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.


Shoot, lots.

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.


Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013 

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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

(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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

(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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

(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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

(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.)


Pay attention.

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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013

(If you tried to shoot this close with an iPhone, you'd probably get arrested. I'm just saying.)


Be Different.

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.

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press Images © 2013 

Be mobile.

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.


You can find it here on Amazon.


And here on iTunes.


(Five star reviews are always appreciated!)

Let's Be Professional About This


There’s a big difference between a professional plying their trade and an amateur. In this image I see evidence of two people (in particular) reacting to an unexpected attack, an atrocity, in a professional manner.

The first is the officer on the left, who unlike your average celluloid action star, has her finger in the proper position and not on the trigger of her weapon. The second, is photographer John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe who captured THE moment in a straightforward manner without any photo-gizmo trickery.

The image is a testament to experience and proper training (on both sides of the lens). It also puts the lie to the idea that social media, inexperienced witnesses and camera phones are a suitable replacement for a PFJ.

There’s a video of this moment as well. It was either made by an amateur or the absolute worst camera operator on the planet. The video fails on most levels. but most strikingly when it pans away from the scene so perfectly captured by Tlumacki and instead tilts skyward at smoke and broken windows. The video shows us little of what’s happening at street level (although one can catch a glimpse of Tlumacki helping to move some barricades). In doing so, the camera operator robbed the viewer, history and criminal investigators of a clear picture of what happened seconds after the blast.

(From a photojournalist’s perspective, it also robbed us of another example of how video of an iconic moment usually fails to have the same impact on the viewer as the still image, but that’s hardly important at this point.)

Some have criticized Sports Illustrated’s treatment of the image. Saying the pop-out figures gives it a comic book feel, but that rings hollow with me. In fact, I think it’s quite effective. Heroes (comic book or otherwise) are normal people who are thrust into extraordinary situations and react in heroic ways. In other words, cops aren’t any more super than anyone else, until they are.

That said, I salute the editors of S.I. for publishing this amazing image as well as they did. Perhaps it was because their tight deadline prevented them from talking themselves out of it. I don’t know. I don't care. They got it done, and that’s what counts.

With that, I'd like to make a quick comment about the first episode of a new reality show called “The Moment”, hosted by Superbowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner. Unlike the moment captured by Tlumacki, this show is scripted, exploitative (of both their subjects and audience), unbelievable, predictable and total removed from reality. Which explains why on TV it’s called a reality show. Its gimmick, err, premise, is that it gives people a second chance to live their dream.

In the first episode, Warner gives working mom Tracie Marcum a second chance at being a Sports Illustrated photographer. We're never told when she got her first chance, or why a gainfully employed person would throw away a perfectly good job.

Marcum seems nice enough. She’s obviously deeply loved by her family, a decent bunch, and is ready and willing to work, but a sports photographer she is not. The show puts her through a two week “boot camp” where photographer Lou Jones, also a decent sort and veteran of fourteen Olympic games, attempts to turn her into a sports photographer. The prize is a job at Sports Illustrated.

The show puts Marcum through a bunch of silly exercises designed to turn her into a sports shooting machine. The cruelest of which is when they send her to a skeet range to photograph clay pigeons exploding as they’re shot. I say cruel, because SPOILER ALERT Marcum’s mother committed suicide with a gun, so the sound of gun shots freaks the poor woman out. Yeah, no manipulation here. The producers of the show didn’t put Marcum through this for some canned drama, the “exploding clay pigeon test” is one every sports photographer has to pass.

Okay, so it’s all in good fun. We all know nothing sells soap like a working mom’s tears.

As a viewer, I expected Marcum would earn herself a day rate or two for her trouble. Maybe shoot a golf tournament or something for the magazine. That’s when things got weird.

At the end of the show, Marcum heads to New York to meet with the director of photography and a highly acclaimed Sports Illustrated photographer who will look at her work and decide whether she’s earned herself a “position” at the magazine or not.

As Keanu would say, “Whoa.” Position? I thought we were talking “job”, not position.

To make matters stranger not to mention ironic, since the episode was shot, both the DOP, and the staff photographer (who judged her work) are no longer with the magazine (along with several other GREAT photographers).

Sure enough, SPOILER ALERT, Marcum wins a position at the magazine. On one hand, I have to say, “good for you girl," but on the other I’m wearing my “I can’t believe what I just saw” face (and yes, I usually wear that face on my hand).

As this episode was being shot, the magazine’s hierarchy, the same people that knew they were going to fire a bunch of people whose talents the magazine was built on, thought it was a good idea to send the message to America that anyone, given a two week training course, could be a Sports Illustrated photographer.

Is that what you want your subscribers to think? There’s nothing special here, nothing to see, move along. That given a chance (first or second) by Kurt Warner you too could be a Sports Illustrated photographer.

George Plimpton notwithstanding, can you think of a professional sports franchise that would attempt to sell season tickets with this premise?

Whether it’s our sports or the people shooting them, paying customers want the best. They don’t want to see their overweight neighbor playing for the Miami Heat. They want to see LeBron. Just like they don’t want to sit through a three hour slideshow of their neighbor’s eco-holiday, unless they happen to live next door to Sebastiao Salgado.

I know I’ve said this in a slightly roundabout way, but professionalism is important. Not only in important matters, like national security, police officers and other first responders, but also when it comes to the our press.

As a photographer, a journalist, and a consumer of news, I’m tired of the mediocre spirit that has infected our publications today.

We don’t need another overly clever youngster, running around in tiny jeans, thinking the story is about them while attempting to make self-relevant snaps with their iPhone. Can’t you just picture it? A blood stained sidewalk, maybe a tattered piece of red, white and blue bunting, a cross processing filter...

What we need is some old school PFJ’s that know how to capture a moment in a way that is relevant and insightful, but also true. Yeah, I said it. Images can be true. Regardless of what your goateed, sports coat with faux leather patches on the elbows wearing, college professor told you.

What we want (and by "we" I'm probably only talking about me), what editors should be trying to deliver (and what we got for a brief moment this week) is some photojournalism which harkens back to the Boston Globe of the eighties. This is what we need and anyone who thinks otherwise deserves to have Stan Grossfeld's non-ironic Chuck Taylors shoved right up their arse.