Suiting Up for Great Sports Photography
During my three decades of photography experience, I have covered all sorts of sports assignments in different parts of the world, from Stanley Cups and Super Bowls, to World Championships and numerous Summer and Winter Olympic Games.
From world records in track and field, unbelievable golf performances, exciting Formula One Grand Prix and devastating downhill ski crashes, I have seen through my viewfinder the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
So just what does it take to make a great sports image? Here are some essential tips to becoming a sports photographer.
1) KNOW YOUR SPORT
This is probably the most important tip I could give a photographer covering a sports event. Knowing the sport is just as important whether you’re covering your kid’s baseball game or a Major League game. You have to understand how a sport is played if you are to position yourself to capture a great sport image. If you’re not very familiar with a particular sport, ask a coach to give you some tips on where to stand and what to watch for.
During the first rodeo I ever covered in 1979, I hadn’t a clue as to what was going to happen. I went over and asked an old cowboy to give me the ABC’s of what to look for at a rodeo. He took my schedule of events and circled three bucking broncos and three riders to watch for and even told me in detail what to watch for with each bronco and rider. I followed his advice closely and became the newspaper’s rodeo specialist based on the photos I submitted to the photo editor that day.
2) KNOW THE PLAYERS
Just as important as knowing your sport is knowing the players. If an athlete is particularly strong in a position or event, you need to know that so that you can position yourself to capture a great image.
In team field sports, this is particularly important. Take soccer for instance. If a right winger is a strong player and is of interest to you, your chances of getting a great action shot of him or her vastly improve if you position yourself on the defending team’s goaltender’s left side, to see the right winger on the attack. Simply by choosing this position you have increased your chances of a great shot by 75%.
3) KNOW THE RULES FOR PHOTOGRAPHY
All sports have a set of rules for participants and the same goes for photographers covering sports. From your kids’ sporting events to the Olympics, there are rules for photographers. If you are unsure of these ask the referee or another photographer where you can photograph from and if you can use certain kinds of equipment, like tripods or flash, for instance.
4) HAVE A PLAN
Armed with knowing your sport, knowing the players, and the rules for photography, you can now come up with a plan to cover that game or event. I will usually write down a shot list for my coverage of the event so I don’t miss a key element, player, or photo of the game. Every aspect of the event is important to look at and will yield different kinds of pictures. Here is an example of the key elements I consider when creating a shot list:
* Player warm-ups—a great time to get some clean shots of the players with headgear off
* Teams entering the field of play and their adrenaline rush
* The National Anthem and the sometimes-dramatic lighting
* On-field action—listen to sports radio to get an overview of the game as it progresses
* Weather shots—for example, when it rains or in cold weather, you can sometimes capture steam coming off the players
* The coaches and benches, if you have access to them—they can make for some great shots
* Behind the main play, as sometimes good photographs can be captured there
* The crowd—watch for crazed fans and celebrities attending the game
* End of game—prepare for these photos and position yourself to get the victorious team or players’ jubilation or the look of dejection on the defeated team or player
* An overview of the field of play, possibly with fans in the foreground
5) CHOOSE YOUR EQUIPMENT
Don’t take all your photo gear to the game: only what you plan to use for each of your shots. Trying to carry all your gear around while covering a sporting event will only wear you out, and like a professional athlete, you need to be at the top of your game if you are to capture truly great sports images.
Make sure you have enough spare batteries and memory cards to cover the game. And make sure you format all your memory cards before the game starts. There is nothing worse than sticking in an unformatted 64GB memory card, only to find after a few minutes of shooting that you get a “memory card full” warning because you had used it to photograph your brother’s wedding and you only had 4GB of free memory space when you loaded the card into your camera.
6) DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Observe all aspects of the sport and the venue when you arrive, and prepare the best you can for the unexpected photo when it presents itself. If you have the opportunity, watch and make notes at team and athlete practices. This will give you a great insight on what routine or move an athlete may attempt during competition. Talk to coaches and trainers about their athletes and plans for an event.
When I started covering the 100-meter dash at international competition level I spent hours talking to the coaches of the 100-meter dash stars to learn more about their athletes. They had a plan to run 100 meters, 1 meter at a time, and had goals at each second of a race that lasted under 10 seconds. I could devise a photographic plan based on the information I had learned and could see though my lens those race plans unfold.
Know your equipment. Today’s modern digital cameras are amazing tools, but like any craftsman you have to know how to set up your tools and practice your craft. The autofocus systems in cameras today are extremely complex and you need to pay particular attention to choosing the right autofocus options to match your photographic situation. Sometimes using manual focus will be a better choice than any autofocus option you may have on your camera.
Timing. Stay calm behind the viewfinder. Choose your shot carefully and don’t just rattle off streams of pictures and fill your camera’s buffer up before that decisive moment occurs.
Shutter lag. This is the time it takes a camera to actuate the shutter after the shutter button is pushed. In today’s photo gear it’s almost nonexistent, but there is a lag in your eye-to-hand coordination (the time it takes for your eye to see the action and your brain to process the information and tell your finger to push the shutter button) that you may have to account for when trying to capture that peak action. And remember, even the fastest motor driven sequences can sometimes miss that peak moment of action. Just try shooting a boxer delivering that knockout punch right at the moment his glove hits the chin of his opponent.
Remember “P” is for Planning not Panic! As you can see from the six steps outlined here, planning is a major component of sports photography. From fast reliable memory cards and charged batteries through to doing your homework and checking your gear before the event starts it is all part of great sports photography.