Sports Photography - An Introduction

Sports Photography – An Introduction


photographing-sports.jpgOver in our forum area professional photographer Jim Bryant has shared the following tutorial on sports photography. I thought it contained some great tips for those starting out in photographing sports so wanted to promote it here on the blog.

The world of photojournalism requires a newspaper staffer or freelancer to be able to cover not only fast-breaking news events, but also handle general routine assignments such as food and fashion illustrations, make an environmental portrait, cover a school board meeting or photograph any of the happenings in their community on any given day. It’s hard to be a specialist working for a small town papers, so it’s important that I posses the ability to carry out all assignments. Each of the variety of assignments I receive requires a different mind-set and technical discipline, but there’s nothing so demanding as the world of sports.

On any given week I cover a variety of sports ranging from high school sporting event to the Seattle Pro sporting scene for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Associated Press or United Press International.

What Does it Take to Photograph Great Sports Action?

Taking great sports action photos doesn’t require the newest auto focus cameras and lenses on the market, it just requires the photographer to have thorough knowledge of the game that is being covered. Once the photographer understands the game, he or she will be able to anticipate the action so that the camera will be pointed in the right direction to capture the decisive moments on film.

You’ve got to know what a team is likely to do on third and 10 late in the game. Every sports photographer should go to a game without their cameras, walk around, watch the action and get a feel for the game. You don’t see the game looking through a 300mm or 400mm lens, you see bits and pieces.

Football action pictures look the same to me. A fullback or tailback carries the ball into the center of the line or they sweep around the corner of the line. However, a good photographer who knows the offensive patterns of the team being covered will be able to guess in some degree of certainty when and where these events will take place.

While most photographers group together along the sidelines in front of the approaching team with the ball, I choose to find a position in back of the quarterback to get those photos of sacks, or perhaps an interception by the defense.


Don’t Forget the Off Field Action

Not all action happens on the field, a lot of it develops along the sidelines; the head coach screaming at the offense or defense, the concerned looks of those waiting to get into the fray or when the change of offensive and defensive teams those coaches will huddle with the players and go over plays for the upcoming series.

Lenses for Sports Photography

Shooting sports requires fast lenses so that you can blur out the background with your f-stop selection and setting the shutter speed at least 1000th of a second or above to stop the action, I normally use a 400mm f2.8L, 70-200 2.8L, a 85mm f1.2L and a 28-70mm f2.8L on four different camera bodies to capture the action on and off the field. When shooting in domed arena’s you can normally get by using 1600, which gives you about 500th at f4.0 from the 20-yard line to the 20-yard lines. Shooting outside is different depending on the time of day and weather, but I still like to use films no slower than ISO 400.

In baseball, significant action plays usually occur in the infield, primarily at second base when a runner attempts to steal a base or break up a double play, or home plate, where violent collisions happen when the runner is trying to score and the catcher attempting to tag the runner out, I try to position myself either along the 1st baseline or 3rd baselines so I can capture those types of shots using a 400mm for second base action, 300mm for home plate and the 70-200mm for plays either at 3rd or 1st base.

Today’s basketball players are bigger, stronger, faster, so the best action shots are going to be happen not only underneath the basket, they happen all over the court. Normally I sit at one end of the court with a 400mm, 70-200mm lenses, that way I can cover action from one end of the court to another and the players benches.

As for the rest of the sports: swimming, tennis, golf, wrestling, cross country and soccer….each one is different, but I still try to get the ball in the frame. One thing that might help is talk to the coaches before hand and find out who are the faster swimmers, runners and hitter, that will give you an idea on who to look out for.

For most of my sports photography, I try to find a clean background when shooting. If that’s not possible, I’ll use my lowest f-stop to blur out the distracting backgrounds.


Other Tips for Sports Photography

In addition to you camera equipment, take with you:

  • A radio. Listening to the broadcast of the game while you work will give you a play-by-play account so you can understand exactly what is going on.
  • A pen and pad to take notes with.

Get to the ballpark early:

  • To get a close up parking space,
  • To get the starting lineups of each team.
  • To pick a good shooting position


Use 1/1000th sec if possible. It stops action better and allows you to get the ball in your images more often.

Shoot the scoreboard between each inning, period or quarter and after every shot you might think is important. This shows the inning, period or quarter the action happened.

As you focus, keep both eyes open to let your peripheral vision alert you to upcoming action, like not to get nailed along the sidelines

Shoot the pitchers, quarterbacks as the game begins. They might just be part of the main story of the night. You’ll never know.

Listen to the conservations going on around you, watch the assistant coaches or fans. You may become privy to something that is about to happen.

When the action is over, follow a player off the field. I usually choose a player who had a part in determining the course of the game or who has been injured. I don’t always shoot pictures, but I’m ready to capture emotional shots and this keeps me alert.

If you shoot as the batter or quarterback is throwing the ball, remember to hit the shutter before they swing or throw. This will increase the likelihood of having the ball in the frame.


When the ball is hit or passed, find the player making the best effort to play the ball, focus on him and hope for a great picture.

If more than one player makes a play, make sure you follow the action to its conclusion. The juxtaposition of several players, all seemingly unaware or aware of each other and concentration on the ball, is a fascinating study.

Be creative in what you choose to shoot. There are many ways to tell the story of a sporting event. You don’t have to shoot the same pictures over and over. Vary your perspective by using different lenses, shooting locations and shutter speeds. I always try for a safe shot, the one of a play at second base, or home plate and a runner carrying the football. Once I have those bases covered, I’ll try to shoot action on the linemen trying to open holes for the runner, defensive backs covering receivers or some of the infielders trying to make a diving catch on the baseball.

Thanks again to Jim Bryant for putting this advice on sports photography together. You can learn more about Jim at this site Jim Bryant Photography and see his work at Photoshelter.

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Some Older Comments

  • Clair May 24, 2012 05:18 am

    I want to take pictures of my sons football games at night. What is the best way to get the best action shots without them being blurry and no flash.

  • Stefano May 9, 2012 05:31 pm

    I recently gave it t try at Montecarlo Tennis Master. I had to keep a short exposure time, my lens is not spectacular so I had to increase the ISO. Thus... some grain.
    Anyway, here is the set:

    Please comment and help me to improve.

  • Blair Evan Ball November 16, 2010 01:46 pm

    Excellent tips. I agree that you need to be a student of the sport you are photographing. Postioning yourself to be there at the right time, and ready to photograph the action and get the shot.

  • cynthia September 24, 2010 11:39 am

    Thanks so much, great advice. I'm shooting for my sons football team and still trying to figure out the best spots on the field to truly capture the action. This was very helpful!

  • Art August 21, 2010 01:06 pm

    What about Youth Hockey games. I always see the perfect outside sport shots but what about in a rink with the lighting and speed of the game……….

    Read more:

  • Art August 21, 2010 01:06 pm

    What about Youth Hockey games. I always see the perfect outside sport shots but what about in a rink with the lighting and speed of the game..........

  • Bruce Lovelace June 7, 2010 09:52 am

    Great Stuff! I've mostly shot high school sports and I think it's all about location and timing. Shooting wide open and getting a "clean" background really isolates the action from the background which I try to do with my portrait photography as well. Tough to do with point and shoot cameras that have shutter lag.


  • Eric Mesa January 30, 2010 02:29 am

    "cause realistically its at it sharpest at f8 – f11"

    This is pretty much true of all lenses.

  • Leisa January 30, 2010 01:35 am

    @ Thomas

    the 50-500 has its good points and bad points.
    its a fantastic lens for the price.... Ive seen a lot of good photos of surfing taken with this camera...
    It works really well if the lighting is good... cause realistically its at it sharpest at f8 - f11 ...

  • THOMAS C RYAN January 29, 2010 01:17 pm

    i was woundering if the sigma lens 50-500 is good for takeing sports pictures?

  • albert December 17, 2009 11:04 pm

    Thinking of applying the same adult basketball training approach but with scale down to suit children, will this help or suitable?

  • ahmed December 15, 2009 04:03 am

    Holidays are coming, thought of encourgaing my kids to start picking up basketball, wonder adult drills can be applied?

  • Magnus November 3, 2009 09:59 am

    Great article and great tips. I must agree with Andrew Boyd in his comments, practice is important and so is the understanding of the sport you are watching and shooting. Not only should you place yourself at the right place, but you should also know the players enough to know who are the key players on the floor and who are more likely to take the important shots at the end of the game. I mainly shoot a lot of basketball here in Norway for my basketball blogg, and are now experiencing a lot of people contacting me, asking for permission to use my best pictures for local newspapers, club web sites etc. I hope this means that I'm doing something right with my camera.

  • Andrew Boyd June 22, 2009 02:10 am

    The key to shooting sports, once you have the right equipment, is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! Great sports photographers got that way by shooting LOTS of sports over a period of time. This does not come fast but if you're dedicated, it will come! Other keys are really UNDERSTANDING the sport you are shooting. This is key since so much of sports photography is being in the RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME, in other words, prepositioning yourself for what you think will happen. Finally, if you want to shoot big league sports, start with biddy league--go out to the local park and shoot the younger kids, gradually working your way up to high school, college and pros. Like most photography, the proof really is in the pudding, or in this case, the portfolio!
    I've been doing this for 30 years and these things have always been true.

  • Karen D. May 21, 2009 12:29 pm

    thanks, this is fantastic! I often take photos at horse shows, and this has been great insight! :]

  • Eric Mesa May 20, 2009 02:10 am

    Awesome, Awesome! Did some photography last month of the Baltimore Orioles and used two camera bodies - it was very nice not to have to switch lenses. I've also done some hockey shots through glass and it's tough, but doable.

    My Orioles shots are in this set
    and my hockey shots start on page two of my cornell set

    I really need to make a Sports Collection.

  • Douglas J May 18, 2009 02:33 am

    Great article.

    I've been trying to get into sports photography. I've been shooting tennis matches more recently, and since I have to stand outside of the fence surrounding the tennis match I get a lot of shots with the fence in it. Luckily shooting at a lower aperture lets me blur it out. Now I just need to save enough for an f2.8 lens.

  • jmonhollen May 17, 2009 04:56 pm

    I love the pictures....especially since the first one in this article is from a Washington State game, and WSU is my alma mater! ;)

  • George F. May 17, 2009 06:03 am

    If you are shooting indoors, i suggest that you shoot around 2.8 or lower, depending on what kind of lens you are using. 5.6 is too slow, and the pictures will be blurry. Also, try shooting in the AV mode (depending on your camera) that way you can adjust the speed manually. You should try a 85mm 1.8 lens for indoor, just "zoom" with your feet, and your pics will come out great.


  • Tiffany May 16, 2009 04:05 pm

    Glad this is posted. My son is in karate and they have a "demo" team. They always do their demos inside and I have no idea where to start and what settings to have my camera on. I bumped my ISO to 3200 and my aperture was around 5.6 and my shutter speed was around 1/8 (don't really remember). I tried to shoot in manual and then shot in sports mode. I'm still wondering what kind of settings to use. There is always a really dark yellow cast inside in the gym. I will practice some more because I'm determined. Thanks for this info!!

  • enrico May 16, 2009 12:40 pm

    good tips i'll apply it. maybe you can also give tips on shooting swimming. i would like to learn more about it because my kids are into swimming.

  • ChrisBatDell May 16, 2009 03:32 am

    Great tips:

    Putting some to action this weekend, starting small with baby steps and shooting my sons T-Ball game. =)

    Chris Byrd
    Dell Digital Life Evangelist
    Follow me on Twitter @ChrisBatDell

  • jim bryant May 16, 2009 01:31 am

    jeremi - the lens won't help you get a great soccer picture, but if you know anything about soccer, and where to stand, with much practice you'll get better pictures.
    mommilkman - Because I work for a wire service, I get issued season field passes or floor passes to cover the games. I can get some folks in from time-to-time during a mentorship program sponsored by ASMP.
    Meiteng - When I shoot football, I get a field pass issued for a friend, who helps me carry around all that gear. Any questions? You can reach me at

  • MOmilkman May 16, 2009 12:50 am

    Jim, Awesome tips. Much appreciated.
    One would have to ask though, how do you get to the point where you are allowed a press pass to get on the field of a professional event? Do you have to prove yourself by taking pictures of lesser events and then submitting them so you can show what skills you have? Because I know they won't just let any jo-shmo down on the field for a picture session.

  • Gerry Vrbensky May 15, 2009 11:44 pm

    Excellent tips. I've been shooting indoor and out door sports for years. Indoor is by far the hardest because if the low lighting and being prohibited from using a flash. This is where the 85mm 1.2 L works the best. To get that extra sharp shot you may have the resort to manual focusing but only if you really understand the sport especially a sport like badminton. I'm glad you mentioned to follow the player after the intial play. Their facial expression will tell the whole story. I've actually found this more rewarding than the intial action.

  • JIm Bryant May 15, 2009 03:58 pm

    Aaron, yes, as a sports photographer I've covered all sports, including ice hockey, which I know is in fact a sport. I also got a rare shot of Tiger Woods blasting out of a sand trap. As for trying to get a different ice hockey shot, you could try talking to the officials into letting you shoot from the Penalty box, but you'll have to wear a helmet. Yes, I've shot through scratches in the glass and do know that ice hockey is a tough sport to shoot. But since we don't have a pro NHL team in Seattle, I don't have too many Hockey shots except of the T-Birds. While working for newspapers for the past 30 years I guess I've covered everything sporting.
    In fact, my next thread on sports will address your issues is going to be shooting sports at night and in cave like conditions:)

  • Jeremi Part May 15, 2009 03:09 pm


  • Vilmis May 15, 2009 08:32 am

    Anybody who is interested in sport (and not only) photography should check World Press Photo 2009 ( Exhibition tour just started and may be there is one venue close to you. There are some nice pictures from last year's Olympics.

  • George F. May 15, 2009 06:58 am

    I have been shooting high school sports for the local newspaper in my area for about 2 years, it is fun, interesting, and most of all you gain more of an insight into what kind of pictures you shoot. I have the 50D with a 70-200mm 2.8 L that works great, as well as a 85mm 1.2 L for indoor sports. Keep at it, you will never want to stop.


  • Dana May 15, 2009 06:07 am

    This will be really helpful to use with my yearbook staff. Many thanks.

  • Alli May 15, 2009 05:58 am

    "Shoot the scoreboard between each inning, period or quarter and after every shot you might think is important." This is a great tip. I often forget when something happened when I review my pictures. My husband can usually remember and fill me in, since he just has a head for remembering every single play of every football game he watches.

  • Matt Bamberg May 15, 2009 03:47 am

    I have a great park across the street from my house where people play soccer and softball daily. It's a great place to shoot.

    --Matt Bamberg, Author

  • Jeffrey Kontur May 15, 2009 03:23 am

    Shoot the scoreboard? Shoot key players before the game even starts? Follow key players as they leave the field? PURE GOLD!!

  • Tyler Ingram May 15, 2009 02:38 am

    Sports Photography is one thing I want to get into more often. I was able to shoot Snowboarding at both a World Cup event locally as well as some cool Grenade Game action up at Whistler. I would love to cover Baseball (we dont have an MLB team though), Football (we have CFL here) and even Soccer.

    I currently don't have a fixed-focal super lens like the 300mm or 400mm but I do have my 70-200mm f2.8L IS lens. I could easily borrow my buddies 2x entender which (with my sensor) would give me roughly 640mm at F5.6 with IS. Not bad if I'm far away.

    I do agree with having at least 2 camera bodies. I only have one so I can be pretty quick at switching lenses. That way, one body has the telephoto on it and the other has a wide-angle. Switching lenses on 1 body, especially is you fumble around, will make you miss a great capture here and there.

    I just need to figure out how to get media access to more sporting events!

  • Mark McKnight May 15, 2009 02:12 am

    A really good and informative angle on Sports Photography. I am writing an article at this moment in time for my own website. I wanted to try and cover Sports Photography in general. You seem to have achieved this while giving it an exciting theme with Football. Very inspiring, Thanks, Mark

  • Bob Gollwitzer May 15, 2009 01:49 am

    Great tips, especially to use 1/1000th sec for a chance to get the ball in play.

    My crew and I will be at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta tomorrow and Saturday. I plan to use some of these tips to improve my shots. We are there mainly for, filming the event and offering personalized race videos. However, I hope to sneak away and get some great finish-line photos. Thank you!

  • Aaron Hokanson May 15, 2009 01:36 am

    "As for the rest of the sports: swimming, tennis, golf, wrestling, cross country and soccer…"

    Ummm...what about hockey!??!! That's kind of a popular sport, too. You know...the NHL and all that? Ever heard of that league? ;-)

    Have you ever tried shooting a hockey game? Now THAT is an exercise in frustration. Depending on the arena, you NEED to be on ISO1600 or more and can maybe get by shooting F2.8 at 1/400th...and if it wasn't for de-noising apps like Noise Ninja some of the shots would be unusable.

    Not only that, unless you are the official photog you need to shoot through plexiglass, which is all marked up and covered in scratches. You don't see them in the shots but they definitely interfere with the light and degrade the image somewhat.

  • jenn May 15, 2009 01:22 am

    these are awesome tips! my son plays baseball, even though he is just 11, I love shooting the action shots that occur.. thanks for the tips, they will definately come in handy!

  • Rick May 15, 2009 01:15 am

    I enjoyed reading the article and like the different approaches described, from being behind the action, to looking for off field action and especially knowing the sport to anticipate good shots. Thanks.

  • MeiTeng May 15, 2009 12:41 am

    Four different camera bodies? I don't think I am up for this kind of photography. Still...I find sports photography interesting. I hope to be able to try this out someday. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Yanik's Photo School May 15, 2009 12:37 am

    I'm actually planning on shooting a bit of Sports stuff now that I'm back in Montreal. Those a re great tips Jim! What I really enjoyed were the non technical tips that are truly sports oriented. Love it. I learned a lot. Thanks!