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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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