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Sports Photography

by Rob Miracle, June 1999 (updated January 2007)



We have all at one time or another been captivated by sports images. It may be Kirk Gibson's World Series Homerun, and the image of him running the bases, overcoming the pain he was in or an image of high flying Michael Jordan slam dunking a basketball with his tongue out. We have all been captured in the moment of human drama. We all like a good action photo and, in particular, if your kids play sports, you want to remember them in their toils.

Quality sports shots are somewhat difficult to come by. Most people have limited access to events to photograph them. The further away you are from the event, the harder it becomes to capture the event in a pleasing manner. Sports are an event where crowd control is important, not only for the crowd's safety, but for the players also. There is nothing more frightening than to be on the sidelines of a football game, focused on a play in the field, when out of the blue a 250 pound line backer drives a player into your legs or a foul ball comes crashing at your $8,000 lens!


Location, Location, Location!

Head of the Charles Regatta, Sunday, October 18, 1998.  From the footbridge to Harvard Business School

You can only photograph things you can see. The closer you are to someone, the better you can see them. Sports are no different. You have to get as close to what you are shooting as you can. Typically, for a photographer with a press pass, you can get to the sidelines or other similar locations. You generally will not be permitted on the playing field. Depending on the sport, you most likely will be limited to designated locations. For instance, at most Division I football games, the media cannot shoot between the two 35 yard markers. For most people, the situation is even worse. You probably don't have press access and are stuck in the stands for your shots. Get as close a possible. Even if you make it to the sidelines, you will be jostling for space with many other photographers, both still and video who have worked hard to get there and have the same job to do that you have.

You also have to be familiar with the sport to be able to capture the moment. This means knowing where to position yourself for the best action. This is critical because of angular momentum that will be discussed in the section on freezing action. Not only does it matter with the subject, but the background. Look at what is going to be behind your subject. While we will try to minimize the impact that a background has, it will still be unavoidable. So you need to position your self where the background is the most pleasing.


The Decisive Moment

100th Anniversary Boston Marathon (1996).

Sports and Action photography is all about timing. Its about reacting. Its about being in the right place at the right time and its about execute. These are all qualities of the athlete and those of the photographer as well. Each sport has predictable and unpredictable moments. Under "Knowing your Sport", you will learn about these moments for individual sports. For instance, in basketball, you will have opportunities to photograph layups, jump shots, free throws, etc. Understanding the timing of these predictable actions allows you to capture the peak moment, when the action is most dramatic.

By knowing these moments you can anticipate the action. This helps in two ways, one it helps you with focus which will be discussed in a later segment, and secondly it helps you snap the shutter at the right time. The saying goes "If you see the action you missed it." This basically means if you wait for the soccer player to head the ball then press the shutter release, the ball most likely will be sailing out of the frame. You have to push the button before the action so that the mirror has time to flip out of the way and the shutter open and close. There is a delay between the image hitting your optical nerve and the shutter closing. You have to, through experience, learn what that time is and adjust for it.


Required Equipment

100th Anniversary Boston Marathon (1996).

Most sports are shot on 35mm cameras because of their portability. While some photographers have captured great sports moments with other format cameras, we will concentrate our efforts on the 35mm arena which is the most commonly used gear.

"Its not the equipment but the photographer who makes the picture" is generally a true statement. However with sports and action photography, having the wrong equipment means not getting the shots you want or need. This relates back to the section on location. The further away, the longer the lens is needed to capture the same image in the frame. Different sports require different lens lengths. For instance, basketball is generally shot from the baseline or sideline near the baseline. You generally can get good results with an 85mm lens in this situation. However, by the time the players are at mid court, you need a 135mm to capture them. If they are playing under the far goal, a 200-300mm lens is needed to fill the frame well, yet for shooting a soccer game, a 300-400mm lens is needed for just about anything useful.

Generally, for a 35mm camera, each 100mm in lens focal length gets you about 10 yards (9 meters) in coverage. This coverage means that on a vertical format photo, a normal human will fill the frame fairly well. Thus, if you are shooting American Football from the 30 yard line with a 300mm lens, you will be able to get tight shots in an arc from the goal line to mid-field to the other 40 yard marker. As players get closer, your lens may be too long. Many photographers will carry two bodies with two different length lenses for this reason.

Lens speed is also a critical factor. The faster the lens, the faster the shutter speed you can use, which as the lens grows longer, this becomes even more important. This will be covered in the freezing action section in more depth. If you look at the sidelines of any Division 1 college football game or an NFL football game, you will see people with really big lenses. These range from 300mm to 600mm or longer and even then, they may have a 1.4X converter or 2X converter on. You need fast shutter speeds to freeze action with long lenses. Every F Stop you give up requires a faster film or less freezing potential.

Most consumer grade long lenses and zooms have variable apertures, but most are F5.6 at the long end of the lens. F5.6 is good for outdoor day time shots, but becomes very inhibiting for night games and indoor action. Most people use lenses that are F2.8 or faster. These lenses are very expensive. A 400mm F2.8 sells for over $8000 US. They are also very heavy and bulky. Using a monopod is a life saver with these big lenses.


Text Copyright © 1998 Rob Miracle; Photos copyright 1994-1998 Philip Greenspun.

Sports Photos give us a sense of being there.

Article revised January 2007.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Magdalena B. , April 08, 2005; 03:03 P.M.


Maria

Predeal, Romania, 1985

Sports can be not only for preformance, but also for the family leisure.

Denis Sutherland , November 21, 2005; 06:14 P.M.


Bunker

very interesting article. Helps me understand the profession a lot more.

Sport's shots are not very prominent on here, shame realy. I pulled my golf shot's off as I never had much postive comments or ratings...:(

Mark g , February 01, 2006; 08:26 A.M.

Rob, thanks for taking the time to write this article. I visit this page every few months or so to re-aquaint myself with it. I find it very valuable.

Michael Hill , February 19, 2006; 11:29 A.M.

I found this article very helpful. I have 2 sons that play sports i.e. basketball, baseball, and football, and have found that I have some problems with the freezing of motion. I just got through reading the article, and plan to use some of the information for my 10 year olds game today. Thanks for a very useful, and well written article.

Michael Hill , February 19, 2006; 11:31 A.M.

I found this article very helpful. I have 2 sons that play sports i.e. basketball, baseball, and football, and have found that I have some problems with the freezing of motion. I just got through reading the article, and plan to use some of the information for my 10 year olds game today. Thanks for a very useful, and well written article. Here is a photo that I took of Mr. Wood of the Chicago Cubs while in at a rehab assignment. I think that it is the only action photo that I have ever taken that I thought turned out ok.

Mehdi MKJ , April 02, 2006; 09:43 A.M.

Thankworthy...

Robert Young , April 09, 2006; 11:09 A.M.


AIken Trial "up close"

I live in AIken SC, and we have a yearly "Triple Crown" ...horserace, steeple chase, & polo on consecutive weeks. I had tried a year ago to get some shots with a MF camera (but was limited to 1/500)..too blurred. This year I "borrowed" a N80 35mm w/ faster shutter and AF, and the results were far better. So much so that just this past weekend picked up a F5 from Ebay. The info presented was dead on w/ regards to shutter and film for these fast moving events.. You don't normally thing of needing ASA 800 of higher OUTDOORS, but it makes a difference. I particularly appreciate the lens suggestions in his article, and will be looking for some F2.8's in the near future.

Terri L. , May 28, 2006; 10:24 P.M.

Glad to find this article also - I've just begun trying to shoot sports & this gave me some good info with which to start

Justin Serpico , July 23, 2006; 10:18 P.M.


Shortstop Andrew Smith makes a long run to snag a routine catch that turns tough.

Nice article. A bit dated perhaps but for the most part all the principals of the original article still apply. WB is the biggest issue as those stadium/arena lights often cycle and creat rapidly changing white balance. The upside is no film cost so you can afford to shoot more and learn faster. The other upside of digital is while the 1.5ish X crop factor hurts in other areas, it allows amateurs to gain a big lens advantage for the price of a 200mm f2.8 with no loss of quality or f-stops. Sports is the one area where you will burn LOTS of frames just to get you timing down and learn how to photograph the sport through a lens digital allows you to figure it out without going broke. http://www.photo.net/photos/Pico23 (some more baseball)

Neil Murray , July 30, 2006; 05:40 A.M.

I read Bob's article soon after I joined Photo.net in January and found it very informative. I have come back to it for a refresher several times since. Here are some of my sports photos which I hope have benefited from the information in the article: sports action

Juha Kivekas , September 02, 2006; 10:16 A.M.

Quote on motorsport: "These sports are generally fairly easy to photograph."

I'd say the comment shows some lack of knowledge of the art. Any form of photography becomes just as difficult as the photographer's ambition is. There are a lot of things to do to get a good motorsport shot: Getting to know the location and sun direction in advance, trying to avoid the classic too much contrast situ, pan with slow times, zone with a car approaching 300 km/h, to find the right background, to find the right spot, to show the corner characteristics, to show weight transfer, to get a shot that will differ from the mass.

I've shot motorsport, horse sport, figure skating, dancing, inline skating, canoeing,... - and I can not honestly say that one would be more difficult or easier than another. The level of difficulty has always been set by me myself, by the ambition level of the photographer. The final and true difficulty, after the "easy" technicalities, arises form details and intricasies of the sport. To say that one sport is easier to photograph compared to others is like a fashion photographer not understanding a car photgraphy - it's lack of understanding the art in question. One way of checking the standard is to study the best photogs of the art. In motorsport one benchmark is Regis Lefebure. When one has reached his level, I guess, one has the authority to say, it is easy.

Neil Murray , September 03, 2006; 04:09 A.M.

I agree with what you say Juha. If any genre in photography was easy, why would we bother? I think sports photography presents many challenges despite the sophisticated photographic equipment we now have at our disposal. It's as hard as hell to get a shot that really satisfies. I've been trying for a long while, and still can't say I've nailed one.

And when I saw the photos by Regis Lefebure - well what can I say - they just blew me away. They represent a pretty high step on the stairway to photographic heaven.

Robert Budding , September 20, 2006; 10:13 P.M.

Good article - I'm just delving into sports. Many opportunities as my kids participate in soccer, basketball, karate, and swimming.

Neil Murray , September 30, 2006; 11:06 P.M.

Another great guide to sports photography is on Jerry Lodriguss's web site Catching The Light. Good tips and very good sports photos.

Alex Surrey , January 01, 2007; 06:37 P.M.


This artical is great help !

everett forester , February 11, 2007; 01:45 P.M.

this article is great in all area's and gives a good basis for someone to sart his or her photographic journy into sport photography. wish i had read before sarting mine, it would have saved me a lot of money, time and anguish. i now like to shoot horse racing , eary on i found that freezing the horse and rider was fairly simple by panning , but it did not do anything for the lower parts of the leg's and hoof's as they were blurred beyound recognition, through good advise and the right eqipment i am moving right on along, thank's lightfoot !

Image Attachment: DSC03316-1.jpg

mark davey , March 14, 2007; 06:29 P.M.


Ball sport Shutter speeds simplified

As with all photography the main thing is to be there & push the button to catch the peak of action. Long lenses are great but often something like a Nikon 180/2.8 is fine for most sports if you are close enough. Even motor-sports if you're on the infield. I've used it for football, rugby, swimming, motor racing bikes & cars, golf etc.

Brad Shimkus , March 16, 2007; 10:13 A.M.

I've read almost everything on this site. As far as sport shooting is concerned, I've never been able to find enough information on shooting the sport i enjoy photographing...skydiving. If anyone has a lot of brilliant information on how to get the best shots while falling 120mph thru light conditions that change all the time, I'm all ears. A lot of things said here apply, but it's a whole separate category of shooting sport objects.

Brad Shimkus , March 16, 2007; 10:17 A.M.

I've read almost everything on this site. As far as sport shooting is concerned, I've never been able to find enough information on shooting the sport i enjoy photographing...skydiving. If anyone has a lot of brilliant information on how to get the best shots while falling 120mph thru light conditions that change all the time, I'm all ears. A lot of things said here apply, but it's a whole separate category of shooting sport objects.

Image Attachment: IMG_1534.JPG

TJ Rohyans , April 08, 2007; 10:35 P.M.


The smoke implies motion

A very informative tutorial for sure. I enjoy shooting full scale and remote controlled aircraft at airshows and fly-ins. Propeller blur is almost necessary to get the sense of the aircraft moving through the air. Full scale aircraft need much slower shutter speeds than R/C models to get the same amount of blur. Aerobatics with smoke help convey motion in the image. The most difficult thing about shooting aircraft is composition and an un-interesting blue sky!

Shawn M. Knox , April 23, 2007; 11:49 A.M.

Nice article but I would caution against a recommendation of the Canon 5d for sports action as it is much too slow to capture any serious action. I don't know of any working sports action photographer that would use a camera this slow for action as their main camera. It would be the perfect camera for teams and individuals in a portrait setting but I would suggest nothing less than 5 fps for action (20d/30d) and preferably 8+ fps (1D MKII/MKIII). The 5d is a great tool and was not intended to be used for action. You could use it in a pinch but a serious photographer would not be happy with it for ACTION. It is a portraiture camera.

Dave Hornby , May 23, 2007; 11:33 P.M.

.

Kathryn S. , July 25, 2007; 12:24 P.M.

I enjoyed this article. It was quite helpful. Yet, I have a question. My brother has asked me to take some photographs of his martial arts class. I went to the dojo but I had some diffculties. The lighting was very low. Even with the ISO high, a tripod, and the aperture as wide open as possible I still had to use a flash (which I was not happy about) to get proper shots for action shots. What would you suggest to do to get around using the flash? Thanks.

Scott Dee , August 11, 2007; 01:54 A.M.

High ISO (1000 +) can ruin great captures w/ pixelation. And to STOP your bro's lightning fast Kung Fu chops your shutter would have to be around 250 / 320/ 500 sec.

Options: 1.8 / 2.8 prime lens, wifi strobe, second curtain flash, another dojo (-:

Alan Swanson , October 31, 2007; 02:37 P.M.

I've enjoyed and learned much from the tips on this site. I recently had the opportunity to try, for the first time, panning some action shots. I learned that it is NOT as easy as it seems! Here is one photo I took trying to blur the background while maintaining focus on the subject. Shot with a Canon 30D and 70-300,f2-8IS lens in manual mode. 1/25 at f6.3, iso100. C&C appreciated.

Alan Swanson , October 31, 2007; 02:38 P.M.

I've enjoyed and learned much from the tips on this site. I recently had the opportunity to try, for the first time, panning some action shots. I learned that it is NOT as easy as it seems! Here is one photo I took trying to blur the background while maintaining focus on the subject. Shot with a Canon 30D and 70-300,f2-8IS lens in manual mode. 1/25 at f6.3, iso100. C&C appreciated.

Image Attachment: IMG_5199-01-900.jpg

Luis-Miguel Astudillo , November 07, 2007; 12:00 A.M.

Sports photography

Very good article on sports photography. I had some extensive practice this summer with soccer (up to 5K pictures over a 4 day tournament).

Like he says knowing the game and predicting the next move is everything. Now I started to do some indoor hockey where lighting is not always ideal.

Camera used: Canon Rebel EOS XT Lens used: Sigma 70-200mm HSM APO EX, Shutter Priority.

Regards.

Image Attachment: 20071021 584_edited-1.jpg

Carrie Genereux , December 18, 2007; 12:07 P.M.

I think this article was very helpful. I am just starting out in sports photography but I am actually working towards Rodeo photography. If anybody has any insight about good articles regarding this particular sport, that would be very helpful as well! The first rodeo I am going to photograph is in early January so I'm going to practice with the zone focus a lot because I think that'll be very helpful with the different events.

Joost Voorhaar , March 17, 2008; 12:27 P.M.

"The primary action golf shots include a shot during the back-swing"

Please don't. Bad advise... a sure way to get your ace removed from the golfcourse!

Pete Appleby , April 15, 2008; 06:06 A.M.

Hi, with regards to the ice-hockey shot and 1/200th F4.5, were you able to get a faster shutter speed than 1/200th? Was the shot taken hand-held or did you use a tripod or monopod? I think you might have achieved a sharper image with a faster shutter speed.

B Norton , April 24, 2008; 12:33 P.M.

A golf shot from the other day

Image Attachment: Reinertson.JPG

B Norton , April 24, 2008; 12:46 P.M.

A golf photo from the other day

Image Attachment: Reinertson.JPG

Brennan Phillips , April 02, 2009; 12:52 A.M.

I'm a photography student just starting out. I have hooked up with a local roller derby team here in Cahrleston, SC, The Lowcountry Highrollers. I getting good shots, however most are "happy accidents". Because of the extreamly low lighting and the speed of which the ladies skate, I'm finding shooting very difficult. I'm also a poor college student, so affording the expensive lenes is down right impossible now. What are some tips for shooting this sport? I'm shooting with a D50, but upgrading to a D90. I have several lenes, an 18-55mm, 55-200mm, 70-300mm and when I get the D90 I will have (I believe) a 18-135mm. I do have a external flash that I am able to use.

Image Attachment: fileZLq8ov.jpg

Scott Wells , July 10, 2009; 12:31 A.M.

I have always loved this article although it has become somewhat dated. It did inspire me to write a book and a number of articles on the subject of Sports Photography, what I believe is the most challenging and difficult photography to shoot. The greatest challenges I have listed below. More information can be found at http://sportsphotographysuccess.com

Sports photography is the most difficult photography to master. You are faced with a myriad of challenges. As with any challenge those that overcome the greatest obstacle gain the greatest reward and thus it is with sports photography. Read our list of top nine sports photography challenges:

Where Venue/Location Sports photography does not let you choose the location of your shoot. You don't get a choice on where the competition or event will be held. You are stuck with where the event is being held whether it's an old musty school gym, an outdoor field with next to the freeway or a performance halls. You as the sports photographer will have to adapt to the venue and figure a way to make it work.

When As a sports photographer you will not be able to choose the time of day that you take your photos. You must shoot the competition when it's being held which means you may be shooting at 6:00am in the morning or 11:00pm at night or anytime in between. It's not always a time when it's convenient for you, but the only way to capture those great photos is to be there.

Who You obviously can select "who" you want to take photos of, but you don't have control over the team they are competing against, when that individual participates, and where in the even they participate. The quality of the event is often determined by the skill of the competition, some athletes may not participate the entire event and may be in the back or a position that makes them difficult to photograph.

Lighting You've got to love those old school gyms with lousy lighting. School gyms are typically quite dim, never with sufficient light and often have a harsh yellow tone from wonderful florescent lights. Your challenge, capture photos that are bright enough, without blur or unnatural colors.

Weather Sorry, they won't reschedule that championship match for the weather to improve. You will be at the mercy of whatever weather is occurring. You will be dealing with wind, dust, rain, mud, snow, cold and heat.

Obstacles Have you ever bought "obstructed" view seats? They don't make for good photos. As a Sports Photographer you will want the best position possible to take photos, but that's not always easy to come by. There may be physical obstructions hindering you including people and depending on the event there may be rules that will prohibit you from the ideal positions.

Equipment All cameras are not created equal, those point and shoot cameras are just not going to get the job done when shooting sports photography. In fact, many cameras will not work well for shooting sports and you will need special lenses to assist you. In addition to quality lenses and camera bodies there are many other accessories you will need.

Framing Framing your photos for sports photography is not easy! Unlike portrait photography you don't get a chance to pose your subjects. You don't get a to tell the athlete's to STOP, do that again when I'm ready. Not only that but your subjects are moving and not remaining in once place so you have to anticipate when and where the action will be.

Timing Once you see the great sports moment it's too lake to capture it. Sports photographers must be ready at every moment and even anticipate the action and great moment to have a chance at capturing it.

There are many challenges to being a sports photographer, but they are all worth it when you capture those great sports moments. You can learn to do it like the pros by following guidelines and techniques found on this site.

http://sportsphotographysuccess.com The Sports Photographers

Darren Crutchfield , September 21, 2009; 02:29 P.M.

All very great insight and info- thanks for the helpful lesson. I personally enjoy surf photography- where lighting-shooting styles and location make BIG differences in capturing the moments!

Antonio Bortoni , September 24, 2009; 01:07 P.M.

Great article, it directly talks to my current project. I'm working on going from amateur to profesional and actually get paid for the "service" of snapping pictures of athletes other than my kids. I have been taking pictures for the last 15 years going from Minolta 35mm to Pentax 35mm and finally settled on Pentax K10. I too enjoy learning as I go. Thanx again and congratulations to everyone. ABortoni

Kel Casey , December 13, 2009; 10:54 P.M.

Very useful article, if dated, as noted. I'd agree that knowing the sport you're shooting is of great importance. My favorite sport to shoot is water polo. The nice thing is that it's a fairly small field of play; everything else is a crap shoot-- glare, backlight, extremely fast action. I still have trouble with indoor sports as related to lighting and shutter speed. My kingdom for a fixed-aperture zoom lens.

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William Socquet , January 31, 2010; 03:25 A.M.

Great article! It has many timeless tips as well as some that need to be interpreted for use with today's digital equipment. High ISO and noise are becoming less of a problem as the new sensor technology advances. Just look at the Nikon D3x topping out over 100,000. The most important thing the article states is know the sport and get in the right spot for the shot. This is important for capturing images that balance lighting, motion and that special momment in time. Happy shooting!

Image Attachment: DSC_0549b.jpg

Keith Rejino , July 24, 2010; 06:47 P.M.

The Decisive Moment is it for me.  It also helps if you play the sport and have a passion for it.

Mike Criss , September 02, 2010; 05:13 P.M.


Touchdown!

I have begun to use off camera flash for poorly lit football fields. Really like the way they are coming out.

 

Outdoor Flash Blog

Connor Walberg , October 17, 2010; 06:11 P.M.

Great and very detailed article!  Here's a post that I made on my blog "All Photo Buzz" that covers sports photography aimed at extreme sports photographers.  I think readers here may find this useful as well:  

http://allphotobuzz.blogspot.com/2010/10/10-tips-for-shooting-action-sports-like.html

Tony Slattery , January 30, 2011; 05:03 A.M.

Hi, it was some time ago that I found a very interesting and informative article about photographing golf, and it mentioned the photographer Darren Carroll.

Does anyone have a link to this article?

 

E F , April 22, 2011; 10:35 A.M.

Mike Criss: When you say “off camera flash” do you mean a flash on a stroboframe-like device, as opposed to the one on the camera that flips up? Could you explain? I’m just learning…

 

sanket dhekne , February 22, 2012; 09:41 A.M.

Hi Guys ,I would like to learn sports photography,ready to assist a sports Photographer .I live in Mumbai, India .Kindly advice

Scott Wells , April 01, 2012; 06:40 P.M.

I realized again just this past week or two how difficult it is to take great sports photos.  It does take practice and study.  I gave my wife our great camera, the Nikon D2Hs with a superb lens, the 70-200mm F2.8 and sorry to say, her soccer photos were not very good.  That is one reason we wrote the books at http://sportsphotographysuccess.com.  There are a number of great sites that can help including this article, at least to get you started.

Mathieu de Gironde , April 08, 2014; 03:17 P.M.

thanks for the article

here's a picture on my side

http://gironde.weebly.com/polo.html


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