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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!
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 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
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
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
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.