Sports photography is one of those disciplines that can be practiced almost anywhere at almost anytime. Whether you’re covering the Olympics across the globe or your daughter’s soccer game just across town, the principles—and challenges—have a lot in common. Photographer Mike Powell has 25 years of experience shooting sports for the likes of Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, ESPN The Magazine, Stern and L’Equipe. Here, Powell shares 10 tips for making amazing sports images wherever the action may find you.
1. Long Lenses Aren’t Always Required
You don’t always need ultra-telephoto lenses for successful sports photography. In fact, wide-angle lenses can be a great way to show context—and that helps to tell the story.
“Of course, long lenses play an enormous role in a sports photographer’s life,” Powell says, “but once you put on a 300mm or longer lens, it becomes very easy to have your work start looking like every other photographer out there—so many are using the same lens. When an opportunity presents itself to get closer to the action and shoot a more three-dimensional image, I’m happier. Shooting with wide and normal lenses increases the importance of all the elements within the frame. They all have a place, and getting them to all work together well is a great feeling.”
2. Panning Requires Planning
Panning the camera with a fast-moving subject is an ideal method for introducing a feeling of speed into a photograph. This requires a slow shutter speed—but the definition of “slow” is relative. The wider the lens, the slower the speed you’ll need. A shutter speed of 1/200 sec. is fast in most circumstances, but in Powell’s image of Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, it makes a nice background blur while the subject stays sharp. He arrived early, planned his shot and tested exposures until he found the one that would work.
“I had a chance to test shutter speeds on forerunners,” Powell explains, “the skiers who test the course before the real racers come down. I started at 1/60th, but wasn’t getting an image that was sharp on the racer’s face. I moved up shutter speeds until I got at least one or two sharp frames out of a sequence of eight or 10—still a high-risk shot when you must get the shot, but worth the risk to get the motion in the snow.”
Adds Powell, “When trying to do very slow shutter speeds to show speed, you have to look at what’s in your background. Lots of patches of color, contrast and light sources work well. A focal point is very important, too—with all the blur making a background, something needs to hold your eye. It doesn’t have to be pin-sharp; her face is sharp enough to be read and draw your eye in.”
3. Atmosphere, As Well As Action
Peak action moments are always great, but fully exploring a story requires looking for tiny details, as well as grand scene-setting atmosphere. For an image of a triumphant Rafael Nadal holding the U.S. Open trophy, Powell got close to show details.
“It’s the polar opposite of the Turin [Lindsey Vonn] picture,” he says. “I was quite close to Rafa, but rather than shoot the classic picture of him smiling with the trophy, I wanted something else. I shot his taped hands and the trophy with a 500mm telephoto. Picking out details to tell a story within the chaos of sporting events is a great way to cut through the mess and clutter.”
4. Let Your Camera Work For You
The digital revolution has offered sports photographers many new tools to create images that used to be all but impossible. Low noise at high ISOs, back-button focusing, ultrafast shutter speeds and ultrasharp glass all help Powell create action-stopping images, like a close-up of Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon.
“The standard for digital is measured at 100%,” he says. “If you ever looked at a piece of 35mm slide film this close, nothing would be sharp. The ISO can be pushed well beyond what was acceptable on film; this was shot on a bright overcast day at ISO 640 at ƒ/4.5 on a 500mm ƒ/4 lens. On film, I rarely shot beyond 1/1000th, while this was shot at 1/3200th. You need this kind of speed to stop this much motion. There’s lots of great stuff happening in a very small area.”
Adds Powell, “It’s very important to take control of your camera. I always have my camera set up to focus on the back button with my thumb. This way, I can focus on a still point and recompose the image without the focus moving. Or during high action, I can switch between auto and manual focus when needed. If you have your focus set on the shutter button, you’ll only be as good as the camera will allow. Take control, and master your gear.”
5. Graphic Compositions Are Everything
Powell photographs a lot of tennis, as evidenced by his book A Game To Love: In Celebration of Tennis, and perhaps no sport is better suited to dynamic graphic compositions. The lines on a court combined with bold shadows from the sun can work wonders to create graphic arrangements within the frame. These options are also available in many other sports, and to find them Powell often seeks high ground.
“The basic premise is to find the high angle that can give you great graphic lines,” he says. “I prefer the lines to slash at angles across the frame rather than at 90º. I’ve researched when shadows would be perfect for a particular court, and then had to wait for a sunny day and the right game to go work it. You can wait all game—or several games—for something really good to happen in the right spot. It’s the combination of contrasting colors and graceful athletic lines that makes this work, but I know before I show up what I’m looking for.”
6. Wait For The Perfect Storm
Graphic shapes, nice light and big moments—all of these elements contribute to good pictures. But the great images that rise above require not just one of them, but all of them simultaneously. For an image of Rafael Nadal winning a semifinal match, Powell was able to utilize beautiful light, leading lines and a special moment to create a dramatic image.
“Rafa knew at this moment that he was in the final and feeling strong enough to win,” Powell says. “It’s a great moment, but had it happened at noon, the image would have lost its appeal. The light takes this from being a great moment to a beautiful image. The dark background, shaft of warm light, edge to his hair and arms outstretched give it an almost religious icon feel. This is very important at the pro level—you can’t just have nice light or a cool subject or an interesting composition. To shoot images that the eye can pause on and keep going back to, you have to have all these things working together in one image. It all goes back to having layers of interest to give the image legs.”
7. Arrive Early, Stay Late
In photographing swimmer Michael Phelps’ historic run at the Olympics in Beijing, Powell worked overtime. Willingness to go the extra mile is essential for capturing special images whether at the Olympics or Little League. For a close-up of Phelps having just won his record-tying seventh gold medal, Powell scouted ahead of time to find a vantage point far from the official position allocated to photographers.
“The reason I arrived so early was to get an angle that only a few would get,” he says. “Prior research told me that a few spots in between TV cameras would be available—if the TV crews were cool with it. This would give me the chance to shoot an angle that few other photographers would get, plus there was a scoreboard right underneath me. Experience told me that swimmers turn to the board to confirm their place before reacting. So I got there early in the morning with extra coffees in hand for all my new neighbors—place secured and a good time had by all.”
Adds Powell, “I’ve seen pro photographers with great talent fail because of work ethic, and average photographers reach great heights by hard work.”
8. Luck Favors The Prepared
Powell says, sure, luck plays a part in great images, but luck comes to those who work hardest.
“‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’” he says. “I heard that someplace. Me, I usually have to work longer and worry more to be lucky. An editor of mine often said you have to live by the 6 P’s: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
For an image of the Tour de France, Powell climbed all over a hill looking for the perfect vantage point. When he finally found it, he also found good fortune: the perfect combination of elements to make it great.
“I’d walked all over,” he says, “looked at the inside of the turn, outside the turn, on the straight, looking down the valley, looking from distant hills a long way off. Finally, I made the call to shoot here. The clouds rolled in and the sun broke just on my turn. I’d like to think I was rewarded for all the sweat I first left on the side of the hill.”
9. Take A Stand
Don’t simply photograph the action as it unfolds in front of you. Powell recommends grabbing hold of your perspective—not the physical viewpoint, but the personal perspective about the story you’re trying to tell. Let that influence your camera’s position to help present the athletes from the angle that serves you best—whether it’s up high for a graphic background or down low for monumental appeal.
“Photography isn’t about showing people images of how they see the world,” he says. “It’s about showing people how you want to see it. I like my athletes heroic. I might be tall, but I spend a lot of time groveling around in ditches to make athletes look larger than life.”
10. Before You Shoot, Look Behind You
Shooting sports can put you in dangerous positions, so watching your back is prudent advice. But what Powell really means is this: Just before you click the shutter, double-check outside the viewfinder to ensure you’ve actually found the best shot available. It might even be behind you.
“When you think you know what to shoot, take a moment and look around,” says Powell. “You might be missing the best shot. You have to give yourself the chance to see things outside of your primary focus. I get hung up on the athletes and the sport, so I really like it when I free myself up and look around for pictures off the main focus. Shooting for books has really helped me do that.”
To see more of Mike Powell’s work, including images from his book “A Game To Love: In Celebration of Tennis,” visit mikepowellphoto.com.