While this article is about how to photograph sports, specifically, you can apply any lesson you learn here to any level of photography. The main goals are the same: to capture moments, storytelling layers, composition, colors and light. A wise photo editor of mine, Mike Davis, encourages photographers to capture adjectives and adverbs, not objects and verbs—basically, what does the situation feel like when you’re making it, because that’s what draws people to photography is that feeling of what it’s like to be there. A simple photograph of a player alone with the ball is purely evidence. But if you capture opponents chasing that player, then you get a proper sense of the urgency of the moment.
Before diving into the gear, let’s discuss ways to approach covering a game. There’s a misnomer that you must be a sports fan in order to be a great sports photographer. While I think it helps, some of the best sports photography I’ve seen are by photographers who would never call themselves “sports photographers.” I think that’s in part because they don’t get caught up on all the minutiae of a game, instead simply looking to make great images.
As with anything with photography, there are no rules. If you’ve been told that there are, you’ve been led astray. Photograph sports—or any subject—with an open eye and awareness of what’s happening, not just on the field of play, but also what’s happening around you. I love the passion sports fans display at games, whether it’s coming from screaming parents at a Little League game or face-painted students at a college event. When most photographers are strictly focused on game action, my back is turned to the field, looking for fun fans in the stands.
A good rule of thumb is to show up to a sports game at least an hour early. That time allows for finding good parking, hauling gear around, and becoming familiar with the arena and playing field. Also, players warming up before the game is a good time for you to practice taking photos.
I encourage people to photograph from a variety of locations, angles and perspectives during any given event. Many photographers fight for sideline passes, a traditional shooting spot. Sometimes, that’s a great angle, allowing for more intimate photography as players pass in front of you. And I’d be lying if it wasn’t cool to follow a game from a spot few people have access to. That said, I seldom rely strictly on photographing from the sidelines. After awhile, images all look the same to me, and you end up making the same exact photos as every photographer around you.
Shooting from higher vantage points, often in the stands, is a personal preference of mine. I can see more of the field and more easily track the action. It also allows me a chance to think for myself of how to photograph something, rather than simply following the pack on the sidelines.
Follow-focusing on the ball is pretty tricky, and usually unnecessary. It’s often best to wait for the player to have possession of the ball, as in basketball. With football, if a quarterback makes a deep pass, I immediately look for the receiver that he’s passing to and start focusing on that player, taking photos before, during and after the reception.
Again, no rules. Play around with various cameras and lenses to get a sense of what feels comfortable to you. The more you photograph, the more the cameras and lenses become an extension of your body. And you won’t think twice about putting aside the 400mm lens for a wide-angle, when a player jumps right in front of you. As with most things, simply having experience makes things easier.
Anticipate where the action is going to happen. If I’m photographing football, and the team with the ball is in the red zone (within 20 yards of the end zone), I’ll plant myself in a corner in case there’s a touchdown play in front of me. When my assignment is to photograph more on the quarterback, I’ll line up near the line of scrimmage with a 300mm or 400mm lens, knowing the quarterback with often stay in the pocket for both pass and rushing plays.
Just because the play is over doesn’t mean you should put down your camera. I can’t tell you how often I see great moments that happen in front of photographers who have put their guard—and cameras—down once a play is over.
My poor memory comes in handy while taking photos, because I often forget any expectations I had with an assignment, instead focusing on what’s happening around me. Often, I leave with photos I didn’t go into a game expecting to make. Sometimes that’s frustrating, because I’ve seen what others have done in the same situation. But if I let go of that, the experience can be more rewarding, largely because I want to make photos that I haven’t seen or taken before.
With the fantastic quality of the ISOs in cameras, I tend to focus more on the shutter speed and less on the aperture. Anything faster than 1/500th second will generally stop action in a frame, and again, when shooting a subject on a large field, anything in the background is going to be extremely far away and fall out of focus anyhow.
Some final thoughts to be keep in mind: You can’t be everywhere and will absolutely miss plays you wish you hadn’t. So take an educated guess based on how the action is developing and put yourself in a spot that could be successful. Be ready for when action is coming your way. Take a lot of photos, gain as much experience as you can, do your best to anticipate the action, keep your eyes constantly peeled not just on the game but also behind you. And most importantly, always, always, always have fun.
The current stable of cameras have phenomenal focus-tracking capabilities, as well as high frame rates. For example, both the Nikon D5 and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II shoot above 12 fps with autofocus tracking and auto exposure (12 fps for the Nikon and 14 fps for the Canon). Sony’s new a9 shoots 20 fps, and even the new Nikon D850—a 40-megapixel camera—is bound to become a hit with sports photographers (see our review at https://www.digitalphotopro.com/reviews/anniversary-present-nikon-d850-review/), as it captures at 9 fps. While advanced enthusiast cameras will capture in the area of 6 to 7 fps, high-capture rates is one of the main benefits of the higher-end pro gear, and one of the reasons the gear is priced higher.
This has lead to the popularity of Micro Four Thirds cameras, like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which captures up to 60 fps in electronic shutter mode (with fixed focus and exposure) and up to 15 fps using a traditional shutter. The sensor size in the Micro Four Thirds cameras allows telephoto lenses to be much lighter and smaller than their full-frame counterparts.
The incredibly high image quality at high ISOs still boggles my mind on today’s high-end cameras. Many of the cameras have native ISO ranges up to 25,600, with some still producing great images above ISO 80,000.
Many sports photographers have two to three camera bodies with them, with different lenses on each, usually a telephoto, a medium zoom lens and a wide-angle lens. The thinking is that you won’t often have time to swap out lenses as players run at you on the field, so switching cameras is much easier. The telephoto lens is great when the action is farther away, the zoom lens allows to follow plays closer to you, and with a wide-angle lens, you can photograph things happening right in front of you.
The most common, and most versatile, setup for most professional sports photographers is to start with the trio of 16-35mm ƒ/2.8, 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lenses. These three options provide all the coverage needed to shoot everything from wide-angle shots of a packed stadium through any action happening up to midway down most sporting venues. Past the midpoint, most photographers start to need a longer lens. Every camera manufacturer makes lenses in this range, as do companies like Sigma and Tamron. Pro photographers select the ƒ/2.8 versions to provide great background blur, though for occasional sports use, a variable ƒ-stop lens is a good alternative.
The main longer lens for many sports photographers is a 400mm ƒ/2.8 lens. A 400mm lens can create crisp images from great distances, while washing out the background with a low depth of field. It also often allows for you to single out players. Often, you’ll find an ƒ/2.8 version of a super-telephoto lens in this class, as well as an ƒ/4 version and while the background defocus on the ƒ/4 won’t be the same as the ƒ/2.8, the distance this lens is used when shooting sports will blur the background anyhow in most cases.
Personally, I’m a big fan of a 200-400mm ƒ/4 (or similar) zoom lens because of the versatility. The Canon version has a 1.4x extender built in. There’s more flexibility with the focal range of this lens. In the same vein, a 100-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 lens offers similar range. Sony has recently introduced an 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 GM. A 500mm lens is another option. Thankfully, with the high quality of cameras today at high ISOs, having a fast lens (i.e., one with a wide aperture) is less crucial.
Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Sony, Olympus and others all make affordable—and excellent—zoom lenses that are between 100mm and 200mm on the widest end and 500-600mm on the most telephoto range. For example, the Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 and the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 Sports lens provide great performance and are available for Nikon or Canon mount. The Sigma lens will work with Sony cameras with the company’s MC-11 converter.
My favorite telephoto focal length is 300mm. It allows for much of the advantages of a 400mm lens, but is often less weight and, more importantly to me, allows for capturing more of the environment of the field of play. Personally, I find that shooting with anything longer than a 300mm singles out the action too much, removing the sense of time and place. What you’ll often see professionals using is a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens. But I’m also a fan of the 300mm ƒ/.4, a significantly lighter and less expensive alternative.
Personally, my favorite sports lens is a Canon 35mm ƒ/1.4. This wide-angle prime is available on every camera system, too, making it a ubiquitous choice for sports photographers. It’s not a perfect focal length all for action from any distance. But many of the events I photograph have great access, allowing me to hang right next to the action. It’s part of the reason why I much prefer high-school sports to the highly restrictive Olympics. Access is usually great at the prep level. Also, it allows me to capture the atmosphere and environments that I feel are important details to telling a greater story about what the game was like on that day. And if players are celebrating in front of me, I’m ready.
A final note on lenses—some camera systems, like Sony’s full-frame a7 and a9 bodies and Olympus’s OM-D lineup, have in-body stabilization, which allows photographers to handhold their cameras at lower shutter speeds. Some systems, like Nikon and Canon, have the image-stabilization systems in specific lenses. In either case, image stabilization is a great feature for sports photographers, as it allows us to shoot under the poor lighting conditions of some stadiums or during nighttime games, and it allows us to pan along with the action and not get as much focus blur.
Most stadiums don’t allow for flash photography, but that’s not the case with many other sports, and lighting is a must-have tool when shooting portraits or other non-action shots of athletes, because the harsh overhead light of most stadiums (or the overhead sun of a midday outdoor game) is brutal. I like to bring one more wireless flash systems and the trigger so I can control them with my camera.
Tripods aren’t popular with sports photographers—in fact, they’re not allowed at many stadiums—because they make it hard to move around, yet photographers need a way to stabilize their cameras, especially their longer telephoto lenses. Monopods can range from the affordable to the obscene in pricing, with the cost mostly based on the material and the type of locking mechanism on the sections. Carbon-fiber tripods are lighter than aluminum, and more expensive, too. A fast twist-lock extension system would cost more than a simple flip-lock system. Some great monopod brands are Benro, Gitzo, Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff, SLIK, Vanguard and others. No-brand monopods you find for cheap on Amazon or at Walmart will break, and they’ll break quickly, so it’s always better to pick one of the known brands.
There are three choices for camera bags—backpacks, rollers and standard bags (the kind that hang at your waist). For traveling to and from a game, I’ll try to stash my gear in a Think Tank Airport roller case, which permits for carry-on storage for flights. If you’re going to be running up and down a field—especially if you plan to have more than one camera around your neck, a roller or backpack bag is the perfect solution. Bags from F-Stop, Lowepro, Manfrotto, MindShift, Think Tank Photo and more. Even messenger bag companies like Chrome and Thule are getting into the action, with a range of camera-specific bags. And the adventure goods company Mountainsmith has just updated their TAN (“Tough As Nails”) camera bags, which are great for photographers working in extreme sports.
For quick shoots, where you have to change lenses quickly, go with a standard shoulder bag or a belt system. The Think Tank Belt System is a great choice.
There are plenty of good accessories to have on hand. For games outdoors, a good hat and sunscreen are key, especially when games can last several hours. Staying hydrated is equally important. My solution has been to fill up a CamelBak pack with half-ice and half-water. Stash a couple of Clif Bars in your bag, too, for good measure. I seldom take decent photos when dehydrated and hungry.
When photographing football games, I usually sport knee pads, as I like to get a low, kneeling perspective from the sidelines. At a basketball game, I’ll bring a folding foam camping chair for the baseline to help support my back. If you’re photographing an event that has radio play-by-play, sometimes it’s good to listen to it on a radio or stream it on your phone, just in case you miss a key play or injury.
Being a native Oregonian, I’m always prepared for rain. Always. Having a solid rain covering from AquaTech for your gear will help protect it from exposure. Many of the top sports cameras, include the two mentioned above, feature solid weather seals. While the cameras and lenses are definitely not waterproof, a slight drizzle never freaks me out.
Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term “The Decisive Moment,” which refers to waiting and calculating how and when to best take a single photo. I call my style of sports photography “The Decisive Motor Drive.” I have a wallet full of Lexar 128 GB CF cards, so that I never run out of digital storage. Much of my work really comes back at the home office, where I’ll spend several hours editing through a game take looking for those singularly great images.