Sports: The Competitive Edge

Brett Wilhelm

In the sponsor-rich world of televised competition, clean backgrounds can be hard to come by. Separating the athlete against the sky while still showcasing the fans and overall ambience makes for a compelling competition shot.

Advancing technologies and evolving educational resources in the last decade have led to a new golden age in digital sports photography for both amateurs and professionals alike. It’s never been easier to creatively capture and spontaneously share moments from such a broad spectrum of sporting life. While the path to compelling imagery has never been paved more smoothly, the principles of fine photography remain the same.

Practice Makes Perfect

The beauty of digital photography is the instant visual feedback and thus the accelerated learning curve. Whether your aspirations are professional or just better enjoyment of the craft, the price of practice, in both time and dollars, has never been more cost effective. When I started in photography in the mid ‘90s, the per-picture cost of film and processing, combined with the 24- to 48-hour delay between the time you captured imagery and the associated chance to view the developed film, severely steepened the learning curve. Twenty years later, I’m experimenting, failing, adapting and succeeding with new techniques at a much greater rate, all within the span of a single assignment. We live in fortunate times, photographically speaking. In what follows, I hope to help accelerate your learning curve in a similar manner.

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One of the primary misconceptions of aspiring photographers is that the biggest sporting events make for the best pictures or that you need to muscle onto the sidelines of the Super Bowl for the real portfolio-worthy images. Nothing could be further from the truth, as one of the keys to great photographs is access, and that resource is increasingly in short supply the farther you move up the sporting food chain. You’re far more likely to make compelling new and different imagery at your local Little League game than the press box of the next World Series.

Brett Wilhelm
Get low for a unique perspective. Placing the camera on the court surface to look upward gives a grand scale to the action and creates a sense of place at the historic Madison Square Garden.

Preparation And Planning

A great deal of success in photography boils down to preparation. Take the time to be a student of the sport or sports you plan to photograph. On many an occasion, I’m tasked with photographing sports and events I’m fairly unfamiliar with, often at the respective championship level, and it’s my responsibility to learn as much as possible about the sport at hand in preparation. Talk to athletes and fans about the fundamentals of the game, understand the format of play and length of competition so you can better plan your coverage. Where applicable, try to get a feel for the elements of proper style so you know you’re capturing correct execution of a gymnast’s routine or a freestyle skier’s aerial. If unsure, ask an athlete or coach. Watch previous competitions or study existing photographs and start building a mental shot list in your head of things you hope to capture.

Talk to officials prior to competition to understand where you can and can’t be, to preserve the quality of the athletic experience for competitors as well as, in some cases, to ensure your own safety. Understand what sport-specific dangers might be in play: Are you in the crash zone of a higher-risk section of the motocross track? While covering a 400-meter track race, could you unknowingly back up into the field of play for the javelin field event? Are you going to have a convenient, secure place nearby to store gear or do you need to plan to carry everything with you all day? Are you going to need rain/foul weather gear for yourself or your gear that day? All of these questions will leave you better prepared for when
opportunity presents itself.

Exploring The Venue

Now that you’ve prepared and have arrived in plenty of time for your event, take a moment to walk the venue completely so you can understand the most flattering shooting angles and perhaps discover unique perspectives. Pay close attention to the time of day and how the light might change over the course of the competition. Warm low-angle sunrise and sunset light is almost always more flattering and interesting than the cool, direct-overhead contrast of midday. If in a stadium environment, when will shadows of the stands or surrounding buildings begin to work their way onto the field? Will the quality of light improve or decrease over the course of the event? If indoors or under outdoor stadium lighting, can you use a preset white balance for the known lighting?

Brett Wilhelm
Finding perspectives with clean backgrounds, using wide apertures for shallow depth of focus and capture in short bursts to get just the right athletic positioning makes for striking action images.

Look for angles that include clean, simple, non-distracting backgrounds. Given the choice, I’ll almost always lean toward additive background elements of fans or coaches/teammates compared to distracting elements like big, blocky, white event tents or randomly parked cars.

Understand that the eye naturally gravitates first to the brightest spot of an image, and use this to your advantage when planning out your compositions. Under midday sun, I’ll almost always try shooting slightly backlit to avoid the harsh shadows of overhead frontal lighting. Gear toward angles that place subjects in direct sunshine and backgrounds that fall into shadow, mostly avoiding the opposite. Sometimes, the cleanest angles are up in the stands or other nearby high-ground, photographing down onto the playing surface, especially as early or late light elongates shadows.

Read Your Manual

If you take away one technical tip from this whole piece, let it be the following: read your camera owner’s manual cover to cover. I have professional camera-representative friends who joke that they only have a job because photographers refuse to read the manual. Understand what your camera can and can’t do for you. Read up on the various menus, options and display iconography so that you can not only maximize the feature set, but also for when you invariably bump the camera settings into some mode like auto-bracketing, you understand how to deactivate it before you’re in the final moments of a big event and flustered as to why your camera has apparently taken on a life of its own. I’m on, likely, my 15th Nikon camera iteration, and I still read the manual cover to cover.

ISO And Aperture

While modern cameras offer extraordinary high ISO/low-light capabilities over cameras from even five years ago, as a general rule, keeping ISOs lower in a camera’s range ensures better contrast, color quality and lower noise. Accordingly, investing in higher-quality “faster” (wider aperture) lenses ensures an ability to maintain higher shutter speeds to freeze action and lower ISOs to improve image quality. The wider apertures also offer more visually pleasing bokeh and softer backgrounds, drawing the viewer’s eye directly to your selected point of focus and lessening distraction.

Shutter Speeds And Motion Blur

Over time, you’ll learn the shutter speeds necessary to freeze action in various sports. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. Play with various shutter speeds and check sharpness on the back of your camera. A shutter speed of 1/250th of a second might be plenty to freeze a putting golfer, whereas 1/2000th of a second might still not freeze the ball in a high-speed tennis serve. Pay close attention to the creative differences shutter speeds can play in certain situations, say the look of splashing water around a swimmer at 1/400th of a second versus 1/4000th of a second. The slight dynamic feel of auto racing with car tires slightly motion blurred at 1/200th of a second versus the freeze frame of everything in the image at 1/2000th. Finally, take the time to experiment to slow the shutter speeds way down and try tracking motion blurs on all sorts of sports. Here, repetition and experimentation is key. You’ll motor drive through tons of frames as you slow down shutter speeds in order to capture successful frames.

Brett Wilhelm
Getting the focus point off center when lining up your shot makes it easier to maintain the composition as the action progresses.

Continuous Shooting

Continuous shooting rates above 10 fps on sports-oriented DSLRs shouldn’t be viewed as license to hammer away continuously every time a play or other action sets in motion, but they give the shooter a better chance, using quick bursts, to capture just the right dynamic moment. Wait for the right composition, the right body position, just prior to the peak of an athletic leap, the impending collision of two players, a dynamic change in direction or other compelling moments to fire off short bursts. Apply this liberally at first, but over time, hone your skills to key in on the right moments, lest you unnecessarily bury yourself in hundreds of average images only to occasionally score gold.


Take a moment to read up on the autofocus modes available to you with your camera model, including the potential to assign “back button focus.” This allows the photographer to control autofocus activation independently of the shutter release button. Separating this functionality can be very useful as a subject moves behind another player or object temporarily or moves off of a focus point, preventing the camera from suddenly jumping to a background/foreground element and forcing a longer time to require the action in a sequence of shots. Accordingly, different continuous autofocus modes are developed for different sports and activities, some optimized for continuous straight-line speed (track sprinting, auto racing), others for erratic stop/start or side-to-side movement (football, tennis), others still for fastest AF acquisition in a general area of the frame (say for a ski racer coming over a blind jump). Learn the modes and let the camera do the work for you. Modern AF technology is much more responsive and accurate than most people could ever hope to focus manually.

Finally, get that focus point off the center of the frame! We’ve all learned the “rule of thirds” and other off-center compositional techniques that create more interesting frames. By moving the active focus point to another part of the viewfinder to create and maintain more interesting compositions as you approach each scene, you’ll have an easier time creating more compelling images. I’m constantly moving my focus points around as each new scene or play develops. As you line up your shot, learn to quickly scan the edges of the frame so you aren’t unknowingly cropping off key subjects’ feet, hands, etc., and adapt accordingly. If you must crop, better to crop mid-shin, mid-thigh, etc., as it’s usually more visually pleasing than cropping at the joint.

Brett Wilhelm
It’s all about the details. Getting low as a ball fell into dramatic on-field light, I waited for the athlete to come pick it up and humanize this otherwise abstract tight shot.

Varying Your Viewpoint

Experiment with all the lenses in your kit. Try to make interesting scenes with a wide-angle 35mm lens when you normally would use telephoto 200mm. Constantly move around to experiment with new perspectives. There’s an old adage in photography that your best zoom lens is your feet. Most budding photographers will take most images from standing height, six or so feet from the subject. Take this as a challenge to find new perspectives. Drop to a knee, lie down in the grass, get up in the stands and shoot from a high angle, go wide and shoot over the shoulder of cheering fans to show a different perspective. Zoom all the way in, and shoot only pieces and parts of athletes, a sweaty hand/arm on a ball, just an emotive expression of a face. Think wide shots (scene setters), medium shots (action), tight shots (details) to tell the full story of the event. Mix up a variety of horizontal and vertical compositions; some sports lend themselves better to one aspect or the other. Remote cameras are another valuable tool in the sports photographer’s arsenal to capture unique angles or provide a second point of view.

Everything But The Action

While peak action may often be king, never lose sight (pardon the pun) of everything else surrounding the event. Try to maintain a 360-degree awareness of everything happening in the venue and understand that there’s plenty to capture before, after and during pauses in competition. In telling the story of sporting life, don’t neglect the trainers, coaches, teammates, fans, bands and everyone else involved in the day. Pictures that further illustrate the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and all the quiet moments in between are key to compelling coverage.

See more of Brett Wilhelm’s work.

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