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Shooting Sports Video

How to translate still shooting skills to video
Shooting Sports Video

Although I was assigned to cover one particular athlete in this cross country race, I used footage from the start of the race that depicted the whole pack, which provided great context of what the event felt like.

Sports photographers have a unique set of skills. However, not all of those skills will necessarily carry over when you are shooting video.

But before I get into the details, here are some general thoughts to keep in mind when capturing video for sports:

  • Keep the big picture of your overall story constantly at the forefront of your shooting.
  • Ask yourself: “Am I getting enough of the right coverage to edit together a complete story?”
  • Successful sports videos are made up of all of the coverage that is needed to tell the story visually. Ask yourself: “Who is the story about? How will the story occur or might it occur?”
  • Are there additional elements, aside from your subject engaged in that particular event, that would help make your story even more compelling or complete?
Shooting Sports Video
Shooting high-impact sports video often requires you to put yourself into the action with the athlete, when possible.

How Capturing Photos And Bideo Of A Sporting Event Are Similar

The following list describes several ways that shooting stills and capturing video are similar:

Vantage Point: In most but not all situations, the still photographer and the cinematographer would fundamentally work from roughly the same vantage points when shooting sports. Positioning yourself close to your subjects (or as near as the event allows you to be) is essential, whether you’re shooting stills or motion.

Capturing Magic Moments Is The Objective: Each sport or event will have climactic or crucial moments, which convey a sense of drama. And these are almost always the focus for both the photographer and the videographer. Will they score the goal, win the race, nail the move or set a new record? These moments are what you’ll want to look for when shooting photos or video.

Making The Best Of The Lighting: It’s rare for still or video shooters to capture epic images or footage with even mediocre lighting. So, one of the biggest challenges both types of shooters face with sports is that you don’t always have great or even adequate light. And you’ll almost never have the opportunity to set up proper lighting at the sporting event you’re shooting.

So, you’re generally faced with the following scenario: You typically are trying to enhance or simply make the most of the available lighting at an event to make the best images or capture the best footage you can.

Shooting Sports Video
New lenses, like Sony’s FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 OSS G, can be good candidates for sports videography.

Why You Need Longer Lenses: While gear is important for all photo and video assignments, with sports shooting, we typically have to use some of the biggest, most expensive gear, and a lot of that is centered on lenses.

For instance, I often shoot interviews with focal lengths as wide as 16mm but generally not much longer than 85mm. (Both of my cameras utilize S35/APS-C sensors, if that gives you some scope about the field of view.)

In sports, I am more typically utilizing the longest lenses, like the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II. Or I’ll rent longer lenses, like a 100-400mm or even a 600mm lens on occasion. The reason is simple: The photographer or cinematographer can’t get physically close enough to the athlete to capture the shots and angles.

Shooting Sports Video
Use Bright Tangerine’s Revolvr Dual-Sided 15mm Studio Kit for manually focusing cine lenses.

 Besides Lighting And Composition, Focus Is The Challenge: Focusing is probably the single most challenging factor for shooting both stills and video.

Shooting with longer lenses, you will have shallower depth of field (DOF), which means that nailing focus on a fast-moving subject and making sure that your subject is sharp can be challenging.

While still photographers typically shoot sports with autofocus (AF), sports videographers may be using AF or manual focus, probably more so than their still-shooting colleagues. AF in video simply isn’t yet as refined, quick to respond and technologically advanced as AF for still shooting. Pro-level AF for video is a relatively new development, whereas pro-level AF for stills has been continually evolved and refined for decades. 

How Shooting Photos And Video Of A Sporting Event Are Different

When shooting video at a sporting event, you’ll generally be looking to capture the same sequence as still photographers, but you’ll need more lead in and will need more outro than you would for shooting photos since you must capture a whole sequence that can be edited into the larger edit you’ve shot (more on this later). This helps put the video in context.

In other words, sports photographers are concerned with generally shooting the right moment and the composition in frame. But when shooting video, you don’t need to press the shutter at the perfect moment; you generally are continually recording well before and after the moment occurs.

Best Practices For Capturing Great Sports Video

There are many techniques for capturing high-quality video of a given sporting event. Use the following list for best practices of shooting sports video:

Shooting Sports Video
Professional camcorders like Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini Pro G2 shoot at frame rates as high as 150fps in DCI 4K and 300 FPS in UHD and have a shoulder-mounted form factor, both of which make it an excellent candidate for shooting sports video.

Shutter Speeds And Frame Rates: When shooting video, keep the shutter speed of the camera at double the video frame rate. If you’re shooting video at 23.98 fps for a filmic look, use a 1/48 of a second (or 180-degree) shutter speed. However, if you’re shooting action with a moving subject and you’re moving your camera, you’ll end up with smeared-looking footage, since 1/48 of a second shutter is fairly slow. So, when shooting sports video and you want crisper, clearer video, experiment with higher shutter speeds.

But take care you don’t go too high. If you do, your video will resemble the “Saving Private Ryan” beach scene, with a jittery look that may not work for your subject and story.

As far as frame rates go, you’ll mostly be shooting at the frame rate determined by your project’s native time base. If you are editing your project on a 23.98 fps (aka 24 frame) timeline, shooting your video at 60 fps will result in the ability to slow down your video two-and-a-half times, without aliasing or other artifacts.

While slow motion is often overused, there is no denying that it’s a staple of sports video. It’s also often the only way to see the finer points of an action that may occur in a fraction of a second in real time.

Many newer professional video cameras shoot in high frame rates, up to 120 fps with smaller and less-expensive prosumer cameras, all the way up to 300 fps and higher with more expensive cameras like REDs and the Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini Pro G2.

There are also specialized cameras that can shoot into the thousands or even tens of thousands of frames per second, but those are expensive to rent and not typically used for most sports shoots.

Coverage: Unless you’ve been given a specific assignment to only shoot one athlete or moment, shooting sports video is all about the event. Sure, capturing that perfect moment of the athlete triumphing or failing is sweet, but it’s equally as important to capture some establishing shots of the venue, signage, audience and other competitors, so that you (if you are editing the story together) or your editor has enough material to craft a compelling story that puts the viewer at the event, right alongside your camera. The following are some of what you’ll capture:

  • Audience reactions.
  • Shots of cheerleaders or dancers.
  • Shots of other media professionals shooting the same event.
  • Scoreboard.
  • Details of clipboards, bullhorns, whistles, etc., or bits and pieces of what makes the event happen
  • Coaches and other athletes.
  • Fan signs or fans dressing up to support the team.
  • Sponsors and or sponsorship banners, logos, T-shirts.

Watch any network TV coverage of a sporting event, and you’ll commonly see all of this and more. 

Shooting Sports Video
Unmanned action cameras, like Go Pros or DJI’s Osmo Action, allow you to capture footage that you simply can’t get with a traditional camera.

Shooting The Action: In most cases, you’ll vary the footage you’ll want to capture, from distant, wide shots of the entire scale and scope of the venue all the way to telephoto extreme close-ups of the participants. Remember to move your camera and try to place yourself as close to the action as possible while remaining safe and not interfering with the event.

There’s a big difference in feel, field of view and immediacy between a 400mm close-up (CU) of an athlete and a 50mm CU of the same athlete shot from 10 feet away. It’s not always possible, especially with pro sports, to get physically close to the action, but when and where you can, do it.

Change your position often. This is where experience comes in, knowing how long and how many shots to shoot from a particular vantage point and when to move on to the next position without running out of time or missing the crucial shots, which could happen while you are moving to your next location.

Lastly, you’ll occasionally get a chance to include a viewpoint that is fully immersed in the action (as opposed to an observational viewpoint). If you have the opportunity, consider how you might use this point of view in your work.

Capturing Highlights: A highlight will vary between different sports, of course, but it’s important to capture what is most rare in a sport. In soccer, it could be a goal, since the scores are typically fairly low. In horse racing, it may be a nose-to-nose race to the finish line. And in auto racing, it could be a car crash. But most pros would agree it’s the most challenging part of shooting athletes and sports: Knowing when and where to be to capture the highlight of the event.

That’s why it’s important to do your research before an event and know who the most likely winners will be.

Here’s a tip to help you when trying to capture highlights: If you’re shooting the probable leaders of a race, keep shooting but don’t become glued to your viewfinder or screen. Keep your eyes and ears open for the crowd for any possible changes.

Shooting Sports Video
For this kite-surfing contest, I used a combination of camera movements: A camera with a long lens on a tripod, action cams on the competitors when possible and handheld and gimbal footage for interviews with the racers in between heats.

Camera Movement: Be creative with camera movements. Of course, part of the secret is knowing when to switch from a tripod to handheld or handheld to gimbal, etc. You probably want to do these changes when there is a lull in the action or when you are shooting something that will go on for a few minutes. You don’t want to miss your lead athlete crossing the finish in triumph because you were changing a lens or filter or from gimbal to tripod.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I hope you’ve found this overview of sports video shooting helpful. Just like with an athlete, practice at this makes perfect.

Shooting sports well is a unique skill that not everyone can master. Having a good game plan and a bag of tricks that are proven to work are keys to increasing your odds of capturing great footage. As a still photographer shooting video, just remember that you aren’t looking for that one perfect moment like you might be when shooting stills. You are telling a story that is a collection of moments.

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