Sports Photography: A Complete Guide
What is Sports Photography?
This is an area of photography where practitioners usually work with agencies, newspapers, and magazines to cover sports events. A sports photographer can work as a freelancer or as a staff photographer with a fixed, regular salary. Some photographers also create blogs or even books to pair their images with the corresponding stories for readers to follow. The photos can also be used for editorial and advertising purposes. Some also sell their freelance work on stock websites for extra income.
You may also read our ultimate guide to selling photos in 2020.
The most authentic type of sports photography is when the subjects are not aware that a photo is being taken. That’s why photographers often hide in VIP areas and shoot from afar or linger between the sportsmen and the spectators to capture the action on the court as well as the emotions of the fans. Quieter “behind-the-scenes” shots provide an interesting contrast to all the action.
Sports photography also includes other fields of photography. You need to incorporate portraiture, action- and group shots. You have nearly no control over the posing and background. That makes camera angles and perspectives so important and challenges photographers to adapt and react quickly.
This guide is here to help you get started in the area of sports photography or improve your existing skills.
What you need
Below you can find the basic equipment that every sports photographer needs to practice in the field;
In sports photography most photographers use DSLRs cameras. DSLRs are a type of digital camera that are proven to be long-lasting and very reliable. High priced models also withstand rain and snow and won’t let you down when you capture the next Football game in heavy rain.
Some sports photographers prefer mirrorless cameras. These types of cameras are relatively new in the market. While they do not have as many lens options, they are considerably lighter and more compact than DSLRs cameras. Mirrorless cameras also have more straightforward internal mechanics. This means that they can shoot faster than the latter which results in more pictures. However, DSLRs are more advanced.
I’m sure you have seen sports photographers with very expensive equipment. No matter your budget, you will find a DSLR within your price range. Even beginners’ cameras are already very good.
Upgrading your camera body over time will give you faster shooting and focusing modes. And you will still be able to use your other camera gear, such as lenses.
Hint: That’s why there is this “Canon vs. Nikon debate“ in the industry. As soon as you start with a brand, you stick with them as additional equipment only fits the same brand. If you decide to switch later in your career you will have to swap all of your stuff, which then, is really expensive.
The best lens for sports photography
In photography, it is always wise to have a wide range of lenses to chose from with you. Having different options will enable you cover all angles and perspectives of a sports event. The best lens depends on the respective moment of interest and the result you wish to achieve. For instance, if you want to get close to your subject (like in the picture above), a wide-angle or zoom lens is the best option. A zoom lens will also allow for more versatility. You can change the focal length depending on the situation and the desired outcome. This means you lose less time changing lenses and can stay on the action instead.
Another essential piece of equipment you need is a memory card. It is recommendable to use a memory card with fast writing speed. Such a card will help you store images fast, especially if you are using fast shutter speed. Regular photographers mostly use standard memory cards. However, these memory cards might not be ideal for sports photography because they cannot save photos quickly one after another and you might lose some photos.
Watch this video that shows the difference between a standard and a fast memory card:
Monopods are an incredible helpful tool, especially if you are using a rather heavy camera over a long period of time. Besides holding the camera, a monopod also helps to stabilize the body of the camera which improves the quality of your shots. Monopods are lightweight and easy to transport.
Other handy equipment
Shoulder strap: this tool will help you access the camera quickly and effortlessly. You may even want to get a strap that can hold up to 2 cameras. With a shoulder strap, you do not have to carry around a heavy bag with equipment.
Rain covers: sometimes you may be forced to cover an event in the rain – in which case you will want to be well-prepared beforehand. Make sure to have rain covers for your camera and yourself.
Bags: you need a high-quality backpack to carry all your equipment. Make sure the bag is secure, easy to transport and comfortable to carry. It should of course also be large enough to carry all your necessities.
Battery packs: if you use the autofocus all the time and shoot in burst mode a lot, your battery will drain very fast. Be sure to carry an extra battery with you.
Tips for becoming a successful sports photographer
Below are some useful tips to help you perform well in this special area of photography.
1. Learn the games and their rules
The first thing you ought to do if you are looking to thrive in sports photography is to understand the rules of the games you want to cover. The better you know the games, the better the chance to capture the most essential and authentic moments. You do not have to be a player yourself, but you can research the game, learn the rules and how the players earn points. This will also give you insight into the best shooting positions and ideas about the images that will capture the attention of an audience. It will also give you a hint about what type of camera would be ideal to use.
2. Master your camera
If you are not completely new to photography, this should not be an issue. However, if you try out photography for the first time, it would help if you invested time and energy into mastering your camera and its features. Understanding all aspects and possibilities of the camera will help you develop quality shots. Generally, the high-speed continuous shooting mode is suitable for fast action shots. To freeze action, you’ll need a fast shutter speed.
3. Set your focus and/or prefocus
Focusing well during an event with a lot of movement is really hard and you will probably have to sort out a massive amount of pictures with a missed focus. Instead, count on your camera’s built-in auto-focus: choose a continuous focus option, which is usually shown as AI Focus (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon).
Prefocus to get the action in just the right moment. For example: at a car race can easily predict where the cars will be at a certain point of time thanks to the racing line. Pre-focussing on this point will always give you a sharp picture of the subject.
4. Know your shooting positions beforehand
Planning is always a good idea. In sports photography, the best position is one where you get to face your subject. For instance, if you are covering a track meet, the best position would be at the curves so that you get to see the runners head-on.
If you need to cover a autograph session you need to “fight” for your place as everybody else will try to catch the best angle.
5. Master the art of exposure
It is mandatory that you understand elements like shutter speed, aperture and ISO because they affect the quality of the images significantly. For this type of photography, you will usually need a fast shutter speed, a large aperture, and variable ISO depending on the time of the day and the current lighting.
A rule of thumb says that you need a shutter speed above 1/250s for subjects that are moving quickly. The potential problem with a fast shutter speed is that you need more light entering the camera. Thus, taking action shots at night or in low light can be difficult. But luckily you can correct this with your ISO settings. When you increase ISO, you increase the “light-sensitivity” of your camera. This means that the light hitting your sensor is amplified. Depending on your camera, you may be able to set to Auto ISO, or you may have to experiment in manual mode to determine the best shutter speed/ISO match. Start with ISO 1000 and see what works best with your camera and the event you are shooting.
6. Analyse your images after every event
After an event, make sure you go through the images and scrutinize them one after the other. Out of all the photos you have taken per event, select 5 of the very best and add them to your portfolio. Analyze the images and try to understand your strengths and weaknesses so that you know what you need to work on.
7. Tell a story
Sports photos can be categorized into two categories: sportraits and stories. Sportraits are photos of a single athlete participating in a sport. Stories are images of a group of athletes partaking in a sports-event. If you are looking to tell a story, make sure you capture emotionally charged moments like a team mourning a loss or celebrating a victory, or two teams going neck to neck.
Sometimes, the most dramatic action happens after a point is scored or the finish line is crossed. What’s happening beside the track? What are the teammates doing? How are they reacting? Are the fans going crazy? Capture the area around you. Taking shots of your surroundings puts your photos into context and conveys a broader picture. Great sports photographers know that opportunities for the perfect shot don’t necessarily unveil amid the happening, but might occur during the preparations pre-start or during a tv-interview.
8. Practice makes perfect
The best way to improve and sharpen your skills is to keep practicing. Challenge yourself by taking on new scenarios. Doing so will help you improve your versatility.
9. Upgrade your gear constantly
Manufacturers and developers are constantly releasing new and improved products. Therefore, as a professional photographer, you ought to keep upgrading to stay ahead of the trends. Invest in new and improved products that support and enhance your skills to perfect your art.
Getting the shot
In sports photography, you ought to focus on all aspects of the respective sport. For instance, during a football game, you do not want to focus on a single player only, as he will distract you from what is happening in the game and with the other players. However, if a specific player is known for a particular mode of celebration for instance, capturing the moment may be the best decision you make.
Tips for capturing high-speed action
Once you occupy yourself with sports photography, more often than not, you will encounter high-speed action scenarios like motor races. For such events, you will need specific skills and techniques like:
• Fast shutter speed to capture each moment within a matter of seconds. With high shutter speed, you can freeze important and quick moments.
• A shallow depth field will also help you capture particular moments. It also helps to differentiate the focus, hence separating the subject from the background. This will allow you to show the viewers the most important aspects in the picture.
• You also need to create a relationship with practitioners and people involved in the organization of sport-events. Doing so will allow you to arrive at venues early and prepare before the event. Good relationships might also enable you to get that special, authentic behind-the-scenes shot everyone waits for…
• Position yourself and concentrate on on an area where the subject is set to arrive so that you can prepare beforehand (Prefocus).
Motion blur photography in sports
Motion blur photography is a very interesting and creative style for shots with an artistic touch. However, achieving motion blur photographs is quite challenging for new photographers. Most of the time, without the right technique, first attempts often result in bland and boring images. However, with experience and the right tools you can create incredible and artistic photos. Motion blur images are advantageous because:
• They help to capture fast paced action
• It helps to create visually pleasing images
• It helps with elements such as blurred background subjects
The business of sports photography
When print-magazines were still flourishing, the ultimate goal for any (sports) photographer was to work for a newspaper or a magazine which required patience, perseverance and good connections. This is still the case today. Publishing houses still have a lot of photographers soliciting contracts on their waiting lists. Don’t expect to start working in an employment contract immediately. Ask a small local newspaper. Maybe you can cover the next college football game? This will also help you fill up your portfolio.
Joining an agency might be a next step in your career. The agency will organize photoshoots and sell your pictures for you. This will allow you to work more and grab the attention of magazines, newspapers or other brands.
With social media platforms such as Instagram it is easier than ever to get exposure and maybe even be discovered by a brand looking for a sports photographer. Just think about Red Bull. They need a huge amount of pictures of so many different genres in so many different countries. I won’t say it’s easy to work for them but I think chances today are higher to be recognized if you present yourself well online.
Add your website to web directories like photognow.com. People, who are looking for a sports photographer can find you more easily this way.
Patience pays off. Talent, even more. And… a little luck never hurts.
Also companies like Finisherpix offer opportunities for sports photography enthusiasts to cover events around the world. Maybe this could be a starting point.
See our last blogpost where we asked 7 successful sports photographers how they started their career.
Average Salary for a Sports Photographer (USA)
The average salary is around $47,861 per year or $23 per hour. The top 10 percent makes over $79,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent under $28,000 per year.
As a sports photographer you do not have to focus your attention on sporting events only. You can also look for action off the field. Fans, coaches, mascots, and food vendors are also an incredible source for photojournalism stories. This type of photography can bring you a decent salary.
What do you think? Did we miss anything? Are you working in sports photography and want to share some tips with our readers? Leave them in the comments!
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