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15 Sports Photography Tips
It’s Not A Game, It’s Common Sense
Some of the greatest momenets in sports photography happen during game delays,
One of the world’s greatest hockey players, Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” and this famous quote applies to sports photography too. Just don’t confuse it with an amateur sports photographer who sprays and prays with their high-speed, motor driven digital cameras, as it’s best to shoot conservatively and make the shots count. Here’s a few pointers you can use in all sports photography and it comes from shooting sports sporadically over the past thirty years, from Little League baseball to almost six years of shooting NBA basketball games.
1. First rule of sports photography, don’t get caught up in the game. Nine times out of ten, you’ll have losers and winners, so get used to it—it doesn’t matter if your team wins or not, what matters is that you get some powerful photos and when you start worrying about the points, the fouls, the strike count or the yardage, you’ll miss the most valuable shots. Celebrate or sulk, after the game, but walk away knowing you’ve got your shots.
Never get caught up in the game, or you'll miss the shot.
2. The best sports photographers, and for that matter photojournalists of every genre know, that some of the best shots are before or after the game, not always during the game. So get there early and be prepared to leave late, seriously, you’ll get better parking and when it’s time to really leave, the traffic will be almost gone.
3. One of the advantages of getting to a game early and leaving late, is sometimes you can network, not socialize, but network, with referees, coaches, players and even the water boy. This is very important for several reasons including if you get in a pickle, chances are they might come to your rescue and other times, when you need that favorable shooting spot, they’re more apt to help you achieve that if they know you—call it the buddy system. Nurture this rapport and networking with the team by bringing a few of your greatest photos along with some behind the scene shots and give them to the team—people love photos of their work when it comes to sports.
Access is everything, especially during the playoffs. Without access I'd never been able to get this Western Conference Finals championship shot of Tony Parker with team owner Peter Holt at an NBA playoff game.
4. Access is everything, whether it’s an NBA playoff game or a Little League World Series game, so start finding out at the beginning of the season how you can secure that access—if you wait until your team or the local team advances to the playoffs, you’ll lose every time as the players, media director, staff, etc., all have playoffs in mind and have to deal with tons of people that all of sudden are “now” fans of the team—including photographers they’ve never heard of—make your name with the team as early as preseason, earn your brownie points, with dignity, in the beginning and it’ll pay off in the end.
5. Know the rules, coaches don’t like their players bothered before the game anymore than during or after the game. If it’s a professional sports team, you have to coordinate in advance with the media director (in pro sports don’t confuse this with the public relations director) to speak to any player. In professional sports you are not allowed to ask for autographs much less hand your camera to someone so you can get a “photo op.” Even in the minor leagues, treat all players, personnel and staff with dignity and respect, this will go a long ways for that access, especially when playoff season arrives.
I shot this photo of James Silas over 30-years ago. Even then I studied th players and knew where he liked to pass the ball to get this shot.
6. Speaking of playoffs, most professional sports reduce the amount of photographers and videographers on the shooting venues, as the crowds fill the stadium or arena, space is tight, you’d be surprised how many additional seats are added for VIP’s and dignitaries ($$$) in place of a photographer’s shooting spot. Understand that professional sports is a business, those athletes don’t get paid millions of dollars each year for nothing. Professional sports is a multi-billion dollar business and those that get the best shooting venues, or access, are those with bigger media organizations—it’s about the eyeballs, both on and off the court.
If you’re shooting for the Associated Press, Reuters or Sports Illustrated, you’re pretty much as good as gold for getting a great shooting venue. If you’re shooting for the local weekly rag with a paid circulation of 50,000 people, you’re better off purchasing some great seats, leaving your camera at home (as most professional sports games don’t allow fans to bring in professional cameras) and enjoying the game.
Get over it, it’s a business and if the AP or SI can get a million viewers to see their published images, it’s great PR and free advertising. In the professional leagues, for the league itself, the team and the owners it translates into more dollar sales of hats, t-shirts, and all those other walking, logo, billboard, overpriced things they love for you to spend your hard earned money on to make them wealthier. It’s about profit, not loss.
When you suspect something is going to happen, pre-focus first, as I did with this dunk.
7. Be prepared, the possibility to get pulverized during a game exists. Well we hope not, but it’s not uncommon for sports photographers at any level to get smacked, hit, run over, stepped on and in rare cases, hit in the face. Sports is a rough game at times and not just for the fans or players, anyone near the action can become part of the action real fast. Always be aware of your surroundings, the last thing you want to be known for is if a star player gets injured because you were in the way.
8. Shooting digital sports photography is a must today. Whether it’s for deadlines for publication or just soccer Mom’s wanting their pictures now, we’re in a world of convenience and speed—nobody wants to wait. Can the film, bring extra digital capture cards, batteries and always pack a spare camera body and lens. If your equipment doesn’t fail, as Murphy will eventually come around, then the chances of equipment damage exists too, especially if you get pulverized in the heat of the moment.
9. With digital photography comes white balance. This is another reason to get to a game very early. Just pick a player during warm-ups as usually one team wears white, and there is your walking white balance white card. Worse case, ask a towel boy to hold a white towel for you to set your camera’s white balance. In shooting sports manual white balance works best as usually your lighting never changes. Not to mention, some sports venues don’t allow flash, so you’ll be increasing your ISO somewhere from ISO 400 to ISO 1600—for most NBA arenas ISO 1250 works best. When you don’t use flash, especially at professional sports games, you’re usually at the mercy of the lights used for television, or television light grids.
Just walk up to any videographer and ask them what Kelvin their white balance is, then set your camera accordingly. If it’s a local home game, get there early and start taking warm-up snaps and chimp till you get it right. Chimping is the art of ooh, aah when you look at your LCD screen.
10. As crazy as this may sound, make sure and go to the potty before the game! Worse thing that could happen is during a dramatic part of the game you get a call from nature. Nature doesn’t wait and they certainly don’t stop the game for your visit with Mother Nature.
Some of the most interesting shots occur either before or after the game.
11. Maybe I should have done this one before the nature calls statement, but it’s always best to take care of your appetite way before the game—eat after the game. Don’t go in with the attitude I’ll get something at half-time. Remember, some of the best shots are before or after the game but sometimes during those rest periods and “time-outs.” You can sometimes get some funny shots if not some interesting photos.
12. Bring the right lens(es). Rarely will you go wrong with a 70-200mm F/2.8 lens. It’s one of the most common lenses today, especially image-stabilized lenses. This lens works just as good at a high-school football games as it does at an NBA or NFL game. Now depending on the sporting event, you should also carry a wide to medium-telephoto zoom lens and sometimes a 300mm lens too. The faster the lens (wider, minimum aperture) the better as usually this is great quality glass plus it makes it easier to focus your camera.
13. If you can program your camera so you can use the button on the back for focusing and disable the shutter release for focusing, you’ll find this works best—my Canon 5D Mark II is made for this and I even use that focusing method when photographing models. Another focusing tip, learn to pre-focus. Most players have their shooting spots in basketball, so pre-focus on the floor. If the player is coming in for a dunk, focus on the net and wait for them to arrive—the same goes for baseball, focus on home plate so when they slide in, you’re safe at home plate with a great image.
14. Learn to anticipate the action, the plays, the reactions of the game and players. Like people, a team and it’s roster all have personalities. Study them. Study their character. Study their methods. Study their techniques. Study their style. Yep, that’s what scouts do, they study, study, study and photographing a regular team is the same for a photographer. If you study the team, it’s staff and players, you’ll be able to predict when the best shots will happen.
Shooting sports is great for coordination of the hand, eye and mind for photography.
15. Don’t play around with panning and zooming special effects or techniques until you know you’ve got your shots in the can. It’s like a commercial shoot, get what the art director (sports editor) wants first, then play around for some interesting portfolio shots.
Well that’s it for now until I get some sports photos and the stories behind them written up for the “diaries” section of Lens Diaries™. So enjoy these tips, get out there and shoot. Remember, even if you don’t like sports, sports photography is challenging. It will make you a better photographer no matter what field of photography you’re in because things happen fast in sports and shooting sports exercises your hand (shutter finger), mind (helps reduce hesitation) and eye (composition, creativity and focusing) coordination. I like to call it QRT, or quick reaction timing.
Quick Reaction Timing, QRT
Shooting sports is great to condition the mind, hand and eyes for proper coordination in all photography.
Photography is a sport itself at times. And like the great Wayne Gretzky once said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be—and what that means in sports photography; A good photographer shoots from the same spot everyone else does, a great photographer finds the shot.