Whether your goal is capturing live-action photography courtside or entering the editorial side of shooting sports, learning more about this field can help you take the next step on your career path.
What is sports photography?
In broad terms, sports photography is any type of photography that focuses on sports. As sports culture has grown in popularity, and now permeates fashion and pop culture, sports photography has expanded beyond live-action photojournalism to include product, editorial, and fashion photography for brands, athletes, and celebrities. While this offers more avenues for photographers seeking to build a career around sports, it’s also increased the number of budding sports photographers. Learn more about shooting sports photography and ways to enter the field to help you get up to speed with the competition.
Start with the basics to begin capturing great sports shots.
One thing that shooting sports and playing sports have in common is practice. “In the beginning, make things as simple as possible so you can learn the language of what it means to shoot whatever sport you choose,” photographer Pete Thompson says. By getting out there — whether that’s a high school football game at night or a midday soccer match — you can begin to learn where to stand at sporting events to capture the best shots and how to best capture motion. You may find that your initial thoughts on positioning or shooting methods don’t apply to every situation or sport — important lessons to learn before on-the-job shooting of a live sports event.
Take your trial shots without the aid of additional equipment so you can understand the challenges of shooting a sport, and begin to solve them with your camera before adding equipment variables.
Shutter speed is an important camera setting when you’re trying to capture motion. A fast shutter speed is ideal for freezing motion, which is typical for capturing action shots.
Equipping yourself with lenses of varying focal lengths is helpful for photographing live sports. You may need a zoom lens to get closer to the action.
Experiment with depth of field to capture different types of movement. Try a small f-stop, which opens the aperture of your camera wide, to blur the background and pull a single subject into focus, or go the opposite route to capture more of the scene around an athlete.
Panning photography can capture a moving object while leaving the surrounding scene blurred to convey motion. Using a monopod to keep your camera steady when panning can be helpful.
Lighting for sporting events, indoor sports, and the studio.
Being able to photograph sports outdoors at the right time of day may be ideal, but due to the requirements of fashion and editorial shoots, or the limitations of where and when live sporting events take place, choosing your preferred time and locale may be a rare luxury.
For live sports photography with a DSLR camera, checking each shot on the camera display (known as “chimping”) is helpful for making adjustments on the fly. This can help you compensate for harsh midday light or adjust for the low lighting of indoor sports, typically with a faster shutter speed and higher ISO value to allow more light into the camera. If possible — check with officials at the event — a mounted flash can be a useful tool for indoor sports, so long as it doesn’t distract or affect athletes.
If you’re shooting in a windowless gym and a client’s directive calls for nostalgic early morning light, you have to get creative. Trial, error, and experience bring it all together. “You start seeing and understanding the light. Then you start understanding what the strobe flash might do. That comes from using it over and over,” photographer Brendan Coughlin explains. “Google other photographers’ lighting setups and see how they can apply to your work.”
Be mindful of unique challenges that may arise in sports photography. Reflective technology on sportswear is visible only when the angle of incidence for how the light reflects is direct, like a person behind the wheel and their headlights. To capture this effect in product photography, strobe lighting needed for studio shoots won’t work. “We use a ring flash on the camera body, so whichever angle you’re pointed at, your camera picks up the hyper-reflective,” Coughlin says. “The light is always there without affecting the rest of your environment too much.”
Breaking into sports photography.
Whether your goal is shooting professional sports or capturing photos of your local pickup game, the desire to put sport on film is how you begin building your skills and making connections.
“Passion for the sport comes first — picking up a camera and working on that specific sport. You’ll begin to meet people who love that sport and have reach or influence within that community,” Thompson suggests. “I loved skateboarding, but I wasn’t the best skateboarder. But by the time I picked up a camera and started to express that, I knew a lot of really good skateboarders. That was my pathway into the skate magazines.”
If you’re having trouble finding athletes to photograph, keep in mind that most modeling agencies have athletic people in their client list that you can book time with.
Another route is to find a local community that does photography peer reviews, or seek out a photographer whose work and career you admire so you can learn from them on a shoot. “I was knocking on the specific door of the photographer that I wanted to work for, like, ‘Let me sweep your floors, let me you make your coffee,’” Coughlin recalls. “And then, two months later, he was like, ‘We have this shoot. Come work two days.’ Then he had four days of work for me. Then we worked 40 days in a row together and it led to me working with him for four years.”
As you gain experience, and the confidence that comes with it, you’ll have the opportunity to use your expanding portfolio and connections within sports to hustle for more work. That experience will also help you communicate better with clients, art directors, and agencies to supply them with photography that meets their goals or exceeds expectations. Over time, that day-in and day-out practice and execution will pay off big-time on game day.