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Design & Style

Sports Photography Guide: How to Shoot Sports Photos

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 5 min read

Sports photography is a challenging and rewarding branch of photography that requires the right timing, intuition, flexibility, and the ability to capture great shots with minimal blur. A sports photographer must be ready to press the shutter button at just the right moment to capture the game-winning moment.

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What Is Sports Photography?

Sports photography is a form of photojournalism that covers all aspects of a sporting event, including the athletes, coaching staff, fans, and the venue itself. Sports photographers can cover a range of sports, like surfing, bowling, basketball, soccer, and gymnastics. These photographers work for magazines, newspapers, websites, stock photo agencies, or independently. Sports photos can be used for editorial and advertising purposes. Sports photography requires the ability to anticipate a great moment along with split-second reflexes. Photographers position themselves near the action to capture subjects during their most intense moments.

What Equipment Do You Need for Sports Photography?

To become a professional sports photographer, you’ll need to invest in the right equipment:

  • A camera. DSLR cameras are the most common workhorse camera for sports photographers. There is a wide range of lenses and price points available for this specific camera type. Mirrorless cameras are a newer addition to the world of cameras, and while they don’t have as many lens options, they are often lighter and smaller than bulky DSLRs. A mirrorless camera’s simpler internal mechanics enable it to shoot faster than most DSLRs, but most DSLRs have advanced subject tracking, giving them blazing fast autofocus—an essential component for sports photography. You’ll need to know how to use your camera and equipment before you cover any sporting event.
  • Fast memory card. Choose a memory card with a fast writing speed, which dictates how quickly images are written onto the storage disk. Standard memory cards will not be able to quickly copy the hundreds of photos that you take in burst mode at an event. A fast memory card can help you avoid losing quality photos.
  • Different lens. Many sports take place up and down a field or pitch or court, which means you can’t always be right next to the action. There are a few types of lenses that will help you capture the best photos from any location. You’ll need a telephoto lens to shoot images from across the field, stadium, and court. A zoom lens with a focal length around 200mm allows you to adjust the depth of field to capture images up close and afar. A wide-angle lens can capture the football field, the fans in the stand, or the basketball court in the middle of play.
  • A monopod. Monopods are a great tool for sports photographers who have to hold a heavy camera for hours at a time. Monopods stabilize the camera body, allowing you to take your best shots, and they are easily transportable in instances where you need to sprint to the sidelines at a moment’s notice.
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7 Sports Photography Tips

Here are seven useful tips that every aspiring sports photographer should know:

  1. Know the sport. You need to be familiar with the sport—and the players—before you start shooting. To successfully shoot a sporting event, you need to understand the dynamics of the game and who to follow if you’re going to capture the best and most dramatic moments. If you want to shoot a sport you’re less familiar with, take some time beforehand to watch a few games on TV, study the rules, and learn what you can. You’ll get a better sense of how the action moves, what’s going to happen next, and what it means when the ref blows the whistle. This knowledge will lead to better-informed photos.
  2. Set your focus. Adjusting focus during a sporting event is one of the easiest ways to miss your shot. Instead, rely on your camera’s built-in auto-focus. Choose a continuous focus option, which is usually shown as AF-C.
  3. Increase your shutter speed and ISO. Opt for a faster shutter speed when you’re shooting sports events. You can experiment with different effects, like motion blur, but as a rule, you’ll need a fast shutter speed above 1/250s for quickly moving subjects. The potential problem with a fast shutter speed is that it lets in less light, taking action shots at night or in low light can be particularly difficult. However, you can correct this with a high ISO. When you increase ISO, you increase the camera exposure, letting in more light. 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 between ISO 1400 and ISO 1800 and see what works best with your equipment and the event you’re shooting.
  4. Check your flash. Many sports—especially professional and college-level—have rules about using flash. In some circumstances, the camera’s flash can distract or even blind players, putting their safety and the game at risk. Check with the coaches or athletic directors before shooting an event to determine their preferences and rules around using flash photography. It’s a good practice to avoid using your on-camera flash in outdoor events—it doesn’t reach very far and most likely will not capture the action.
  5. Shoot everything. While the action on the court, pitch, or rink is important, many other moments occur during a sports game that can result in a great photo. Sometimes, the most dramatic action happens after a basket is scored or a race is complete. What’s happening on the bench? What’s the coach doing? How about the fans? You should also capture the setting around you. Whether it’s as grand as a pro-basketball court or as intimate as a high-school football field, shooting your surroundings gives your action shots context. Great sports photographers know that opportunities for the perfect shot are not just in the middle of the playing field—they can occur in the fans’ reaction to a game-winning shot or a coach hurling his clipboard after a missed call by the refs. Burst mode is another great option for capturing as many shots as possible.
  6. Avoid chimping. “Chimping” refers to checking every single shot on the screen of an LCD camera after hitting the shutter button, which can take you out of the action. When you’re shooting sports, you need to be fully engrossed in what you’re shooting. That means getting into the flow of taking shot after shot after shot. If you’re chimping, you’re looking away from your viewfinder, the camera, and the flow of action. Instead, focus on getting into the flow of what’s happening in front of you. Chimping can also be dangerous. If you’re looking at the camera screen, you’re not looking at the action around you—and that action might overtake you without you realizing it.
  7. Switch things up. Sometimes, the best photos break all the rules, creating a new kind of image that stands out in your body of work, but potentially changes the game for everyone. While you’re out there snapping, take a minute to play around with your camera settings. It can result in a major payoff.

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