Sport photography refers to the genre of photography that covers all types of sports.
In the majority of cases, professional sports photography is a branch of photojournalism, while amateur sports photography, such as photos of children playing association football, is a branch of vernacular photography.
The main application of professional sports photography us for editorial purposes; dedicated sports photographers usually work for newspapers, major wire agencies like Getty Images, or dedicated sports magazines. However, sports photography is also used for advertising purposes to build brand and as well as to promote a sport in a way that cannot be accomplished by editorial means.
We have all at one time or another been captivated by sports images. It may be the Olympics, Tour de France, World Series Cricket, Athletics, Horse Racing, Tennis, Motorsport or Golf. We have all been captured in the moment of human drama. We all like a good action photo and, in particular, if your kids play sports, you want to remember them in their toils. Sport is about capturing action and emotion, whether that be the intense thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.
Quality sports shots are somewhat difficult to come by. Most people have limited access to events to photograph them. The further away you are from the event, the harder it becomes to capture the event in a pleasing manner. Sports are an event where crowd control is important, not only for the crowd’s safety, but for the players also. There is nothing more frightening than to be on the sidelines of a football game, focused on a play in the field, when out of the blue a monster rugby player ploughs into your legs or a foul ball comes crashing towards your R250 000 lens!
You can only photograph things you can see. The closer you are to someone, the better you can see them. Sports are no different. You have to get as close to what you are shooting as you can. Typically, for a photographer with a press pass, you can get to the sidelines or other similar locations. You generally will not be permitted on the playing field. Depending on the sport, you most likely will be limited to designated locations. For most people, the situation is even worse. You probably don’t have press access and are stuck in the stands for your shots. Get as close as possible. Even if you make it to the sidelines, you will be jostling for space with many other photographers, both still and video who have worked hard to get there and have the same job to do that you have.
You also have to be familiar with the sport to be able to capture the moment. This means knowing where to position yourself for the best action. This is critical because of angular momentum. Not only does it matter with the subject, but the background. Look at what is going to be behind your subject. While we will try to minimize the impact that a background has, it will still be unavoidable. So, you need to position yourself where the background is the most pleasing.
Sports and Action photography is all about timing. It is about reacting. It is about being in the right place at the right time and it is about execution. These are all qualities of the athlete and those of the photographer as well. Each sport has predictable and unpredictable moments. By “Knowing your Sport”, you will learn about these moments for individual sports. For instance, in basketball, you will have opportunities to photograph layups, jump shots, free throws, etc. Understanding the timing of these predictable actions allows you to capture the peak moment, when the action is most dramatic.
By knowing these moments, you can anticipate the action. This helps in two ways, one it helps you with focus, and secondly it helps you snap the shutter at the right time. The saying goes “If you see the action you missed it.” This basically means if you wait for the soccer player to head the ball then press the shutter release, the ball most likely will be sailing out of the frame. You have to push the button before the action so that the mirror has time to flip out of the way and the shutter open and close. There is a delay between the image hitting your optical nerve and the shutter closing. You have to, through experience, learn what that time is and adjust for it.
Most sports are shot on 35mm cameras because of their portability. While some photographers have captured great sports moments with other format cameras, I use the 35mm arena which is the most commonly used gear.
“It’s not the equipment but the photographer who makes the picture” is generally a true statement. However with sports and action photography, having the wrong equipment means not getting the shots you want or need. The further away, the longer the lens is needed to capture the same image in the frame. Different sports require different lens lengths. For instance, basketball is generally shot from the baseline or sideline near the baseline. You generally can get good results with an 85mm lens in this situation. However, by the time the players are at mid court, you need a 135mm to capture them. If they are playing under the far goal, a 200-300mm lens is needed to fill the frame well, yet for shooting a soccer game, a 300-400mm lens is needed for just about anything useful.
Generally, for a 35mm camera, each 100mm in lens focal length gets you about 9 meters in coverage. This coverage means that on a vertical format photo, a normal human will fill the frame fairly well. Thus, if you are shooting Rugby from the 30 yard line with a 300mm lens, you will be able to get tight shots in an arc from the goal line to mid-field to the other 40 yard marker. As players get closer, your lens may be too long. Many photographers will carry two bodies with two different length lenses for this reason.
Lens speed is also a critical factor. The faster the lens, the faster the shutter speed you can use, which as the lens grows longer, this becomes even more important. If you look at the sidelines of any Rugby game, you will see people with really big lenses. These range from 300mm to 600mm or longer and even then, they may have a 1.4x converter or 2x converter attached. You need fast shutter speeds to freeze action with long lenses. Every f-stop you give up requires a faster film or less freezing potential.
Most consumer grade long lenses and zooms have variable apertures, but most are f/5.6 or f/6.3 at the long end of the lens. f/5.6 is good for outdoor day time shots, but becomes very inhibiting for night games and indoor action. Most people use lenses that are f/2.8 or faster. These lenses are very expensive. A professional 400mm f/2.8 sells for around R215 000. They are also very heavy and bulky. Using a monopod is a life saver with these big lenses, or a tripod if you in a fixed position with a gimbal mount. These lenses can double up for wildlife lenses as well. Depending on the type of sport one would be shooting, a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8, Nikon 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4 and 800mm f/5.6 would be the choice of lenses, all can be used in conjunction with either a 1.25x (dedicated to the 800mm f/5.6), 1.4x, 1.7x or 2.0x convertors, depending on the reach required. Besides these long lenses, you need a camera that can drive them, it goes without saying, you need a professional top of the range camera body that can handle 10-11 fps. Sport photography is by no means a cheap exercise if you looking for professional images.
I first began shooting motorsport on film around 2000-2003 in East-London, Eastern Cape, South-Africa, and joined the digital era shortly afterwards. Motorsports and cycling are still my favourite sport genre to shoot, although I have no issues shooting any other kind of sports; in fact I prefer the less photographed sports as you will see in my portflio, they are more interesting and offer amazing opportunities that one doesn’t normally get at say a packed rugby match.
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