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Sports photography is one of the last true forms of picture taking. The discipline is dynamic and spontaneous, where great moments happen when you least expect them, and pass away forever in the blink of eye. The creed among sports photographers is to “expect the unexpected”.
But to capture the right moment at the right time, you’ll need to know what equipment is best suited for sports photography. Generally, because playing surfaces are so large (ie, in football or hockey), you’ll likely be using a telephoto lens with a fast camera. A good 200mm lens is standard, but others opt for a 300 or 400 - even a 600mm lens in many instances. Most of the time, sports photographers will carry a few cameras with shorter lenses attached to them in case the action comes closer during the course of a game. The key to being a good sports shooter is to be prepared (pre-game and during) and to take a lot of pictures. There are so many opportunities in sports for a great shot, it is just a matter of looking around, following the game, knowing who the better players are, what the relationships are between teammates, coaches and teams.
At last year’s Super Bowl, 11 Sports Illustrated photographers took a total of 16, 183 photographs – that’s well over 1,000 shots for every shooter. But they don’t just take shots of anything and everything. SI shooters are among the best in the world and have a sense of timing in their action shots and have the editorial know-how to capture the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
But let’s start one step at a time. To be a great sports photographer means you will need to understand the sport you are shooting and you must also have great timing. If you’re shooting a sport you know nothing about, look and see what kinds of photos others have taken. Athletes and fans almost know what to expect in a sports photo, and while many could say that this is predictable, it is important to recognize that these “standard shots” are done for a reason. Sports photos are particular and the result will be unflattering if you don’t know how an athlete should look in action. Take the horse world for example. Showjumpers and dressage competitors are the most difficult to photograph, simply because it is easy to make a horse look clumsy in a sport that demands the horse look handsome and powerful. Having the skill to photograph a show-jumping horse with its ears forward, knees straight going over a fence is difficult in itself. Add to the fact that the rider’s back should be straight and eyes focused on the next jump (all the while considering your own shutter speed, lighting, aperture and positioning). You can see how complicated it can get. The same ideas can be crossed into other sports where you are getting action; you may not have control over a heck of a lot, but you should learn to know what a good shot looks like, and then, once you’ve done that, try getting that shot time and time again. This, unfortunately, is where practice and a good understanding of your camera comes into play.
You’ll need a camera with a fast shutter to capture action without motion blur. You might also want to balance this with aperture and, if you’ve ever been inside an old rink or high school gym, you’ll know that the lighting sucks. It is up to you to set your camera fast enough to get action, but slow enough to allow available light in. Most professionals use “strobes” (powerful and large flashbulbs positioned in the rafters). Strobes give great lighting and wipe out all worries of grain or dullness.
After you’ve mastered taking a picture of a moving object, you can start to look for shots that might tell a story. Keep your head on a swivel and look for a shot of victory or defeat. In photojournalism, these are editorial sports photos, and you’ll see a lot of them at the end of a championship. After winning the NBA title, one photographer took a shot of a player from the losing team with his hands on his face while the winning team was celebrating in the background of the shot. The photographer didn’t run to the winning team for a great celebration shot, but rather, stood back and got a telling shot of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. A great editorial sports picture.
So remember: the key to great sports photographs is first learning how to photograph a moving object and then learning how to sum up the story in your images. There is always something to photograph in sports photography. Keep your head up and enjoy the ride – as a sports photographer, you are as much a part of the action as the players you see on the court. Have fun!