8 Sports Photography Tips to Improve Your Game

September 19th, 2017
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By David Liam Kyle

Over the years I have photographed many professional sporting events. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to photograph high school sports, especially during state tournaments. I love the emotion of the athletes, the ability to creatively change photo positions, and the potential to capture the drama of the sport. For these tips I will use high school sports as the middle ground, although they apply to all levels from tee-ball to professionals.

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“Failure to Prepare is Preparing to Fail”

This famous quote by John Wooden is one I try to follow in my life, especially in my profession. I have all my equipment packed and ready to go the night before an assignment. I review the shoot process as soon as I receive an assignment, and I prep all the proper gear as early as possible. I pack extra, fully charged NiCads, the correct lenses for the shoot, camera bodies, high speed Lexar cards, Gitzo Monopod and a chamois cloth. If you are photographing youth league or high school sports, make sure you have permission from event organizers ahead of time and know your restrictions in terms of photo positions. This way you will avoid any game time issues that may prohibit you from shooting.

The Importance of Positioning

Be smart and considerate when choosing where you shoot. I arrive early to an event to evaluate the lighting conditions and check for the best photographic positions. Generally, I want to work with the sun, not against it. I prefer nice side or frontal light, and I make sure I have clean, dark backgrounds. Try to avoid having signs, trees, parking lots, garbage cans, etc. in your background. Darker backgrounds and wide apertures make the athletes pop in the image. It is important that you try to find shooting positions where your viewing angle will not get blocked by officials or umpires. At the same time, be polite and make sure you do not block the view of spectators.

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Exposure: The Wider the Better

I always try to shoot wide open. That means setting and shooting with your aperture set at F2.8, F/4 or F5.6 depending on your lens. I usually shoot in Manual or Aperture Priority Mode at the widest setting possible. The bigger the aperture opening, the less depth of field you will have, isolating your subject from the background. The wide-open aperture will also let more light into your camera, creating a faster shutter speed. You usually need to have your shutter speed at least at 1/1000 of a second to stop the action. It is recommended to shoot at 1/2000 or faster to stop extremely fast action, such as a pitcher’s throwing motion or a swinging bat. Adjust the ISO in your camera to accomplish the correct shutter speed. For the best image quality, you want to keep your ISO as low as possible. Take a couple of test exposures to double-check this, because the dark background or bright white uniforms can trick your meter and overexpose your main subject. Know how your camera works and set it accordingly. I also use the Continuous Focus setting and one center focus point in my camera. This way your camera focusing system is not jumping around, and you have more control of what’s in focus.  

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Know the Game

Be knowledgeable about all the sports you plan on photographing. Some photographers, after viewing my Cavaliers photos, ask me if I know the plays. The truth is, I usually have the plays down within the first few games of the season.  Pay attention to the game and anticipate what play may happen next. For example, during a baseball game, is the runner on first going to steal second? Is there a chance for a double play? Will there be a play at the plate? Could this be the game-winning hit? I have seen photographers miss photos because they were chatting with the person next to them. Anticipate! Once a play happens, you better be ready, because it will not happen again.

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Silhouette Images

Silhouette images are fun and easy to shoot, providing the sun is out and you have a clean background. I took this low angle silhouette by focusing on the first hurdle, then set my camera on the ground and composed the image. I employed manual exposure to expose for the sky, and used a 17mm lens at f/14 at 1/1000 to stop the action. Test some exposures ahead of time to get the desired effect.
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Not Just Action

When the play is over, don’t put your head down and look at your images. There are a lot of great sports images that are not action shots. Keep an eye out for something different or unusual. Look for images that tell a story and capture the drama and emotions of the game.

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Try a Different Angle

Try shooting from the stands for a higher view with a long lens. From the upper position you can get cleaner backgrounds and more artistic images. Obviously, this only works if you are shooting in a larger stadium with an unobstructed view.

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A Fan of the Pan

Another artistic way to capture amazing sports action is by panning. When photographing a moving athlete, the panning technique is achieved by keeping your main subject in the frame for the entire time of the exposure. The slower your shutter speed, the more unusual and interesting the effect. Pre-focus on the runner’s lane and start following your subject before you press the shutter release button. I generally tuck my elbows into my chest and turn at my waist, following my main subject as I press the shutter release button.  Follow the runner all the way through, and do not jerk or stop your camera as you are shooting. Don’t be afraid to use your motor drive if you have one. Generally, the faster your subject, the faster your shutter speed should be. This technique will take some practice and some experimenting with different shutter speeds to get your desired image.

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The above tips have worked for me. I hope you are able to benefit from them as well. And if you photograph recreation leagues or school sports teams, Zenfolio is a great platform for sharing your photographs with clients in private galleries or posting online to share or sell. I use Zenfolio to promote my work but I also love the private client access, which allows clients to download photographs easily and professionally.

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