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Sports Photography - Quick Start for Beginners
Sports photography may be daunting for the beginner photographer, and it is. It takes a lot of practice and good gear to take shots that are worthy of magazines, but with persistence and some studying, the process is made a little easier. Hopefully this guide can help speed you along.
I've made this guide from my experience shooting pictures for my school's photography club. As part of the club, we were able to take assignments to shoot sports matches and performing arts concerts, and we had access to some good gear as well. While gear is important, what matters is your photography knowledge, skills and intuition, as well as a little bit of luck.
Before you shoot
Prepare your gear
What kind of gear should you take for sports photography?
Many point-and-shoot and prosumer cameras have ‘sports’ shooting modes which set a fast shutter speed and adjusts the other settings around it. However, you should use a DSLR or mirrorless camera that has fully adjustable settings and interchangeable lenses for more control over what you shoot, and what you can shoot. Entry-level DSLR are good enough for the job, so you don’t have to shell out for the more expensive advanced models unless you want to go pro.
If you’ve seen professional photographers in a sports match, you would have noticed that they use large and heavy lenses. These are telephoto lenses – lenses with a long, often fixed focal length that allows you to take pictures from far away, essentially like how telescopes allow you to see far objects. The focal lengths used in sports photography range from 200mm to 400-500mm.
Zoom lenses are usually not available for focal lengths above 300mm, and cheaper ones often lack important features like image stabilization – of course, you should check the specifications for details. However, they offer some versatility in that you can quickly zoom in to shoot further objects or zoom out to capture the action up close.
Both fixed telephoto and zoom-telephoto lenses are expensive, so I suggest you rent or borrow one if you do not plan to shoot sports photography as a job or a regular activity. Used lenses are available from sites like eBay, B&H or KEH, so keep an eye out. Remember to verify the condition of the lens before buying.
Tripods are almost always a must if you’re using a long telephoto lens – they’re heavy, and you’re liable to get a lot of camera shake if you’re using your camera hand-held. While image stabilization does a good job countering the effects of camera shake, it’s often insufficient at long focal lengths – when you’re more zoomed in, camera shake becomes more noticeable. Get a sturdy tripod with a quick-release feature so you can move to another position quickly without your tripod whenever the need arises.
If you’re expecting rain, use a rain cover. Find one that fits your camera and your lens, so you get a good seal. If you’re caught off guard by a cloudburst/sudden rain, wear a disposable poncho and put your camera under the front side, while keeping the lens clear -- that way, you can use the camera and keep it relatively dry. Use a lens hood to keep water from getting in the way of your shots as well. If the rain gets too heavy, though, I suggest you find shelter and try your best to shoot from there if you don’t have a proper rain cover.
Learn about the game
While keeping an open mind is the way to go for photographers and artists in any field, it also helps to have some idea of what to expect. Watch a few games and learn about the basic rules to know what you’re looking for in the game. Sure, you might be focusing on taking pictures of your child or your friend, but you shouldn’t miss opportunities to make some really great shots while you’re out there. Knowing the people’s positions and roles in the field also helps you find that moment where they truly shine.
Know your etiquette
As a spectator, you’re expected to follow some rules while enjoying the game. Don’t fight, don’t distract the players, and so on. Photographers are not exempted from such rules, and depending on where you are watching the game, there might be some additional rules for photographers.
Generally, there are few additional rules for photographers sitting on the bleachers. If you’re shooting from the sidelines, though, you might need a special permit from the venue manager. You would also be expected to stay within a certain distance from the playing field’s boundaries and no closer. This is for your safety and the players’, as well as to allow the game to run smoothly whenever the ball gets out of play. Some venues have specific areas for photographers, so consult the venue manager and/or the match officials for details.
Flash photography is usually forbidden because it can potentially distract players, although it depends on where you are: photographers on the ringside in boxing matches often use flash, but that’s mostly because the venue is not that well-lit in the first place. If you’re shooting outdoors on a sunny day, though, camera flash is not that useful for sports photography so you can, and should, disable it.
Lastly, be polite. Try not to block the view from other people and don’t jostle with spectators or other photographers. Everyone’s there to have fun and enjoy the game, so don’t ruin it for everybody.
On the field
Shutter priority – speed is of the essence
When you press the shutter button on a camera, the camera’s shutter opens to expose the sensor (or film, in film cameras) to incoming light for a certain amount of time. If the shutter is opened for a shorter time, it captures less light but enables you to ‘freeze’ moving objects in the shot. Longer exposures allow more light to hit the sensor/film, but because it captures all light coming in within a longer time frame, moving objects are often blurred. This is known as motion blur.
In DSLRs, you can adjust the shutter speed while allowing the camera to adjust other settings to expose the picture well by using the shutter priority mode. It is often marked as Tv or T on the camera’s settings dial. In this mode, the camera will adjust the aperture and ISO settings while you manually adjust shutter speed to your liking. Whether you want a shorter or longer exposure time depends on the kind of picture that you want, of course. While most sports photos are captured with short exposure times for that ‘freeze-frame’ effect, you can get some interesting effects through slightly longer exposures, allowing motion blur to set in while keeping the gist of the action.
I’m not just talking about your camera’s focus. Keep your eyes peeled and watch out for the best moments. A general rule is to keep your eye on the ball/puck/whatever, but sometimes you’ll want to scan the whole field or anticipate where the ball will go next. This is where your knowledge of the game gets put to use – if you know the game enough, you should have some idea of what the players will do in certain situations, which actions look the best and whether a shot will get in the goal.
It’s not all about the action
Sports is all about competition, and competition brings out a lot of emotions. Joy, frustration, sadness and pride can all be seen in a sports match. While players are often so focused they show very little emotion while playing, brief pauses in the game give you a chance to see the emotions in them. For example, a baseball batter may show perfect concentration while running towards the home base, but his façade would crack when he manages to safely reach the base… or fail.
Audience reactions are very diverse and provide you with a lot of opportunities as well. Whenever there’s a break or pause in the game, try to spot unique groups of spectators and get a picture of them. You can capture their reactions towards the players scoring points or their team winning/losing as well. Of course, if a member of the audience does not want their picture taken, you should apologize and delete the picture if you’ve taken one.
Enjoy the game
At the end of it all, you’re still a spectator watching the game; unless, of course, you’re paid to take pictures of the game. Either way, remember to enjoy the game and appreciate the action, the atmosphere and all the emotions. You may walk home with a lot of pictures, but it means little if you don’t remember much of the game at all. Cheer for your team when you’re taking a break, and if your child or friend is playing, be sure to root for them too!