Lesson from the Shot: Shooting Sports

 by Stanley Leary

From the Super Bowl to T-ball at the local park, people are watching, playing and photographing sports more than ever before — and publications are devoting more space to sports photography as well. So what’s the secret to doing it right? Professional sports photographers are trained to look for the peak action or reaction. When this is combined in a storytelling moment, the image could land on the cover of a magazines.
With today’s advanced cameras, making great sports photographs isn’t only for the pros. One can follow focus on an athlete with auto-focus cameras and fire three, six, even eight frames per second. Most will be sharp. Prior to these technological advances in equipment, it took great skill to keep a fast-moving athlete in focus.
With many fields of photography, simple basic equipment is all one needs to get started. However, sports photography is a whole other ball game, if you’ll pardon the pun. Using a normal 50mm lens, the athletes are just specs in the viewfinder. Getting physically close enough to the subjects for outstanding photographs is impractical.
To span the distance, special lenses are required — long, telephoto lenses that bring the action closer. The PGA Golf Tournament requires credentialed professional photographers to have a telephoto lens of at least 300mm. That’s the equivalent of 6X binoculars.
On Location
When choosing a shooting position, (1) check out the background. (2) Watch for distracting signs on the walls of the baseball field. (3) Shoot at a slightly higher angle to put the infield grass in the background. (4) Use a shallow depth of field to blur the background. Setting the aperture at f/5.6 gives a shallow area that is in focus behind the player. Using f/16 may put too much of the background in focus and be distracting.
Many of the best sports photos capture the competition between individual players. A shot of a runner sliding into second with the defensive player throwing to first, beats a routine image of a batter hitting the ball. A great photo is often of the tag, or missed tag, at home plate.
The ball, the offensive player, and the defensive player, all caught in the same photo is the beginning of a great sports photo. The peak moment is the next part of the puzzle, but the real icing on the cake is expressions. The photograph above is an example of Georgia Tech’s Isma’il Muhammad slamming one over NC State’s wincing Gavin Grant.
See like a bug crawling on the floor
Another technique is a low perspective. The lower one is to the ground, the more the players look as if they are flying when they jump or are run. The low perspective makes the distance from their feet to the ground appear greater than it is.
If you watch the sidelines of the college and professional games, you will notice most photographers are sitting or are on their knees. We like to see our athletes like Greek gods. They are superheroes and role models we lift up in our society for all the talent and effort they demonstrate.
No matter how advanced the camera or how long the lens, just pointing and pushing the button will get only a few good photos. Outstanding photos are made by shooters anticipating the play action. If a photographer studies the characteristic of the team, it’s almost possible to predict the plays or movements of the athletes.
One last point: Great sports photographs are often made by inexperienced photographers — precisely because they don’t know the tricks of the trade. That’s right. They are not locked into a formula of how to cover a sport. This leads me to my last suggestion. While it’s usually good to know the rules, don’t be bound by them — be a risk-taker.
Be a storyteller. Get to know people and let them know you. Telling a visual story through your pictures is fine. But don’t be locked into thinking only visually. It’s when one immerses oneself into the situation (a sport, in this case) one begins to move outside the box and tell the story you feel and not merely see.