The Addiction of Sports Photography: Anticipating the Action
“That’s it! That’s it!” said Casey Holder, the Education Director at Precision Camera and Video. Precision Camera boasts to be the largest camera store in the state of Texas, and everything is bigger in Texas. I was at Precision, pitching a class on sports photography to Casey.
What resonated with Casey was the recommendations on shooting locations for different sports. He shared his experience in the newsroom when photographers were asked to cover games, but no one knew where to stand. That class, and this article, answers those questions and more.
Learn the Sport
You need to know a little about the sport if you expect to take good photographs. You don’t need to become an expert, but it is essential to understand the basic rules, terms and tactics.
Some sports are complex, like rugby. A friend grew up playing rugby in Ireland, but still calls home to his father, a local league commissioner, with questions.
You can capture the best action image if know the locations on the field where a play will materialize, and understand the tactics that will bring the play to that location.
Don’t over estimate your abilities as a photographer. It is very hard to change your camera direction, autofocus, take a photo that is tack-sharp and still catch the play. You have to know the sport well enough to anticipate where the play is going.
A good example is baseball. If you have a runner on first that is near the top of the batting order, then chances are reasonable they might try to steal second base. This means you look for the pick-off attempt, the stolen base attempt, and the potential double play.
I can’t say enough about safety. There are numerous ways of getting hurt while taking photographs of games. Baseballs or hockey pucks can hit you, or players can crash into you on the basketball court of football field. Know where to position yourself to minimize the chance of getting hurt.
Chances are, no matter what sport or performance level you will be shooting, that someone has photographed it before you and has posted the photos to the Internet. Search on “Little League Softball” or “High School Track and Field” and you will get back hundreds of images that you can use as examples.
Do research on the players. Identify the better players on the team, players that are on a streak, and players that are about to cross a major threshold or break a record. These are usually called out in the pre-game notes provided by the team.
Set objectives for the outing. Are you interested in just one player, one team, both teams, just action shots, or playing card moments? The key is to make the most of the photo opportunity. If you don’t have a specific objective for the shoot, then you’ll not likely to get what you wanted
Action Shot Tips
When it’s possible, I like to pre-focus on an anticipated action spot. Back to the baseball runner on first base example, I often focus on a spot of dirt just off the first base bag, to avoid having something move and losing the focus.
It’s easy to get wrapped up taking photos, so much so that you can lose track of important moments in the game. For example, how you photograph second down and short in football is different than third down and long. Pay attention. Listen to the announcer. List to the radio broadcast, if available.
Fill the camera view finder with the image you are about to take. This produces the highest technical quality image. Resist the urge to crop a faraway image to the size of a postage stamp. The result will be a grainy image with dulled edges.
The eyes tell the story. The eyes convey the emotion and intensity of the moment. An image that catches the emotion of the eyes is valuable.
A photo that doesn’t even catch the face is rarely worth editing. Images of players from behind have an artist value, but there is a limit to how many artistic photos you need.
Experiment with settings, lenses and locations. I often do this when the game is slow and I need to keep it interesting for myself. Make the image interesting by using angles the fans don’t see from the stands. Get low and shoot upwards. Angles that other photographers don’t use make for unique and memorable images.
Baseball is a good sport for the beginning sports photographer: its widely known, popular and relative slow moving.
Despite its appearance, baseball is one of the more dangerous to photograph. I’ve personally had many close calls and been next to videographers that have been laid-low by foul balls. Always pay attention.
Getting hit by a foul ball is less of a problem when you’re photographing the batter. You can see when the ball is headed towards you, and your expensive camera equipment protects your head and face.
The risk occurs when you are trained on something on the field while a player is batting. I literally keep one eye on the runner and another on the pitcher / batter, until the ball is hit.
Many ballparks have extended the safety netting beyond the first- and third-base bags, and, in some cases, to the photo-wells. I much prefer photographing through the netting for safety’s sake. Place your lens against the netting and ensure your f/stop is below 5.6 to avoid getting the net in image.
Whenever possible, I prefer shooting from the photo wells. If you are in the stands, shoot from the first row, but be certain not interfere with the fans’ view of the game. Remember, your objective is to shoot from a perspective that is different than the fans see from the stands.
My preferred location is by the first base bag. From this location you can capture the right-handed batters, the left-handed pitchers, and all the players as they run to first base. You also get the first base pickoff attempts, second base steals and double plays.
Shooting from the third base bag gives exciting shots of players rounding the corner as they try to score, and plays at the plate that capture both the catcher’s and the umpire’s face. This location is a necessity to photograph right-handed pitchers.
Shooting from behind home plate produces excellent images of the pitcher with the ball in-flight to the plate. Shooting from inside either dug-outs also gives good looks at the pitcher. All three locations are good for infield plays.
Be sure to capture the players as they return to the bench at the end of the inning.
Football is probably the most popular sport for non-professional photographers.
Stay aware at all times else you may get runover by an out-of-bounds play. I was once hit when I was 10 feet from the sideline, walking parallel to it. I continued photographing the game until I got tired of people asking “did you get the shot?”.
You are not allowed to photography between the 30-yard lines (players benches), directly behind the goal post, within one yard (high school) or two yards (college and pros) of the side line. And stay out of way of sideline officials.
It is easier to move with the action in football because the pace of play is relatively slower than other field sports. Keep the play in front of you, shooting both sides of the ball (offense and defense). Don’t shoot just the backs of jerseys.
Avoid the urge to photograph just the player with the ball, otherwise you’ll mostly get images of the quarterback, running backs and some receivers. The best way to get images of receivers, offensive linemen, and the defense is to isolate on the player before the play begins.
Position yourself in the end zone if the sidelines are too crowded to easily move, or you don’t feel like walking around.
Basketball is my favorite sport to photograph. The artistry, athleticism and expressions of the players is unmatched.
The biggest physical hardship is on your rear-end after sitting on the hard-wood for the entire game. Bring a soft-edged, leg-less, folding camping chair to cushion your backside.
You cannot get with one yard of the baseline in high school, or two yards in college and the pros. The pros also have designated shooting locations along the baseline to provide safety exit lanes when the play goes out-of-bounds.
The only place you want to photograph a game is from the baseline, provided there is room. This position is very close to the players, allowing you to capture the intensity of the play as the players drive to the basket. You can also capture down-court action using a 300mm lens.
Basketball is a great sport to setup remote-controlled cameras behind the backboard and from the catwalk. How to do this is a more technically advanced discussion best saved for another time.
Field sports include soccer, rugby, lacrosse and field hockey. I’m sure there are others; I just haven’t photographed them.
Common to all these sports is the field it too large, and the pace of play too fast, for the photographer to move with the play. The key is to pick a location based on the type of shots you want and the type of equipment you have.
You will probably need to stay close to the goal line unless you are using a 400mm lens. With a 400mm lens you can good shots of the goal from midfield and really tight (close-up) shots from the sidelines.
Field sport venues tend to be more intimate, with fans sitting very close to the field. Kneel or sit if there are fans behind you. Stay at least one yard from the perimeter of the field. Only change positions when you are not in the vicinity of play.
Hockey is probably the most difficult sports to photograph because of the extreme pace of play, the number of bodies on the ice, the small area of play and the limited number of available shooting points.
I consider hockey to be the most dangerous sport to photo because of loose pucks and bodies crashing over the boards. I’ve been hit multiple times with pucks and have had my equipment damaged from player’s sticks whipping over the boards. A friend had his nose broken when two players crashed into the board and a stick flung around, hitting him in the face.
Plexiglass surrounds the entire rink, and netting protects the ends of the rink above the glass, making it very hard to get an unobstructed shot from the stands.
The best location to photograph is from between the players’ benches, which is open from the front to the ice. Protective headgear must be worn when at this position. I suggest only one person at a time be in this location to give room to maneuver when players crash over the boards.
Move to this location before players enter the ice and exit at the end of the period. Never step onto the ice during the game.
Use discretion when photographing players on the bench from this location. Photos of players talking or receiving instructions from the coaches are great. But do not take photographs of injured players or players receiving medical treatment.
Professional hockey players are big on the team and not much on individualism. They don’t like portrait photos while on the bench.
A safer place to photograph is from outside the rink through four-inch circular cutouts in the plexiglass. These cutouts are usually located in the corners of the rink. Your physical range is limited because of the size of the cutout and diameter of you lens. Be watchful for pucks that fly over the glass, hit the net and can fall straight down on your head.
Hockey is another great sport to setup remote-controlled cameras from the catwalk above the ice.
Track & Field
Track and field are two very different sports. Track consists of running events and is performed on the oval track. Field consists of throwing and jumping events and is performed inside of, or alongside of, the track.
Safety is usually only a concern in field events like discus, hammer, and javelin, where the athletes are physically launching projectiles. In track you’re more likely to create a problem by blocking the line of sight of the officials at the start of a race. When in doubt, ask the Marshall about your shooting location. I’ve found the Marshalls to be incredibility easy to work with.
Track events tend to be more challenging because of the complex race logistics. A race event is run in multiple heats with one heat starting as soon as the prior heat finishes. Get a copy of the heat sheets for the approximate times of the event and to identify the heat and lane your athlete is competing in.
I prefer to photograph track events from the start and finish lines. The starting line for each race varies by the length of the race. The finish line is always the same. Sprints can be only photographed from one location because the race is over in seconds. Longer races can be shot from multiple locations, including the inside or outside of corners.
Certain types of races have more exciting moments. Baton handoffs in relay races occur at the finish line and are especially exciting. Sprint hurdles are also fun to photograph from the side where multiple runners clear the hurdle in near-synchronous fashion. The water hazard of the steeplechase is always fun.
Field events are much easier to shoot because athletes perform sequentially. I usually position myself either facing the athlete from a distance or to the side. Stay alert because some field events occur in simultaneous heats.
Each athlete has three attempts at their best performance in most field events. Some events like the pole vault and high jump go on for longer as the heights increase and athletes are eliminated after three failed attempts at a height.
Aside from World Team Tennis (WTT), tennis is a quiet sport. The noise made by your shutter on burst mode is noticeable to the players. Set your camera to single shot silent mode. There is no movement during the point and you may only change locations when players change sides of court (usually every other game).
WTT and certain exhibition matches allow photographers across from the umpire’s chair and the players benches. Most tournaments, however, restrict photographers to photo wells in the back court.
Legendary Texas State University volleyball head coach Karen Chisum once told me that volleyball is the hardest sport to photograph. Coach Chisum retired in 2019 after 40 years as one of the winningest Division 1 NCAA coaches with a career record of 919-559-3. No disrespect to Coach Karen, but volleyball is the second hardest sport to photograph.
Volleyball is challenging because of the fast-paced nature of the exchanges, especially when in close proximity to the court.
Volleyball can also be a little tricky. Your first instinct is to shoot through the net to capture the action in the far court. Unfortunately, the camera will autofocus on the net and not the players. Increasing the f/stop to broaden focal range allowing you to shoot through the net and better capture the players near the net. I also focus on the tape at the top of the net to capture players on the far side of the net.
I prefer to photograph from the backcourt. From the backcourt floor you are shooting up at the players as they rise above the far side of the net. And from a slightly elevated backcourt position you can shoot down on the far court, giving a good view of the players when they are on offense and defense.
You can shoot from alongside the net were the action is very fast. Its best to follow a single player through the course of the point. You won’t get as many shutter-clicks, but you will get better quality images.
No sport is more concerned about photographer safety than motor sports.
Two sections of heavy gauge, re-enforced, chain-linked fences separate the fans from the action in most modern tracks. The photographer will be located between the two fences, shooting through windows cut out of in the inner fence. Never step beyond the fence.
The key to successful motor sports photography is getting multiple vehicles in the frame in an interesting pose. Otherwise, your shot will look like a parked car.
I find the best angle is looking into a curve. The start and finish are also popular spots. Many tracks have iconic landmarks. Try to get those in the background with multiple cars.
Be watchful of the lighting. Many races are in the afternoon when the sun is not your friend. Alternatively, you can get better light in the morning during the practice runs.
Most photographers are drawn to images of the cars on the track. But some of the most interesting shots are from the paddock as the crews prepare the car, the pitlane during the race (if you are given access), and the end of race as the top three drivers pull into the pitlane to celebrate and receive trophies.
Displays of emotion are the real money shots. Look for post-play moments of celebration and disappointments. Be certain to capture the eyes: the eyes tell the real story.
There is a line between photojournalism and voyeurism. Use your judgment. If you have to think twice about a taking a photograph, you shouldn’t.
Off the Field
Photograph taken off the field are important and are also fun to take. These shots require cognitive effort because they occur away from the action when the play on the field is at its most intense. Keep your eyes open.
Catch coaches and players in moment of seriousness or frivolity. Images of fans having fun or interacting with players are always entertaining. And don’t forget the cheerleaders and dance teams.
The most important recommendation we can make is to plan what you are going to do before you arrive at the event. Give thought to the type of shots you want take so you can bring the right equipment and position yourself correctly.
Be deliberate. Resist your first instinct is to fire away at everything. Keep your eyes and ears open for best shots, both on and off the field. Take an extra moment to ensure the image is in focus. Many times, you are so eager to take the shot that you don’t give the camera time to autofocus.
And most importantly, don’t get in the way. Don’t interfere with the play or the official – you’ll get thrown out. Don’t block the view of fans or ask for player autographs – it will be the last time you’re allowed at that venue. And don’t block the shots of other photographers – they’ll get you back.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests, TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes 1000’s of social media posts.
Copyright 2020 Andy Nietupski and TTL Sports Media