Composition Techniques for Sports Photography
Proper composition is difference between an average image and a great image. Unfortunately, not enough attention is given to composition in sports photography.
Composition is the arrangement of the objects in the frame to draw attention to the most interesting part. Composition is especially challenging in sports because of the speed of the action and the lack of control over the objects. Good composition is attained first by capturing the right elements in the frame, and then by editing the image.
Presented here are techniques to produce the best possible sports images. There are different approaches depending on the desire outcome. For instance, editorial images can take on a different look when compared to artistic images. The difference in approaches is called out.
Before going any further, remember the most important rule: there are no hard and fast rules.
Nothing spoils an image more than a bad background. A bad background could be particularly bright areas (backlighting), empty stands, a view of clutter or unsightly objects (maintenance equipment), or areas inconsistent with the theme (e.g., view of the parking lot).
When faced with a bad background it’s best to change your location. When faced with no other choices, use a shallow depth of field (i.e., long focal length and low f/stop) to blur a busy background. Always change your location when faced with backlighting. No amount of editing can adequately overcome the blow-out and white balance problems created by backlighting.
Face and Eyes
The most impactful images capture the player’s facial expressions, especially the eyes. Images jump off the page when they capture the eyes looking directly into the camera. Only capture a player from behind in artistic shot, usually when the player is by themselves.
Head to Toe
Capture the player from head to toe in editorial images. Images can be cropped at the waist or shoulders if it makes visually sense. The biggest mistake I seen is to chop-off of a player’s feet or hands.
Landscape vs. Portrait
Most sports are played horizontally, meaning the play runs from one end of the field to the other. These sports are best photographed in landscape mode.
There are some exceptions, like basketball, where play is both horizontal and vertical. Players move the ball down-court horizontally, until they get near the hoop where they go vertical.
The consumers of sports photography prefer images shot horizontally. Anything presented on a website is always horizontal, often a 16 x 9 frame size. (The 16 x 9 frame size has a nice artist look). Editorial images are usually horizontal, using a 3 x 2 framed size.
I prefer shooting horizontally even in “up-and-down” sports like basketball, either by zooming in tight and capturing from the waist up, or going wide angle and capturing head-to-toe. The closet I will ever come to a vertical frame is 1 x 1.
Capture the Action
It goes without saying that every image should capture the action, but what should be in the frame? Most images should include a player with possession of the ball or puck, and an opposing player competing for possession. More exciting shots are when neither player has control and they battle for possession. These are called 50/50 shots.
Poses of individual players without the ball or puck have artistic value, but shouldn’t be overdone unless you’re assembling headshots for team.
And don’t forget expressive images of fans, coaches, and players during moments of celebration and disappoint.
Leading Room refers to the amount of space around the player while they’re looking or moving in a particular direction. Leave more space in front the player then behind, giving the impression the player has room to run forward.
Fill the Frame
Filling the frame with the subject leaves little or no space around the subject. Filling the frame focuses on the main subject, eliminates a bad background, simplifies the image, and brings out the intensity of the action. Filling the frame often involves a tight zoom and cropping.
Negative space refers to those areas of the image that are left open. Negative space is a nice artistic touch when coupled with a good background. It creates a sense of simplicity and minimalism, helping the viewer focus on the main subject without distractions.
Shooting from Below
It is best to shooting from a perspective that the viewer does not have. This usually consists of shooting from the field level. Taken a step further, this involves shooting from below, targeting up at the player. In addition to creating a new perspective, this also makes the player appear larger.
Some venues have sunken photo wells, but more often or not you’ll need to get your knees or stomach. Invest in a good pair of knee pads if you plan on doing this often, and be careful not to get trampled by those around you.
Shoot from Above
Shooting from high vantage points also brings a unique perspective to the game. This is usually done from arena’s catwalk or high above open air stadiums. This makes for an interesting change of perspective, but become ordinary if overdone.
Shooting from the stands is not the same as shooting from above. Shooting from the stands is the same perspective every fan has, and is not unique.
The use of drones in open air stadiums is regulated and usually not allowed for safety considerations.
Rule of Thirds
Probably the best-known composition rule is the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds divides the frame using evenly spaced lines, two across and two down. The most impactful areas of the frame, called the power points, occur where lines intersect. Aligning the subjects with a power point maximizes the effect of the image.
The easiest way to have a clear and strong composition is to keep it simple. Having too much going on in the frame makes the viewer search for a point of focus. Keep the focus on a single subject or single point of action.
Balance refers to the arrangement of the elements of the frame so that everything has equal visual weight.
Level the Background
The presence of an uneven background creates a distraction. This can be the edge of the goal or backboard, the edge of the field, a row of seats, or wall in the arena. Level the background while editing.
Cropping is the main editing tool used to achieve many of these affects. By arranging the boundaries of the frame, cropping can simplify the image’s message, evenly distribute the subjects within the frame, place the subjects at the “power points” of the frame, fill the frame, or enhance the negative space.
A word of caution. There are limits to what should be done in the editing. The number one mistake I see is over-cropping the image. Over-cropping leads to excessive noise, blurred lines of contrast, diminished image quality.
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.
Copyright 2022 Andy Nietupski and TTL Sports Media