The Addiction of Sports Photography: Getting Started Venues

Sports photography is an addiction.  The more you shoot, the more you want to shoot, the more you need to shoot. But how do you feed this addiction? How do you keep raising the bar on types and levels of sports that you photograph?  This article offers suggestions that can probably be found in your own backyard. 

My Story

The photography bug first bit me when I was working for IBM in Tokyo.  Each weekend my wife and I, and sometimes our dog, would explore Tokyo and central Japan.  Each weekend we were in awe.  We discovered a thousand years of history and culture that was new to us, but taken for granted by the local Japanese. 

When we returned to Austin I thought “how boring” photography was going to be.  That’s when I discovered what I had taken for granted in my own backyard.  That’s when I found sports photography. 

I first started with the Traditional Sports like baseball, basketball and football.  These are the sports presented in blue in Figure 2.  I then moved on to sports that are not as widely played.  I call these Regional Sports which include beach volleyball and rugby.  These sports are presented in grey in Figure 2.  

Figure 1 - The photography bug first bit me when I was working in Tokyo.  When we returned to Austin I thought “how boring” photography was going to be (ISO 2500, 200mm, f/4.0, 1/320th sec). 

Texas is big on individual competitions and pushes the envelope on some of these sports.  I call these Extreme Sports and these are presented in orange in Figure 2. 

And lastly, I found Motor Sports (black in Figure 2).  Motor sports are the only ones may not find in your backyard. 

All these sports were found within 20 miles of my house.  I only had to look for them and find a way to get in.  This article provides guidance on how to gain access to sporting events like these. 

Getting Started

Most sporting organization never seem to have enough photos of their athletes.  The few exceptions to this are major league professional sports and Power Five college conferences. 

Use this need to gain access to the venues in exchange for your photographs.  You may have to show prior experience (i.e., have a portfolio), and you definitely have to deliver a good quality product.  My suggestion is to start simple and pick venues that make it easy. 

Figure 2 - I discovered these sports all within 20 miles of my home, once I looked.

Youth Athletic Clubs

The easiest point of entry for sports photography are Youth Athletic Clubs.  These clubs run the gamut from peewee leagues to Junior Varsity level sports.  Personally, I think photographing the little kids is the cutest thing. 

These organizations offer a wide variety of sports throughout the year, both indoor and out.  Your children, or grandchildren, might even participate in these leagues.  Simply call the organization, and request access in exchange for photographs.  The league may conduct a background check, similar to what is done for coaches. 

When on site always introduce yourself to the league official, sometimes called Commissioners.  Make the game officials aware and ask if there are any special requirements.  Never communicate a youth-athlete without a coach or official present.  And never make physical contact with a youth.  

Figure 3 - The easiest point of entry for sports photography are Youth Athletic Clubs.  Personally, I think photographing the little kids is the cutest thing (ISO 1000, 300mm, f/9.0, 1/640th sec).  

These leagues often have their own outdoor facilities and may rent space from local schools.  Lighting is likely to be marginal when shooting inside or outdoors at night. 

Be aware that some photographers make money taking team and “playing card” photos.  Avoid getting into a turf war with these photographers and simply explain that you are volunteering for the league and are there just to have fun.  Refer parents to the club office if they ask for copies of the images.  Get your final work products to the club using commercial ftp or file sharing services. 

High School Sports

Varsity high school sports are the next level up from youth athletic clubs.  These athletes, and their parents, take this level of competition very seriously. 

Again, just call the high school athletic office and present your proposition, exchanging photographs for access.  Some schools may grant you access just by asking.  Larger schools may have a website to enter requests and require an on-line portfolio.  By now you have built a portfolio from the youth athletic club images.  Refer to our article entitled “Lessons from the Field” for additional ideas on building your credibility.  

Figure 4 - Varsity high school athletes, and their parents’, take this level of competition very seriously (ISO 800, 70mm, f/3.5, 1/500th sec).

On the sidelines you’ll see a lot of parents and students taking photos, as well as small-scale freelancers that sell photos to the athletes.  Be respectful of each other. 

One provider of high school sports images you might see is MaxPreps.  MaxPreps is a CBS Interactive owned company that claims to be “America's Source for High School Sports.”   MaxPreps also provides a platform for freelancers to post and sell images. 

MaxPreps has its positives and negatives.  On the positive side, they will give you critical feedback on your work.  The feedback may hurt your psyche, but it will help to improve the quality of your photographs.  On the down side, you probably won’t sell many photographs.  That was my experience and that of other’s I know. 

Proceed with caution if you engage with MaxPreps.  Their Photo Editor is a silver-tongued recruiter.  He approached me in the press box of a professional baseball game.  I fell for his sales pitch and found he severely misrepresented important facts to me. 

College Sports

Now let me set expectations.  The bad news:  If you hope to photograph the University of Texas Longhorn football games, and you’re not from an officially accredited media bureau, it’s not going to happen.  The Power Five (SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, PAC 12) conference teams all manage their brand very carefully and getting credentials can be difficult.  

Figure 5 - The Power Five conference teams all manage their brand very carefully and getting credentials can be difficult (ISO 3200, 300mm, f/2.8, 1/1000th sec).  

The good news: practically everything else is up for grabs.  The chances of getting credentials to non-Power Five Division 1, Division 2 and 3 conference games, is good.  And the chances of getting credentials are excellent if you are an alumnus. 

The Sports Information Departments (SIDs) usually work on a shoestring budget.  They’ll likely have one photographer on staff and a few student interns, but they still don’t have enough images of their athletes.  For that they turn to volunteer photographers.  Again, you’ll have to demonstrate your capability, for which an on-line portfolio is essential. 

Professional Minor League Sports

Nearly every major league professional sports league has a designated minor league developmental league, like the NBA G League for the NBA, or the AHL for the NHL.  

Figure 6 - Nearly every major league professional sports league has a designated minor league developmental league.  The NFL has the Spring League (ISO 3200 300mm, f/2.8, 1/1000th sec).  

Other times, the association with major league sports in unofficial, like the Spring League, where NFL hopefuls try to get recognized by coaches, or try to re-start their career. 

Nearly all minor league teams are working on tight budgets.  They’ll retain professional photographers for special events, but they also look for qualified volunteer photographers in exchange access.  The people to approach with have titles like Marketing, Public Relations, Media Relations or Communications.  Again, you’ll have to present a portfolio. 

In these situations, you are like an apprentice professional photographer.  You won’t get paid, but they expect the same level of quality, timeliness and dependability of a professional.  You can read more about these expectations in our article entitled, “After the Whistle.” 

Some sports, like hockey, are more difficult to get credentials because there are only a handful of designated photographer locations.  Other sports, like baseball, have more options available to photographers. 

Freelance Professionals

Sports photography, like so many other professions, has been a casualty of corporate downsizing.  Newspapers, magazines and media bureaus have fewer staff photographers.  To make up the difference they turn to freelancers. This creates opportunity for you.  

Figure 7 - The best freelance assignments go to staff photographers, then the more senior freelancers, and then you (ISO 800, 102mm, f/10, 1/1000th sec)

The difference between a freelance professional and a staff photographer is a track record and relationships.  You have to be very good at what you do and have demonstrated capabilities in a wide variety of sports.  It is essential to have a solid portfolio. 

Newspapers small and larger, daily and weekly, local and regional, cover sports and have a need for photographs.  Depending upon the size of the paper, you will contact either the Photo Editor or the Sports Editor. 

This level of photography is likely to be very different from anything you’ve done to-date.  They’ll be deadlines, usually with an hour or two of game’s end.  You’ll need to submit some photos partially thought the game.  The photos must comply with IPTC metadata standards and be captioned using AP formats.  And all your work must be sent via FTP to the newspaper. 

While it’s pretty heady to say you’re working for the paper, there are some down sides.  

Figure 8 – Freelance photography is unlike anything you’ve done until now.  You’ll be pressured for high-quality images in a short turnaround time, that are captioned using AP formats (ISO 2000, 102mm, f/22, 1/1000th sec). 

First, you’ll start off being low person on the totem pole.  The best assignments go to staff photographers, then the more senior freelancers, and then you.  You’ll likely to get the less interesting assignments, sometime with very little notice. 

Second, it doesn’t pay much.  And the pay hasn’t changed much.  For example, a Sport Illustrated photographer earns the same today as they did in 1990. 

Purchase Tickets for Access

A great deal of what we’ve covered so far is exchanging photographs for media credentials, unless you can get paid as a freelancer.  The alternative of last resort is to purchase a ticket and take photographs as a spectator, if the venue permits cameras. 

Some teams welcome the ticket revenue that comes from a photographer in the stands.  And are not too strict about changing seats; provide nobody is already sitting there and you don’t interfere with the other fans.  

Figure 9 - F1 has a pretzel logic with regards to credentials.  I had to purchase a ticket to cover my first race (IO 500, 400mm, f/6.3, 1/3200th sec).  

I did this for my first Formula 1 race… I purchased a General Admission ticket for the Day 1 Free Practices.   F1 had a pretzel logic with regards to credentials.  You can’t get credentials unless you can present an F1 editorial portfolio, but you can’t build a credible portfolio unless you get the access that credentials provide.  Thankfully, there were enough unobstructed views of the track that I got some decent images.  I haven’t purchased a ticket since and I’ve not missed a race. 

Once You’ve Made It

There comes a time when all this goes away and you can receive credentials based on your strong personal brand.    Deadlines for credential requests are usually 4 to 6 weeks before a stand-alone event.  Credentials for individual games must be requested 2 to 7 days before the game.  Season long credentials are usually requested 4 to 6 weeks before the start of the season. 

Final Thoughts

These words of advice come from a baseball Sports Media Director with whom I previewed these materials…

Figure 10 - There comes a time when all this goes away and you can receive credentials based on your strong personal brand (ISO 5000, 175mm, f/5.6, 1/1000th sec).  

Make it easy on the venue personnel.  Research the facility before you arrive.  Arrive early, before the fans.  Know the ground rules of the facility.  Don’t be shy about asking questions.  Know how to access the shooting locations.  And introduce yourself to the security guards in the area that you will be working. 

Don’t get in the way.  Don’t interfere with the players or the officials – 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.  

Figure 11 - Advice come from a baseball Sports Media Director: make it easy on the venue personnel (ISO 2000, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1000th sec).  

And this last bit of advice is from me…. respect the professional photographers that make a living taking photos.  Make personal use of the photo you take, but don’t give them away. 

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

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