Instinctive Sports Photography 

Major League Soccer found a home in Austin this past year.  And as with anything new, everyone wanted to be a part of it.  Fans packed the stands, and photographers were shoulder-to-shoulder along the endline. 

The assortment of photographers was predictable, and yet surprising.  I worked alongside established sports photographers from AP, USA Today, Getty Images and the local newspapers.  But I also encountered non-sports photographers like the Michael Jackson’s former personal photographer, a wedding photographer, a public radio photographer, an alternative weekly newspaper photographer, the fan club photographer, and the operations manager from a local television. 

It seems that everyone wants to be a sport photographer when the subject is interesting or novel.  

But sports photography is unlike any other genre of photography.  It’s not like event photography, or marketing photography, or portraiture photography, or landscape photography or any other photography where you control nearly all the variables.  And for the variables you don’t control, they occur so slowly that you have plenty of time to adjust.  In sports photography you control nothing, nothing except for what is in your hands and in your head.  The perfect image occurs in 1/1000th of a second and will never be repeated.  

Quality sports photography is built on three components:  technique, equipment, and instinct.  I have written much about technique (e.g., shutter speed, aperture, and light sensitivity settings) and equipment (e.g., capabilities of the camera and lenses) in my book, The Addiction of Sports Photography: The Ultimate Guide.  This article focuses on the third leg of the sports photography stool: instinctive shooting. 

Nobody captures the essence of instinctive sports better than Wayne Gretzky.  The NHL legend attributed his success in saying: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”  Instinctive sports photograph is very similar: “Point your camera to where the play is going to be, not where it’s been.” 

Instinctive sports photographers are not born, except in very few occasions.  Instinctive sports photographers develop the skill through preparation and practice.  Here are a few tips to improve your instincts as a sports photographer. 

Learn the Game

Most of us grew-up being around the different sports, which makes taking photographs of those sports easier.  But what if you didn’t grow-up playing a particular sport? 

My wife, for example, grew up in a football household and was never exposed to baseball.  She knows more about football than I ever will, but not much about baseball. 

At its very basic level, she knew that there are nine innings to a baseball game, that each team bats in an inning, and each team get three outs in that inning.  But she didn’t know there were so many ways of getting an out: strike out, ground out, fly out, foul out, force out, tag out, pick-off, double play, triple play… you get my point.  The complexities go on and on.  

The easiest way to learn a sport is to have someone explain it to you while watching the game. Over the course of many games you’ll soon become proficient in your understanding. 

A faster way to learn any sport are educational YouTube tutorials.  YouTube taught me rugby and cricket, which greatly improved the quality of my images, while reducing my frustration at not understanding what was going on. 

Thankfully, my wife is a fast learner and now enjoys baseball, despite my inability as a teacher. 

Understand Patterns in how a Plays Unfold

Once you understand the rules of the game, you next need to think like a player.   Or in the words of Gretzky, “skate to where the puck is going to be”.  The key is to look for the patterns in the way sports are played. 

Sometimes these patterns are common between sports.  For example, for sports that have goals at either end of the playing areas (i.e., soccer, basketball, hockey, lacrosse), it is common for the ball to be advanced along the side of the field, then moved to the center when near the goal.  The real action occurs in front of the goal. Knowing this pattern allows you to anticipate where the play will be moving, prioritizing images in front of the goal  over sideline images.  

Sometime sports have patterns that are unique to that sport.  For instance, in baseball, if there is a runner on first base with no- or one-out, then you should look for either a pick-off at first, an attempt to steal second base, or a double play.  Which play you’re likely to see depends upon the abilities of the baserunner. 

Know the Playmakers

Knowing the abilities of the player is important in anticipating the plays. 

Let’s return to our baseball example.  In this example you have a runner on first base with no out.  What’s going to happen: a pickoff attempt, a steal, or a double play?  It largely depends upon the abilities of the baserunner. 

If the baserunner has a record of stealing bases, then the runner will probably take a long lead off first base, hoping to get a jump when trying to steal second base.  The long lead will cause the pitcher to attempt a pickoff to get the runner out, or at least to keep the runner close to first base. 

But if the runner is not known for stealing bases, or is lower in the batting order, it usually means the runner is not fast.  I would then look for a double play at second base. 

If none of this makes sense, return to step #1, Learn the Game. 

Keep an eye out for the playmakers while they are on the field / court / ice / pitch; they’ll likely be a part of a key play when it happens.  Don’t exclusively follow these players, but give them more attention than the other players. 

Also be aware of players that are approaching milestones, like their 500th game, or 3000th hit, or 200th goal.  These are noteworthy images. 

Many times, I don’t know the player's background.  In those cases, I’ll do my research before the game, writing out the information and inserting it into black, Velcro sleeve that I wear on my forearm. You’ve probably seen quarterbacks wear these and refer to them in the huddle.  In a pinch, I’ll write the players number on the back of my hand with a pen.   

Location, Location, Location

The key to impactful sports photography to give your audience a view that is different from what they’ll see in the stands or on television.  Proper position is a prerequisite to taking quality sports images. 

The topic of photographer positioning is so important that I devoted a chapter to it in my book entitled: Anticipating the Action.  This chapter contains my recommendations on shooting locations for a wide variety of sports including:  baseball, football, basketball, field sports (soccer, rugby, lacrosse, field hockey), ice hockey, track & field, tennis, and volleyball.   I refer the reader to that discussion. 

Getting authorized access to these locations is often challenging.  I discuss how to do this in a chapter entitled: Building Credibility and Promoting Yourself

Elements a Great Sports Image

Getting a great action image starts with your position around the court, field, or rink.  But keep in mind what’s physically occurring behind the action.  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, or areas inconsistent with the theme (e.g., view of the parking lot). 

It’s best to change your location when faced with a bad background.  When faced with no other choices, use a shallow depth of field (i.e., long focal length or low f/stop) to blur the  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. 

There are certain essential elements you want to capture in the frame.  The most impactful images capture the player’s facial expressions, especially the eyes.  Images jump off of the page when they capture the eyes if they are looking directly into the camera. 

Capture the primary player from the front.  I will only capture a player from behind in artistic shot, usually when the player is by themselves.  I prefer capturing the player from head to toe, but will crop the image at the player’s waist when I want to pull in tighter, but only if it visually makes sense.  

Avoid cutting off the primary player’s limbs.  It is especially common to cut-off the players feet.    Get the ball or puck in every frame, unless the image can artistically stand by itself. 

There are a variety of ways of approaching the space around the player.  I leave more space in front the player then behind, giving the impression the player has room to run.  This also plays nicely into the Rule of Thirds. 

I also like to get in tight to the player and fill the frame with the action.  This technique blocks out distractions, like other players or officials, and is especially helpful when faced with bad background.  Avoid over-cropping the image when trying to get in tight.  Over-cropping leads to excessive noise and blurred lines of contrast. 

The opposite of filling the frame is creating negative space.  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, but should not be over used. 

As previously stated, I prefer shooting from a perspective that the fan doesn’t have.  This usually consists of shooting from the field level.  Taken to the next level, this also involves shooting from a low position, 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 finally, remember not all the action is on the field.  Catch images of the fans and coaches expressing celebration and disappointment. 

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. 

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