Selecting the Best Content Provider for Sports

Everyone wants that perfect photograph of their athletes in actions, from the parents of pee-wee league players to the media director of a professional sports organization.  The digital photography era has made that easier, but not as easy as you might think.  

Figure 1 -Everyone want the perfect photo of their athletes in action.  The University of Texas played Texas A&M University in lacrosse on February 6, 2016 (ISO 200, 88mm, f/3.2, 1/1000 th) Andy Nietupski.

This article is intended to help you find best action sports photographer for your particular set of needs, and not paying more than you need. 

Action Sports Photography is Difficult 

Some elements of sports photography are easier than others.  Team pictures, playing cards and individual player photos are straight forward.  The photographer controls the lighting and gives instructions to the subject(s) to make the image interesting.  The photographer will check the display on the back of the camera and make the necessary adjustments to the lighting, the camera, or the subject.    

Action sports photography is much more challenging. 

You don’t control the lighting.  Capturing an action-image that is properly exposed and sharp can be a challenge.  The available light is often marginal, unless you are photographing on a bright sunny day.  Traditional flash photography isn’t allowed because it may distract the athlete. 

You can’t control the position of the players.  The photographer must have the experience to anticipate where the action will develop and be in the right position on the field or court to capture the play with the faces of the players. 

And you must have the appropriate (and expensive) equipment to capture the action that is across the field or in a marginally lit venue. 

There are no do-overs in action sports.  When the play is over, it’s over.  You’ll never has an image like that again.  You must be in the right position with the right equipment with the right setting to capture a useable image.  You got to get it right the first time or the play is gone forever.  

Figure 2 -There are no do-overs in action sports.   A receiver from the Westwood Warriors pulls in the pass in a game against Lehman on  on August 31, 2017) (ISO 10,000, 400mm, f/4.0, 1/1000th sec) Andy Nietupski. 

For these reasons you must select you sports photographer taking great caution. 

Even the Blind Pig Occasionally Takes a Great Photo

A colleague once told me that “even the blind pigs finds the occasional acorn.”  Eventually, anyone will take a perfect photograph if given enough chances.  Don’t be impressed with a portfolio of just a few dozen good images.  Anyone can get lucky and capture a few good photos and assemble a nice portfolio given enough time.  But only an experienced sports photographer can to it consistently. 

The photographer should have a covered several recent games.  Ask to see the edited images of the last game they photographed.  The images should be properly exposed and the subject in sharp focus.  The entire face should be shown with the ball or puck in the frame.  Body parts should not be awkwardly cut off.  The background should be non-distracting (i.e., you don’t want to see cars in a parking lot) or blurred (i.e., depth of field affects).  And the photograph should be from field (or court) level shooting locations, and rarely be taken from the spectator stands. 

Difficulty Varies by Sport and Venue

No two sports photograph alike.  They vary in were you position yourself on the field, and what equipment is used. Next, ask the photographer about their specific experience in your sport of interest.  Some sports, and their venues, are more difficult than others. 

Court Sports in Daylight

Photographing an outdoor court sport (e.g., tennis, basketball, beach volleyball) in sunlight is probably the easiest.  I tell my students that shooting in daylight levels the playing field between amateur and professional photographers.  There is plenty of light for the average camera to permit fast shutter speeds to freeze the action.  And less expensive, low-aperture telephoto lenses can nicely get the job done.  

Figure 3 – Example of Court Sport in Daylight. Katie Spieler makes the diving dig at the Association of Volleyball Professional Austin Open on May 20, 2018 (ISO 640, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/1000th) Andy Nietupski.

Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that allows light to enter camera. A low-aperture lens is one with a smaller opening, letting in less light.  The smaller opening doesn’t matter because the sun provides plenty of light. 

A telephoto lens is a zoom lens that can be easily held in your hands.  The technical definition of a telephoto lens is one with a focal length of less than 300mm. 

Field Sports in Daylight

Photographing an outdoor field sport (e.g., football, baseball, soccer) in sunlight is the next hardest.  There is plenty of light for the average camera, but super telephoto lenses are required because the action is usually far away.  Fortunately, lower cost, low-aperture super telephoto lenses can be used. 

The super telephoto lenses are usually so large and heavy that a one-legged stand called a monopod is used to support the weight.  The technical definition of a super telephoto lens is one with a focal length of greater than 300mm.  

Figure 4 -Example of Field Sport in Daylight.  Joey Gallo slides into third base in the game between the Round Rock Express and the Memphis Redbirds on September 5, 2016 (ISO 1000, 300mm, f/9.0, 1/1000th) Andy Nietupski.

Some good images of field sports can be taken using a telephoto lens.  The photographer is simply limited to capturing action plays that are closer in. 

Be very wary of photographers that use a telephoto lens to take photos at great distance and over-crops the image.  Over-cropping takes an image of a subject that is far away and removes the unwanted area in editing, making it appear magnified.  This produces lower quality images that appear grainy and are not suitable for printing or close inspection. 

I usually photograph outdoor field sports with two cameras, one with a telephoto lens to capture the action closer in, and one with a super telephoto lens to capture action farther away. 

Court Sports at Night or Indoors

The next most challenging conditions for sports photography are court sports played indoors or at night under the lights.  The lighting a typical school gymnasium is crummy, at best.  And despite their appearance, the lighting at professional and NCAA Division 1 venues is not as bright at it seems from the stands. 

If shooting in daylight were like a water faucet turned fully open, then shooting indoors or at night under the lights is like a faucet that is only cracked open.  You need the right equipment to maximize the available light.  

Figure 5 – Example of Court Sport Indoors. Martina Hingis rallies in a World Team Tennis match between the Austin Aces and the Washington Kastles on July 11, 2014 (ISO 3200, 125mm, f/2.8, 1/800th) Andy Nietupski.

These conditions require cameras with high light sensitivity (i.e., high ISO) and large aperture telephoto lenses.  This equipment is expensive and is usually found only in the hands of a serious photographer. 

A large aperture lens is a necessity to allow the most light possible to enter the camera.  A large aperture lens could be an f/2.8 or an f/4.0.  The aperture of an f/2.8 lens is twice the size of an f/4.0 lens. 

Field Sports at Night

The most difficult conditions to photograph are field sports at night because the action is usually far away, and the lighting is marginal and uneven.  Only high-end professional sports (i.e. Major League Baseball) or NCAA Division 1 schools rich in money (i.e., The University of Texas) will have well lit nighttime stadiums.  

Figure 6 – Example of Field Sports at Night.  Forward Andre Lima of the Austin Bold battles for control of the ball in the game against the Tulsa Roughriders on May 14, 2019 (ISO 16,000, 400mm f/4.0, 1/1000th) Andy Nietupski.


Here is a summary of the information presented above: 

The functional requirements contained in Table 1 are presented as technical specifications in Table 2. 

Copyright Andy Nietupski and Through the Lens Sports Media / 2020

About the author:  

Andy Nietupski founded Through the Lens Sport Media in 2015 while on a creativity sabbatical from enterprise software sales.  TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques.  TTL Sports Media publishes 1,000’s 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 greater than 1000 social media posts.  

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