How to shoot great sports photos

It's sports season—on the field and in the schools—and you're out there with your camera. Here are some expert tips on how to capture the action.

Play ball!

It’s that time of year again—school sports are underway! Time to dust off your long lens, put on your sunscreen, and get out on the field. We decided to put ourselves in the khaki vests and knee pads of a professional sports photographer and try our hand at photos that could match the pros.

First, to better understand what it takes to be a great sports photographer, we talked to one. Scot Tucker, a freelance photographer and professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Napa Valley Register, Associated Press, and has had photos published in Sports Illustrated.

Whether you're trying to capture your kid's football pass or a friend's finishing stretch of a marathon, the following tips will help you take the best sports photo possible.

This article features photos taken by Lauren Crabbe, a Macworld intern and Samantha Waidler, a freelance photographer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Anticipate the action

Whether you're shooting for publication or for your personal scrapbook, the most important time to capture a sports photo is at the deciding moment of the game. That's when the linebacker intercepts the ball and runs it for a touchdown. Or it's the double play that cements the home team's win.

The first step in catching the peak of the action is knowing your sport. Photo pro Scot Tucker advises getting as close to the players as possible. “You obviously can’t get on the field, but a long lens can get you the tight shot you want. If you don’t have a long lens, you can work with composition, light, and emotion.” Keep your shutter speed high to freeze the action. Your shot of a decisive moment in the game could be lost if the shutter speed is too slow.

Get creative

“After you have captured some good action, it’s time to get creative,” Tucker says. “Leave the shutter open a little longer to put some movement into your shots.” Different sports allow for different creative techniques. For example, sports with predictable action can allow for pan-motion photos. You can also alter the perspective on a sport by shooting from different angles. “In each event, you are telling a story and the fans are a part of that story,” Tucker says.

This photo was taken at the San Francisco Marathon, where I spotted a cheering couple near the finish line. By themselves, they could have been at any sporting event, but with the blurred runners in the frame, they gained the needed context. This effect was achieved using a slow shutter speed, so that I could capture the runners' movement while keeping the fans still.

Capture emotion and tradition

Sports are emotional; athletes and fans can get extremely wrapped up in the rivalries and drama associated with the game. Other things to look for when shooting sports are the age-old traditions that some teams observe. “The peak action photo is great, but the celebration or dejection photo is the best. And if you can get both in one frame, then you’ve created a great photo,” says Tucker.

Samantha Waidler took this photo as a part of a series about a rugby team. “At the end of a rugby game the first player to score a try participates in ‘shooting the boot’—drinking beer out of a rugby boot after the game,” she explains. “It shows the traditions surrounding rugby and a different but important aspect of the team.”

Soccer action

Soccer is a game with a lot of unpredictable action, as generally players run several miles in one game. Because of the large field, “you either have to get a longer lens or wait for the action to come to you,” says Tucker.

One thing's for sure: There will be action around those goals, so position yourself behind a goal and wait. While it's almost always necessary to have a ball in the frame to capture a good soccer shot, player confrontation, unique composition, or an emotional moment can also produce a dynamic shot.

When shooting this photo, I had two cameras on me—one with a long, 70-300mm lens and one with an 18-55mm kit lens. When the action was far, I shot with the long lens, but when it got closer, I switched to my wider lens. This photo shows that though it's easier to take soccer shots with a long lens, it is possible to create a compelling image using a shorter, wide-angle lens.

Swimming strokes

“Swimming is a hard sport to photograph, and indoor lighting can make it even harder,” says Tucker. “You need a long lens to get close and a lot of light to catch the action and the water droplets.” If you don’t have a long lens or the pool has bad lighting, there are other ways to catch a good swimming photo. Tucker suggests trying to catch the winner's reaction as the swim race time is posted.

Picking a good angle based on the stroke being performed is also important. For freestyle, you have to be on the side of the pool to catch the swimmer's face as they breath from the side, but for the breast stroke or butterfly, you can place yourself at the end of the lane.

To catch this photo at a San Francisco Tsunami swim practice, I pre-focused in the middle of the lane where the swimmer was doing laps and waited for him to come up for a breath. Because it was indoors, I had to use a high, 1600 ISO and a slower shutter speed to let in enough light. Even with a shutter speed of 1/250, I was able to get a clean photo of the swimmer's face while keeping the water droplets relatively still.

Football angle

As with any sport, get familiar with the game play before you pick up your camera. Football can be tricky because of all of the rules and penalties, but it is a great game for predicting the action. If you want to capture emotion, Tucker suggests paying attention to the sidelines for confrontation and celebration, since football helmets make it very hard to capture player facial expressions on the field.

When shooting this photo at a high school football game, I stayed on the side of the field with the sun at my back to avoid back-lighting. I then moved from end zone to end zone based on who was playing offense. I always positioned myself so that the offense was facing me. That way I could shoot the players as they made progress down the field in hopes of catching the touchdown shot. With a 70-300mm lens, I was able to get in close on the players.

Basketball and volleyball moves

“With both volleyball and basketball, you don’t want the armpit shot,” warns Tucker. Also, keep in mind that gym lighting can be bad and color-balancing difficult. There will always be high-ISO noise unless you use a flash. Strobes, tripods, and remotes can give great results, but are expensive. If you don't want to purchase this equipment, there's always the post-game celebration or dejection to catch a good blur- and noise-free photo filled with emotion.

For this photo, Samantha Waidler used remote strobes to light the scene. For photographers who don't have access to strobes, the only other option is to up your ISO and slow down your shutter speed until the photos are clear. This, however, can leave your photos noisy and blurry.

Track and field intensity

Track and field is like a stage show for sports photographers. “Because track is slow and predictable, you can take your time composing a shot,” says Tucker. Track and field can also be good for catching emotion. “Take photos of the athletes running at you so you can see the intensity in their faces,” Tucker advises. “In many field shots the athletes always end up in the same place so you can pre-focus, compose your shot, and wait."

This photo captures a track practice run. I kept the ISO low and the shutter speed fast (though I could have gone a touch faster to minimize the blur in the runner's feet). This photo was also shot from above so I could get the lines from the track in the shot. I did as Tucker suggested, pre-focusing on the lane and waiting for the runner to come into my frame.

Baseball and softball slide

Baseball and softball are great sports for predicting action, as this photo by Samantha Waidler shows. Not only does the field have four bases that will almost certainly be the site of dust-flying close calls, but at any given point in the game, half of the athletes on the field are essentially motionless as they catch and throw the ball, making them easy photo targets.

"You are looking for the bat-on-ball photo and you can time your shot for it," says Tucker. You can also predict where the ball will be going on the field based on the hitter's dominant hand. For right-handed hitters, pre-focus your camera toward short stop or third base. Lefties generally hit toward first or second base, so you'll want to focus there. Don't forget the dugout shots, which often reveal the game's general mood; end-of-game celebrations on the mound are also a great place for catching emotion.

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