11 Easy Ways to Improve Your Sports Photography

11 Easy Ways to Improve Your Sports Photography

With our current sports-focused Critique the Community, now seems like a great time to share some tips and best practices to help you improve your sports and action photography in 2016. Read on for 11 solid suggestions to help you become a better shooter.

Here's some quick background on me: I started in photography in 2008 when I was in college. As a former high school athlete, I was immediately drawn to sports and started shooting it whenever I could. I started sending my portfolio out to various sports image agencies and was eventually contracted by one to be a backup shooter for MLB games in Houston. After that, I got an internship at the Houston Chronicle and continued to shoot professional and collegiate sports. I've had my work published in Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine many times, and I even think one of my NFL shots is on one of those Fathead wall clings somewhere. All that being said, I still have so many areas I can improve in and I am never fully satisfied with where I am as a shooter. I've put together the list below to hit on some things I've learned in my years covering sports in the hope that they might help others improve in photographing the crazy world of live sports. Let's get to it.

1. Learn the Sport

I mean really learn the sport. A big part of sports photography is anticipating action. You will (almost) never get that great shot of a diving shortstop spearing a line drive by simply reacting; you have to be just as ready for that play as the player is himself. You need to have a strong and instinctive understanding of a sport to really shoot it well. Shooting baseball? Watch the defense and see where they shift. They know the scouting report on the batter and are moving accordingly. Pay attention to whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed, same for the pitcher. Know the situation and plan accordingly. Football is the same thing, watch how the teams line up, know where they are on the field, and position yourself to take advantage of that. Basketball? Basketball can be a lot of fun because it's more confined and somewhat more predictable. Pay attention to the tendencies that players display throughout the game. Watch for people that seem to be emotional or play a certain way.

Soccer, hockey, tennis, golf, fighting, racing: it's all the same. Doing some research and knowing the sport will provide a big lift for your images. Getting a feel for a sport also allows you to nail a shot with a single frame instead of spraying and praying (nothing wrong with that, but it's fun to grab a frame at the exact moment you wanted). Both of my shots below were by timing a single exposure vs. just holding down the shutter release.

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Michael Russell during the Clay Court Championships in Houston in 2012.

sports photography tips dallas keuchel

AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel during a game in 2014.

2. Back-Button Focus

If you bought your camera new, then chances are it came set up to initiate autofocus a certain way: by half-pressing the shutter button. This is all well and good, and many great photographers function just fine with the default setting, but here's a little secret: there's a better different way! There's a good chance you've heard of back-button focusing, most (I'm looking at you D750) higher-end cameras actually come with an "AF-ON" button on the back of the camera, right around where your thumb would normally rest. Even if you don't have that button, you should be able to go into your camera's custom settings and enable whatever button is back there as the button to initiate autofocus. I even go ahead and disable autofocus from my shutter release completely; I set the half-press to lock my exposure, but I autofocus with the back button.

So, why would you want to do this? The short answer is it's just better different, but there are several good reasons to move to this setup. Half-pressing the shutter while shooting sports, action, photojournalism, etc., can often lead to accidentally triggering your shutter when you don't mean to. This is an annoying and sometimes rage-inducing experience. Moving focus control to the back button ensures that you're only taking photos when you want to. Shooting sports means constantly engaging and disengaging your AF, and having a single button right under your thumb dedicated to just that task is a life saver. Think about it; two of your camera's most important functions, focusing and exposing, are both controlled by the exact same button with only a the tiniest bit of pressure separating the two. That's kind of crazy! Separating the two functions helps to minimize mistakes in situations where you don't have time to make up for them.

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Texas A&M Aggie Christine Michael during a game against the Florida Gators in 2012.

3. Tell a Story

Quick, what separates Getty and (former) Sports Illustrated staff shooters from everyone else? Gear? Not really. Anyone can get gear, and you can get great AF and FPS on consumer level bodies these days. Access? Nope, a seasoned Getty shooter could kick your ass at Little League or the Super Bowl. Great athletes aren't what make great images. Two things separate the upper-echelon of sports shooters from the rest: practice and storytelling. I'll get to practice in my 10th point, but storytelling should never be undersold. If you have good gear that you know how to use and a good level of comfort with a sport, you can be a solid action photographer. Anticipation and luck are going to give you a good action shot 9 times out of 10 if you have those other things down, but the ability to tell the story of a game or event is a completely different thing. Check out Sports Illustrated's Top 100 Sports Photos of All Time; more than half of them are "story shots." A great shooter knows what is on the line for any given game, he knows the major players, he knows the sport, he knows tendencies. He pays attention to what is going on in the stadium; maybe there's a fan who is dressed a certain way or has a funny sign that can be incorporated into a shot. Maybe a player's family is in attendance, or an old coach, or a special guest. See where I'm going with this? You should have a running list in your head of shots you want to get should the situation present itself, so that if and when it does, you're ready.

sports photography tips aggie football Damontre Moore

Damontre Moore during an A&M football game in 2012.

4. Stop Chimping (at the Wrong Time)

Chimping: "A colloquial term used in digital photography to describe the habit of checking every photo on the camera display immediately after capture."

- Wikipedia

There isn't anything inherently wrong with chimping, but as with so many things in life, it's all about your timing. You never want chimp in the middle of the action, and you pretty much never want to chimp immediately following a stop in action (breaks in play are a great moment to find some of those story shots). You want to always be ready to catch the unexpected; even if you think you just got some amazing shot of a fantastic play, wait for the right moment to check. Don't let your own excitement possibly rob you of an even better shot than the one you're gawking at on the back of your camera.

Chimping is necessary at times, when covering an event for a publication, for instance. Many photographers are quickly reviewing their shot sequences and tagging potential keepers in-camera so that they're easy to find when they go to edit and caption later. It's an essential part of the workflow, but it should be done with careful discretion.

5. Be Critical

Your photo sucks; it really does. It doesn't matter that "it was such a great catch!" iI it's out of focus ("but only a little!"), or you can't see the ball ("it's there, I promise!"), or the face is obstructed ("who cares about faces?"), then chances are, it's not a great photo. The sooner you can accept that you have the innate ability to take really crappy photos, the sooner you can start to figure out why they're crappy and move on to taking really good photos. I shot my first basketball game my sophomore year of college, and I couldn't have been more proud of my photos. I posted them up on a local photo forum and got the expected "good job!" and "great shots!" comments, but then one guy ripped my photos to shreds. He pointed out which ones were out of focus, how I was cutting players feet off, where I was missing faces. He wasn't mean, but he didn't pull any punches. After reading his reply, I did one of the most unthinkable things in the history of the Internet: I listened to him. I didn't get mad or take it personally, I wanted to get better and everything he said about my images was right, so I listened to what he had to say, and I got better. We can't improve on our mistakes without acknowledging them, and we don't correct our flaws by accident. Be brutal with yourself; find someone who is better than you to be brutal as well, then listen to them.

I posted the photo below on Instagram a few years ago. It's not a very good photo. People liked it because it's JJ, but it's not the level of quality I wanted to be at. Never settle when you know you could improve.

sports photography tips houston texans jj watt

J.J. Watt. Not my best work. Always strive to get better!

6. It's (Almost) Always About the Face

This plays into the above, but faces are one of the most important things in a sports image. Faces personalize and humanize the image; they connect the viewer to the moment and draw them in. Yes, there are photos that capture such a powerful moment that they can get away with not having the face in them, but I guarantee you that the guys who shot those photos would have preferred a shot that showed the face.

Embed from Getty Images

My shot below is technically better, but the Helmet Catch carries the weight of the moment and is a better photo simply on the basis of the story that is being told.

sports photography tips houston texans deandre hopkins

DeAndre Hopkins is unstoppable in a game against the Colts in 2013.

7. Step Away From the Crowd

If you have the ability to move around a venue, use it. Find angles that no one else is shooting. My editor at one of my newspaper internships in college once told me: "Get high or get low; no one wants to see your point of view. Everyone knows what the world looks like from a few feet off the ground." Sports Illustrated's greatest photo of all time is that famous shot by Neil Leifer of Ali vs. Williams, the overhead angle telling the story of the fight better than anything ringside could. Don't underestimate what you can get when you combine a tight or wide angle with an extremely high or extremely low angle.

sports photography tips houston texans arian foster

Arian Foster carries the ball during a game against the Seattle Seahawks.

8. Don't Stop Once the Whistle Blows

Coaches tell players to keep going until they hear the whistle; well, you keep going until the whistle and then some. That's how you get moments of celebration and failure, coaches and players losing their minds, the moments that oftentimes define the game more than any individual play. Don't stop shooting once the catch is made, and don't ever assume that a whistle means the play is over. Cam Newton is a walking photo gallery after a touchdown; the most compelling shots of runners are almost always after they have crossed the finish line. Always keep your camera ready, and you will catch some of your most compelling photos.

sports photography tips houston dynamo soccer

Omar Cummings celebrates a goal for the Houston Dynamo during a game in 2013.

9. Make Smart Gambles

You ever wonder how this shooter or that shooter managed to get the shot that they did? I mean, how could they possible know that the ball would be fumbled and returned 90 yards for a touchdown as the clock expired? The answer is that they didn't know, but they were willing to take a gamble. Now, just like in real betting, there are smart gambles and dumb gambles. A dumb gamble would be positioning yourself for a shot that you hope will happen, even though it means sacrificing your ability to get other important images. You can sit in a single end zone all game long, just in case something totally crazy happens, but you're completely missing other opportunities to tell the story of the game: dumb gamble. A smart gambling photographer is extremely mindful. They know what they have shot so far that day, they know the potential storylines and outcomes from the game, they know who the big players are, they know their tendencies. The smart gambler is constantly calculating risk vs. opportunity and is able to decide in a moment whether or not it's worth missing shot A to potentially get a one-of-a-kind shot B. Smart gamblers are also lucky; they just are. You can't teach luck, but you can make smart gambles.

sports photography tips houston rockets chandler parsons basketball nba

Chandler Parsons attempts to dunk over Amir Johnson.

10. Shoot Tight, Crop Tighter

Tried and true wisdom from editors across the globe: Keep the action tight, crop even tighter later. Lose extraneous and distracting elements; draw the viewer into the action. Athletes are perceived as larger than life; let your photos play off that feeling. As with all rules, of course, this one is made to be broken, but it is a good rule of thumb and a good thing to have in mind when you're shooting and editing.

11. Shoot, Shoot, Then Shoot Some More

This holds true for all genres of photography and really anything in life you choose to pursue. You can't get better at something if you aren't doing it. Shoot a lot, get critiqued a lot, correct your mistakes, and shoot some more. Challenge yourself; look at images of photographers you admire, and go to a game with the mindset of trying to emulate something you like about their style. Find new ways to tell stories, and accept that you will probably fail a lot along the way.

Action and sports are some of the most thrilling and frustrating things you can shoot, but when you nail the shot, there's no better feeling. Here's to all of us improving our skills in 2016!

sports photography tips ufc mma

Cain Velasquez during UFC 166 in Houston, TX.

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9 Comments

Robin Browne's picture

Well done. Amen to "Know the sport".

David Arthur's picture

agreed. This is why I shoot basketball so much better than baseball. I know whats going to happen in basketball but have no idea with baseball.

Laura Mullen's picture

Great information in this article that can also be applied to many genres.

Yes. Great article.

Jason Brietstein's picture

No doubt you set yourself up to be lucky in sports photography, but "knowing the sport" is an essential ingredient to the setup.

Clif Haley's picture

I did not know about the back button focus feature! Don't know if my old Nikon D3100 can do that but I'm finding out ASAP. What is a good lens for sports photography? I'm guessing for some shots you need a pretty good zoom lens. When I see guys on the sidelines it looks like they all have Hubble Space Telescopes attached to their cameras.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Looks like it can! http://www.wikihow.com/Switch-Your-Nikon-D3100-to-Using-Back-Button-Focus

It all depends on what you're shooting. You can cover a basketball game with a 70-200 2.8 and a wide angle zoom and be just fine. Having a 300 in basketball is really nice but not necessary. For football you're pretty much going to want to at least have a 300, with a 400 being the real sweet spot lens. Nikon and Canon both have 200-400's that are pretty fantastic for football and baseball. Your first concern is going to be a lens that has a wide enough aperture to deal with the bad lighting most sports are played under. That's why most high end sports glass can shoot at 2.8. You can get away with f4 in lots of outdoor settings and even some indoor with ISO capabilities being what they are today, but 2.8 tends to be preferred.

Kevin Haley's picture

I know I'm late but this was an amazing article. I definitely can learned a lot from this. Can't wait to put it all into action.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Thanks Kevin!