How to take great sports photos

Lauren Crabbe
28 October, 2011
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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.

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.

The photo above 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 the above 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.”

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