Michael Jordan frozen in mid-air, pumping his fists in victory after a game-winning shot. Muhammad Ali towering over Sonny Liston, demanding he stand and fight. Perfect photos turn amazing moments into legends. Sports is a field of larger-than-life figures and unbelievable moments, and it's through sports photography that those moments are preserved in public memory forever.
But sports photography isn't just about capturing star athletes at the top of their game -- some of the greatest shots focus on the reaction after a win, fans and athletes coming together, or the crowning of a champion on the Olympic podium. Others highlight an athlete's physique or use motion blur to depict the thrill and action of a moment. There's no one way to take a great sports photograph, but there are a few techniques that are guaranteed to help you get that winning shot.
Whether you're looking to capture that next iconic sports moment or want to record your kid's high school football game, shooting with the best lens you can afford is the first step toward a brilliant picture.
The Lens Makes All the Difference
Most sports are challenging to photograph for the same reason: The action is fast-paced. Athletes are constantly running and jumping and throwing. Autofocus is key -- sports are constantly in motion, and throwing away a shot because it's out of focus is a real heartbreaker.
Shooting football or baseball or soccer presents another wrinkle: The fields are really, really big. The drama's in the close-up, and getting a close-up of a football player may require one heck of a lens. Ever seen a DSLR attached to a telephoto lens that's about two feet long? That kind of lens.
You don't have to spend thousands on a lens, but buying the best one you can afford will define the quality and range of photos you can take on the field. A good telephoto lens will give you the range to zoom in on faraway subjects. Just as importantly, it gives you control over background blur with strong depth of field. And picture quality is always paramount: Lenses like the CanonEF 100-400mmf4.5-5.6 LISUSM deliver a massive focal length and a sharp picture.
A 300mm or 400mm lens provides ample focal length for zooming in on the action, but not all sports need to be shot at extreme distances. Indoor games such as basketball call for smaller lenses with larger apertures to handle harsh lighting. Covering different sports requires a variety of equipment, which leads us to our next tip: Always having the right equipment on hand.
Get Equipped with the Right Gear
Without the right equipment, even the best photographer's going to turn in work that robs a slam dunk or a slide into third base of the excitement and action of the moment. Is the shot out of focus? No good! Zoomed out too far? That's a waste, too. Buying good lenses is the first step. Having them on hand and instantly available is the second.
Sports photographers recommend a finding carrying solution for lenses and other gear like SD or Compact Flash cards, batteries and add-on flashes. Photography gear companies sell bags, vests and belts made to hold everything professionals need on the field. Sites like OutdoorPhotoGear and B&H sell a range of accessories, from large bags to single-lens pouches. Accessibility is key in an equipment setup -- every second you spend fiddling with a lens change is a second you could be snapping pictures.
Beyond lenses, having backup cards for extra photos and battery packs for long shoots is always a good idea. A monopod or tripod (check with the venue to make sure your tripod is allowed) is also vital for shooting with a telephoto -- long lenses are far too bulky and heavy to hold steady for long periods of time. Once you're equipped to cover a sporting event, it's time to get down to business: exploring what goes into a great sports photograph.
Plan Your Shots and Keep an Eye on the Crowd
All eyes are locked on the star athletes, and that's where your lens should be pointing -- most of the time. You're there to catch the backboard-rattling slam dunk, the grand slam home run, the longest long jump. But sporting events consist of more than the athletes winning games and medals. Going to a game is an experience: the crowd, the hot dogs, the merchandise, the body painted fans and the JumboTron wedding proposals all factor into it.
Shots of a stadium or its fans can help frame a story, and it's possible that something in the crowd could be more interesting than the game itself. Keeping an eye out for interesting photo opportunities is a basic requirement for all photographers. So is planning your shots. Knowing the sport and predicting what's coming in the next play can give you time to set up a great shot. Maybe it's a fast player stealing second base; maybe it's a running back weaving his way into the end zone. Having an eye for those moments will net the best photographs.
Whether you're planning out shots or firing away on instinct, keep shooting. Digital photography allows us to take hundreds of pictures without fiddling with new rolls of film. Memory cards hold hundreds of images and can be swapped out in seconds. There's no need to take a break from shooting to look at a photograph or delete a bad shot. Just keep firing away. The bad shots can be weeded out later.
Shoot With Slow Shutter Speeds to Create Motion Blur
It's the Tour de France, and all eyes are on cyclists whizzing by at 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) per hour. Sports photographers capture sweat pouring down the faces of the cyclists. They capture the pained expressions on cyclists' faces as they struggle up another hill. They photograph an entire pack of cyclists from a distance, capturing the scale of the competition. Those are all good photo opportunities, but bicycle photography is known for something else: the motion blur shot.
You've probably seen it before -- a photograph of cyclists flashing by, the background and sometimes even their bodies blurred thanks to their high speeds. That blur isn't an accident: It's the result of a photographer shooting with a slow shutter speed to capture a sense of motion in a still image. The longer the camera shutter remains open, the more light it's taking in. When a fast-moving object makes its way across the frame, it becomes blurred.
Motion blur adds a layer of style often missing from static images and proves there's not just one way to photograph a scene. The technique can be put to use photographing all manner of sports, but it isn't the best choice in every situation. In fact, sports photography often relies on the opposite practice -- shooting at a high shutter speed -- to secure a sharp image.
Shoot With High Shutter Speeds
Motion blur can be used as an artistic technique to exaggerate or enhance an image, but if it's not used properly it can ruin a photograph. Think about it: You can probably tell the difference between a photo with "cool" motion blur and one that just seems blurry. The majority of sports photography relies on high shutter speeds to freeze a moment in time and create a clear, dramatic image.
Higher shutter speeds limit the camera sensor's exposure time, narrowing the period of time in which an image is created. This is useful for minimizing camera shake introduced by the photographer's hands, but more importantly, it minimizes the visible impact of anything moving within the frame. Considering the speeds at which most sports move, that's pretty important! Shutter speeds of 1/1000 second, 1/2000 second and up can freeze fast-moving subjects to create sharp, in-focus images. By contrast, a slow shutter speed that creates motion blur would be something like 1/15 of a second -- much, much slower.
Shutter speed is related to both ISO speed and aperture size; it's important to know that a high ISO setting increases the camera sensor's sensitivity to light. High ISO makes it easier to shoot in low light conditions, but very high ISO can also introduce unwanted grain into a picture. A high ISO setting is necessary for extremely fast shutter speeds, since the camera must be able to take in tons of light faster than you can blink.
Practicing with high ISO and fast shutter speeds is worth the payoff -- when you've captured that insane mid-air catch with perfect clarity, you'll know you've nailed the essence of sports photography.
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Sports photography is really cool. All photography presents a unique set of challenges, but sports photographers have to grapple with fast-moving players, shoot from a distance, and still take shots without a hint of blur to get their work out there in print and on the Web. I had fun researching the gigantic lenses sports photographers use, but my favorite tip was using slow shutter speeds to introduce some artistic motion blur into a shot. It's not appropriate for every situation, but it's a great effect when used properly.
- Cameraporn.net. "Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed -- The Good Kind of Threesome." Dec. 24, 2007. (March 22, 2012) http://www.cameraporn.net/2007/12/24/aperture-iso-and-shutter-speed-the-good-kind-of-threesome/
- Dillon, Dak. "8 Tips for Taking Sports Photos Like a Pro." Dec. 23, 2010. (March 24, 2012) http://photo.tutsplus.com/tutorials/shooting/8-tips-for-taking-sports-photos-like-a-pro/
- LensExtender.com. "What Nikon Lenses I Use for My Sports Photography." May 15, 2009. (March 23, 2012) http://www.lensextender.com/2009/05/what-nikon-lenses-i-use-for-my-sports-photography.html
- The-Digital-Picture.com. "Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM Lens Review." (March 22, 2012) http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Canon-EF-100-400mm-f-4.5-5.6-L-IS-USM-Lens-Review.aspx
- The-Digital-Picture.com. "Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM Lens Review." (March 22, 2012) http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Canon-EF-70-200mm-f-4.0-L-USM-Lens-Review.aspx