How To Create Dynamic Sports Photography

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One of the most challenging and difficult but at the same time, interesting genres of photography is sports photography. It is quite difficult to shoot as the subjects are most of the time constantly moving, sometimes at a very high speed. Sports photography can cover or span across a few genres and in this article, we will look at creating dynamic sports photography. 

When starting with sports photography, you can start practicing by photographing kids playing in the park or shooting school games for kids. This will help you start slowly, learn the tricks and techniques that you can take along when shooting bigger sports or professional sportsmen.

What Is Sports Photography?

Sports photography is a genre where the photographer captures photographs that can cover all types of sports activities, games, exercises, gymnasts, etc. Most sports photographers usually work for magazines, newspapers, and other agencies while some may be freelancers, selling their photos as stock photographs or for other media and agencies. Some event photographers also cover sports if the sports are part of a large event. 

Professional sport photography can also be considered as a branch of documentary photography or photojournalism and this can be done for editorial purposes. Sometimes sports photography is done for advertising purposes where a brand may require images for magazines and promotional purposes. 

Whether you are interested in photographing live actions as the sports or game event happens or if you are looking into shooting sports for editorial purposes, this article has some tips and advice that can help you take sports photography a step further.

Image by Jonathan Chng

1. Camera

Most professional sports photographers use expensive cameras and cameras for sports photography are quite important. A DSLR or a mirrorless camera will be a good choice but there are a few factors that you need to consider before upgrading your gear for sports photography.

  • When photographing sports, you will be shooting continuously at a higher burst rate so you need a camera that will allow you to do that. 
  • It needs to have a good buffer for shooting a few raw files in burst mode. This will allow you to keep shooting without your camera pausing in between to clear the buffer.
  • A good number of autofocus points will help along with the autofocus tracking feature. The camera should also be able to autofocus very quickly because, in sports, actions happen in the split of a second.

Whatever your budget is, you will be able to find a camera that suits your needs as a sports photographer. Some photographers even use a GoPro to get up close and personal with action shots and they work well because of the burst mode feature.

Image by CHUTTERSNAP

2. Lens

The lens that you need for sports photography varies and depends on what type of sports you will be shooting, whether indoors or outdoors, and the distance between the participants and the camera. Choose a lens that has fast autofocus because, with sports, you need to be real quick and get the focus faster to capture the actions. 

For outdoor sports, you will have natural light, but the distance between the camera and the subjects may be larger and for indoor sports, the lighting conditions are dimmer compared to outdoor natural light and the distance between the camera and subject is sometimes smaller. As a result, you will need longer focal lengths for outdoor sports photography and moderate lenses for indoor sports. Prime lenses are the best choices for indoor sports especially because they are fast and let in more light.

It is good to have a few focal lengths in hand especially if you are unsure of where you will need to position yourself from the activity spot. Also, having wide, moderate and long focal lengths will help most of the time. You will need a zoom lens so you can zoom in and get closer shots of the actions taking place. Wider focal length can help if you are photographing a sports activity in a large field, where you may need to cover all the players in a frame for documentary reasons.

Some of the lenses used for sports photography are the 85mm, 135mm, 300mm, 400mm prime lenses and the 70-200mm, 80-200mm, 200-400mm, 200-500mm, 150-600mm zoom lenses. A zoom lens is versatile because it gives you the flexibility to shoot at various focal lengths depending on the movement of your subject towards or away from the camera. You will not need to change lenses in between.

Image by Atharva Tulsi

3. Tripod

Tripods are not recommended for sports photography unless you are going to be in a particular location at all times during the entire session. They can be uncomfortable to lug around with and can be disturbed easily by nearby observers or photographers. 

4. Monopod

A monopod can be one of the best accessories for sports photographers because they are easier to handle compared to the tripod if you require moving around during the shoot. It is also lightweight, takes up very little space, and gives you some respite from holding a heavy lens during the session. Moreover, when it comes to moving shots, like panning, a monopod will help you pan easily while at the same time avoid vertical movement.

Check out How And When To Use A Monopod

Image by José Pinto

5. Faster Memory Cards

We talked about the buffer capability in cameras for sports photography and very similar to that, when continuously photographing high-speed action shots, your memory card should be able to write faster as well. Have cards and spare cards that will allow for faster read and write processes.

6. Shoulder Straps

If you are someone who uses more than a camera because you have a different lens on each of them for the quicker shooting of different scenarios, then a shoulder strap that can house more than one camera is a need so you don't waste time putting cameras back into the bag each time. Look for a strap that is sturdy, comfortable to wear, and easier to hang the camera and get hold of it when in need.

Also make sure you have some spare batteries in hand!

Compositional Guidelines For Sports Photography

There are a lot of compositional guidelines that can be used for sports photography. Starting from the rule of thirds, you can use the rule of odds, golden spiral, minimalism, lines, curves, patterns to compose sports images. However, since there are actions constantly happening and subjects moving, one important compositional guideline that needs to be taken into account is space for movement. 

Leave Space For Subject's Movement: When photographing moving subjects always give them space for movement in the frame. Do not place your subject towards the end of the frame in the direction they are moving, or in the middle of the frame. Without space for movement, the photo can feel cramped, but leaving enough space can show a sense of movement and add a dynamic feel to the image.

Image by Mattia Cioni

Tips For Dynamic Sports Photography

Here are some tips on getting started and to improve your sports photography!

1. Get Started

“Start With The Sport You Play.” If you play some kind of sport, it is good to start with that because you know the rules and know what to anticipate. There are many public sports events and these can be great places to get started with sports photography as a beginner. You could also shadow a professional to see how they go about a particular session.

2. Understand The Sport

In sports photography, you cannot predict what will happen, but having a good understanding of the sport you are shooting will help you predict to an extent and this will help with composition and settings for the shot. With very quick actions happening, you need to be ready with the camera settings to capture them. If possible, it is good to move around the area to get shots from different angles and locations. You can watch videos relating to this sport to get more ideas about the sport itself and to brainstorm ideas for certain shots when shooting the sports event.

3. Anticipate Actions

Knowing the sport will help you to track specific people in a team, the sporting equipment, or the action, so you are able to capture the best and most important moments. The subject/s will constantly be portraying a lot of behaviors, expressions, and emotions throughout the session and it is important to capture these as it is part of the storytelling process in sports photography. 

Keep an eye on the participants’ visual clues as these will give you an idea of their next move and help you get ready for the shot. Besides just the game, you should also capture emotions of the good, the bad, victory, and failure to capture the raw emotion and atmosphere. Include some shots of the audience as well. 

Image by Emma Dau
Image by sporlab

4. Understand The Subject

Knowing the subjects is important in sports photography. It is good if you get a chance to speak to your subjects before the actual event, so you get to know them personally and some information about the sports for that day. If they have participated in sports before, and if you get a chance to watch their previous sports videos, it will be really helpful as it will give you a good knowledge of the moves that specific subject takes and how they handle certain situations. This can help you get better images and help you improve as a sports photographer.

If there are a bunch of participants or a team, observe each individual as each person behaves and executes actions differently. 

Image by Joe Neric

5. Plan The Shots

Most of this comes from knowing the sport, observing the participants, and looking through past works of professional photographers to get an idea of what kind of shots are loved by people and magazines. You do not need to mimic these types of photos, but these can give you creative ideas on what to expect and think about what to do differently. Always keep an eye on the participants so you do not miss the flow of the game. 

Image by Moises Alex

6. Look For The Direction Of Light

Sports photography may be done indoors or outdoors depending on the activity or sports event that you are shooting. You may need to adjust the camera settings on the go depending on how the light is falling on your subject. If possible, it is good to visit the location in advance and check how the light whether natural or artificial will fall on the location where the sports event will take place.

Overcast days can be good for shooting sports photography but since we cannot control the weather, you need to move around to keep the light falling the right way on the subject – keep the sun behind you, so your subjects are well lit. If you are looking to photograph silhouettes, then you can shoot into the sun, but this is not always desirable. 

Image by david clarke

When shooting indoors, you will need to increase the iso to compensate for the low light. Check with the officials to see if you are allowed to use a flash indoors and if you are allowed, use it in a way that does not distract the participants.

7. Position Yourself At The Right Place

Whatever sport you are photographing, you need to know where to stand or position yourself, so you can capture the best images and actions possible especially including the participants’ faces. Location is of prime importance. There is no common method that can be applied for all sports activities in terms of where and how to shoot. Moreover, all sports events do not allow photographers to get close to the participants and in situations like these, look for areas where you are allowed to be, or specific places if you hold a pass and set up the camera.

8. Keep An Eye On The Background

Backgrounds are another important factor in a photograph and they can make or break a photo. With sports photography, since you can move around, look for the best background that truly tells a story of the sport. For closer shots, try to get a neat background so the focus is mainly on the subject and their actions.

Image by Garry Neesam

Depending on the sport, the background could be the audience, a natural backdrop, vehicles, etc. Try to avoid ad banners, vans, trucks, fences, or anything undesirable as a background. Try to keep it simple without any distractions.

Find out why you should Always Keep an Eye Out for These Backgrounds to Compose a Great Shot

9. Look for The Best Perspective

In sports photography, you need to be constantly looking out for the best and most important moments and actions to capture memorable shots. So, look for a location, perspective, and the right distance from where you will get the best shots from the scene. If you are allowed to move around, get low or get high and look at the sport from a different point of view. Keep in mind the lens or lenses you will be using. 

Try both wide and close-up shots. Each one tells a different story and shows a different perspective. If you are shooting outdoors in the sun, try to have the sun behind you or at a slight angle with the subject. This will help with gathering more light and capturing well-exposed images. 

Image by JC Gellidon

10. Keep Safety In Mind

Apart from being adventurous and exciting, sports photography can also be one of the most dangerous, especially if you are shooting high-risk games. It is good to speak to the authorities and find a safe location to shoot. Moreover, being in the way of a participant can be risky for them as well. So by all means, safeguard yourself and the participants.

Image by Kitera Dent

11. Set The Camera Ready For The Shots

Timing is very important in sports photography and pressing the shutter button at the right time is of paramount importance. Instead of releasing the shutter button when the action happens, you can do it slightly before the action is going to happen, so the most important action is captured during the sequence of shots taken. To get this right, you need to watch every move the participant makes. 

12. Use Flash Or Not?

A lot of sports will not allow the use of flash. So if you think that you will benefit from using a flash for an indoor sport, check with the authorities there. In most games, flash can distract or blind the participants, so it is good to be sensitive and not use the flash at all. For outdoor sports where the subject is far away, the flash will not help.

13. Be Ready For The Action

You could be photographing any type of sports when it comes to sports photography and the best shots happen when you least expect them. As discussed before, you should be ready to get that shot and this is possible only if you know the game and have a good understanding of the subjects.

Some sports like motorsports make use of high-speed motor vehicles that require completely different settings. You need to use very fast shutter speed and sometimes even techniques like panning to get great shots. 

With motorsports and other similar sports, you may not be able to quickly focus on your subject when they appear at a high speed within the frame. You can instead focus on an area where you think your subject will arrive and get the shot quickly as they speed past that area.

14. Shoot As Much As Possible And Shoot Everything

Sports photographers most of the time get lost in the action-packed area and forget to look around to see what’s happening. During a sports event, a lot of other things happen around with the coach, referee, audience, etc. Include these in your session so you get a bunch of good stories to complete the event. Try to shoot as many images because you may find a good few ones in the end.

15. Stop Chimping All The Time

Many photographers have the habit of chimping and this can be detrimental when it comes to sports photography because by chimping, you are likely to lose a lot of the actions and images. It is ok to look at a photo or two to make sure the settings and focus are right, but other than that, you should not chimp and lose focus of the game and as a result miss important shots. 

Here are The Pros and Cons of Chimping

16. Capture Stories

In sports, the participants are constantly portraying a lot of emotions or expressions through their actions. They can react to situations very quickly, so observe each and every participant and photograph their emotions to create timeless shots that tell a story. 

Image by Max Leveridge

Some Techniques That Can Be Used For Dynamic And Impactful Sports Photography

High Speed Sports Photography Techniques

For most sports events, the photographer is required to very quickly frame their images and adjust camera settings depending on the speed with which the action is taking place. This way, the photographer can avoid blurry and underexposed photos. The more closer the subject is to the camera, the greater the chances of blur due to movement.

High-speed sports can be creatively photographed using other techniques where you use motion blur creatively to photograph the sport. Motion blur can be either in the background or on the subject. The following sections discuss how that can be done. 

1. Panning

Panning is a technique where you move the camera along the direction of movement of your subject while releasing the shutter button. This way, the subject is sharp and the background has a motion blur, giving it a sense of movement and speed. It is best to use a monopod to steady the camera while panning, so you can avoid vertical movement and focus on sideward movements. Your shutter speed really depends on the speed of the movement of your subject.

Here is A Quick Guide to Panning to Get Great Photographic Compositions

Image by Jakub Sisulak

2. Motion Blur In Sports Photography

While we do not want blurry photos in sports photography, sometimes adding a touch of blur to show actions or movements can actually add to the story and can help create artistic photos. This technique can be used for sports that have fast actions happening, so the blur actually brings in a dynamic feeling to the image. You will need to play around with the shutter speed to get creative shots – a slightly slower shutter speed will help capture blur rather than freeze actions.

Read to find out How Blurring People Can Give You Amazing Images

Image by Jeremy Bishop

You can also combine panning and motion blur to get surreal shots.

Image by paolo candelo

Accurate Focusing For Sports Photography

Since sports photography is all about actions happening in a fraction of a second, quick focusing correctly on the subject is of prime importance. Since your subjects are constantly moving, there are high chances that you may miss the right focus and end up with a blurry image. To avoid this, it is recommended to use continuous autofocus mode that will allow you to track your subject and keep them in focus continuously (focus tracking) even when they are moving. 

Switching to back button focusing is one of the most efficient ways in which you can use continuous autofocus. With this feature, you don't have to constantly refocus each time. Using a continuous focusing feature with back button focusing will help ensure your subject is in sharp focus even when they are moving. Keeping the focus button pressed allows you to track the subject and release the shutter when required.

Using single-point autofocus for focusing on a particular subject will help when focusing on a single subject. This way the camera will not accidentally focus on another subject. 

Find out How to Successfully Focus on Fast Moving Subjects

Image by Quino Al

Camera Settings For Sports Photography

Sports photography can be quite difficult and sometimes stressful because you need to be very quick, photograph among a bunch of other photographers sometimes and requires a lot of skills. You need to be extra vigilant, observe your subjects, anticipate their movements, and be ready to capture their moves.

In order to achieve this, you need to have a good knowledge of the sport you are photographing and be ready with the camera, set to shoot that sport. Camera settings differ when photographing different types of sports and here are some general settings you need to take care of.

1. General Settings

If you will be using a tripod or a monopod, it is good to turn off image stabilization on both lens and camera. Some photographers shoot jpegs if they can get their images correctly exposed in camera because it helps save space in memory cards and also does not load the buffer thereby allowing to make a lot of shots in continuous mode, but it is wise to shoot raw if possible so you can work with your images without a problem later when post-processing. Have a few spare formatted memory cards in hand.

2. Aperture

Aperture really depends on what sports activity you are shooting and what you want to include in the background for a particular shot. If you want to focus on one player and capture a neat photograph of them, shoot at a wider aperture that will help you to throw the background out of focus and bring all the attention to your subject and their action. Shooting at wider aperture values makes the depth of field very shallow making focusing a bit tricky and difficult. It is good to avoid shooting at f/1.8, f/2.8, etc., for action shots and start from about f/4 or f/5.6.

If you want to have a greater depth of field and include more of the scene/background in the frame, then you will need to shoot at narrow aperture values like f/8 and above. This is quite important for action shots because shooting wider apertures can make focusing tricky when the subject is moving and sometimes also throw important areas out of focus in the image. 

Image by Chris Kendall

3. Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is one of the most important settings when it comes to sports photography because you need to freeze movements and capture the actions without any blur involved. Your shutter speed should not be slower than (1/focal length) taking into account the crop factor. Do not go below 1/250s or even better 1/500s for action shots and even faster for fast action shots. For fast actions like tennis, baseball, volleyball, basketball, soccer, motorsports, etc., you will have to go up to 1/2000s.

4. ISO

ISO settings are usually slightly higher for sports photography in order to work with fast shutter speeds. You may need to have your iso greater than 400 depending on the light in the scene. If shooting at midday, you will be able to shoot at lower iso values. 

5. Shutter Priority

In sports photography, since most of the part is filled with actions, shutter speed is the main deciding factor in order to get images that are free from motion blur. The best modes for sports photography are manual and shutter priority mode.

Manual is always recommended as you can have perfect control over all the settings in the camera, but when you are focused on optimal shutter speed to catch the actions, it is better to use the shutter priority mode where you set the minimum shutter speed and the camera then sets the iso and aperture values for you. Doing this will allow you to freeze actions without having to worry about getting a blurry shot by accident.

Here is a beginner's guide to shutter priority – Shutter Priority Mode: A Beginner’s Guide

6. Shooting Mode

When there is a lot of movement happening continuously, that is for fast action shots, you need to set your camera on burst mode or high-speed continuous shooting mode and this will allow you to capture a series of images in one press of the shutter and choose the best of the set later when post-processing. With this mode, there are high chances you get amazing action-packed shots most of the time. 

Photographing In Extreme Weather Conditions

When shooting sports photography, you cannot choose a time of the day because you need to be there when the event happens. It could be a harsh sunny afternoon or a cold overcast day. Whatever the weather is, you will need to keep yourself geared up for the weather. Here are some sports photography tips that may be of some help.

  • If you will be shooting in the harsh sunny weather, sometimes because of the very bright surrounding light, you will find it difficult to see anything on the LCD screen. A sunshade/shield or a loupe for the LCD screen will help in this situation.
  • If you need to shoot towards the sun, you can use a viewfinder hood to protect your eyes from the scorching sunlight.
  • If you are shooting in very cold conditions, wear protective clothing and also protect your gear from the weather. You may need to keep the lens from fogging up. 
  • Lens hood is another accessory that will help in different situations and help avoid extreme light, flares and protect to an extent during cold weather conditions. 

Check out some Useful Tips on How to Photograph Winter Sports

Fine Arts Sports Photography

Fine arts sports photography is usually conceptual and requires a totally different approach and perspective – it is more artistic and very creative. Photographing sports as fine art requires a lot of imagination and creative thought from the photographer. Instead of putting all the focus on the athlete or sportsman, you need to include more of the location, the game details and include surrounding elements for composition in fine art sports photography. 

Image by Renith R

Focus on the tiny details of everything that is happening around you and photograph everything. You can create interesting graphics with the forms, colors, patterns both in the field and amongst the audience. Use interesting compositions, perspectives, and photograph actions, and emotions that most other photographers would fail to see or miss in their shots. 

Here is A Perfect Introduction To Fine Art Photography And Its Finesse

Action Sequence In Sports Photography

The action sequence in sports photography can be beneficial to show movement in a still image. These depict a series of movements by the participant during the sports event and helps viewers look through the various sequences a sports person goes through when an action happens. 

This kind of photography will not suit sports where there are multiple players, but rather single-player games like cycling, skating, skiing, snowboarding, gymnastics, etc. You will need to shoot from a very interesting perspective in order for the image to stand out and keep an eye on the background as well.

In order to create action shots, you need to shoot a series of images in burst mode when an interesting action happens. These images are then stacked together when post-processing to get a resulting image that shows the series of actions in one shot. It is advisable to use a tripod when shooting for an action sequence, so it is easier to stack perfectly without any errors.

Here is A Tutorial: How to Create Action Sequence Shots Using Composite Photography

Post-Processing In Sports Photography

Once you have photographed a sports session, you need to get some post-processing done before you use the images for the purpose that you shot. Post-processing depends on the purpose and based on that you will need to make the edits. 

Crop the image to the desired composition. It is good to crop tighter to give more impact to sports images. Make basic adjustments like white balance, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc. 

If you are working for magazines and newspapers, your images will need to have subtle edits and a neat crop because this will be more like photojournalism or documentary photography. You may even want to sometimes convert the images to black and white.  

Image by Quino Al

If you take photos for magazine covers, you will need to make a neat edit based on what the magazine requires. Fine art sports photography will require a different type of edit where you can put in your creativity to get the final looks.

Conclusion

We hope the tips in this article will be of some help to get started in sports photography. Sports photography is a great genre to improve as a photographer and to give a boost to your confidence. If you want to get great sports photographs, know the sport you are photographing. Look for locations from where you can get the best shots and perspectives. As far as possible, capture the players’ emotions for brilliant storytelling images. 

Practice and shoot a lot before you take up sports photography as a profession, so you eventually familiarise yourself with what settings and strategies will work best for each sport situation. If you are into sports photography and have some tips to share with us, please share them in the comments section below.

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Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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