11 min read

Sports Photography – A Complete Guide

11 min read

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guide for sports photography.

Sports photography is a thrilling genre. It involves constant action, variable light conditions, and of course, there are the fans. For the photographer, all those sports photography facets present a challenge.

What is Sports Photography?

Sports Photography is a very demanding form of photography with many conditions out of your control. Your subject matter is constantly moving, usually in unpredictable ways, and faster than normal activity.

Thus, it is best to start out with slower moving high school sports and then move up to college and professional levels. Try to cover both indoor and outdoor sporting events to broaden your skills.

How to Shoot Sports Photography – An Overview

Learn to be more assertive. This is crucial! Try to get as close as possible to the subject matter without getting in the way of the fan’s view or intruding on the game. Don’t be afraid to move in; the worst that will happen is an usher will ask you to return to your seat. However, if you look like you know what you are doing and are doing your best to keep out of the way, they probably won’t bother you.

sports photographer taking pictures.

Know what the light will be before you go to the game. This is crucial if it is an indoor event since all manner of artificial lighting is used, and some are so bad you are better off using a flash.

If you have to use a flash, ensure you are not aiming that flash into the player’s eyes. Do not get involved in the game. Keep quiet. Concentrate on getting the best photo you can.

Don’t bug other photographers with questions about exposure, etc. You must figure these concerns out yourself. Do not talk with any players or coaches.

Players sometimes will bug you to take their picture, smile and avoid conversations, or the coach will do everything he can to keep you from shooting any more photos. You become a distraction to the players – keeping them from concentrating on their game – and coaches hate that.

Do not bring a tripod to any game. They are usually too big and bulky, and players can hurt themselves if they make contact. A monopod (one-legged camera stick-support) is lightweight and easily moved.

photographer taking sports photos.

If you have a motorized camera and can remove the motor or use a manual shutter button, please start off avoiding using the motor. There is a significant delay between the time you push the motor’s shutter button and the actual time the exposure is made.

If you shoot without the motor, the delay is reduced. The delay when shooting non-motor is about 1/200th of a second. That may sound fast, but with fast moving subjects such as runners, it is not, and you need to learn how to compensate for the delay.

Learn to shoot an instant before the peak action. If you wait until you see the peak action, you will miss it. Using the motor’s shutter button means an even longer delay and will take you longer to time your shooting.

Camera Settings for Sports Photography

Sports photography happens too fast to be needing to think about your camera’s settings. You should know what it does and be able to change the settings at a moment’s notice.

The only way to do this is to know everything about your camera. You should know how to use it in manual mode, and you’ll want to pay particular attention to the aperture settings.

Learn About Exposure

You need to know how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO affect your images. These are the three elements that affect exposure. You’re usually going to need a faster shutter speed, a more open aperture (smaller f-number), and a variable ISO depending on the lighting conditions. You’ll need to be able to adjust these settings quickly to capture the action.

Use Aperture Priority in Your Settings

You’ll want to adjust the aperture in order to adjust for variable lighting conditions. You adjust the aperture by adjusting the f stop on your camera. A lower number means a more open aperture, and that means it allows in more light.

Depending on where you’re shooting, you may need to open or close it down some. On many cameras, you can use the semi-manual mode to set the camera to prioritize the aperture. This means the camera will adjust that first, and then you can adjust the other settings as might be necessary.

Use a Faster Shutter Speed

To freeze the action, you’ll need a shutter speed between 1/500s and 1/2000s. It depends in part on the sport. For example, for swimming, you can probably use the shutter at the lower end of that range, but for baseball, you’ll need the faster speed. As with aperture priority settings, most cameras also have a shutter speed priority setting, and you can use this to free you up to focus on other settings.

Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action is one of exposure-related sports photography tips for beginners. You can see the action frozen in this image of a football player running.

Use Continuous Autofocus

Continuous autofocus keeps the subject, or subjects, in focus as their position on the camera changes. This is one of the essential sports photography tips for beginners to help get clear, sharply focused images. As your subjects move around, you don’t want to have to continually focus your camera.

Using this setting frees you to work on the other settings as the action proceeds. The action happens fast in most sports, and you won’t be able to keep up with it if you don’t have a little help from your camera.

use a continuous autofocus. That tells your camera to adjust the focus as the subject moves around. You can see in this photo of polo sports players how both horses are in focus even though they're clearly moving.

Manually Set Your ISO

ISO is, with aperture settings and shutter speed, one of the components for exposure. It’s a setting related to your camera’s sensitivity to light. You need to adjust your ISO in accordance with the type of light you have.

If it’s a sunny day, you can use a low ISO setting of 400, but if it’s a cloudy day or you’re shooting indoors, you’re going to need an ISO between 800 and 1,200. This is something you’ll have to judge based on the type of light available, and that’s something you should consider when you preview the venue and as you practice with your camera before going to the event.

Use Burst Mode

Burst mode tells the camera to take a series of images in sequence. You just need to push down the shutter button. This mode is recommended to ensure you get at least one focused image.

This is also a great tip for photographers in many other genres. Anytime there is action, it’s recommended to use the burst mode.

The 16 Best Sports Photography Tips

Veteran sports photographers have developed numerous strategies to overcome the challenges of sports photography, and we’ve put together 16 of their best sports photography tips.

1. Learn the Game

This is the most important thing you can do. You need to know the rules of the game in order to be able to anticipate the action. You can search the internet not only for the rules but also take a look at the best photographs.

position yourself where the action is, such as this image near home base at a baseball game.

The rules of the game will give you clues on where you can expect the best action photography. And, by looking at the photographs, you can learn from that photographer. What are the angles the photographer used? Where was he or she positioned to get those shots? This will help you plan where you should be to get that compelling image.

2. Get to Know Your Subject Matter

  • Find the best vantage point in terms of good lighting and maximum activity.
  • Bring equipment that has the best chance of capturing the images you want.
  • The key to capturing all fast-action sports is developing your concentration and anticipation. You will do much better knowing what to concentrate on and what to anticipate.

Once you gain the ability to concentrate, anticipate, and develop the other photography skills needed to be a successful sports photographer, there are various routes to becoming a professional sports photographer.

Some photographers work for local or big time newspapers on “work for hire” contracts where all the images belong to the company that hired the photographer.

rugby players.

Other sports photographers work freelance or sell the pictures off after they’ve gotten that perfect shot. The photos can be sold to various publishing outlets or to stock photography agencies. So, if you are interested in making a career out of photography, your best place to start is with education and then start making some impressive photos that people will either buy from you or hire you to make more of them.

3. Know the Venue

Aside from knowing the rules of the game, you also have to know the venue. In order to plan where you want to position yourself, you need to know the venue in which you will be shooting.

You can usually arrange to visit the venue prior to the event, and it’s worth it to do so. Ask the coaches and refs where you can go and where you can’t go. Check out where the light is coming from so that you can use that to your advantage. And see where you can position yourself so that the action comes to you.

4. Anticipate the Action

Aside from placing yourself in a good position to get the best shots, you need to be anticipating the action rather than reacting to it. If you’re reacting to it, you’ve already missed the shot.

Look for evidence the athlete is about to move. One example is that you will see baseball players contract their muscles as they get ready to swing. If you want to be a sports photographer, you probably watch the game, but watch it anew with the eyes of a photographer. What are the cues that a player is going to act? Then, when you’re photographing the game, look for those same cues.

5. Use a Telephone Zoom Lens

Use a zoom lens so you can capture compelling close-ups. A 55-200mm f/4-5.6 zoom lens will give you much more flexibility while shooting. Even better is a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. This will give you the ability to zoom in for both action shots and compelling images of the athletes as they react to the game.

use a zoom lens. It can let you capture compelling images, such as this close-up of a pitcher with two baseballs.

6. Use a Wide Angle Lens

Using a wide angle lens in addition to the zoom lens can give you a different take on the action of the game. It can give you those wide shots of the team as they work together or of the athlete on the field. And it can make viewers feel like they’re right there on the field with the athletes.

use a wide angle lens for "bigger picture" images, such as this baseball field.

7. Do Not Use the On-Camera Flash

The on-camera flash or a hot shoe flash will not be enough to illuminate your subjects. Since it is also distracting to the athletes and spectators, it’s better to use the camera settings and available light to illuminate your subjects. You don’t want to be the person who blinds the batter just before he swings at the pitch.

8. Keep Your Back to the Sun

You need to utilize natural light in the best way possible. That means keeping your back to the sun. If the sun is behind your subject, you will have difficulty getting the proper exposure. Instead, use the sun to brightly illuminate the action on the field.

9. Look for Action Off the Field

Don’t forget about the action off the field. Look around at the athletes on the bench, the coaches, and the spectators. You’ll see a lot of compelling emotional reactions to what’s happening on the field, and getting those images can help you tell a compelling story.

don't forget about the action off the field, like this image of the mascot for the Minnesota Vikings.

10. Respect the Officials, Athletes, and Coaches

If you want to be asked back to photograph other events, you need to respect the game officials and the athletes. If they tell you to move, move.

If you disagree with something they say, leave it for a discussion after the event. Remember, your presence at the event is a privilege, not your right. Don’t argue with anything a staff member, official, coach, or athlete tells you to do.

11. Shoot from a Low Angle

Shooting from a low angle makes the athletic leaps in the air look higher and more dramatic. You can also get a clearer background instead of always having other athletes, officials, spectators, or grass in the background. It also gives the photo excellent depth. To do this, you might consider purchasing a monopod. It can help you keep your camera steady and balanced while shooting at odd angles.

Shoot from a low angle which allows you to get more dramatic images, such as this player leaping in the air over another player.

12. Focus, Face, Action, Equipment

Capture a focused image that includes the face of the athlete while in action and holding a piece of the game’s equipment.

The pros cite these elements for sports photography as being what you want to get right when shooting a sporting event. You want the subject of your image to be in focus, and you want to make sure you can see their face, particularly their eyes. You want them to be engaged in some action or emotional event, and you want to have them holding a piece of equipment, like the ball.

If you capture each of these elements, you will increase the chance that your image will be compelling.

capture a focused image of the athlete's face while he or she is in action and holding a piece of equipment. This is seen here in this image of a football player.

13. Tell a Story

The most compelling images in sports photography are the ones that tell a story. You see the agony of defeat and the joy of victory on the athlete’s face, and there’s your story. The endless hours of hard work, training, anticipation, and preparation summed up in one moment, in one image. That’s the goal.

This image of sports athletes in wheelchairs tells a story.

14. Post-Processing

You don’t need to go overboard with this, but some post-processing can do wonders for the image. Maybe you need to make some lighting adjustments or crop the image; play around with it and see how you can take a good image and make it into a great image.

15. Practice

Don’t overlook close-up, sideline pictures of players and coaches. You can get some marvelous portraits of the passion, pain, and energy of the game by keeping an eye on players, not on the field.

You can learn more and develop your skills faster by spending some time shooting sports events.

16. Take Lots of Photos

Thanks to the burst mode, this is easy to do, but taking more photos will help to ensure you get that special one that makes it all worthwhile.

Sports photography is a thrilling genre and one that lets you get in on the action in an intimate way that would not otherwise be possible–unless you’re one of the athletes or officials. You can be right there when the athlete breaks that record, and you can capture the emotional moment of triumph or the disappointment of defeat, and that can be very exciting and lucrative for you.

But, there are also a lot of challenges to getting that image. You’ve got to plan ahead. You need to know the venue and that game so that you can position yourself in the right spot to get the best of the action. You need to know ahead of time what kind of light you will have and how to use it best to your advantage.

low angle sports photography of a swimmer.

You’ve got to know your camera and how each of the settings will affect the image. And you’ve got to be ready to adjust those settings at a moment’s notice. You’re going to want to shoot in manual mode with a more open aperture and a faster shutter speed. You’ll also need to manually adjust your ISO depending on the type of light available to you. Setting your camera to prioritize the aperture or shutter speed can help to free you up to focus on other settings.

Shooting from a low angle can help you to get those dramatic action shots with a less cluttered background. The shots you want to get are focused images of the athlete’s face while they are engaged in some kind of action using the equipment of the game.

If you’re doing it right, you’re telling a story, a story of passion, hard work, triumph, and failure. If you’re getting a shot of the winner, make sure you look around you and get images of the spectators, the athlete’s family, and the loser as well.

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Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.
Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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  1. I honestly could not agree less with the point about not talking to other photographers. I do sports photography for a local website and when I was starting out, I had no clue what I was doing. It was the fact that I went up and asked someone for help that I became more skilled. I got tips on where my camera should be to get the best possible photos. Also, I am now in contact with multiple photographers in the area. The best thing you can do it ask, worst comes to worst, they blow you off. But, chances are you will get good advice and make some good connections.

  2. Noah, I can see why Skip says not to ask other photographers. Though I do agree with you that it doesn’t hurt to ask others.

    I think the point is, that when someone is busy it’s best to let them do their thing and not bother them. It’s better to wait until they have some free time.

  3. I’ve just moved to Florida and started taking up surf photography. However, my pictures aren’t coming out the right way because I’m not entirely positive on what settings the camera should be on. I use 800 film from Kodak and normally have my aperture set to f8, but I think the shutter speed is my problem. I normally have it set to 1/500th. What would be some basic settings for doing surf photography?

    1. If you’re taking photos of the surfers you are probably a fair distance away from the action so a quick film speed of 800 is the right way to go, be sure to also have a tripod. It could be that your exposure is right, you may just need a Polarizing Filter.

  4. I guess every photographer has his own way of shooting things.. I just prefer using the tripod for the stability and the accuracy provided by it.
    Thank you!

  5. I just do not understand how to keep my subject clear and blur things around it. I understand the words, “hold the shutter half way, move, and click,” but I don’t what that actually means. Am I in AF or Manual? Move? Move what? Move the camera with my hands in a circle? Zoom in or out (hard to do when holding down shutter)? Am I using Center weight? I’ve tried everything on my Canon SX130IS, and there is no way I can get this done. It’s my favorite tool, and I cannot for the life of me figure it out. Please help before I pull my final hair out of my head.

    1. @cindy There are a couple ways to get the effect of blurring the background. One is to play on the depth of field by adjusting your aperture. The other way is to keep your subject static while the rest of the photograph is in motion (like a child spinning on a merry go round while you are also on the merry go round). The directions to “hold the shutter half way, move, and click”, are to lock your focus on a subject using Auto Focus. Typically these instructions assume you are using spot auto focus and that’s why you would place your subject in the center to get the right focus then move the viewfinder to frame the shot just the way you want it.

  6. Yes; you can take great photos of surfing without a tripod..Actually you probably will miss a lot of shots using tripod…Trick is to shoot as many photos as possible and be a close to subject as possible.Also be easier learning on a Digital camera where you can review your shots to see what works and don’t work right away on the beach;then keep tweaking settings till you get it right..Now; a tripod is great if you using super telephoto lens and you can’t not get close to subject..Even before that;id try a monopole..

  7. ‘@cindy As far as getting the background blurred to you want to have it on the lowest number as far as aperture (more light), as close as you can be, and zoomed in as much as possible. This should blur the background. I like to think I can take a fantastic photo with a mobile phone. I’ve scene beautiful wedding photographs taken with mobile phones. It simply can’t be printed very large due to the low resolution of the image. Photography is three things, light, moment, and composition. For a still object any camera can adequately photograph this. That being said, unfortunately when we talk about the moment in sports photography I think you are going to struggle with the canon SX130IS. For sports photography the speed at which dslr’s focus as well as the significantly less shutter lag are quite crucial to capturing good photographs. Not saying it can’t be done, but you have to get really good at predicting motion if you are going to succeed with that camera in sports photography. Though some sports will be much easier than others such as baseball which is more static. Photographing a pitcher or batter should be relatively easy because they stay in one place for the most part.

  8. I agree with the fact that you shouldn’t ask advice from other photographers shooting at the game- but you can still be social. Interact with them, chat a bit while your looking through the viewfinder. They may give advice if they notice something off- and if not, it doesn’t matter.

    If you’re looking for advice, do it prior to shooting the game. Preferabbly not to the people you see setting up during practice; I mean a day or so before. There are plenty of online places to find such wizardry as tips and tutorials- just take a look.

  9. As a fan only and an amateur, I am shooting high school football games using a Nikon D90 and a 80/200 zoom. I can’t get my settings down to focus in the center of the view.(Pardon, me. I don’t have my camera here.)It seems to be focusing on a right point & my subject is blurred. I start in the “P” mode, but I dont understand the f/stop & shutter speed directions from my manual. I have reset to default and started over. Any help getting my settings will be appreciated.

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