"Practise, practise, practise”: How to get started in pro sports photography
Ever dreamed of shooting sports for a living? Some of the world's top sports photographers have offered up their best advice on how to break into the industry as a young photographer.
1. Frame your youth and inexperience as an advantage rather than a weakness
As a young photographer who is just starting out, you can readily absorb useful knowledge from the photography community to develop your photography skills and industry know-how more quickly.
Molly Darlington has shared that contacting people in the sports photography space for feedback and advice helped her fast-track an improvement in her work.
“There are a lot of photographers out there to advise you. When you start out it can be daunting, but people are willing to guide you.
"Put together a portfolio and build a network of contacts. Most sports photographers will reply if you ask for help – it might not be straight away, as we're not the best at communicating, but they will reply eventually and give good advice. Even if you just want someone to look at your photos, know there are plenty who will."
In a similar vein, Richard Walch has suggested that as a young potographer you should reach out to young athletes who are a similar age to you, so that you can grow alongside one another as your careers progress.
“They might have a small sponsor at the beginning, but in a couple of years, they get bigger sponsors and you can build your career with them. When they're young, they also need photos and will be willing to spend time with you.”
“If they want to use your images for their autograph card or website, then you're helping each other for free. If their sponsors want to use the images, it becomes business. If you're friends with the athletes, they let you get close, so it's not a problem if you don't have the fanciest equipment.”
2. Put in the time to practise your shooting at local clubs or parks
Never underestimate the power of practice. The pros recommend putting in the hours at your local clubs, parks and ovals to get your sports photography to a place where you feel proud of it.
Molly Darlington did just that by photographing her local club in her mid teens.
"I saw an advertisement for my local non-league football club, 1874 Northwich F.C., asking if anyone wanted to be a photographer, just for experience. I did that for nearly four years, following them at home and away. I loved it. So that's what I carried on doing. I was rubbish when I started. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I often messed up, but I kept practising my settings."
Eddie Keogh suggested similar advice whe he said, “A lot of people just want to get to big league football matches as quickly as they can, but you can learn so much more by photographing football, rugby, hockey or tennis at your local park. Get out in all weather – not just when it's sunny, because rain can make pictures more atmospheric – and practise, practise, practise.”
3. Create emotion, even where there isn’t any
Richard Walch and Eddie Keogh believe that you can create really emotive images if you look for the action surrounding the play.
Walch has shared, “When a football team wins a big championship, it's not the images of the game that stand out, it's the shots of the team celebrating, standing on a bus surrounded by thousands of people.”
“You have to shoot around the sport: the emotions, the politics, the celebrations and the disappointments. If you shoot a marathon, you don't shoot the start, you shoot the finish, because that's where the emotion is. Look for peak action and peak emotion. If you can combine those in one image, you've got it."
Keogh took this idea even further when he suggested that you should know the story of the day, such as when a player is returning to a former club, or if a manager or coach is close to being sacked. "You have to tell the story of each game."
"Sometimes that's hard, especially mid-season. If a team is going to get promoted or relegated or is going for the play-offs, there's way more emotion than in a game with nothing resting on it. You have to create emotion there because people can relate to that – fans can think 'that is how it feels during games.’”
4. Know the ins and outs of the sport you are shooting
Martin Bissig and Molly Darlington both agree that knowledge of the game in front of you will give you the edge you need to capture it well.
Bissig has shared, “Detailed knowledge of your sport is vital, because you need to know how people move and what looks good.”
“If I were to take pictures of skateboarders, I might think they look good, but if I showed them to skateboarding fans, or to pros, they might say, 'The hand doesn’t have the right angle'. I don't know, because I'm not a skateboarder, but I know exactly how mountain biking is meant to look.”
Darlington believes that knowledge of the sport you’re photographing ensures that you can reliably know when and how to capture game-changing moments that happen before your eyes.
Elaborating on this, she said, “I'm a football fan. My dad's a football fan. My brother's a football fan. Because I've always watched football, I know how the game works. If a player runs down the wing you have to think, 'Will they cross it this way, pass it that way?' You have to be aware of what's happening, know the game and be able to judge what will happen next."
5. There are no rules, create your own career path
While some photographers pursue tertiary qualifications or certificates, others create their career from the ground up on experiences alone. The pros share that whatever works for you is what you should be doing.
Darlington has shared a reminder that even though she attained a degree, there are a number of routes available to you when forging a career in sports photography. “A lot of it is about who you know and learn from. It will seem quite scary going it alone, but it's not actually that bad. When I was 16, I thought the industry was petrifying. Now I'd tell you it's absolutely fine."
Richard Walsh has emphasised the importance of shooting what feels right to you, and in turn, developing your own brand and finding your niche within the industry.
"The more commercial the sport, the easier it is to sell images. I was really lucky because, when I started, snowboarding took off, as did demand for images. I quickly became one of an elite few shooting the sport globally.”
“If you want to shoot soccer, or track and field, there will be 50 other photographers with you, and it's a big challenge to better them."