Secrets of shooting sports (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on photographing sports. You can see part one, from last week, here.
Cameras and Lenses
How you set up your camera for sports depends on what you’re trying to do. Let’s assume, though, that your initial objective is to get a sharp image.
Most sports shooters start with a telephoto lens because you can get in tight on the action. Wide- angle lens also offer a chance to shoot differently, though they’re not much use for game action. I use a second hand 400mm f/2.8 lens on the 1D and a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom on the 7D Mark II. These are good lenses, but the 400mm is a big, heavy lens so I fit the monopod to it.
With the 7D Mark II and 70-200mm lens I shoot handheld. With experience I can hold it steady, but the f/2.8 constant aperture helps for this. Despite what you may hear, you can still get good shots with variable aperture lenses, you’ll just get fewer of them.
Ideally, you’ll shoot a match or event that you know a bit about, and therefore know when the highlights will occur. In an Australian Rules game for example, the highlights are scoring, tackling, and high marking. You don’t have much time to react in sports and that’s part of the challenge.
I start with the following settings because I know I will get some useable results. That doesn’t mean I won’t experiment (and you should too).
On the 1D Mk IV I shoot in Manual mode. If you are completely new to sports shooting it might be best to start with Shutter Priority– there’s a lot to think about when you’re starting.
But sooner rather than later aim to shoot in full Manual mode when you feel comfortable.
In Manual, I shoot with ISO set anywhere from 200 (for bright sunny days) up to 800 or 1000 for gloomy days.
I set an ISO based on the light available and the speed of the action, as shooting bowls is different to shooting Formula One. If the lighting or weather deteriorates, I will ramp up the ISO.
Professional sports shooters often have blurred backgrounds to separate their subject from busy backgrounds such as crowds and umpires etc. They often shoot with f/2.8 or f/4 apertures. From my experience you may find you don’t get quite as many useable shots, so I recommend shooting anywhere from f/5 to f/7.1 to start with.
Finally, I aim for a shutter speed around 1/1600s – sometimes faster and sometimes a bit slower – to freeze action. In Manual mode I am constantly assessing and adjusting settings. Even in Shutter Priority mode you should keep an eye on what your ISO and aperture are doing.
Shoot RAW, both for printing and so you can crop – you often won’t get what you want exactly in the middle of the frame. I shoot in both RAW and JPEG, but the bare minimum is large RAW so you can edit effectively.
How you work will depend on if you’re shooting a paying gig or for yourself.
When you start out, local officials or players might want your shots as they likely don’t get many pro shooters turning up to games. Whether you charge is up to you, but remember local clubs and players usually don’t have loads of money and they usually don’t like to spend it!
On smaller pitches for sports like soccer or rugby, or court games like basketball or tennis you will find a 70-200mm zoom range can work well, though you may need a higher ISO setting at the longer ends of the focal length.
I suggest you sit low and spend some time learning the flow of the game. If shooting with two cameras, keep one camera and zoom within reachable distance and swap when the action is close. If you’re sitting that’s easier, and if you’re only shooting with one camera it’s easier still!
And remember, even the great shooters miss shots…just keep trying! As an aside, if you go to a top-level game, watch what the pro-shooters are doing. You will find that when there are breaks in the action or it’s far away, they often have a laptop beside them to edit and send shots immediately. Lucky for you when you’re starting out you don’t have to do this!
Sorting and editing
The toughest and most time-consuming aspect of sports shooting is sorting and editing your images. In any given Australian Rules game for example, I can shoot upwards of 1500 images, or around 400 or more per quarter.
I’ll aim to capture a key moment of action - at least one clear face, and an image where I may be able to crop in on the action. By this point you should have a folder with a selection of images.
Then you’ll want to think about editing them. Even now I only edit between one third and a half of what I shoot. Initially at least, I encourage you to be hard on yourself. Critically assess every element of your photos and eliminate weak images. Because I shoot in a documentary style, I make basic adjustments and then move on.
Try to have a face or faces in the action, though on rare occasions the backs of competitors can work. I usually look for the ball in a shot about ball sports, and the action sharp in most cases.
Then, check your edges for stray distractions like hands or feet and crop if necessary. I look at contrast, sometimes boosting colour intensity, and reducing shadows and highlights if it’s a sunny day.
Finally, I check the histogram. My advice is to make all adjustments subtle. Personally, I try to keep editing to a minimum, but I still count on at least one day of editing for every game I shoot.
At the beginning I might start with 1500 images or more, and I might pick 600 to 800 to consider. I will examine these at a larger size on the computer, making a further cull on what’s left and moving those into a final folder. The whole process can be more art than science.
I will put those I really like into another folder – anywhere between 100 and 300 images. These will be hi-res (large files), then I will batch process to make a folder of smaller pics for web use, with my lo-res shots about 900 pixels on the largest side.
Whatever sport or sports you decide to shoot, take up the challenge. Explore other shooters, try different techniques, be critical. Above all, enjoy yourself! ❂
Sports photographers to watch
Al Bello – Getty Special Sport Correspondent, Renowned US shooter of everything from Olympics to swimming and boxing. albello.com
Michael Willson – Chief Photographer AFL Photos, Australian Rules football shooter. michaelwillson.com
Sharleen Righini – Rugby League, rising star in this sport’s photography. photosbysharleenrighini.com
Richard Heathcote – UK sports photographer, winner of multiple awards across many sports; works in areas including boxing, soccer and golf. richardheathcote.com
Chris Burkard – top US shooter; sport is just one of his genres. Has shot adventure, surfing, kayaking, and cycling.
About the author: Rob has been shooting various sports for over 30 years. He started with yachting, and has covered major soccer events, rugby, Australian Rules football, cricket, and several other sports. He is a former editor of AP. See more at robertkeeley.com.au.