What’s So Special About Sports Photography?
Written By: Brooke Brady
It was the homecoming game of my senior year. The stadium seats thundered with fans cheering at the top of their lungs for a school who wasn’t even good at football. All that mattered to them was that we showed up. I was stationed on the track for most of the game. Kneeling, standing, kneeling again, I was doing everything I possibly could to get that one shot that made the game come alive over and over again. I looked down at the back of my camera to view my most recent shot from the game. It was a close up of the most recent tackle made by one of the star players on the team. The frame looked decent, but it still didn’t feel as magical as it should of.
I looked up from my camera and the game was over. Silently, I packed up my camera bag and headed for the celebration tunnel my fellow classmates would make to congratulate the team and their season, regardless of the outcome. I began by helping form the tunnel with my hands over my head in an arched shape. I looked around and saw everyone laughing and cheering and started to think about how in this moment nothing else really mattered. Seconds later, the players started flowing in and the screams grew louder. That was when it really hit me. I jumped out of line and raced to the end of the tunnel with barely enough time to pull out my iphone. Before I knew it, one of the assistant coaches launched a player to his back and sprinted towards the tunnel. The two emerged with the biggest smiles on their faces and a surrounding ambiance of pure joy. Multiple hands fell to pat the back of the player, signaling what a good job the crowd thought he had done. With the click of a button I captured one of the most emotionally driven and inspiring photos I had ever imagined. I beamed at my photo of the two and felt a wave of excitement come over me. I had done it. I had gotten the shot. It was in that instant I realized the spontaneity and unpredictability that sports photography truly embodies.
One of America’s favorite activities, sports, has been a prominent subject in media coverage. From television to radio broadcast, and beyond, sports can be found throughout the media. Within this realm, one of the most important mediums we take for granted when consuming, is photography. You see it everywhere: on the front page of newspapers, billboards, and predominantly online. Photography is almost anywhere you look. You may realize that without the visuals that photography provides, many of the things we know and love today would not be the same. Without photography, you may not know what the members of your favorite sports team look like unless you’ve seen them in person. Knowing that photography is so important to everyday life and to the things we love, especially sports, it is important to understand the technicalities behind the subject and what makes sports photography in general so great!
What does the term “Sports Photography” even mean?
Photography is defined by google as, “the art or practice of taking and processing photographs”. Sports Photography is considered a “genre” of photography in which a wide variety of activities may be covered. It can range from professional football games, to even a high school volleyball match, the possibilities are infinite. The art of taking sports photos varies widely depending on your subject and goal.
Sports Photography is unique in the fact that it is typically more fast paced than other kinds of photography. To be the best one can be at sports photography, you must understand your sport inside and out in order to capture the best shots during “peak action” times (www.mediacollege.com/photography/types/sport/). It is crucial to know and love the sport in which you are photographing as your passion for the game will shine through in your photos.
Some explanation of key terminology will help to understand the process of effectively executing this art form. Here is a list of notable terms provided by expert photographer Allan Weitz:
- Aperture: The adjustable opening – or f-stop – of a lens determines how much light passes through the lens. “Faster” lenses have wider apertures, which in turn allow for faster shutter speeds. This feature is pertinent to sports photography in order to capture all the action in the best light possible.
- Depth of Field (DOF): Literally, the measure of how much of the background and foreground area before and beyond your subject is in focus. In order to frame your subject in the best way visually, for sports, sometimes blurring/including the background will add more emphasis to the subject and provide context. Such as including a surrounding audience or softening the appearance of the field to spotlight the athlete in the play.
- Optical Zoom: Another name for a zoom lens, which is a lens that enables the user to change the magnification ratio, i.e., focal length of the lens, either by pushing, pulling or rotating the lens barrel. This tool can help sports photographers reach subjects from across the field as sometimes they are not always physically placed in the right spot.
- Shutter Speed: The length of time the shutter remains open when the shutter release is activated, most commonly expressed in fractions or multiples of a second. Sports photographers shoot with a fast shutter speed as often times their subject is moving very quickly.
How did sports photography become a thing?
Sports photography originated from the fascination with capturing the legacy of popular athletes and their game defining plays (www.widewalls.ch/sports-photography/). Without the progression and advancement of photography equipment, the genre would not be possible. This is rooted in the fact that an improved technical approach from the original methods of photography was necessary to accurately capture sports. In the 1930s, the shutter speed of the camera finally improved. This advancement meant that subjects did not have to stand still for minutes on end in order to receive a good exposure (www.widewalls.ch/sports-photography/. An exposure is a technical term used by some photographers when talking about a particular image or frame. It came from the idea that an image is created from a certain “exposure” of light (www.britannica.com/technology/photography). With better technological improvements for exposure, came a better overall image.
The improvements in photography allowed for photographers to capture moving objects at faster speeds, of the most important, sports athletes. Eventually, the first sports feature publication was made in 1954 and given the title, “Sports Activities Illustrated” (www.widewalls.ch/sports-photography/). As a result of this publication’s release, sports photography skyrocketed in popularity and the field was deemed even more necessary than before.
What is a sports photographer trying to accomplish?
When shooting sports photography, photographers are typically working for overarching coverage purposes or to supplement a written report about a particular game. They are typically given a select set of images that they are trying to capture throughout the game (www.workinsports.com/blog/working-your-way-up-to-become-a-successful-sports-photographer/). A photographer is attempting to get the best shot and angle possible, all while capturing the true emotion of the match. Typically, the photographers have some say in the creativity of their shots, but their work also requires them to obtain specific pre thought out frames of their subjects (www.workinsports.com/blog/working-your-way-up-to-become-a-successful-sports-photographer/).
The true art of sports photography is displaying every feeling felt during the game. From the sweat dripping down the players neck, to the fans fists clenched in fear, every emotion is important to capture in order to feel the true atmosphere. A sports photographer knows they have done their job when you get goosebumps just from recalling that moment in time.
When covering a game, it is also imperative that the photographer shoot the before and after of the game preparation. Photographers may arrive hours before hand to capture a particular player in warm ups or even an injured team member on the bench getting taped up. The entire ambiance of the game from start to finish is what you want to photograph (https://fstoppers.com/originals/11-easy-ways-improve-your-sports-photography-109759). As a sports photographer, you want the victories, the hardships, and even the missed goals.
What goes into capturing a great sports shot?
Sports photography requires a lot of multi tasking from the photographer. A typical pre production routine includes scoping out the venue hours before the action even starts. Photographers need to have a sense of the location their working with as well as understand where and when they should place themselves for certain shots (https://expertphotography.com/a-beginners-guide-to-photography/). Arriving a couple of hours early is essential to claiming your place and evaluating where the players will be throughout the game.
Once the game begins, it is important for a photographer to be distraction free. All eyes should be on the game and one shouldn’t worry about reviewing every image they take to make sure it lives up to their standards (https://fstoppers.com/originals/11-easy-ways-improve-your-sports-photography-109759). A common tip among photographers is to wait until half time to give yourself a moment to sift through the photos and delete anything you don’t want.
When it comes to composition of a sports photograph, there are a lot of basics to keep in mind when on the field. Some of the most common include: rule of thirds, leading lines, and balance (www.photographymad.com/pages/view/10-top-photography-composition-rules). Rule of thirds means placing your subject in one of the thirds section of the photograph. Leading lines are natural lines found throughout the photo that guide the eye in an intuitive way and balance has to do with creating a photo that feels symmetrical or equally spaced and composed. These are important aspects to remember when taking photos due to the fact that they engage the eye in a pleasing way. As a photographer, following these elements is essential as it means that your audience will enjoy your work more.
What kind of equipment is necessary?
In order to capture athletes at a fast pace amongst all the action, proper equipment is necessary so you can have the best advantage. A camera is the first and most important piece of equipment always. It doesn’t matter how fancy or how expensive, as long as you have something to capture the moment, you can be a photographer. Professional sports photographers tend to now have digital single-lens reflex (or DSLR) cameras which took the place of film photography from the early ages (https://digital-photography-school.com/aperture-and-shutter-priority-modes/). DSLR means that the camera features a mirror which projects the image of what you are shooting at through the viewfinder so you can see it in real time (https://digital-photography-school.com/aperture-and-shutter-priority-modes/). The alternative, SLR cameras are the ones you see called “point and shoot.” These cameras are used more for practical reasons rather than professional photography (https://digital-photography-school.com/aperture-and-shutter-priority-modes/).
Using a DSLR camera is more popular among professionals and those individuals who are into photography as a hobby. These cameras may be better fit for such due to their ability to be used with a variety of lens sizes and shapes. Additionally, the quality of the image and speed of the shutter (ie. how fast the camera can take the picture) is usually much better with these cameras. Professional sports photographer, Phil Hillyard, recommends using an aperture priority setting when photographing with your DSLR. Aperture priority places emphasis on the amount of light traveling through the lens at any point in time. Thus, the camera will automatically evaluate how quickly the shutter should close based on the lighting conditions (www.thewanderinglens.com/learn-photography-aperture-priority/). This setting is useful when determining depth of field or how blurry or not the background around the image is. Camera mode can either make or break your images and how they turn out, so it is important to test the settings and see how they interact with the lighting of your venue.
How do you get the final product?
To get the final product, one must remember that oftentimes editing your photos is very necessary. Rarely ever will you have the perfect lighting or a sharp image right off the bat, so photo editing programs such as lightroom and photoshop are very useful. These programs allow photographers to toggle with settings that can do everything from brighten the photo, to even make the blacks darker and the whites lighter (https://photography.tutsplus.com/tutorials/beginners-guide-to-sports-photography–photo-567). All of this post processing allows the photographer to make their photos the best they can be. Sometimes a little change in the photo can make it that much more aesthetically pleasing.
In addition to these little changes, photoshop also has the ability to change a photo entirely. One can clip out distracting background objects or even enhance colors to make certain elements pop. The post production process is often overlooked or even forgotten about by non photographers, but the reality is that many images consumed these days are edited. This is not to say that photo editing is unethical or wrong, but it is always good to view any image with an eye of scrutiny when in doubt.
What makes sports photography so difficult?
Fast moving objects, a complicated game, and the unpredictable make sports photography one of the most challenging fields to be in. When a photographer goes to work, he or she has to remember that they may not come home with the perfect photo. As Sports Illustrator photographer, Damian Strohmeyer, states: “sports photography is about luck and being in the right place at the right time.” It’s all but too easy to be on the opposite side of the field when a once in a lifetime touchdown is happening. Sports photographers have to be constantly on their toes, evaluating and reading the games every movement.
In his sports illustrated interview by fstoppers, Strohmeyer also talks about the competition among photographers alike. “It’s easy for the guy just down the field to have a better angle of a shot… and that’s just how it is” he says. One of the hardest things in sports photography is to cover an event alone, so having a team that gives you multiple sets of eyes on the field is one of the greatest advantages you can have. It’s crucial to remember the uncertainty of photography in general. The art form is just like everything else in life, the professionals go out there and make it look easy. It takes time and practice mixed with a little bit of luck.