Monday, February 16, 2009

Sports Photography - How Most Pros Work

Photo by Visuallens ( Click on image to view enlargement )
By Peter Phun Platinum Quality Author

In Sports photography, access is key. Without access, you won't succeed even if you have the most comprehensive array of lenses out there. So if you have access, you've already improved your chances of success by at least 40%. The other keys to success?

You have to be able to anticipate and concentrate for long periods. Being knowledgeable and following a variety of sports, not just the popular ones, is crucial. And finally a good ounce of luck doesn't hurt either. What exactly should you be looking for besides shooting great action?


Back of heads are not terribly engaging. I think we are so in tuned to seeing faces, we don't realize it. We do want to see faces of athletes whenever possible. Grimacing faces add to the drama and excitement. Unfortunately some athletes hardly show any emotions even when they win. Faces in sports can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.


Peak action is probably what you're after. There may be some luck involved but a softball picture without a visible ball is not as exciting. The ball, be it a hockey puck or shuttlecock tells your viewer what sport it is. Without the ball, you don't get a sense of how close the play was, how bad the throw was et cetera. With baseball and softball, the play at a base has to be close. If the throw is early or too late, the ball is either in the glove or out of your picture. But that's not your fault. It's just how the game goes. So the element of luck is there for sure.

A Different Viewpoint

Strive for a different viewpoint to surprise your viewers and to give them a fresh look of a "tired-looking" sport. This may be something as simple as shooting when weather is not so good sometimes. Or even simply being creative with your photographic technique. It may mean working harder by bringing in more equipment but your efforts will be rewarded. If it it doesn't work, you'll at least learn something new.


Related to viewpoint but just as important is backgrounds. Shooting with wide open apertures on long lenses can only do that much sometimes, so be on the lookout for what's behind the subject at all times. If you're serious about sports photography, you should try photographing different sports.

Photo by AllSportsBlog


Just the same way most Americans don't get soccer, I don't get golf. I do know I would enjoy the sport if I play it. It's more interesting to play than to watch. That said, I don't particularly like covering golf. Here's why:

* expect to be hauling at least a 300 mm lens with a monopod and 2 bodies, maybe a flash, and a 70-200 mm zoom.
* you will be walking all 18 holes, more if it goes into playoffs.
* you don't get to hang out with just the same foursome
* if the leader boards are not kept current, you will be in a world of hurt trying to find a certain golfer when the lead changes suddenly.
* besides that, the light is usually extremely harsh. Faces are inevitably shielded by visors or baseball caps. You're never close enough to be able to fill flash or anything of that sort.
* Restrictions. You can't stand directly in the line-0f-sight of the golfers. You can't trip your shutter until they actually hit the ball if they're on the green during the short game. Don't forget you have to be absolutely quiet.
* if the game goes into playoffs, all those "great pictures" you took in the early rounds don't mean much anymore. It's like starting all over.


My favorite sport soccer happens to be pretty tough to shoot because of the lens requirement. A 300 mm lens is probably the minimum and a 400 mm is more ideal. But that also depends on the sensor size of your camera body.

If you're shooting with a camera with full frame sensors, you might even need something longer.

Most of the time, depending on the lens you have, you park yourself on the field and just hope you're in the right place at the right time. So covering soccer is not as physically demanding as covering golf or football. You might move around when there's a chance for a set piece like a free-kick or corner kick. It helps if you understand terms like "in-swinger" on corner kicks. The rest of the time, because the action is non-stop and the ball moves around the pitch so quickly, it's difficult to physically move around.


Anytime you step indoors to cover a sport, you are heading into low light and very limited options. The world's fastest racquet sport is also hardest to photograph because of the lighting conditions and how the indoor stadiums are lit. Understanding how a game like badminton or tennis is scored is crucial. How else would you know when it's the "critical match point' or the significance of a tie-break?

ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed & White Balance

Up till this point, I haven't mentioned these camera settings because these are variable depending on the lighting conditions and how well your camera handle digital noise. Generally speaking, the newer your camera, the better it handles low ISO and digital noise. Most sports photographers have at least a 300mm f2.8 lens at a minimum.

They will also carry a 70-200 f2.8 lens and most likely that has built-in image stabilization. And the majority of sports photographers take their pictures at f2.8 to blur out the background but also to get the highest possible shutter speed to freeze action.

Every now and then, they may need more depth-of-field but very rarely. That by the way, is why under the one of the Auto modes, you see the icon for Sports or someone running. It's also exposure mode that favors high shutter speed, Shutter Priority or Tv (Time value according to Canon)

So 2 camera bodies are pretty standard. One body is attached to the long telephoto which is mounted on a monopod for support. Depending on the camera body, the image sensor may be full frame or may have a 1.6x, so a 300mm will be 480 mm lens.

To successfully hand hold a lens like that with little camera shake would require you to make sure you have a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 sec.

But even professionals don't handhold long lenses, they use monopods. The one good thing about shooting in artificial lighting like a soccer stadium at night is this: once you have the exposure down, it doesn't change very much, unlike a daytime game.

In day games, you have to keep an eye on light levels especially if the game is in the evening. The other advantage is the crowd in the stands are not lit, so they aren't as distracting.

Since "Sports Photography" is a highly specialized field, there is just too much to cover in one article. These tips will hopefully get you on your way to getting better pictures.

Peter Phun teaches photography at Riverside City College. He does portraits, weddings and editorial work. Read an illustrated and more detailed article about sports photography on his blog. He writes about photography, Macs and the internet. He also designs websites and is a stay-at-home dad.

Previously, Peter worked as a staff photographer for 18 years at The Press-Enterprise, Southern California's 4th largest daily newspaper. He is the webmaster for the Mac user group in the Inland Empire. For more information about this Riverside based photographer, visit

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

5 Secrets to Taking More Professional Photos

By: Phil Thornton

One of the most popular gifts this past holiday season was the digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. With companies like Canon and Nikon in fierce competition for the consumer market, the prices for high quality consumer level digital SLR's dropped significantly in 2008. If you are a proud owner of one of these amazing cameras but a little confused on how to operate them to their full potential then this top ten list is for you. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you create better photographs and introduce you to the world of digital photography.

1. Automatic Modes are not your friend

When taking your first photo with your new SLR you most likely shot in one of the automatic modes. Although these modes are by far the easiest modes to shoot in, they very rarely produce high quality photographs. When you shoot in automatic modes you are basically letting the camera make all of the decisions for you. The camera selects the aperture automatically, the exposure automatically, and sets the ISO automatically. In most cases it is also focusing automatically. To achieve that professional look in your images you have to leave the comforts of automatic modes and explore the other shooting modes your camera has to offer.

2. Aperture Priority Mode

This is probably the single most powerful tip on this list. If you only learn how to shoot in one mode on your new camera, this mode will give you the most dramatic results. Your aperture is what determines the depth of field in an image. Shooting with a low number set for your aperture (4.0 and lower) will leave your subject in focus while giving the background a nice blurred and out of focus look. This helps distinguish your subject and draw in the viewer's eye. Consult your manual for more information on shooting in this mode.

3. Composition

This is probably the easiest tip to begin practicing. Instead of centering your subject in the middle of every photograph try mixing it up a little! Photography should be fun and exciting! Experiment with different compositions to your photographs. Try tilting the camera slightly to the left or right. Don't forget to shoot vertically as well as horizontally. Vertical images are sometimes called "portraits" because they generally make for a better format for images of people. Study the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental composition rules an artist uses. If you were to take your photo and divide it into thirds vertically and horizontally you would make a grid. The rule of thirds dictates that when interesting things are on the lines of this imaginary grid then it tends to look better. So put your nephew or niece a third of the way over to the right or left and add a little art to your images!

4. Start looking for light

The hardest skill to master in photography is understanding light, but taking a little bit of time to look for it and appreciate it can make a huge difference in your photos. Photography is simply the recording of light and the sooner you can wrap your head around that concept the sooner you will be able to improve your images. Don't just look at your subject; look at the light hitting your subject. When photographing people you want indirect lighting, lighting that is coming from an angle other than straight from the camera. Flashes, especially on-camera flashes, can ruin an image. That little pop-up flash that tries to jump up when you take your photos can easily ruin a beautiful image. Learn how to disable your flash and shoot with available light.

5. Shoot, shoot, shoot

If you are serious about becoming a better photographer the best thing you can do is practice. I know this might sound like common sense but people seem to quickly loose interest when they aren't creating amazing images immediately. Stick to it, photograph something everyday, make it part of your daily schedule. When you wake up in the morning grab the camera and find something to shoot, it could be your breakfast, your dog, your mailbox, anything. Being comfortable with your new camera is key and if you aren't shooting with it regularly you will never feel in control.

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About the Author
Phil Thornton is a Nashville Wedding Photographer and owner of Phindy Studios. Visit for more information and photography resources.
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