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8 Sports Photography Tips for Beginners

I can not think of any school, college, or universities that offer courses in sports photography. There are a few photojournalism courses, but nothing that specialize in sports. Look at sports magazines and newspapers, and find out what you like, use them as examples. The best way to learn is to get out and shoot, make mistakes, and then make some more mistakes. If possible, look for a mentor.

Editors Note: This article is by guest author Perry Mah, a guy I've known for a long time. He's been a photographer for the local paper covering sports, for as long as I've been doing photography, and then some. He knows his stuff, and he wants to share some of his tips for doing sports photography with you! – Darlene

a member of the Edmonton Eskimo football team takes down another player

Here some basic tips for sports photography – but before you start, know your basic photography skills and camera functions.

Know your sport
Study the sport, and know the rules.

The best tip I can give you is to go to practices. Pro players, as well as amateurs, have certain habits, learn them.

Timing is important, learn to anticipate the play.

Study the sport, and know the rules. The best tip I can give you is to go to practices. Pro players, as well as amateurs, have certain habits, learn them. Timing is important, learn to anticipate the play.Click To Tweet

Kids are more difficult, and hard to predict.

I like to follow one player and wait for the action to come to me. I like to shoot 2-3 frames of a play and try to get the peak action, again knowing the sport will help.

I do not shoot an excess amount of frames, and tend to more patient. Editing will take less time that way. Unless you have a deadline, don't be afraid to shoot a lot.

The play of any sport will come to a certain point. A goal, net, finish line, or something. You can prefocus on that area and wait for action to happen.

Use this as one option, and don't stay put in any one area, or you may miss the play somewhere else. Position yourself for the sport.

an Edmonton Oiler goes in on the net against Calgary Flames goal tender

Know the venue
Public fields have good access, so know where your light is coming from and use it to your best advantage.

Know where you can go, ask the coaches or refs.

Grab a position where the action will come to you.

Check what background you will get.

Arenas are getting better with newer lighting, and better insulation that reflects light. Some sites however, still use sodium vapour bulbs. The colour temperature will change as the light will pulse. There is nothing you can do about it, just shoot more.

Look for the best spot to shoot.

Most arenas have netting that surround the entire playing area. That is no benefit for your photography.

I usually try to get on one of the players benches to get a clear view, just do not distract the players or coaches. Do not be a cheerleader if you get onto a bench.

Get the right gear
I like using a fast DSLR, and the right lens for the sport.

I know not everyone will have pro gear, but it's not the a big barrier.

A longer lens is desirable for most field and arena sports, but depending on your position, a wide or a medium zoom (70-200mm) will work.

I like to use a fast shutter speed to freeze action.

Don't be afraid to use high ISO, most modern cameras have excellent quality at ISO higher than 1600.

Hockey player seems to be in mid air after a collision with another player

There is no way I could advise you on what gear to get, there are too many variables. I have used lenses covering from 15mm to 600mm for sports.

I have fast glass for most sports (lenses with large maximum apertures like f/2.8) but some ultra fast glass such as an 85mm f/1.2 or 35mm f/1.4 are not suitable. The elements in the lenses are heavy, and they are slower to focus.

Good glass has a longer lifespan than cameras.

I always believe that glass is the better investment in the long run, and has a better resale value than camera bodies.

A few stores in my city (check the ones in your area) will rent lenses, and I'm not sure of the cost, but it's a great way to try something before buying, or just have for the occasional use.

Full vs Cropped Sensors

There is no difference between full and cropped sensors.

With cropped sensors you may think you are getting closer to the action but you using the same amount of sensor space in a full frame. Don't worry about getting a full or crop sensor, consider a camera that focus quickly and accurately, has a good buffer for recording, and is sealed against the weather.

Edmonton Eskimo football player showing the ball to photographer

I am not a fan of using flash gear for sports.

They are very distracting to the players and the fans, but I have lit a arena and shot isolation shots of players in action.

I use mono-light flashes (off-camera) and set them to 1/4 power, or less, to have a short flash duration. This will help freeze action, and be less of a distraction. Flash will limit your shutter speed to the camera's shutter sync unless you have a high speed system.

I do not recommend using flash on-camera.

Shutter speed
Use a fast shutter speed to freeze action.

I like to use 1/640th of a second or higher (faster). With long lenses, I use the largest aperture, there is little gain in depth of field with long lenses and smaller apertures.

A faster shutter speed will result in sharper images.

Long jumper lands in the pit

Soccer player is captured motionless by using a high shutter speed

You can also use a slower shutter to show motion. Pan the action and shoot at 1/100th. The subject should be in focus and the background would be a blur. This takes practice, and a few trials before you get the shot. This could help if the background is boring or distracting.

Look for a different angle
Try shooting a sport from a different angle.

For example shoot a soccer or football game from turf level. Laying or sitting on the ground will make the players leaping in the air seem higher and more dramatic. This may hinder you from moving up and down the field and you may miss a shot, but the rewards can be worth it.

Shooting from the same level as the players gives the impression of being in the game.

Shooting from up high in the stands gives the photographer a view of the entire playing field.

Indy car photographed from a unique angle

Discus athlete photographed from behind a fence providing a unique angle

Decide what to shoot and when
Shooting action is only half of shooting sports.

Look for jubilation or dejection after a play or after the game. Look for the emotion of the sport.

Emotional images will make the front pages where action will be inside. Look for these shots on the field or court but remember to look on the sidelines.

Judo athlete captured in mid air

two women soccer players excited after a play

Try not to get emotionally involved with the game
Try to look and anticipate the play and time your shots.

Watching the game will throw you off.

If you see the play, you have missed the shot.

I have a hard time shooting my kids playing, but shooting professional teams is easy.

Try to look and anticipate the play and time your shots. Watching the game will throw you off. If you see the play, you have missed the shot.Click To Tweet
Pay attention
Expect the unexpected, don't wait to shoot if you see something developing, shoot and check later.

Follow the star players, and you can't go wrong. Star athletes get more play time and usually make the big plays.

Pay attention and see what is happening.

Soccer players captured while about to intercept the ball

I look through the camera with my right eye, but I keep the left one open to watch things outside the view of the camera.

It's a good idea to follow the ball during a play to get the peak action, but do not stick to that rule.

Stay with a player if you know you can get a good reaction shot. Again go to team practices – practice time for them, and practice for you.

MahFolio4950750

perry mah signature

Perry Mah Sports PhotographerI started in the news business in 1979 at the Edmonton Journal, to my current staff photographer position at the Edmonton Sun. My first big sports job was for Reuters when the Oilers made their Stanley Cup run. I didn't know much at the time, and I didn't own any long lenses. I borrowed a 300mm f/2.8 from my friend Bert Crowfoot and jumped in. After the first Stanley Cup, Reuters offered a stringer position to shoot all the Oiler home games. I have worked at Alberta Report along with a 15 year stint at Reuters. Through Reuters I have photos published in several countries and in magazines such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN, etc. I have shot most commercial sports from kids community teams to FIFA, NBA, NHL, CFL and so on.

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  • Julie

    Do you have any suggestions for indoor swimming…………lighting is such an issue.

    • Julie – issue as in there isn’t much of it, or it’s oddly colored?

      • Julie

        There isn’t much light, and often times it is oddly colored.

        • Yes then having a lens with a bigger aperture will help, and perhaps try doing a custom white balance inside before you shoot.

  • Nice set of images, Perry. Much appreciated.
    You have captured so many different games. Liked the way you put up this article.

    Thanks

    Anshul Sukhwal

  • Steve Wahle

    Some great shots and excellent points. Nicely done article. Thanks much,

  • Kai-leen Hsueh

    This is a great article! Thanks! I have one question though: how do we go watch team practices?

    • You ask! Contact the team and ask if you can attend. Maybe not a pro team but local amateur sports, college teams, etc.

  • Chip Albritton

    Thanks for this info, I have been able to get some decent shots of my grandsons playing various sports, I am struggling with football ( American) under lights I am sure I need faster gla$$ …I had been using a Nikon D40 with either the kit 18-55 or a 70-300mm

    • Yes that is likely the issue. I have you cranked up the ISO as high as you’re comfortable taking it? Is the 70-300 max f/5.6 at the 300mm end? That’s the big issue – there just isn’t enough light coming through there.

      Remember that from 5.6 to f/4 it’s double, and from f/4 to f/2.8 it’s double again. So a 2.8 lens allows in 4 times the light you’re getting at 5.6. It means shooting at 1600 instead of 6400, or 1/1000th instead of 1/250th. Can you rent one of the bigger lenses from time to time for games?

      • Chip Albritton

        I will have to see if I can find a place to rent one , I dont know of anywhere local..Yea I figured my glass was too slow!! and as the grands get older the game gets a LOT faster too !!! I will be saving nickels!!!

      • Chip Albritton

        Well I bit the bullet & bought a used Tamron 70-200 f2.8 it is in great condition & I think I got a pretty good deal on it. It sure makes a WORLD of difference shooting football under lights !!! Now I just need to learn how to FOCUS!!!

        • Have you tried back button focus yet? That’s what sports shooters use. You also want continuous tracking focus, a zone focus or active area, and continuous release.

          • Chip Albritton

            BBF is something I need to master

          • Let me know how I can help. Like anything, you just have to do it, and practice it.

  • AJ Simmons

    Enjoyed the article Perry and great tips too! Practice is key, and a good light meter helps!

    • Yes both true. The meter in your camera is best for sports. Pretty tricky to use a handheld one for that situation.

      • Unless your lighting is constant such as an indoor venue, hockey arenas for instance.

        • Even then, do a test shot and once you get the exposure put it on manual with those settings and you’re good to go.

  • Clipping is a delicate activity that involves shearing a section of an image for use elsewhere.

    • Um no not really, what is this in reply to? Clipping on an image usually means areas where there is no detail in either the highlights or shadows.

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