Sports photography is both challenging and rewarding. It requires practice, the right equipment, and a dash of luck. There wasn’t a lot of literature available on the discipline when I was starting out, so I resorted to learning from the professionals at work around me (I was an athlete), adopted techniques from other photography disciplines such as bird photography, and improvised on them as I went along.
While all sports photographers have their own unique style and “secret sauce”, there isn’t really a definitive guide on how one could get started. As such for the benefit of those who might be interested in embarking on this discipline, here are some simple tips that could help you get started.
A softball is passed between players from a Malaysian Team during warm up at a softball match in Singapore. This image was created using the focus trap technique, a method that I adopted from bird photography.
Tip #1. Understand what you are going to shoot
Studying the rules of the game and watching videos of the sport beforehand always helps. Doing so allows you to visualize the images you can create and gives you the opportunity to plan how you could go about getting the shot.
Synchronized swimmers in formation during the Singapore National Championships. This image was taken from the third floor of the venue behind the spectator’s stand. Understanding the scoring elements of the sport beforehand allowed me to plan in advance where I could position myself to capture the formations.
Tip #2. Understand autofocus and subject tracking
Autofocus and subject tracking are a sports photographer’s bread and butter. Autofocus ensures that a subject is sharp, while tracking ensures that you are focussing on the correct subject. For sport, it is recommended that autofocus be set to continuous to ensure that the subject you are tracking is constantly in focus.
An artistic gymnast on the balance at the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur. The distance between athlete and camera constantly changes. Continuous autofocus helps to ensure that the athlete is always in focus, regardless of his or her distance from the camera.
Modern cameras have proprietary subject tracking options (3D tracking, face detection, etc..) which can be useful for sport. I have found 3D tracking useful in tracking fast-moving subjects like race cars, runners, gymnasts etc.., while face detection has proved useful for fight sports. For all other situations, I usually fix my focus point in the center of the frame and track the subject manually.
An Uzbek boxer punches a Jordanian boxer at the Asian Games in Indonesia. Face detection – while probably not often used for the purpose of sports – can be used effectively in capturing the action in fight sports.
Tip #3. Use the right shutter speed
Using the correct shutter speed is key to freezing action. If you have it too slow you will end up with motion blur. To freeze human motion, I typically set my shutter speed to at least 1/400 seconds. This could go as high as 1/1600 for sports where a person was in free fall.
A platform diver moments before entering the water at the Singapore National Championships. To freeze the action this image was taken at a shutter speed of 1/1600 seconds.
To freeze even faster action – e.g. water droplets or balls in play – I would bring the shutter speed up to at least 1/2000 seconds.
Chinese synchronized swimmers in action at the Asian Games in Indonesia. To freeze water droplets in aquatic sports, I usually employ shutter speeds of at least 1/2000 seconds.
Conversely, slow shutter speeds can be used to illustrate movement. In such situations, a shutter speed as low as one second can be used to show trails, while still retaining detail.
A Chinese fencer moves forward during the Asian Games in Indonesia. To illustrate movement, a slow shutter speed of 1 second was used to create this image.
Tip #4. Invest in a fast zoom lens
Apart from the fact that the distance between the action and the photographer constantly changes, venue lighting can also sometimes be very poor. As such, I always suggest the use of a fast zoom lens for the versatility and the ability to shoot in low light, while still retaining decent shutter speeds.
A male artistic gymnast spins throught the air during the Asian Games in Indonesia. A zoom lens is useful as it helps a photographer frame the image through the viewfinder without the need for additional cropping.
As a start, I would always recommend the 70-200mm f2.8. This lens is light, available across all major lens makers and is relatively inexpensive. An aperture of 2.8 is great for low light situations, and if you need the extra reach, you can just pop on a 1.4x teleconverter or just shoot with a crop sensor.
A Chinese cyclist during a velodrome race at the Asian Games in Indonesia. Velodrome cycling is extremely fast and often held under poor indoor lighting conditions. Being able to freeze the image of a cyclist approaching would not have been possible without a fast lens.
Tip #5. Capture interactions and emotions.
Visuals of celebration, disappointment, and interactions are key moments in sport that often tell a story.
When covering assignments make it a point to turn up for warm ups and stay till after the victory ceremony. That way you get to capture the expressions of people before, during and after the event.
A cornerman speaks to a bleeding MMA fighter as he is attended to by a cutman during a fight. Half time breaks are good windows for you to capture images of interactions between the athletes and those around them.
Importantly, don’t focus only on the players. Often it is the coaches, family, and fans who are sources of emotion.
A parent of an athlete hugs the Games mascot thrown to her by her son after they win Singapore’s first Medal at the Asian Games in Indonesia. Elements like flags, friends and families can often be used to tell a story.
Tip #6. Practice, practice, practice
Practice makes perfect, and a sure way to improve is to find opportunities to shoot. Get in touch with your local club or association to see if you can get media access to games to cover the action, and take time to network and learn from the other more experienced photographers on site.
Companies like Finisherpix, GameFaceMedia, and the ONE Championship offer opportunities for sports photography enthusiasts to cover their events around the world.
Finally – shoot often, experiment constantly, and learn from everything and everyone. It is only through constant practice that one can improve.
A beach volleyball player blocks the ball the Singapore Sports Hub.
About the author: Shaun Ho is a sports and dance photographer based in Singapore. He has covered sporting events ranging from junior school rugby to international multisport events. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.