The second half of the 2012 London Olympic Games are about to start, and the closest that most of us will get to see the Olympics is to watch them on TV. But there are things that you can do to photograph your local sports like the pros do at the Olympics.
Access: The biggest issue with Olympic/pro level events is access. The higher up on the sporting food chain you go, the harder it is to get a good vantage point for photos. In the highest tier of sports, professional photographers apply for press credentials weeks or even months in advance. They’ll be given little vests or bibs to wear to allow them access to different areas of the venue. Even then they are often set way back from the action or restricted to certain areas of the playing field. This is where the lower-level sports have an advantage. The access to your 10-year-old’s soccer game is pretty much unfettered. You can stand anywhere along the sidelines. This easy and nearly unrestricted access can go all the way up to many high school sports, depending on the school.
Positioning: Knowing the respective sport you are shooting can help determine where you stand. Generally for an offensive shot, you need to have the players with the ball coming toward the camera; and, for defensive shots, players with the ball should be going away. You want the athletes’ faces to get their expressions. Rarely do you want to get their backs. This is also where you have an edge over upper-level sporting events. While pro photographers are usually closer to the action than the audience, they often can’t move from their assigned spots. In local sports, one can move down the field with the action or change vantage points all together. So, go ahead move around and don’t stay in one place.
Equipment: Having a telephoto lens is pretty much a necessity for most sports. While you can occasionally get some great shots with a wide angle, in general you need a long lens. The reason for the need for the super big lenses is to get closer to the action. Something in the range of 300mm to 400mm should do for the majority of events. You may think a long lens may be pretty pricey, but some can be had for a relatively reasonable cost (both Nikon and Canon sell 75-300mm telephoto zoom lenses for less than $200).
What gets into real big money is when you have to shoot night or indoor sports. There you need a lens that captures images in low light, know as a fast lens. But with the combination of speed and length, prices of lenses go up exponentially. For example, a Nikon 300mm f/4 telephoto lens costs about $1,300, but one that’s f/2.8 (just 1 stop faster) will set you back about $5,700 (Canon’s equivalent lenses are priced similarly). That’s a doubling of light-gathering abilities but a quadrupling of price. Increasing the camera’s ISO (light sensitivity) is an option, but that also increases noise in the photo. (There are cameras that have a low-noise to ISO ratio but they are also very pricey).
Other than spending a lot of money, the only option is to limit your sports shooting to outdoor events where there is plenty of sunlight. But most rec league sports and some high school sports are played during the day, so you don’t necessarily need very exotic equipment.
A camera with a high frame rate, one that can shoot many frames a second (fps), is preferable. Indeed the recently released Nikon D4 shoots at 10 fps, and the new Canon 1Dx does an astounding 12 fps. You can just focus and hold the button down to shoot off machine-gun-like bursts (“stay and spray,” it’s called in the photo biz). But both of those cameras are their respective companies’ top-of-the-line cameras and are very expensive. But don’t fret, you can still catch great sports photos with cameras with a slower frame rate. It just takes timing. With practice and patience, you can learn to wait for the right moment, press the button and capture the peak action when it happens.
Shutter speed: In most sports, plenty of movement is common, and the key to stopping the motion is to use a high shutter speed. And, while slower shutter speeds can be used to great creative effect, it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Most sports shots you see are where the action is stopped. Use a minimum of 1/500th of a second or faster if you can. This will allow you to freeze the action.
Depth of field: Control your depth of field. Some may think that having a lot of depth of field is a good thing, and for some photos it is. Focusing on a constantly moving subject can be difficult, and a good amount of depth of field can make up for some imprecision in focusing. But in sports, one can’t always predict where the peak action is going to occur. A diving catch or spectacular throw can happen amid a cluttered background. A narrow depth of field, while it takes more practice to perfect, can help make your subject pop out against a blurred backdrop.
Peak action: Think of action as a bell curve. Peak action would be what happens in a play at the very top of curve. It’s what sports photographers live and train for. It’s the exact moment when the boxer makes contact or when a high jumper clears the bar. This is where knowledge of a sport comes in handy. Knowing when a volleyball player is likely to strike the ball or a swimmer will come up for air can aid you in knowing when exactly to press the button.
Expression: Athletes of every level give their respective sports their very best efforts, and it shows on their faces. Try to capture not only kicking, catching or throwing a ball, but also the expressions on the players’ faces. It can show the intensity at which they play and add impact to your photos.
Practice. All these things mean nothing if you don’t get out there and practice your skills. Shooting sports takes timing. To get the peak action means you have know when it’s going to happen and when to press the shutter button. Even though I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years, at the beginning of each sports season it takes me a while to get back in the swing of things. Trial and error is the key. See what works and what doesn’t. Don’t be discouraged with if you get a low percentage of usable shots; even top-rated pros have more shots that are rejects than they have keepers. You can learn as much from your mistakes as you can from your triumphs.