The sporting life

The next Readers Photo Challenge assignment is sports. This is the time of year where there are a plethora of sporting events being played in one form or another. Your photos can be of an organized sports event or it could be of a friend or family member playing table tennis, or swimming or out for a round of golf. It’s all sport.

Sports photographers look for what’s called “peak action.” It’s that perfect moment in a play when athletes are at the apex of their motion and everything, body position, ball, facial expression, is perfect. A moment before or after just doesn’t quite make it.

Visual impact is the name of the game in sports and that means getting in close for a nice tight shot of the athletes. It usually requires the use of a telephoto lens. A 300mm or longer is often used by most sports photographers. You can get away with using a shorter lens then cropping the photo with some photo editing software but if you crop too much you run the risk of decreasing resolution and sharpness while increasing the noise in your photos.

Telephoto lenses can be expensive especially “fast” ones (lenses designed for low light). You can bypass this by restricting your shooting to daytime events where you can use a slower (re: cheaper) lens.

It’s tough to shoot a sporting event with a shorter lens and still get good results, but it can be done. You have to patience, anticipate where the ball’s going to be, let the action come to you and have a little luck when trying to capture action with a short lens. Recently I saw a photo that freelance photojournalist Brian Baer shot for the Sacramento Bee. He got a great close shot with a wide-angle of a prep football player catching a pass right in front of him. It’s a technique only for an experienced and skilled photographer and Baer’s is one of the best in the business.

Another consideration is stopping the action. To get a sharp photo of an athlete frozen in mid-stride you need to use a fast shutter speed (if you shoot in an automatic, use shutter priority mode where you can set the shutter speed). It should be a minimum of 1/500th of second, faster if you can. The problem here is, again, low light. You’ll either have to uses a fast lens (which is expensive) or bump up your ISO (raising your camera’s light sensitivity thus increasing the noise in the photo) or both. Once again, if you shoot during the day then you shouldn’t have a problem stopping the action.

There is a technique of using a slower shutter speed called panning. With panning you use a shutter anywhere from 1/30th of a second to 1/125th of a second (depending on the speed of the action) and follow, or pan, along with the movement of the athlete with the camera. The central subject will be sharp while the background will be blurred with motion. It’s a cool effect but takes lots of practice and experience to get it right.

Most sports photos are about two things conflict and intensity. Games where athletes go head-to-head (football, basketball, boxing, etc.) the best photos are of the struggle between opponents. In baseball, it’s the runner sliding into second as the shortstop tries to turn the double play. With football it’s two players battling for a pass in the air.

You also want to capture the intensity with which the athletes compete. That usually means capturing their effort through their facial expressions. Try to catch the grimace as tennis player hits the ball or when a soccer player executes a slide tackle. You can also capture the intense concentration on the face of a pitcher as he sizes up a batter before he throws the ball.

Lastly there is a category of photos called sports feature. They’re of competitors and events that don’t feature the actual action. The joy of players celebrating scoring a point or winning a game, or athletes experiencing the agony of defeat can be just as compelling as a great action shot. Sports features don’t even have to be of the athletes. Cheerleaders or fans getting into the spirit of the game can be as interesting as the game itself (think of the “Black Hole” fans at Oakland Raiders games and you get the idea).

So get out there and shoot photos of your favorite sporting events, teams or athletes. Ready? Set! Go!


Here are the rules:

1. Entries can be emailed to Type in “Sports” in the subject line.

2. Photos have to be shot between Sept. 25 and Oct 11. It can be of an organized event or just a casual game, but must be sports related.

3. Include your name (first and last), hometown, and the kind of camera/lens you used and where it was taken (eg: “John Doe, Stockton. Grupe Park in Stockton. Canon EOS Rebel Ti with 75-300mm lens”)

4. If there is a recognizable person in the photo, please identify them (name, age, hometown) and where they are and what they are doing. (eg: “Jane Smith, 25, of Tracy, hits a forehand while playing tennis at the Oak Park Tennis Complex in Stockton”)

5. Please feel free to include any interesting anecdotes or stories on how you took the picture.

6. The deadline for submission is Saturday Oct. 11. The top examples will be published in The Record and my blog at on Thursday, Sept. 16 with an online gallery of all the photos on the same day.


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