Sports Photography Tips from New York Film Academy

by Brian Dilg
photos by Aaron Steele


This article from the New York Film Academy concentrates on the subject of shooting live action sports. It isn’t limited to any particular type; there are myriad sports, played in spaces that vary enormously in size, distance covered, number of players, pace, etc. Shooting a basketball game is a very different challenge from photographing a marathon or downhill slalom skiing.

What are probably the most critical aspects of shooting all live action sports successfully are position, preparation, and timing. You must know the game intimately; you must know the stakes at any given moment during each specific event; you have to anticipate where the key moments are going to happen; and you need to be in the right place at the right time, ready to shoot with the right equipment, with split-second timing. If you’re sitting next to the track at the Indy 500 with a 400mm lens trying to shoot cars coming straight at you at 200mph, you’re going to have quite a challenge keeping them in focus.

Specific Tips from the New York Film Academy

Every publisher wants the most dramatic moments to any given event: the winning shot, the critical turning point. They want that action filling the frame, sharply focused, and crisply frozen. Those are the iconic shots that will get you the cover of Sports Illustrated.

New York Film Academy recognizes that most live action sports photography is a specialized form of reportage. Wild creativity and unusual visual style is not usually called for; crisp, sharp action is what’s demanded, filling the frame as much as possible. Since by definition athletes are in motion, often very rapidly, that typically means very short shutter speeds: 1/1000 of a second or even shorter.

Because that affects exposure so dramatically, depth of field (aperture) and ISO typically become secondary. Depth of field is often very low anyway in events where it is impossible to get physically close to the action, so very long telephoto lenses (with minimal depth of field) must be used in order to magnify the players sufficiently.

However, the creative photographer should also exploit other ways of conveying action and motion. A great way of doing this is to use deliberately slower shutter speeds, typically between 1/30 and 1/4 of a second, to create motion blur. The trick is to pan the camera at the same speed the athlete is moving, blurring the background to indicate motion. The trick here is to use a slow enough shutter speed to convey a sense of motion without blurring the action beyond recognition. The best shutter speed will depend on the effective speed of the action relative to the camera, which is a combination of sheer velocity, focal length, and distance between the camera and the object. Experiment!

One other thing about high-speed action

Using a high frame rate is not a substitute for a great sense of timing. That only comes with experience. The “spray and pray” approach of holding down the shutter at the maximum frame rate of the camera is going to create lots of work for you sorting and editing later, and it will soon be obvious that it is not a foolproof way to get the perfect moment. Certainly a high frame rate in very fast-moving moments can make a difference, but getting intimately familiar with the game and the styles of the players themselves will prove far more useful. Also, you still have to be incredibly precise to know when to squeeze and keep squeezing, because at today’s extreme frame rates, you will fill up your camera’s buffer and grind to a halt very quickly. I do know seasoned pros that only shoot JPEGs, not RAWs, despite the phenomenal difference in quality, in part because they fill the buffer far less quickly, but don’t regard it as a panacea.

As tested by students in the New York Film Academy, the longer the lens and the faster the movement, the greater challenge focus is going to be. So it goes without saying that you need to master your autofocus and manual focus technique. You also need to pick the right zone and the right size detection area. In a studio portrait, you have time to put your autofocus zone on your subject’s eyes, but that’s far too small a target on a moving subject. Look for high-contrast, large edges, like numbers on a jersey, use an autofocus zone broader than a pinpoint, and keep your zone centered on a high-contrast part of your subject. 

At the New York Film Academy, we think of the next critical component of covering an event capturing the emotions of the game. This is not so much the critical moment of action, but the reactions to those moments that typically happen a split-second later. And you need to keep an eye not just on the players on the field, but also the coaches, the players on the sidelines, and the crowd.

A key skill is to force yourself to keep the camera trained on the athlete in the moments after the play is over; that’s when the emotions they’ve been keeping in check usually emerge. Just be prepared to swing your lens in an instant to capture the response of people in addition to the main player: the disappointment of the losing opponent, the elation on the bench, of friends and family. Also, be prepared for the unexpected: when things go most wrong, the most dramatic shots often follow.

Be sure to capture a sense of the venue and environment. Don’t just pack a telephoto lens; bring a wide-angle and convey sense of what’s around the action.

Lastly, remember the most important aspect, expressed in the old joke about the guy asking a New Yorker for directions:

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A: Practice, practice, practice!

Happy shooting!

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