Sports (or action) photography often focuses on capturing the dynamic and intense moments of sports events. But there is more. This overview looks a broader set of characteristics of a sports / action photograph that one can shoot for, as well as approaches and techniques to accomplish the task.
The characteristics of a sports / action photograph that you choose to represent depends on the story you want to tell and the equipment you have available. It could be capturing the physicality of an instant and / or the emotional: the elation of victory, the agony of defeat or the intensity of the challenge. Each of these may result in a very different composition with each having different equipment requirements, but the common thread is: a story is being told; something is being highlighted by the photograph.
- Action: This is about capturing the action of athletes; freezing moments that showcase the physicality, skill, and intensity of a sport.
- Motion: This is about reflecting the movement in an activity, whether it be slow or fast. Typically, in photography, a quick pace is expressed through blurring the subject, rather than freezing the action.
- Emotion: Sports evoke a wide range of emotions, from joy and elation to disappointment and determination. Capturing these emotions on the faces of athletes (and the audience) or through their body language adds depth and narrative to sports photographs. Emotions are expressed at any number of points including at the pinnacle of some action or standing still, head down after defeat.
- Storytelling: Sports photography is not just about individual moments; we can aim to tell a story about the event, the athletes, and the emotions involved. Selecting several photographs and forming a series can capture the build-up, the intensity, and the climax of a game creating an engaging narrative for the viewers.
Approach and Technique
- Capturing action: To capture action, to freeze the moment, a high shutter speed is important. Using a shallow depth of field enhances the subject by offsetting it from the background. To reliably take an action shot generally requires fairly sophisticated equipment, including fast zoom lenses, high burst rates, and low noise at high ISOs.
- Capturing Motion: To develop a sense of motion, using a slower shutter speed blurs the subject. However, to ensure the subject isn’t lost in a blurred background, a deeper depth of field is helpful. A tripod might be helpful to reduce camera shake that might distort the background. These shots can be captured with less sophisticated equipment, however, being able to control the shutter speed is necessary.
- Timing: For photographers striving to capture the key moment when a player jumps, strikes, scores a goal, or has some other decisive move, timing is essential. While anticipating the moment is helpful, a finger is rarely fast enough to react, therefore, setting the camera drive to “burst” increases the chance of capturing that moment.
- Composition: As with most genres composition plays an important role in creating impactful photographs. Framing the subject using the rule of thirds, and incorporating leading lines can enhance the overall visual appeal and convey a sense of energy and excitement. Getting in close brings immediacy; a wide shot positions the action in the context. When positioning the subject it is usually appropriate to position the subject so they have room “in front” of them within the picture frame.
- Perspective: The point of view on the action will also influence the look of the image. Shooting from different angles and heights might find the one that offers a unique viewpoint that adds emphasis to the moment.
- Lighting: To capture a moment, an instant, in a fast-moving sport, usually requires a high shutter speed (e.g., 1/1000 sec or more). Simply put, better light means higher shutter speeds are more accessible, which reduces the demand for high-end equipment. Shooting in poor lighting conditions will demand better equipment, especially fast lenses, and low noise at high ISOs.
- Background and Context: Including elements of the venue, the spectators, or the surroundings can provide context and add depth to sports photographs.
- Post-processing: Post-processing techniques should be used to enhance the impact of sports photographs. Adjustments in color, contrast, sharpness, and cropping can help emphasize the action, remove distractions, and make the images more visually appealing.
Professional sports photography often requires specialized equipment to capture fast action and distant subjects. Fast, telephoto lenses are commonly used to zoom in on the action and freeze the movement, while high-speed continuous shooting mode helps capture a series of images in quick succession. For the amateur, with less sophisticated equipment, picking your subject, managing expectations and luck all come into play. When possible, try to shoot outside. Shoot in burst mode if possible. Get as close as possible to the action; to capture emotion you generally need to be close enough to see the athlete’s face. Capture in RAW format and/or in the highest resolution your camera offers so that in post processing you have some room to crop without loosing too much detail. But also remember that the action shot isn’t the only sports shot; there are other moments that are equally worthy and may be more telling.
This image follows rules for composition — leading lines, rule of thirds — it has a high shutter speed to freeze the action, however as a sports photograph it fails to capture any sense of action. As a wide-angle shot, it removes the viewer from the action of the sport, and thus makes it less immediate. The other elements of the image draw attention away from the action.
This image also follows rules for composition — leading lines, rule of thirds, but it is in a bit closer so we the viewer also feel closer to the action. Yet the image also shows some context, and just enough to get one message across: the size of this event (the marathon).
This image also follows rules for composition, specifically the rule of thirds, and it leaves room “in front” of the subject, as well as being close to the subject. Here you can see the expression on the rider’s face, the blurred background lifts the subject off the page, the high shutter speed freezes the moment creating almost a moment of zen.
In this image the rider on the right might seem too close to the edge, but this is balanced by the three riders behind. The shot is close enough in so we can see the expressions on the rider’s faces.
Again fairly close in, these images change the character from action to motion using blur. Here the shutter speed is slowed but what is interesting (and serendipitous) is that some athletes blur and others do not, depending of the speed of their motion relative to the camera.
These images are a little further out, but close enough to capture the expressions on the athletes’ faces. The first image shows that an emotionally intense shot can be got from someone standing still.
This last group of shots captures the audience of the bike race. These are included as part of the story-telling objective.