Snapshots to Photographs - Sports

November 23, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

One of the most popular places to take photos is a sporting event.  This is true photojournalism – by definition the subjects will be moving and you won’t have any control over the lighting. There are few “do-over” opportunities for a home run or winning goal. I have been doing some work for Special Olympics and I’ve picked up a few tips that you might find useful.

A lot of people pull out their smartphone and snap shots from the stands and are disappointed in the results. Go with a purpose – get a shot to hang on the wall. The shot you will frame is one that tells a story of the game.  Instead of taking a shot of the players backs as they face the field get up high and make a shot of the stadium or get close and catch your athlete’s expression. Wouldn’t you like to show him or her concentrating on the runner about to pass the baton in a relay, make a herculean effort to throw that shot-put farther than ever before, or save the 30th attempted shot on goal?

I try for three “levels” of shots at a sports event. 

  1. Set the context with a shot of the venue.  This could be the entry to the field with its name on the door or a wide-angle view of the entire stadium inside.
  2. Capture the action as the teams and athletes warm up, compete, and pack up.
  3. Show the emotion of the competitors, coaches, officials, and fans

Your “wall hanger” will probably have some combination of the effort, the agony, the thrill and the pride in a game.  To do that, you have to get the faces and there are lots of very expressive faces at sporting events. 

  • First, honor the athletes and their safety; don’t distract them during a play with movements, flash, etc.  Remember that younger players are more easily distracted than mature players and teams.
  • Get out of your seat and get as close as the officials and coaches will allow.  It’s best to ask permission first.  Volunteer to give them some of your shots for the club historian or their own social media site.
  • Avoid clutter in the background – are you looking at some empty bleachers or do you have the visitors’ port-a-potties in your shot? Move to another side to remove distractions from the background.
  • Know the sport and position yourself with the sun at your back if you are outside and near a goal or finish line if you are inside.  You want the players’ faces to be lit as they are coming toward you.
  • Know the team and follow a player, not the ball. You will get some great shots if you can act like Wayne Gretzky and focus on where the puck will be, not where it has been.

If you are trying to capture the emotion on the field, it may be difficult with a smartphone but you can get great shots of the sideline and the spectators.  If your smartphone or point-n-shoot has a zoom feature, you may be able to get some shots on the field but watch for the emotions.  If you can’t see them your smartphone probably won’t either. Here are a few tips for setting up your camera to improve your chances of getting that wall-hanger when the moment happens.  These suggestions are oriented to a DSLR but you can apply them to a point-n-shoot, too.

  • Take your camera off “auto”. The programmer who set up “auto” was thinking of the 80% solution for your kids jumping around on the couch while you ask them to say cheese, not swimmers diving in a pool or soccer players running down the field. Shutter priority (“Tv” for time-value on Canon or “S” for shutter on Nikon DSLRs) is a good option for sports.   
  • For indoor sports try to use a mid to long zoom lens like a 70-200 and for outdoor sports, go as long as you can with something out to 300mm or even 400mm.
  • Use the widest aperture available on your lens, generally f2.8 to 5.6. The objective is to blur the background and anything in the foreground that may be between you and the players.
  • Select a shutter speed of 1/800 to freeze the action. Use a shutter speed of 1/45 to get some motion blur in arms or legs but be careful to keep the faces sharp.
  • For indoor sports you will probably have to drop down to a shutter speed of about 1/250 to freeze action and work with the lighting.  Inside a gym you will wish for a wide aperture lens – f2.8 is going to get you many more “keepers”. You may have to increase your ISO speed to get the shutter speed you need for stop action photos.
  • Use AI Servo autofocus mode and set the camera to focus using a focus point near the center or a little higher than center of your frame to ‘follow-focus’ with the moving players.
  • Make pictures after a play or a race to get the reactions.  Don’t forget the coaches, officials, cheerleaders and faces in the crowd.  Watch for the incidents.  Penalties, yellow cards, and fouls make for great drama in the players, the coaches, the bench, and the fans. You want to have a few others to give to that club historian.
  • Don’t be afraid to get your camera out when the weather is bad.  Bring a gallon sized freezer bag, put the camera in there with the business end of the lens sticking out and shoot away.  There is a lot of drama in bad weather.
  • Use large capacity memory cards - say 8 gigabytes – so you don’t have to change cards at a crucial moment.
  • Last, and maybe most useful of all, shoot your photos in RAW format.  If you must, set it to shoot both RAW and JPG, but get RAW files. Your DSLR came with a software disc that has a program to convert files and you will be amazed at what you can do with it.  It’s another example of you making pictures that are in the other 20% and don’t match the 80% solution that programmer created for your JPG files out of the camera. Starting with the original RAW format will allow you to make the photograph you imagined.  Be aware that RAW files are usually 4 to 6 times bigger than JPG files – they include all the original information the camera captured before it compressed the file and deleted things the programmer guessed you might not need. 

Most outdoor sporting events happen in the middle of the day when the sun is high and shadows are harsh. Lots of photos end up with the sky over exposed or the players left dark and unrecognizable. The thing to realize is that caps and helmets shade faces at outdoor events so you have to get down low and shoot up to get their faces instead of down on their caps and helmets. 

Here are some suggestions for getting a few different sports to give you a sense of how you might approach different types of action:


  • If you can get inside the fence, position yourself near the net and shoot from a player’s forehand side.  You’ll get more shots of their face from that side.  If you end up on the backhand side you they will have their back to you and won’t look your way until they actually hit a backhand. 
  • Get as close to the ground as you can.  That low perspective will give you more sky and fewer people in the crowd who may be doing something distracting.
  • If you have to be outside the fence, then try to get high and shoot down on the opposite end of the court, over the net.  The player on the opposite end will almost always be facing you.
  • Shoot one player at a time. It is very hard to shoot both ends of a tennis court at the same time.
  • Use shutter priority (time-value on Canon), with an ISO value that gives you a wide aperture setting.  Anticipate the action -- watch the rackets! Shoot when the player begins to swing. If you can see the ball in the frame before you shoot, odds are it will have passed by the time you push the shutter! 
  • Use multi-shot (burst) mode to get several looks during the swing so you can find the most emotion in your shots. As Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shot you don’t take. Be selective – keep the best and dump the rest.
  • You'll often get a great reaction shot, whether it is agony or thrill, after a particularly long point, or following a very dramatic return that is either in or out. Keep shooting!



  • This is a great sport for shots of fans.  Everybody gets emotionally involved in soccer.
  • Position yourself at the end of the field with the sun behind you and move from behind the goal to half-way between the goal and the side line.  The offensive team will always be running toward you and give you good opportunities for shots of their faces.  The teams will switch goals at the quarter so you will get both teams over the course of each half.
  • For action shots, follow the ball and use AI-Servo focus mode. Get as tight as you can on the ball and the player who is dribbling it.  A shot of the entire team spread all over the field is going to get ignored.
  • Kneel or sit down.  This will give your shot a great perspective, with less grass and players that seem to tower over the ball.
  • A big zoom lens is really helpful to get close shots of individual players. Use the longest lens you own, 300mm or more if you have it. A monopod is a big help for a big, heavy lens but be prepared to get out of the way of the players.



  • Set your shutter at 1/800 to stop water droplets in the air. If you are outdoors with a lot of light go on up to 1/1500.  Set your ISO level to give you the widest (lowest number) aperture your lens offers while getting a reasonable exposure.  A few cameras will allow you to set the shutter and aperture and automatically adjust your ISO but check your manual.  They sometimes limit the auto-ISO function to some minimal level like 400 that isn’t much help.
  • Leave your flash at home or save it for the awards ceremony.  A flash will interfere with the electronic timers.
  • For butterfly and breast stroke shoot from the end of the pool where they finish.  Get down on the deck, as close to the water level as practical but not in the way of the timers and officials.  Butterfly is the most dramatic stroke, with a swimmer’s arms outstretched and their head up for a breath.
  • For freestyle, shoot from the side where your swimmer breathes.  Get them as they turn their head for a breath.
  • For backstroke, try shooting from the end where they start.  Maybe a shot standing on the starter block, looking down on the swimmer as she starts.
  • Get down on the deck and shoot as though you are in the water with them.  Get into their world.   For young swimmers, you can get cool shots of them lifting their head to look at other swimmers to see where they are. You will get wet for this, so dress appropriately.
  • A lot of emotion may show up during the build up for a race and after it is finished, when the swimmers are on deck. Take some shots of team mates standing over the edge, cheering on a swimmer as they finish. You’ll get lots of excitement there.



I shot a floor hockey tournament that wasn’t quite as difficult as ice hockey but many of the principles apply (except for the Plexiglas) for indoor sports.

  • Scout out a spot to shoot from in advance.  This is a fast-moving indoor sport with lots of obstacles to making pictures.  Lighting is notoriously bad in everything but professional stadiums and you often have to shoot through Plexiglas that is dirty and scuffed up.  Consider standing in the bench area if the glass is really bad, but get a helmet.  Bring some glass cleaner and clean the Plexiglas at the ends of the rink, both inside and out, to give yourself a better chance at a shot. 
  • Use a zoom lens of 70-200 and a 300mm if you have it. 
  • Set your exposure before the game starts.  Ice will cause your DSLR to underexpose.  You need to use manual exposure here – yes that is the M setting on your camera.  Take a few shots before the game and use your camera’s histogram to check exposure.  You want the graph to be at the far right but not touching the edge.  Use the widest aperture setting available on your lens and a shutter speed of 1/250, which will usually stop the players’ motion but not necessarily the puck. You will probably need an ISO setting of 1600 – 3200.  Try a few shots to see what you can get away with.
  • Set your custom white balance for the type of lighting in the venue.  A lot of indoor sports facilities use some sort of gas vapor or fluorescent lights that pulse and your camera will flip in and out of color balance. You can correct color balance problems if you are using RAW format for your photos and setting this to be a constant temperature will save you a lot of time at the computer.
  • Try to stand at the end of the rink between the goal and the corner.  They will bring the puck to the goal, much of the action will happen in the corners, and you can get see their faces.  The closer you are to the floor, the better your chances will be for seeing through their masks.  With a long lens, you may get some great shots of the goalie at the opposite end of the rink.
  • Don’t forget to shoot the fans – this is another sport where everyone gets emotional.

You can see that every sport has a little twist to it, but they also have some common elements.  You can make your own adjustments to apply the soccer tips to football, hockey tips to basketball, tennis and swimming to track and field. I have not done much with motorsports or riding here, so pass along your own suggestions in some comments, so I can learn from this too.


No comments posted.

January February March (2) April (2) May (1) June (1) July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November (1) December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December