Sports Photography: The Ultimate Guide (w/ Top Tips)

(Last updated on July 18th, 2022)

People love sports. Some enjoy playing sports, others prefer to watch. Either way, however people engage in sports there is usually some level of passion involved. Also, sport is a huge business globally, so, naturally, it is photographed a lot.

Sports photography is about capturing the action as it happens. Being able to react and grab the most exciting moment produces the most engaging sports photographs. Freezing the decisive moment serves to give people a glimpse into what makes a sports person great. You can see things in a still photograph that you will not perceive watching sports live or even in super slow motion on television.

To be a successful sports photographer is not easy. Sports photography requires specialized skills and the right equipment to get the job done. Then it takes hours and hours of dedicated practice to become consistent at capturing the winning photos.

In this article, I’ll cover practical aspects of what it takes to become a successful sports photographer. I’ll also go into how you can make money from sports photography and what tools you’ll need to get the job done well.

Surfing. Photographing surfing usually requires a long lens to get you close enough to the action.
Surfing. Photographing surfing usually requires a long lens to get you close enough to the action.

What is Sports Photography?

Sports photography is pictures taken of any sport or anything related to sport. A good sports photo might be of a player scoring a goal in a dramatic manner. It can also be a staged photo of sports equipment in a studio or a team portrait photo.

Most commonly sports photography is all about action. These types of photos are the most engaging. Being able to capture an athlete at their peak exertion point to highlight their skill and physique is not an easy task. To become a good sports photographer it is necessary to understand the sport. And to be completely confident using your camera equipment.

Sports photography is often about documenting sport as it is being played. It covers all levels of sports. From kids learning to play ball to professionals at the peak of their career and even after they retire. Sports photography is a lifestyle for those who fully engage in it.

Different sports require different sets of photography skills. Photographing football is a lot different than taking pictures of billiards. Athletics photography demands a different set of skills than mountaineering.

Cricket. Getting this close in a real cricket game is not practical!
Cricket. Getting this close in a real cricket game is not practical!

What Camera Gear is Needed for Sports Photography?

Professional sports photographers generally use top-of-the-line DSLR or mirrorless cameras. These cameras have the highest specifications making them more suited to photographing sports.

What Camera is Best for Sports Photography?

Cameras for sports photography are best if they have:

  • Fast autofocus
  • Rapid continuous burst rates
  • Large buffers
  • Fast maximum shutter speeds
  • Multiple memory card slots

Good autofocus, the combination of the right camera and lens, helps keep track of your main subject and ensures it’s in focus when the action happens. There is stiff competition between camera manufacturers to produce gear with the best autofocus. Nikon, Canon, and Sony all compete to sell their top-level cameras and lenses to the world’s sports photographers. Autofocus capabilities are usually high on the list of requirements for these photographers.

The continuous burst rate of a camera is also very important. A fast burst rate coupled with a large buffer allows a sports photographer to capture more images in quick succession. This provides greater opportunities for capturing the action when it is at its peak.

Lenses for Sports Photography

Long lenses are often needed to capture sports action from a distance. With a lot of sports photography, it is not possible to be close to the players. A long lens, at least 300mm, is needed to frame photos well. Excess negative space in sports photos rarely works well. It is more important to get in tight so only the main action shows in the composition.

Tripod/Monopod for Sports Photography

The combined weight of large cameras and long lenses means a tripod or monopod is necessary. This is especially so when covering a sport for a long period of time. It can be tiring to hold heavy camera equipment for hours on end. Monopods are preferred by photographers who need to change locations while covering sports. Tripods tend to be favored by photographers who can remain in a static location and capture the images they want.

Some sports, like many water sports, require the use of protective underwater housings for cameras and lenses. This specialist equipment allows photographers to get into the water with their cameras so they can be closer to the action.

Remote Triggers

Remote triggers are sometimes also used by photographers who position cameras in places they don’t have access to. Watch any high-level soccer match and you’ll see a lineup of cameras behind each goal. These cameras have wide-angle lenses attached. They are fired by the photographer using a remote trigger.

Lens. Special lenses are often required to get photos where your main subject is not too small in the frame.
Lens. Special lenses are often required to get photos where your main subject is not too small in the frame.

How Can You Be the Best Sports Photographer?

There are a variety of aspects to becoming a successful sports photographer. Some of these are related to the sports you want to photograph. Others are more general. Here I’ll cover the most important things you need to know and do when starting out in sports photography.

Get Intimate with the Sports You Want to Photograph

To be the best sports photographer you can possibly be, you must concentrate on one sport. The most accomplished sports photographers may even only cover one team or aspect of a particular sport. The reason for this is that the knowledge and experience they gain helps them to predict the action and make the best photographs.

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Photographing Team Sports

The best sports photographers know the rules of the game. They are familiar with the flow of play. Dedicated photographers also know the teams and individual players. This helps them predict the nature of the coming action.

Knowing the sport and the sportspeople you photograph helps you to get a feel for what is going to make the most interesting photos. The more experience you have, the more your timing will improve as you learn to anticipate when the best action is going to occur.

Imagine turning up to a sporting event and knowing nothing or little of what type of action occurs. You would not know where to stand, what to focus on, or who to photograph. Knowing the flow of the sports you photograph is as important as having the right camera gear and being competent in using it. If you cannot understand the game, you’ll not be able to photograph it so well.

Photographing Individual Sports

Photographing individual sports or athletics can be a little different. Often there’s less mystery about when the best action is about to take place. Still, having a good understanding of what’s happening enables you to capture the most interesting moments.

Whatever sport you choose to photograph, study it. Learn as much as you can about how the game is played or what’s required of sports people to excel in this sport. Even better, play the sport yourself. Take up a martial art if this is what you want to photograph. Learn to high dive if that’s your thing. The more engaged you are with the sport you want to photograph, the better images you’ll capture of it.

Recently I photographed a karate workshop. I used to train with a club and the sensei asked me to cover the workshop that was being led by a high-ranking teacher. Even though I have not practiced karate for many years, my knowledge of karate helped me. I was able to predict what was about to happen in much of the activity I had to photograph.

Karate. The more you know the sport you photograph, the better photos you’ll be able to capture.
Karate. The more you know the sport you photograph, the better photos you’ll be able to capture.

Know How To Gain Access for Photography

Some sports are easier to photograph than others because access to the best places to take photos from is easier than in other locations. For other sports access is limited and accreditation may be necessary.

The approach to photographing any sport often depends on what access you have as a photographer. How physically close can you be to the action? This dictates the type of lens you need to use. Sometimes photographing school sports when I worked at the newspaper, I could get right in amongst the action and use a 24mm lens. When I photographed cricket tests this was not possible. I would be sitting on the sidelines using an 800mm focal length lens.

Heading down to the local ballpark to photograph your kids playing ball will not usually require any special permission. You may be restricted to take your photos from a designated area or you might have full access. Photographing the same sport at a professional level is a completely different matter. You will need special accreditation and permission. You will most likely be assigned to stay within a designated photographer’s area.

Knowing how to gain access, even to practice games when you are wanting to build up your skills, is important. If you can’t get access to photograph a sport being played at a high level, you’ll not be able to advance your skill so well.

Having a relationship with a professional sporting body or photography agency are two ways to gain the best access to sports events. Accreditation is vital if you want to get as close as possible to the action in many types of sports.

At a more casual level, becoming a member of a local sports club or group can help you gain access, and even an outlet to sell your photos.

Soccer. Understanding the rules of the game makes it easier to predict the flow of a game and capture better pictures of it.
Soccer. Understanding the rules of the game makes it easier to predict the flow of a game and capture better pictures of it.

Keeping Up With the Action

For some sports, there’s no need for a photographer to be fit. For other sports, being physically fit is vital.

Billiards, cricket, and table tennis are not sports you need to have a high level of fitness for. If you want to photograph cross-country skiing, or team sports like rugby or soccer, you’re going to need to be reasonably fit.

Keeping up with the play often means being in the right place at the right time. Getting ahead of the action to capture athletes as they progress through a course. Following the play from the football field sidelines. Climbing to a good vantage point to get the clearest photos of someone abseiling. These all take a good degree of physical fitness.

I found covering a rugby game much more physically demanding than photographing a cricket match. Keeping up with the play sometimes meant having to run the length of the rugby field. Doing this while carrying the weight of two cameras and heavy, long lenses could be very demanding. Without at least a reasonable level of physical fitness, I could not have managed many good photos.

Hockey. Photographing ice hockey is extremely challenging. The game is fast-paced and often played indoors where the light makes it more challenging.
Hockey. Photographing ice hockey is extremely challenging. The game is fast-paced and often played indoors where the light makes it more challenging.

Be Prepared for Any Weather

You need to think about your camera gear and yourself when photographing sports. A sports game or event will often continue no matter what the weather is like.

For winter sports, being able to keep warm and dry is often vital. Not only do you need rain gear for yourself, but you also must keep the camera and lens you are using dry. You also need to make sure your camera bag is sufficiently weather sealed and not sitting in a pool of water.

When the rain comes down the play goes on. This means you have to be well prepared to keep covering the action. This is challenging because it’s never good to get excessive amounts of rain on even the best cameras and lenses. High-end cameras are often weather sealed, but I’m always reluctant to test the quality of this. If water does get into a camera, it may well stop functioning properly or stop altogether.

In extreme cold batteries can underperform. Keeping batteries warm and accessible in cold weather is important. You don’t want to have to open your camera bag to retrieve fresh batteries. Doing so will risk water getting into your bag if it’s raining and it will waste precious time that your eyes will not be on your subject. Keeping one or two batteries in an easily accessible pocket will help keep them warm in cold weather. A warm battery can last longer than a cold one.

Wet. Being prepared for a change in the weather means you can keep photographing longer when it starts to rain.
Wet. Being prepared for a change in the weather means you can keep photographing longer when it starts to rain.

What Photography Skills Do You Need to Cover Sports?

Most sports require the ability to capture the decisive moment. This is the precise time the action is at its peak. Being able to anticipate when these moments occur allows you to capture more high-quality images. So, having a good understanding of the sport and its rules makes you a better photographer.

Become Familiar with Sports

The more familiar you are with the sports you like to photograph, the better photos you’ll take. Being able to follow the action, but more importantly predict what may happen, gives you the edge. Anticipating when a pass or tackle may happen. Knowing just when a punch is about to be thrown. Being ready for that big catch. All this will help you capture the most interesting sports photos. Because all this varies from one sport to another, the most dedicated sports photographers only cover one or two sports.

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Know Your Camera Technique Well

Understanding the essentials of photographic exposure and camera technique also helps you take better sports photos. Any sport that involves action requires the use of fast shutter speeds. The speed of the action dictates the slowest shutter speed used to capture an image free from motion blur. Photographing bobsledding requires faster shutter speeds than photographing lawn bowls.

Master Auto Focus

Mastering auto focus controls and use is also necessary to photograph sports well. You must know the differences between single or multi-point auto focus. For many sports using continuous focus gives better results than using single servo auto focus. You must understand the various focus tracking modes your camera may have and know how to use these well.

Knowing when and how to use burst mode also allows you to capture the right moment.

Whatever sport you photograph, the more comfortable and confident you are using your camera, the better photos you’ll take. The more you practice photographing any particular sport, the better photos you’ll take of it.

Sport tools. The great variety of sports you cover, the greater knowledge you need to understand how to get the best photos.
Sport tools. The great variety of sports you cover, the greater knowledge you need to understand how to get the best photos.

How to Land Sport Photography Clients

Every newspaper has a sports section. In print or online, you will always find the latest sports photos from popular local or international events. Many news outlets now prefer to hire freelance sports photographers. Or they buy images from agencies or wire services. This reduces costs.

Photographers who sell their sports images have working relationships with one or more agencies. The amount earned through picture sales varies greatly depending on the quality of the images and the popularity of the sports event.

Many photographers who cover sports like to retain the copyright of their images. The provides them greater marketing opportunities as they can sell the same images to multiple outlets.

Rugby. Some sports photos will be perceived as being more valuable because of the people in them.
Rugby. Some sports photos will be perceived as being more valuable because of the people in them.

Conclusion

Sports photography is often highly specialized. You need a specific set of skills and the right camera equipment to work with. This, however, is not enough. To be successful as a sports photographer you must put in many hours of practice. You must learn the nature of the sport and the most interesting moments to photograph.

If you want to begin to photograph sport seriously, pick a sport you are interested in. Choose one that you have ready access to photograph. And one that is not too challenging. Lawn bowls, darts, or snooker are not so difficult to photograph. But they also don’t often provide the most dramatic photos. These sports are easier to make a start with than freestyle snowboarding, skydiving, or ice hockey. These types of sports are much more challenging on many levels.

Whatever sport you choose to photograph, stick with it. At first, you may experience some frustration, but as you persist you will improve. You will learn the flow of the sport and when to capture the best photos.

Soccer player. Like engaging in sports, practicing often will make you more successful.
Soccer player. Like engaging in sports, practicing often will make you more successful.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you do sports photography?

The best way to do sports photography is to capture the action when it is at the peak of interest. A basketball player as they slam dunk. Runners as they lunge over the finish line. Football players engaging in a tackle. Whatever the sport, the best photos are taken when the activity is at the most exciting point. Being able to capture this precise moment consistently is the mark of a good sports photographer.

Is sports photography a career?

Yes, it is possible to have a career only photographing sports. Many full-time sports photographers are freelancers, others are employed by magazines or newspapers. Some work for specialist sports photography agencies.

What makes a good sports photographer?

A good sports photographer knows how to anticipate the action and capture it at the right time. They understand the sport and the rules of play. A good sports photographer also has the right equipment to enable them to get close enough to the action. With the combination of knowledge and skills, they are able to make the most interesting photographs. These best depict whatever sport they are covering.

What equipment is needed for sports photography?

Sports photographers generally use the highest quality equipment. Cameras that have fast shutter speeds, rapid burst rates, and large battery capacity are usually preferred. Specialist lenses and other gear are also often used by professional sports photographers.

Who do sports photographers work for?

Sports photographers often work for themselves as freelancers. They provide images to stock agencies, news outlets, and companies. They also sell directly to sports teams and bodies. Some newspapers and magazines also employ sports photographers, but this is not as common as it used to be.

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