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how to become a sports photographer

How to Become a Sports Photographer

by Alec Druggan on Sep 5, 2019

Sports Photography is a fast paced action packed field of photography. There is a lot of room for creativity, but learning how to capture the hundreds of key moments in an event is hard. How can you become a Sports Photographer?

Unlike many other areas of photography, you must have a decent technical understanding of your camera to be a sports photographer.

Knowing your camera’s functionalities and limits inside out is quite important. In the age of digital cameras and fantastic lenses, sports photography is cheaper to get into than it has ever been.

Going to events and games to practice is also key. Not only as an opportunity to refine your skills, but also as a networking opportunity if you do not know anyone else in your area. Get to know the people that will be at similar events weekly!

There are several things you need to have a grasp or understanding of before delving into sports photography, so this is what we will be covering today:

  • What does a sports photographer do?
  • How do you become a sports photographer?
  • What are the basics of sports photography?
  • How do you grow yourself as a sports photographer?

One of the big things when trying to manage a photography business is to have examples of your work. A great way to display impactful images is through prints. This list compiles some of the best and cheapest ways to have your work printed. 

What Does a Sports Photographer Do?

It is not as simple as taking pictures of sports. A lot of the work a sports photographer does actually happens before a game. Research is key.

If you are assigned or paid to shoot a game, a team, or a sports event, do your research. Learn what the sport and action is about, learn key moments.

Look up what the large publications are using as their dominant images, and try to emulate these looks.

A lot of sports photographers work closely with the same companies on assignment, and will have an editor or supervisor tell them what they need from a game. 

The mentality of a sports photographer is made up of two halves. Firstly, you want to capture what you know will be needed before the game.

Secondly, you need to capture the key moments at the event. Does a big play happen? A comeback? A great save?

A sports photographer needs to have the ability to position themselves, think critically, and know what camera settings they should have. F

or efficiency’s sake, sports photographers will set up early so that they’re ready for all parts of a game.

Digital Cameras and Sports Photographers

Firstly, cameras and lens selection are key in sports photography. Sporting events, especially professional sports, require you to shoot a lot of images. Many photographers use multi battery or large capacity cameras for this reason.

At an arena, you might want access to a wider angle lens to get shots like this:

Crowded basketball sports arena featuring basketball court, jumbotron coverage, and fans in seats

Additionally, many professional sports photographers carry several cameras. Why? At professional sports events, professional photographers have to carry several cameras to make sure they can get all the shots.

When you try to capture a normal subject, you do not have to worry about timing and other problems that may be caused by fast movements.

With sports photography, you may need to switch between a lens with a large field of view to a more telephoto lens quickly. A professional sports photographer comes prepared for both situations.

Sports events offer very little time to change things. Changing a lens might make you miss a key moment. Instead having multiple digital cameras set to the perfect exposure will help you out. 

How Camera Settings Influence Sports Photographs

Sports photographs need specific settings to come out perfect. Learning your exposure triangle and setting your exposure correctly before a game is super important, as fumbling about and wasting time will not lend to great sports photographs.

Digital cameras allow for a low or fast shutter speed, which is the amount of time the shutter on your device is open, as well as high frames per second. Frames per second is a measurement of how many photos a device can take per second.

Having access to a high amount of Frames per second lets you have variation in photos of a single moment. This means you can create GIFs, or choose your favorite moment from a burst of shots. For example, this image:

4 basketball players on a court, 2 from each team, look up at the ball going into the net

Of course, the higher the frames per second is better. The lower the shutter speed the better. However, you should not get caught up with numbers over practice. To an extent, gear is less important than that practice. 

Low aperture lenses are favored for several reasons. Pro sports photographers often want the least amount of grain in their sports photographs. To reduce grain in sports photographs, having a low aperture allows you to maintain a lower ISO

How Do You Become a Sports Photographer?

There are many steps to becoming a professional sports photographer, but shooting sports photographs as a hobbyist is a great starting point. The most important thing to do? Shoot a lot of sporting events. 

Photography, and all genres of photography, can be rather difficult to break in to. Having a connection to a sporting event can be hard. This guide will show you several different ways to get you and your imaging device into a sporting event. 

Starting Out as a Sports Photographer

There are several things you will want as a sports photographer. These are the basics that will be covered here:

  • Digital cameras
  • Lens choice
  • Sporting events
  • Places to practice
  • Networking

Digital cameras are important. Aim for something with relatively high frames per second. This allows you to have more time to capture an image.

Sports photographs are often shot on a variety of cameras, but pro sports photographers favor high frames per second and rugged bodies over high megapixel counts. A high buffer to let you take photos for several seconds in a row is also important.

Autofocus will make your life bearable as a sports photographer. Sporting events have things happening all sorts of distances from you, and making sure that you are photographing things in focus is important.

Lenses matter. Choose lenses with several elements in mind. These are the most important of those elements:

  • Quick autofocusing
    • Autofocusing doesn’t only happen inside your device. Lenses that autofocus faster will make your life much easier.
  • Lower apertures
    • Typically f/2 is the lowest you would want to go, but shooting telephoto with a high shutter speed and low aperture is preferred.
  • Zoom
    • Although you improve you may use more prime lenses as you improve, the prime lenses that professional sports photographers use are wildly expensive. Stick to some faster zoom lenses for now.

Basic Events for Sports Photo Practice

Get yourself to sporting events. Sporting events allow for two things: practice and networking. There are many events you can get to, even in small towns.

For example, high school games are a great place to get started. Especially outdoor games, like American football or soccer. These games during the day are well lit, and if you reach out to people at the school and offer your photos for their yearbook, they’ll often say yes.

At these games, you will often encounter other photographers. Give them a business card or your information, and see if they can get you other gigs. Keep at it, and you’ll find yourself shooting a lot of sports and hopefully getting paid!

The Basics of Becoming Great at Sports Photography

To become a great sports photographer, there are some things you’ll need to know and have. As mentioned above, cameras and lenses are important. Just as important is knowing how to use them.

Settings For a Professional Photographer

Get to a game early, and meter the light. Most sports games will have consistent lighting. Gyms have super consistent lighting, while light differences in outdoor lighting can easily be dealt with using quick changes to ISO and Shutter Speed.

A high shutter speed will let in less light, but will freeze the motion like in this shot:

Two wrestlers on a mat. One wrestler dressed in white is pinned by his upper shoulders while the other wrestler dressed in blue stands over him and holds him down.

Knowing your camera’s maximum ISO is important. While the camera may have a maximum ISO of several thousand or tens of thousands, this isn’t the limit. The limit is where the photo becomes unusable, so find that and stick below it.

This is what your camera settings may look like at a higher ISO:

Camera settings histogram showing a high ISO of 5000, a 38mm focus, an aperture of f/5.6 and a shutter speed of 1/2000.

This is a sample image from a high ISO photo:

Two boxers in the middle of a round. One boxer faces the camera and punches with one arm completely outstretched. The other boxer's back is to the camera, though slightly turned so his chest is visible but not his face.

Shutter speed is key. Use a speed of 1/2000 as a starting point, and decrease or increase from there. Your images will still be great down to about 1/800, but the faster the sport, the faster your speed needs to be. 

Use the lowest aperture you can, down to about f/2. This allows for more light, meaning you can use a lower ISO. This also creates much needed foreground separation to focus the image or capture on the subject.

Importantly, switch your camera to a multi shot focus mode. Also make sure you are shooting as many frames continuously as possible. This combination will mean that you are dropping as few shots when you shoot as possible.

Lastly, use back-button focusing if available. Enable this on your camera by reading your camera’s manual and going from there. This mode allows you to focus without half pressing your shutter button, which will make it a lot easier to move focus or leave it alone when you don’t want to.

Master your camera’s focus groupings, and try to move them away from the center. Framing an athlete in the center of your photograph can lead to boring images. Instead, aim to have the athlete running or moving into the frame from either side.

Basic Lens Choices for Sports Photographers

Many lenses have versatility that you could use in sports photography. Wide angled portrait lenses have a place. Similarly, telephoto lenses you might use for wildlife or headshots have extensive applications here. 

The best two lenses for sports photographers to have are a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8. The combination of these lenses allow you to shoot from super wide to telephoto, and will let you capture images at a variety of sporting events. A third lens you may want to add to your kit, specifically for sporting events on large fields, is a 100-400mm lens. 

While the use case for telephoto lenses is more obvious, a lot of sports allow you to make creative use of those wider lenses. Here is an example:

Skateboarder with his back to the camera in the middle of a trick in which the back wheels of his board are off the ground.

Of course, there are many different lenses that you can use, but make sure you look out for several features. This means lookout for fast autofocus and low apertures. Image stabilization isn’t important, so don’t spend more on a lens just for that. 

Growing as a Sports Photographer

Growing yourself as a sports photographer can be hard work. It is a field with a lot of competition, so knowing where to look is important. Learning how to present yourself is equally important. 

Have an Online Presence

Having an online presence can be intimidating, but it is necessary. Have a website, instagram, or similar account and branch out from there. Building a brand identity is tough, but getting it locked in earlier in your career will make it easier down the line.

I would definitely start with Instagram, and get your friends to help you out by liking your photos and following you. Having a decent bank of images from games to post helps too. This guide will help you build a brand identity online. 

Make sure you have an easily accessible portfolio. There is nothing worse than meeting someone at a game, who offers you a job. You get home, and there is an email in your inbox asking for a portfolio because they can’t find it online. 

Be Known in Your Area for Sports Photography

The people that shoot sports professionally can help you get a job. They’re connected, and they’re an amazing community. Talk to people you see taking photos at games.

Specifically, talk to the people that have expensive looking gear, and are carrying several cameras. Most dads aren’t going to be lugging around two massive lenses, so you know who to aim for. 

As you get more known in the community, you might get hired. A newspaper’s sports photographer may notice you, and after a couple of sporting events, offer to have your resume sent over. Be kind and polite, and you might land yourself a lucky job early on.

Additionally, you might find a great mentor. Being mentored in photography has the great benefit of honest critiques. Having a pro sports photographer critique your work may sound daunting, but in the end it makes you pay attention to mistakes and learn more about your work in the long run. 

Make sure you have the proper editing software to perfect your sports photos! You can purchase Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for only $9.99/month, or get Skylum Luminar!

You can even make a few bucks by selling your sports photos on Adobe Stock.

I hope this tutorial was helpful! If it was, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more photography tutorials and fun practice methods.

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