How do you get “the hit”? Spitting saliva, as a fighter receives the decisive knockout blow. Sprinters desperately lean forward to earn the winning thumb as they cross the finish line. The water tracing the face of the swimmer as he comes up gasping for air. Sporting events happen so quickly, and even if you make the most of your camera’s impressive burst rate, it takes a lot more to get your sports shots right. These are three pillars that I always rely on to create wild sports imagery.
Angles are everything. An angle can make someone appear powerful, isolated, sensual, and all the attributes in between. If you’ve ever been caught out on a blind date, you know all about how some people can use angles to their advantage! To photograph athletes, I like to get close to the ground and incorporate the ground into my composition, shooting at the athlete.
Sometimes I’m even lying under an athlete: a skateboarder doing a kickflip or an OCR rider flying over the bars. It pays to show your viewer a fresh perspective. Shooting from such a low angle makes the athlete look larger than life and creates a perspective of grandeur. You can also try other angles: climb something and take a bird’s eye view. Still shooting on human sight is not interesting. We all already see the world this way. Change it. Show a new perspective.
I could copy and paste a fancy definition of composition here (I just did, then deleted it), but essentially composition means being aware of what’s in your photo and what elements you shoot to make a strong shot.
The most obvious principle used in sports photography is movement. With the camera’s new maximum burst speeds, it’s become easier to stop motion when it matters most. I’m not part of the “spray and pray” team, because I know there’s a post-processing phase of my shoot when I get home. However, I follow the subject as he enters the movement, I fire a burst through him, then release.
I use continuous autofocus for tracking. This uses the camera’s AI to work with you as you track movement. I use AI Servo with back button focus for people who like to talk technical. Also, I try not only to notice the movement of the athlete, but to observe other things that express the movement in the story, like the water that wraps around the body or the hair that moves. in interesting lines. Notice the details. They make thought-provoking shots.
Framing is another principle of art that pays off a lot in composition. Your snaps don’t always have to be informative. Try to think beyond broadcasting informative images. Overlaying a photo by shooting through something or inserting something in the foreground can really add dimension and interest to the image.
Last, but perhaps the most important of all, is emotion. As I wrote this, I sat down and thought, “But how do I actually capture emotion?” When I try to fabricate an emotion, it often doesn’t feel authentic and the image fails. I remember shooting a renowned MMA fighter. I lay down on the floor and asked him to sway towards the camera and try to express intensity or aggression. After many swings I looked at the pictures and they weren’t convincing. I had to stop and create a different scenario that was more realistic. Only then did I get that terrifying knockout I had imagined. The emotion must be genuine. The response to how I capture emotion is that I expect it. I often sit on the ground with my knees up or even lying on my stomach (for that heroic perspective) while I stalk someone. I don’t look with my eyes and try to bring my camera to my face in time to take the picture. I look through my viewfinder, ready for that split second.
If I’m producing a sports portrait, I try to have a pep talk with the athlete asking them to put aside the artificial environment of filming and really mentally enter the space they would be in if he was competing. What people think in their heads can be seen on their faces. I have them rehearse the movements and capture them from different angles.
When I was preparing to write this article, I asked a few people, “If you were interviewing a sports photographer, what would you ask them?” I have interesting questions. “How do you prepare to shoot a sporting event?” “Does the physical condition of the photographer influence his ability to take pictures?” “What’s in your gear bag?” The most common question, however, was variations of the same: “How do you get the photo?” If I had to sum up my answer to the most concise sentence, it would be: shoot in bursts, use the artistic elements of your composition and follow the emotion.
I would love to hear from you now! Your valuable input is still one of my favorite things about writing for Fstoppers. If you are a sports photographer, what is important in your work? What are some of the fundamental concepts you rely on to get the shot? If you are more at the start of your career, what questions do you have left? Drop a comment below. Good snap this week!