Category Composition

Then and Now (2) – Sports Photography

When you are new to photography you need to photograph everything. You need to try every genre of photography and photograph every type of subject in every manner imaginable. Don’t ignore a genre of photography because you don’t think you will enjoy it. Try it first. I certainly had zero interest in photographing sports until I tried it one day. Now I enjoy it almost as much as I enjoy street photography. Also, just like Street Photography, I am a much better Sports Photographer now than I was when I started. I know because I still have all the embarrassingly bad photos that I took in the early days. So here is what I have learned between then and now…..

Don’t panic

an old (bad) rugby photograph I took
Under exposed, poorly composed and badly blurred due to using all the wrong settings.

When you start shooting Sports, just like any genre, there are a host of new things that you need to be aware of. As a result it is easy to be overwhelmed and forget the basics. With the picture on the right you can see that the image was under exposed and would have benefited from a little more negative space in front of the main subject. More importantly the image is blurred because I was so busy thinking about all the new elements of sports photography that I forgot the basics. I turned up and started shooting without checking all my settings. As a result I shot the whole game at a much slower shutter speed than I should have.

Less is more

The first time I shot Rugby I shot over 800 images… of which 5 were reasonable. Many of them were bad for a number of the reasons mentioned in this article but many just shouldn’t have been taken. Put simply the players were too far away/obscured/had their backs to me. Even with perfect technique they were never going to be good Rugby photos so I should never have pressed the shutter button in the first place.

For example, It is possible to take great sports photos with an iPhone or a short focal length lens such as a 24-105 but it isn’t possible to take great sports photos of players who are at the opposite end of the pitch with this kit. When the play moves out of range stop shooting (or run down to the other end of the field). It will save you having to cull a bunch of useless images.

Similarly, when the play is heading away from you, it is less likely to produce interesting photos (just as taking a Street photo of someone’s back seldom results in an interesting image). There are some exceptions of course but generally you want to see the players face and the ball for an image to be interesting. This doesn’t mean you should stop tracking the play (after all it could quickly turn around) but you don’t need to keep capturing bursts of a players receding back.

Timing

rugby player scoring a try
Face and ball both visible – check. More importantly the body has not yet come to a complete rest/landed, making for a more dynamic image.

Another problem for novice shooters (Street or Sport) comes from an inability to read the game. Unless you are already a fan of the sport you are shooting you may not immediately understand how a particular play will unfold. From the start of the play where will the ball go. Will it be passed, if so in which direction, will it be kicked, if so where. There are decisive moments in sports as there are in Street photography. Learning when those are likely to occur will allow you to capture better shots. Learning where the ball is going to be is often more important than knowing where it currently is.

As well as the timing of the game itself there is also the micro level timing of the individual players. Sports photographs are a 2 dimensional representation of a 4 dimensional event. A sporting event unfolds over time with participants moving as it unfolds. Trying to maintain that feeling of movement can often be difficult especially when you are simultaneously trying to freeze the action in order to capture a blur free image.

Note: panning and slow shutter speed are two great techniques for capturing the feeling of movement in a photograph. However, while creatively interesting they can be a little hit and miss to pull off and don’t work in every situation – hence the default option of shooting at higher shutter speeds.

The solution when shooting at higher shutter speeds is to focus on the individual timing of the subject. As the pioneering 19th Century photographer Eadweard Muybridge showed, people’s muscles expand and contract as they move and there are times when, while running, they don’t actually touch the ground at all (see the first photo above). Capturing a shot of an athlete during these times will result in an image with a greater feeling of action/movement. In the second image above Jamie Lauder (Hong Kong) lands after diving to score a try. Despite the fact that he is on the ground his trailing legs, still in the air, tell us that he is still in the process of landing, and thus make for a more dynamic image with a feeling of movement.

Who is your audience?

One final element to focus on is the editing – specifically in regard to who your audience is. When shooting for fun at my local rugby club (or for certain publications) I will edit images more loosely to show more of the players/story. Your friends all want to be in the photos even if they aren’t doing anything particularly interesting. On the other hand if your audience is a newspaper editor they likely want a much closer crop that focuses in on individual players.

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