5 Tips to Improve Your Outdoor Sports Photography

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Your child is now old enough to start playing sports.  Like any proud parent you run out to the nearest big box store and pick up the latest camera kit.  The one with the latest camera body and a couple of lenses.  You arrive at the first game with your new camera, now what?

That was me about 10 years ago.  I had picked up a Nikon D50 kit and started clicking at anything that looked exciting.  I would come home disappointed that my pictures where not as great as what I would see in Sports Illustrated.  I mean I just spent over a $1000 dollars on my camera so it should make all my pictures great.  While they still would not be ready for print in a magazine if I had only known these 5 things I would have been able to at least start producing quality images sooner.

The tips I am providing today are some basic concepts one should know regardless of your technical knowledge.  I am not going to go into aperture settings or shutter speeds or any technical camera settings.  I will write a more technical article in the near future.

Early image I would share

An early image I took when I first picked up my camera – not really all that interesting.

Know the Sport

I am very passionate about soccer or I should say my whole family is very passionate about the sport.  I have been a coach for 20 years and a referee for 10 years. I have watched 1000’s of games from youth to High School to Semi-Pro and Professional either in person or on TV.  This knowledge and experience with Soccer allows me to anticipate what is about to happen so that I am ready with my camera.

A Player Receiving a Caution

A Player Receiving a Caution

As a coach and fan I understand tactics which allows me to position myself around the field to catch the best action.  I know to capture the best images I need to be behind the goal line.  This allows for the best chance of getting the players face and the ball in the frame.

Knowing the game as a referee I also know the signals the referee’s use to communicate and that allows me to be ready when a referee is about to caution (show a card) a player.  As a side note – since I know most of the Youth officials in my area personally I will often talk to them before the match and ask them to pause an extra second when cautioning a player so I can “get the shot.”  Of course that also comes with a small price – I have to post the picture on Facebook so they can tag themselves.

What if you don’t know the sport and you want to take pictures?  That depends on why you want to take pictures of that sport. Is it your own child’s team?  Or were you asked by a friend to come take pictures of their kids team because you have a “nice camera”? If the answer is it is your own child’s team then you have all season (hopefully multiple seasons) to learn the sport. However if it is for a friend or you just want to try something new then I recommend spending as much time as you can to learn the sport before the shoot.  It won’t be perfect the first time out but you will have a better chance to bring home a few “keepers” than if you just show up at the field.

Get Low to the Ground

Basic Gardening Kneeler

Basic Gardening Kneeler

Have you ever looked through a sports magazine such as Sports Illustrated and the action pictures just feel larger than life?  That is due to the low angle of the photographer when they took the picture.  Next time you watch a professional sport on TV or in person pay attention to the sidelines and you will see the photographers are all kneeling or sitting on the ground.

In portrait photography you are told to get above the subject since that perspective makes the subject look slimmer.  In sports photography you want to do the opposite you want to make the athletes look bigger almost larger than life.  I call this the super hero look. Just the couple feet of difference between standing and kneeling can really make your image pop.

I recommend you have something to kneel or sit on when at the fields.  Grass and artificial turf are very hard on the knees so I carry along a simple gardening pad.  I will typically kneel or sit down depending on the length of the game.  Bringing a kneeler along keeps you dry and comfortable.

The sun was setting behind me in this picture

The sun was setting behind me in this picture

Position yourself between the sun and the players

The sun is to camera right leaving the player in lots of shadows

The sun is to camera right leaving the player in lots of shadows

For most if us when shooting sports chances are we will not be in a large stadium.  More than likely you will be in a wide open area with multiple fields all around. Add that games are scheduled all day long and chances are you will be trying to photograph the game in the middle of the day.  Middle of the day and big open space the sun will be harsh and it will make for a difficult shoot.

With the bright harsh sun you will see players faces and bodies are typically shadowed and dark in places.  These may capture some exciting moment but the shadows hide half the face or part of the body which causes a distraction that takes away from the image.

I will typically approach the field I am about to take pictures and look at the ground to see my shadow.  I then use my shadow as a pointer.  In other words my shadow should point to the field I am about to shoot and that tells me where to position myself when taking pictures.  As players approach into the area I am shooting I watch for them to lift their face a little to better light them with the sun before I actually release the shutter.

One more piece of advice on lighting – high noon in the summer, forget about it.  The players eyes will be completely in shadows making them look like raccoons.  I always just come out and enjoy the Noon games as a common spectator and leave the camera put away.

Cull your images

Example of a "Throw-Away" image

“Throw-Away” image – No one wants to see these types of images in your album

Memory cards today can hold 1000’s of images so everyone of them should be posted and shared, right?  Nope, no one wants to scroll through hundreds of pictures that includes the back of players, out of focus or with an exposure issue.  I see it all the time on Facebook where someone who likes to take pictures of their kids team then they just dump the memory card into an album.

The general rule of thumb 99% of the time in sports photography no ball, no face, no picture.  There is always an exception to every rule but in Sports Photography this one is pretty solid.

A High School soccer match is 80 minutes long (2 halves x 40 minutes each).  In that time period I will take anywhere from 250 to 350 images.  When I get home and cull through my images I will find 30-35 keepers that I am willing to post.  Sometimes I will only find 15 keepers depending on the lighting of the match.  If the sun is too bright or it is a night game under stadium lights then the number of keepers will be drastically reduced.

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Cropped and small exposure adjustments

Crop and Adjust

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Uncropped and Straight Out Off Camera (SOOC)

Once the images have been culled down to the Keepers it is now time to decide what edits are needed.  Most images should just need to be straightened and cropped in a little tighter. Sometimes they can be a little under\over exposed so they may need a slight bump in either direction.  This is not a big deal and since you culled all your images down to the keepers you now have 20-30 to work on versus 300.

When cropping everyone will have their own personal preference. I myself prefer to crop to 8×10 because I post my pictures for families to buy prints.  If you are only taking pictures for yourself and you are just wanting a new desktop background then you probably want to crop to a size that will fit your monitor.  If you plan to print then crop to the print size. I also recommend to make multiple files for each print size.  I have learned the hard way that a crop for an 8×10 does not fit on a 5×7 print, these are two different sizes and you will possibly cut off someone’s head or feet.

Regardless of the camera gear and lens, knowing the sport, get lower to the ground, position yourself for the best lighting, cull your images down to the keepers and make any adjustments needed are all steps any photographer can take to improve their sports images.  There are many more aspects to sports photography such as camera settings and lens choice so look for my next article where I will cover these items.

 

 


About the Author

Dave Miller

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By day I am an Electronics Engineer by night I am owner of Golazo Photography, LLC based in Gig Harbor, WA. I have a passion for Sports photography and enjoy a great Senior, family or Team and Individual sessions.

Comments

  1. Great article Dave. I am curious to learn more about how you deal with selling different sizes since (as you mentioned) an 8×10 and 5×7 are different ratios. I occasionally shoot events for a local charity and put them on a website for people to buy. I typically just crop to 5×7 ratio and let the purchaser do the extra cropping (which the hosting site allows) if they want an 8×10. That makes the whole process happen without me getting involved. But I do try to shoot with that extra space in mind.

    Do you post 2 versions of every image?

    1. Author

      Great question, when I print for myself then yes I make two different files. However when I am uploading them to my site for others to purchase and print then I crop for the largest size – 8×10. I also make sure the crop includes enough space around the main part of the image to allow for a 5×7 or 4×6 crop without cutting something off. I use SmugMug for my online store front and one of the options they have is “Proof Delay” which allows me to make sure the images the customer is purchasing for print will be cropped correctly. I have had a few people purchase prints online only to cut off the persons head. If I find I just can’t make a crop work I will go back to the original photo and upload a new one for the customer.

      So to answer your question, I only upload one file at 8×10 but with enough space to allow for different crop ratios.

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