Tips and Tricks for photographing sports for beginners: Outside edition

March 13, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Howdy and good afternoon!  

Ah spring is upon us!  Well, not so much us here in Vermont- it's coming up on mud season as soon as it stops snowing long enough to see the ground.  THEN we will supposedly reach spring... or more winter.  Time will tell.  

However, as the sun is shining and temperatures are rumored to start rising, I am put in the mood for a grand sporting event!  I enjoy most sports.  However, it's best when I'm either playing or shooting them.  And so that's what I'm going to talk about today- how to get some stellar shots of those fast paced, entertaining antics. I have been lucky enough in my career to shoot a wide variety of sports from kiddos up to the professional level- although most of my sport-shooting was for collegiate athletes. Some folks just want to get some awesome pictures of their kids playing their sports.  Others may be interested in getting a chance to be on the sidelines of some amazing sporting events.  This blog is for the beginners- just some basic tips and tricks to increase the quality of those images.  For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to make some assumptions.  1. This is a field sport (not something like long distance running or ski jumping).  2. This is a daytime game.  3. You have a basic understanding of the sport and the flow of the action.  4.  You are a beginner- if not at photography, then at shooting sports.  

Everybody Jump, Jump!Air Force Academy soccer players attempt to block a kick on goal amongst opposition.

Tip #1 :  You've got to move it, move it!  

The long and winding roadSports Photography isn't always about the ball

A mistake I see people make when they come to a sporting event to shoot is that they will sit in their spot on the bleachers for the entire game and try to get great photos from there.  Your position matters- not only the angle from which you see the action, but also how close you are to the action.  If you don't have a camera with a telephoto lens (a lens that lets you get in really close without being really close), then you are going to have to try and get a closer view of the field than the stands.  If you are shooting for a particular team, a good spot is about a quarter up the field from the goal.  This way, when your team is headed towards their goal, you can get those shots of them heading right at you.  Once they've passed you, you have a shot of them scoring (hopefully).  

Personally, I like to stick to the fly-at-the-picnic method of shooting.  That just means that I go to a spot and stay there for a few plays.  I get some shots from there, then fly off to another spot.  I like to keep it moving and get a real variety of shots.  I will circle the field, shoot from the stands, wherever I think there might be an interesting vantage point. 


Tip #2 :  Turn away from the light!

Up and over!The lighting on a football image can make all the difference.

Contrary to popular belief, a bright, cloudless, sunshiny day is not the best lighting to shoot in.  It means harsh shadows, squinting eyes (yours and the players), and a possible challenge for focusing depending on where you have positioned yourself.  The ideal lighting is actually a thin layer of clouds- diffusing the sun, but letting in enough light to get some light shadows so the images aren't flat.  However, until we can control the clouds, we work with what we've got!  On cloudy days, you have a lot of options on where to position yourself to get solid shots.  

If your sport uses caps/hats/helmets, be aware of how the shadows are falling on the subjects faces.  Sometimes a shadow can increase the drama of a shot.  Sometimes it's annoying when you get a great shot but their faces are totally obscured.  If you come from the side (not directly in front of or behind the sun), you can often get shots where the player's faces are mostly visible.  Remember- don't be afraid to move it, move it until you find that happy light!  

If you try shooting with the sun behind your subject, sometimes it can be difficult for you camera to find it's focus- you may end up with a lot of blurry shots.  Remember to zoom into the shots between plays to ensure you've got your subjects in focus!

It is tempting to be right in front of the sun so the subjects are coming right at you, into the sun.  This can be a solid option.  Just be aware that the players may be squinting and hat brims/helmets are going to be casting pretty dark shadows.  


Tip #3. It's all about the timing- avoid the spray and pray!

Watch your head!Baseball photography gives you set points of where the action will occur, making it much easier to shoot.

When shooting sports, there are often key moments that make a game.  Unfortunately, I have yet to perfect my psychic skills to know when and where those moments are going to occur.  I'm working on it.  But until then, we just have to do our best!  Sometimes it is tempting to fall to that digital process known as Spray and Pray.  Essentially, blindly point the camera at the action and take as many pictures as you can, and pray that you caught something worthwhile.  However, if you want to increase the number of worthy images, I would not suggest this.  Don't get me wrong- I fully advocate for shooting in bursts (multiple shots in quick succession), but only when you know what you're shooting.   

Watch the ball.  Watch the players.  If it's a repetitive action at a specific location (IE: baseball players at bat), frame up your shot and wait until you see the ball enter the frame and then shoot a burst of images.  If you are just looking for the worthwhile moments, this is where your knowledge of the game comes in handy.  Who is on the field, what positions are the action heading to?  Be as prepared as possible. It can be pretty difficult to follow the ball if you are new to this.  Try and focus on where you think the ball will be making contact with the player.  Once the players have the ball in hand, ensure you are focusing on the right person for what you're trying to capture. 

Do you want a shot of multiple players to show the context of the play?  

Keep moving!Rugby photography is almost continuous action.

Do you want to highlight a certain player?  

Run!JFL football photography shows #50 trying to make it to the first down.

Do you want to show the ball in play?  

Almost got him!Football photography is all about being in the right place for the right play.


Think about these things before you start shooting- you will be more likely to get what you want when you know what that is!


Tip #4.  Look around- it's about more than just the ball!

Celebrate good times, come on!It's always good to take a moment to celebrate.

Don't forget about great interactions when the ball isn't in play.  Maybe it's the coach on the sideline.  Maybe the players are goofing off.  Maybe that equipment is stacked interestingly.  Maybe those players are ready for the next play to begin.  If you find yourself with a free minute- in between whistles, or you didn't pick the best spot for the current play- look around you.  Find interesting things to shoot that aren't just about the ball.  

Flag on the play!Dang it.

Tip #5. Beware of the wild zebras (and other obstacles)

Beware the wild zebraUp close and in person, a zebra or two

When you are really into shooting a play, it can be easy to lose awareness of where you are.  You're focusing so much on the players in the middle of the field, that you fail to realize you are about to back up into that pile of equipment on the sidelines or that there are other players tackling each other out of bounds and right into you!  It happens.  My theory has always been, "I will heal, my camera will not" when it comes to what to protect.  But that's a decision you'll have to make for yourself.  My recommendation, though, is avoid it if possible.  The worst are the wild zebras (also known as refs)- as they are just as intent on the action as you are, so nobody is paying attention.  And if you take out the official... that may be the end of the game!   

We're number one!Prove it.

Thank you friends and happy shooting!  If you have a moment, feel free to check out my other sport photos here:





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