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Snap Like a Pro! Sports Photography for Beginners

Travis Ellison

Point and shoot is a popular marketing phrase for cameras that are easy to use, but point and shoot isn’t a great strategy to follow when photographing sports.

While not overly complicated, shooting quality action shots is complex and requires knowledge, equipment, preparation, creativity, patience and a lot of practice.

Travis Ellison, professional photographer, Vikings team photographer
Travis Ellison

Professional photographer Travis Ellison offers these easy tips to assist amateurs looking to overcome some of the obstacles in getting great photos and creating impactive images from sporting events.

Ellison is a photography coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. He started with the club in 2016 and has gained experience in multiple roles including public relations, video, photography and marketing while also working as a freelancer for media outlets such as MyMindOnSports/FocusTV, Refresh Music Group, MarsReel, Overtime and more.

Since purchasing his first DSLR camera in 2013, Ellison has covered two NFL Pro Bowls, two WNBA Drafts and the Broccoli City Music Festival (2016-18). His other photo credits include the X Games Minneapolis and the NCAA Women's Basketball Elite 8 in 2017 and the Women's Basketball Team USA in 2014. Find a full description of Ellison's background and see more of his photos on his website.

Know your equipment

A digital single-lens reflex camera, er...just call it a DSLR...can range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars, but you don’t need to spend a lot on a camera to create outstanding photos. Ellison said any camera you can get your hands on is a good camera to use, and beginning photographers should use the equipment they have and not worry about the gear. 

“Great images are created from the photographer, not the camera or lens,” Ellison said. “It’s more important to know what you're doing than the gear you’re using.”

You should focus on learning the craft with whatever equipment you have, even if it is a smartphone — such as an iPhone or Google Pixel — if you don’t have a DSLR.

Last year, Apple conducted a photo contest called the Shot on iPhone Challenge to highlight the capabilities of its camera. Check out the winners here. Brad Mangin, who shoots sports using an iPhone, is featured in a 2016 article from TechCrunch.com, while this story by Misho Baranovic and found on digital-photography-school.com spotlights several iPhone photographers and their pictures.

This includes understanding a few technical details about your camera.

Shutter speed

ISO. Aperture. Aspect ratio. Depth of field. The number of technical terms can make learning how to use a camera overwhelming for beginners. As your experience grows, so too will your need to understand what those terms represent, but for now, you should focus on only one: Shutter speed. 

Measured in frames per second, shutter speed is essentially how long it takes your camera to capture a photo. The higher the shutter speed, the better your camera can capture motion, including action on a playing field. 

Your camera’s manual should contain that number, but it’s more important that you have a practical understanding of how fast your shutter works because no one is counting seconds in their head while shooting. You can learn the shutter speed by going out and shooting action shots. 

It’s important to know your camera’s shutter speed because it will impact when you need to start shooting a player or movement to capture a nicely framed image. A higher shutter speed also will help freeze motion without blur. For example, a pitcher’s arm movement is very fast and you need a high shutter speed to capture a still image of it, Ellison said. 

Most photographers try to shoot action at a shutter speed of 1/1,000 (or commonly 1,000), but many factors impact the ideal shutter speed to use for each sport. See the Exposure Triangle graphic below to learn more. 

You may need or want to use a shutter speed of 500 or 200, and you can learn how to best capture motion at every shutter speed by shooting a lot of practice frames.

Camera mode

Many cameras offer many shooting modes, but Ellison said beginners should start by using Auto mode (often marked as A in settings, but check your owner's manual to be sure), in which the camera selects the best settings for the environment, be it a dark rink or sunny day on the pitch.

Once you’re comfortable shooting in Auto, try using Manual or Sport modes. Manual mode (M in settings) requires a photographer to manually adjust the settings while Sport mode (a running man) has predetermined settings for capturing motion. 

“Shoot in whatever mode you feel comfortable with, but try to use the others,” Ellison said. “Do not just rely on Auto for all your images.”

Eventually, you should gain knowledge of the camera’s settings and modes, he added.

Using Manual mode is for intermediate photographers since it requires understanding how ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together.

Ellison said you can learn more about these concepts from instructional videos on YouTube. (We entered “Nikon DSLR tutorial” in YouTube’s search window and here are the results. You can alter the search by entering Canon, Sony or any camera brand.)

You’ll also want your camera to be in continuous shot mode instead of single shot mode, an adjustment you can make by following the directions in the camera’s instruction manual. Shooting continuous frames, or what’s called Burst Mode, gives you several successive images of the action, allowing you to capture an athlete’s movement and increasing the chances you’ll snap a shot with impact.

Lens

Shooting with a stock lens — the one that usually comes with a camera body — is perfect for beginners, just remember to always shoot using Autofocus. Ellison said he shoots 98-99% of his photos using the setting, which ensures that whatever you are shooting remains in focus, especially in continuous mode.

Avoid using a wide focus when shooting. It forces the camera to keep everything in view in focus. Instead, use the autofocus points — the square shapes you see when looking through a lens — to narrow the range of the lens.

Pushing the shutter button halfway down causes the squares to light up or flash and you should select the squares in the center since that’s where you want the action to be in focus. Check the camera’s instruction manual for how to select the autofocus points.

Photo composition

It’s time to sharpen your photo eye and learn what makes an impactful picture. 

The best action shots convey movement or emotion and generally present viewers with a sense of what was going on. Compelling photos contain unobstructed faces and often the ball, puck or other sports equipment. Photos that show players’ backsides are not captivating and often are terrible photos. 

Compelling pictures are also tightly focused on the players and don’t have extra, “empty” space in the frame — space that can distract from the main subject of the photo. Do not shoot signs, busy patterns or general chaos that can muddle the action. 

Ellison said shooting from a lower perspective, such as sitting or kneeling, can deliver the action and minimize background distractions.

“The lower you get, the more the focus will be on the subject,” he added.

But not all great sports photos are of game action. Some of the best pictures show the reactions of players, coaches and fans to big plays or significant events, such as celebrations, hi-fives, smiles and laughs, while other photos can be of subtle moments of a coach talking to a single player after a turnover or the disappointment of a loss on a cheerleader’s face.

Know the sport

Understanding the game or activity provides you with a roadmap on where to position yourself to get better photos. The best seat to watch the game is often NOT the best place to shoot the game. 

You should find a spot at field or court level that allows you to shoot the action as it comes toward you. High-angle shots taken from the bleachers or stands don’t have the same impact as those taken from the playing surface.

When Ellison works a Vikings game, he will set up in front of the play so he can capture the quarterback, running back or receivers. However, he positions himself behind the play/the opposing offense when he is shooting defensive players so he can snap photos of an interception or a sack. 

“It can feel awkward, but you need to be where you think a play will happen,” he said.

Being familiar with game rules and strategies is also important. For sports such as lacrosse and hockey, a penalty can create a scoring opportunity for one team and most of the action will take place in front of the opposing team’s goal. End of quarter or halves tend to produce more action as teams try to score before time runs out, while in baseball and softball, teams at bat with two outs are likely going to be more aggressive in trying to score. 

Know the athletes

Knowing your team is as significant as knowing the sport when it comes to getting great photos because you can use the familiarity to properly position yourself. For example, if your team shoots a lot of 3-pointers, you should know to set up on the sideline to get photos of players from outside the 3-point line and also move to the baseline to capture your team rebounding missed shots.

In baseball and softball, positioning yourself on the first-base side allows you to shoot right-handed batters and left-handed pitchers, while the third-base side is perfect for shooting left-handed batters and right-handed pitchers.

In addition, taking your focus off shooting the star players and capturing their teammates in action is important. Everyone can be a factor on the field, so look for opportunities to photograph other players.

“Don’t focus on one person. Don’t take photos of just the superstar,” Ellison said. “There are opportunities for photos of everyone.

“If it’s a good photo, it’s a good photo no matter the stature of the player.”

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