This category of photojournalism is one of the most sought after positions in professional photography. VIP access to pro athletes, frontline seats, locker room interviews, and a paycheck to photograph the whole experience year after year?!!
Sign me up!!
Well, that's how my story began anyway. Years ago, I made the mistake of going to a pro hockey game and within three hours fell madly in love with the smell of ice and the sound of blades. I left the building thinking to myself (and telling anyone who would listen to the ravings of a madwoman): "There has to be some way I can be involved in this for the rest of my life." What actually happened after that night is one of the wildest stories I've ever told and it's still a crazy ride. But getting on that ride and staying on is tricky.
So here's what I've learned so far about actually surviving sports photography in a nutshell. What you'll need, how much it's going to cost you (think your accountant is going to shoot you in the face with a bazooka), and everything in between. We'll even cover eating because, trust me,...managing to eat as a sports photographer is complex.
The first thing you need to know about sports photography is that once you decide to go pro you're going to have to tell the kids they are never ever going to see Disneyland. Or eat food again. You know what? Just give hand over the teddybear so we can pawn him for that new lens. How expensive is this? Well, don't panic but you're going to be in the $20,000+ USD dollar range for competitive equipment
and you're going to destroy most of it within a year or two.
Every fraction of a second counts in sports and this means you'll need to shoot at a rapid rate while keeping moving objects in focus. When shopping for a sports camera, look for models that provide high speed (both frame rate and shutter speeds) and multiple AF points. Typically you'd like a camera that gets at least 5 fps (frames per second) and a shutter speed going on up to 1/8000. Full frame sensors aren't quite as important in sports, but do seek out any model with good performance (low noise levels) at high ISOs.
And don't forget!!...you're going to need at least two of those camera bodies. The first fact of athletes: they move around a lot. First they're within inches of you, then they are a hundred yards away and all in just a few seconds.
There's no way you can swap lenses out midgame so the trick is to wear several cameras around your neck with a different lens locked on each. That way when they get close you pick up the wide angle or maybe a fish-eye, and when they leave you drop it and switch to the telephoto zoom. It's heavy and awkward and you'll look like Flava Flav, but it's necessary.
Then there are your lenses. Sports photographers need to keep their shutter speeds above 1/1000 to freeze the action for most sports, but you also need to do that at events that are frequently held at night or indoors without using flash and without cranking up your ISO to levels that would ruin the quality. How do you solve this? With fast glass. And there's no other way around it. You're going to need F2.8 or lower in every variety of lens from the wide angle and the fish eye to the macro and telephoto. Fish eyes and macros aren't as necessary in the beginning, but sooner or later you'll find yourself setting up a shot and thinking to yourself "this would have looked great with a (insert this or that) lens." Sports photography encompasses everything so eventually you're going to find yourself needing one of just about everything. (note: Some buildings might allow you to use strobes, but you better spend some days getting them up and testing them yourself, and then testing them alongside the athletes to ensure it never distracts them or the crew. It's a bit of a pain in the ass, so few of us ever bother.) Monopods
Now the big telephoto lenses capable of that aperture beginning with the 200m and going on up are very heavy and you will injure yourself holding them up for hours. For the sake of your own long term health and to keep those images tack sharp when action panning, I recommend utilizing a strong monopod with a very fluid head. Youtube has all sorts of reviews on various sticks and heads, but you can't go cheap on this. This stick has to support extremely expensive and heavy glass and it has to move with you so treat the decision as a serious one worth investigating beforehand.Other
Filters, extra batteries, remote triggers, external flash for those rare opportunities you're actually allowed to use it, and several packs of extra memory cards are all to be found in a sports photographer's kit bag. But there are other tools we use too. Take the new GoPro cameras, waterproof cameras and cases, or even timelapse models.
The ability to strap a camera to the athlete, a net, or a catwalk forty feet above makes a sports photographer ridiculously happy. We can be in multiple locations at once with some advance planning and the click of a remote. But it still means extra cameras and extra lenses and all of the other extras that go with those new tools to support them. It's like getting a new kitten.
At first you're like "Yay, kitten!" and then you realize it's not just a kitten. It's the litter box, the food, the vaccines, the scratching post, the bed, and the catnip mouse too. And, of course, the kitten might get sick...Insurance
Always insure your equipment and yourself if you photograph sports full-time. If you intend to own your own company, pick up business insurance as well. These athletes are celebrities (even the little kids...try working with their parents!) and image is everything, if you or someone else makes a mistake with them you could be sued or fined. Not to mention, the most bizarre things you've ever heard of can and probably will happen when photographing sports. I've been speared, stepped on, sneezed on, cried on, bled on, hit with pucks, and even launched ten feet backwards into the air. I've damaged several camera bodies and numerous lenses. A puck once struck my camera with such force it disintegrated the contacts and turned the fine little gears inside to dust. Another game two weeks later gave me a concussion. So it's not a matter of "if" but "when" you or your gear are going to take a beating, and believe me the insurance companies know it so they're not going to like you. No, you don't actually need all of this expensive gear to take a great sports shot...but you will need it eventually to operate a great sports business.
I know a lot of people are going to argue that you don't need expensive gear to start up as a sports photographer and that's very true. After all, I got my start with a $500 Canon Rebel T2i and I still use it. No one needs twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment to build a portfolio. But I'd be lying to you if I didn't give you the longterm reality. If your goal is to make a living off of this, if you dream about photographing a pro team or traveling to the Olympics, you're either going to have to invest in serious equipment or get yourself hired by a company that will supply you with it.
But, of course, no matter your long term goals or whether you're using a $500 camera body or a $5000 dollar one, the truth is you can take a great shot if you know what you're doing.
How to know what you're doing.
Composition, metering, all those things are important tips I could give you, but the fact is most of those just come with practice, trial and error, and feedback. You should already know about the rule of thirds, how to make a shot interesting, setting a custom white balance, or how to get your camera to focus on something moving really fast (google "action-panning"). You should have already read your camera's manual and learned how to use the machine, as well as studied the science behind photography and optics. Those are basic things and there are already a million tutorials online and on deviantART about it. Beyond the basics of photography, specializing in sports photography is really just about keeping two essential tips in mind. Know Your Sport.
I can't emphasize this one enough. Wanna shoot sports full-time? Know your sports. Know them backwards and forwards. It seems obvious, but it's overlooked. If you don't know what to look for, you won't see it when it happens, and if you don't see it, you don't shoot it, and if you don't shoot it, they can't print it. When a team says afterward, "Where's that goal?" or "Do you have this guy doing this?" and you don't have it? You're in trouble.
I spend a huge chunk of my day researching my events before I even take the camera out of the bag. I research the teams, I research the athletes, I study the building, I examine the lighting, and I'm already planning in my head what kind of shots I want. I've already asked around the lockerrooms and listened to the gossip. Any professional photographer can get a good clear action shot, but a sports photographer is better equipped to tell the story because they know how the characters and the settings are working together. The old saying in hockey made by the famous Gretszky which goes along the lines of: "I don't go where the puck is, I go where it is going to be", is especially good advice, not just for hockey, but for sports photography too. But you can't go where the action is going to be if you have no earthly clue how to anticipate it. That comes from knowing your sports.See it Differently
Now that you can anticipate an important shot, it's going to take more to stand out from the crowd: you need to show them something different (and that only happens if you're already looking where no one else is). Do you photograph the winners or the losers in that moment? Do you get the guy making the shot? Or the guy blocking it? Are you going to zoom in on the tears and blood, or zoom out to the medics bringing the stretcher onto the field. Do you get a close-up of a smiling captain, or zoom out to show the adoring fan holding a sign behind him? What shot is more important? How can you do it differently? I can't tell you what the answer is because it changes. But once you develop the ability to anticipate a shot, you need to develop the ability to decide
which shot you will take and then how
you will take it. What angle will you shoot from? How can you frame it? What kind of movement do you want to convey?
Sports photography is a collection of moments that happened all at once. Which one do you choose? Why? Who else could take that shot? Are they in a better position? How can you do it better?
Big teams and events often hire many photographers to ensure that all of the possible important shots are covered and I've been part of a team before, but sometimes I'm the only one or I'm the lead and it's up to me to make the call where my lens is going to be focused. A great sports photographer has to be able to decide in an instant what shot trumps all others. What tells the story? Sometimes we nail it, and sometimes we don't. For me, I tend to go for emotion, reaction vs. action, because I like the human quality, but that's my way of approaching it. You're going to lose now and then in the great gamble that is anticipating the shot, but always remember that only by constantly seeking to see it differently will you ever actually do so.
Dear (insert your name here),
Today you are going to be working for many hours in (sunny/rainy/stormy/dusty/snowy) weather. It is going to be very (hot/cold/humid/dry/miserable). Your gear is heavy and you are going to be holding it up for most of your day and since today is (insert appropriate sport) day that means you're going to be working up and down a (mountain/hill/stairs/sand dune/ocean/river/forest/field) so be prepared for some serious physical challenges. Because of this, please eat something healthy and drink some water at regular intervals so we don't wind up in the hospital or not paying attention to the show. Keep a water bottle near your feet, and some healthy snacks in your gear bag in case. And don't eat the (arena/rink/stadium) food. It'll probably make you sick. Especially if you eat it every other night for years. It might even be smart to stretch a little, and make sure you get a good night's rest before a major event, especially since you'll be up all night tonight processing photos. Got all that? Eat. Drink. Stretch. Sleep. Oh, and have fun.
Accreditation" I brought my camera to a game and the security guard denied me access. I'm not going to sell anything, I just wanted the practice. How do I get them to understand that?"
I know what you mean, but you can't prove to the security guard that you don't (make any money off of the images and/or will be responsible for them). They think if you just wanted fun photos of yourself at a fun game, you wouldn't bring in pro grade equipment. Gear is a major red flag.
When someone is accredited they're proving that they are approved professionals and are signing a contract that guarantees they can be trusted with the image (and even reputation) of professional teams and their players. This is getting increasingly difficult to control in the era of smart phone cameras, but they can more easily and do crack down on pro-grade equipment.
See it from their perspective. It is a nightmarish scenario for ushers and security trying to determine who really is accredited press (with access to top-level athletes and facilities) and who isn't when nonaccredited individuals come into a stadium with professional grade lenses and a monopod. Even if you have no plans to enter press/staff-only zones you make it more likely someone else with that gear but no credentials will. Not only do they have to protect the body and image of these athletes and the staff, but there are anti-doping (and even terrorism...Boston Marathon anyone?) considerations involved. "But it's impossible to get accredited!!! How am I ever supposed to learn how to shoot sports and build up an impressive enough portfolio so I can then BE accredited?!"
I really do understand the frustration because, and this may surprise you, a lot of the pros don't always get badges either! Accreditation is frequently limited to a small number of photographers (most from papers or major networks, so if you're a freelancer like me...wow, good luck!) who may have to be background-checked or even interviewed first. Major events like the Olympics require applications years
in advance. YEARS. The point is you'll never get it by trying to simply walk in with equipment. Doing that will only frustrate and anger the building staff and the organization hosting the event whose reputation (and chances of hosting future events) as well as the safety of everyone in the building is on the line.
Photograph high school or university teams or recreational teams or sports where accreditation isn't necessary to get a good shot. Public spaces give you a bit more freedom. Go to the beach and catch a beach volleyball game, street basketball, surfers, skaters, rollerbladers. Go to the park, catch a soccer game, a baseball game. Get used to photographing fast subjects in all sorts of environments. Get published for other subjects under photojournalism, join a school paper, join a photography club, join a valid photojournalism organization or some other governing body, and just keep practicing and applying.
If you want to break in, approach it as you would an employer. If you want to get to that level, treat it as a job. The teams and newspapers have a business to run, and so do you. If you make it a goal worth your time and effort, they just might make your portfolio worth theirs.
Go photograph some sports already.
This article is based largely on my own baptism by fire into the world of sports photography and the wild tales of some of my friends in the business, so it's understandable that not everyone will have the same experience or the same opinion. Sports photography is a process; learning it, managing it, breaking into it, surviving it. I readily admit that I'm still making mistakes, even epic mistakes, and still learning too.
One of these days, I'll write up an article about how to shoot sports for fun, and not necessarily business. Because even though sports photography is hard. And expensive. And hazardous to your health. And maybe even your marriage ( "Bye Honey, I'm off to photograph dozens of hot-blooded athletes! I'll be home really really late!"). Besides the fact that you'll get hit by flying objects and flying people and maybe even flying cars.
Or that your accountant will send you threatening letters made from words they cut out of magazines every time you buy a new piece of equipment and your insurance company will pretend they can't hear you when you call them to report another broken lens.
Despite the unsettling likelihood that your nation's tax authority will probably give you a suspicious eye like they do for most professional artists and that you'll go months without sleep or proper food when the season is going strong, and you'll rack up a ton of miles on your car and some skymiles too...
Sports photography is fun
. If you're in the right sport, the right job, the right place...you'll love every second of the aforementioned insanity. It's just fun, and I sincerely hope you'll go out there and photograph some sports.