Sports Photography: How Most Pros Work

In sports photography, access is key. Without access, you won’t succeed even if you have the most comprehensive array of lenses out there. So if you have access, you’ve already improved your chances of success by at least 40 percent. The other keys to success?

You have to be able to anticipate and concentrate for long periods. Being knowledgeable and following a variety of sports, not just the popular ones, is crucial. And finally, a good ounce of luck doesn’t hurt either. What exactly should you be looking for besides great action?


Back of heads are not terribly engaging. I think we are so in tuned to seeing faces, we don’t realize it. We do want to see faces of athletes whenever possible. Grimacing faces add to the drama and excitement. Unfortunately some athletes hardly show any emotions even when they win. Faces in sports can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.

bmx photography

photo by Zorah Olivia


Peak action is probably what you’re after. There may be some luck involved but a softball picture without a visible ball is not as exciting. The ball, be it a hockey puck or shuttlecock tells your viewer what sport it is. Without the ball, you don’t get a sense of how close the play was, how bad the throw was, et cetera. With baseball and softball, the play at a base has to be close. If the throw is early or too late, the ball is either in the glove or out of your picture. But that’s not your fault. It’s just how the game goes. So the element of luck is there for sure.

softball photography

photo by Ralph Arvesen

A Different Viewpoint

Strive for a different viewpoint to surprise your viewers and to give them a fresh look of a “tired-looking” sport. This may be something as simple as shooting when weather is not so good sometimes.

Or even simply being creative with your photographic technique. It may mean working harder by bringing in more equipment but your efforts will be rewarded. If it it doesn’t work, you’ll at least learn something new.


Related to viewpoint but just as important is backgrounds. Shooting with wide open apertures on long lenses can only do that much sometimes, so be on the lookout for what’s behind the subject at all times. If you’re serious about sports photography, you should try photographing different sports.


Just the same way most Americans don’t get soccer, I don’t get golf. I do know I would enjoy the sport if I play it. It’s more interesting to play than to watch.

golf photography

photo by Trysil

That said, I don’t particularly like covering golf. Here’s why:

  • Expect to be hauling at least a 300 mm lens with a monopod and 2 bodies, maybe a flash, and a 70-200 mm zoom.
  • You will be walking all 18 holes, more if it goes into playoffs.
  • You don’t get to hang out with just the same foursome.
  • If the leader boards are not kept current, you will be in a world of hurt trying to find a certain golfer when the lead changes suddenly.
  • Besides that, the light is usually extremely harsh. Faces are inevitably shielded by visors or baseball caps. You’re never close enough to be able to fill flash or anything of that sort.
  • There are restrictions. You can’t stand directly in the line-0f-sight of the golfers. You can’t trip your shutter until they actually hit the ball if they’re on the green during the short game. Don’t forget you have to be absolutely quiet.
  • If the game goes into playoffs, all those “great pictures” you took in the early rounds don’t mean much anymore. It’s like starting all over.


My favorite sport soccer happens to be pretty tough to shoot because of the lens requirement. A 300mm lens is probably the minimum and a 400mm is more ideal. But that also depends on the sensor size of your camera body.

If you’re shooting with a camera with full frame sensors, you might even need something longer.

soccer photography

photo by Andy Eick

Most of the time, depending on the lens you have, you park yourself on the field and just hope you’re in the right place at the right time. So covering soccer is not as physically demanding as covering golf or football. You might move around when there’s a chance for a set piece like a free-kick or corner kick. It helps if you understand terms like “in-swinger” on corner kicks. The rest of the time, because the action is non-stop and the ball moves around the pitch so quickly, it’s difficult to physically move around.


Anytime you step indoors to cover a sport, you are heading into low light and very limited options. The world’s fastest racquet sport is also hardest to photograph because of the lighting conditions and how the indoor stadiums are lit. Understanding how a game like badminton or tennis is scored is crucial. How else would you know when it’s the “critical match point’ or the significance of a tie-break?

ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed & White Balance

Up till this point, I haven’t mentioned these camera settings because these are variable depending on the lighting conditions and how well your camera handle digital noise. Generally speaking, the newer your camera, the better it handles low ISO and digital noise. Most sports photographers have at least a 300mm f/2.8 lens at a minimum.

They will also carry a 70–200 f/2.8 lens and most likely that has built-in image stabilization. And the majority of sports photographers take their pictures at f/2.8 to blur out the background but also to get the highest possible shutter speed to freeze action.

Every now and then, they may need more depth-of-field but very rarely. That by the way, is why under the one of the Auto modes, you see the icon for Sports or someone running. It’s also exposure mode that favors high shutter speed, Shutter Priority or Tv (Time value according to Canon)

So two camera bodies are pretty standard. One body is attached to the long telephoto which is mounted on a monopod for support. Depending on the camera body, the image sensor may be full frame or may have a 1.6x, so a 300mm will be 480mm lens.

To successfully hand hold a lens like that with little camera shake would require you to make sure you have a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 of a second.

But even professionals don’t handhold long lenses, they use monopods. The one good thing about shooting in artificial lighting like a soccer stadium at night is this: once you have the exposure down, it doesn’t change very much, unlike a daytime game.

In day games, you have to keep an eye on light levels especially if the game is in the evening. The other advantage is the crowd in the stands are not lit, so they aren’t as distracting.

Since sports photography is a highly specialized field, there is just too much to cover in one article. These tips will hopefully get you on your way to getting better pictures.

About the Author
Peter Phun is a Riverside-based freelance photographer who also teaches photography at Riverside City College. He does portraits, weddings and editorial work and writes about photography, Macs, and the internet. He also designs websites and is a stay-at-home dad.

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6 responses to “Sports Photography: How Most Pros Work”

  1. Evan says:

    Thnx Peter for imparting such subtle details. It’s really worthy. Good photos are not from only good cameras but good skill also required. For wannabe sports photographers i would like to suggest some more useful tips , guess it will add up.

  2. thanx for sharing this helpful article. i am a photojournalist from bhopal.
    click to see my sports pics

  3. Pete B says:

    Thanks Peter for sharing this information. I found the info on lenses to use particularly helpful.

  4. Bruce says:

    Nice and very helpful tips but if someone can tell me more about the how’s to get access to take sport photography and who to show my work to and stuff like that and to get paid for pictures and i don’t mean like uploading to networks and so on, i mean showing a real person and ask him or her if they interested in my work.

  5. The most important part of sports photography is access. So why didn’t we spend a little time talking about that?

  6. Ryan Chapman says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your great efforts.

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