Savage Sports Photography

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How do you get “the shot”? The saliva spewing out, as a fighter gets the decisive knockout blow. The sprinters desperately leaning forward in to gain the winning inch as they cross the finish line. The water tracing the swimmer’s face as they come up gasping for air. Sporting events happen so fast, and even if you make the most of your camera’s impressive burst rate, it takes a lot more to nail your sports photos. These are three pillars I always lean on to create savage sports imagery.

1. Angles

Angles are everything. An angle can make someone look powerful, isolated, sensual, and every attribute in between. If you’ve ever been surprised on a blind date, you know all about how some people can use angles to their advantage! For photographing athletes, I love to get low to the ground and make the ground part of my composition, shooting up on the athlete.

Sometimes, I even lay under an athlete: a skateboarder doing a kickflip or an OCR racer flying above on the bars. It pays off to show your viewer a new perspective. Shooting from such a dramatically low angle makes the athlete look larger than life and creates a perspective of grandeur. You can also try other angles: climb something and shoot a bird’s eye view. Always shooting at human’s eye view is not interesting. We all already see the world that way. Change it up. Show a new perspective.

2. Composition

I could copy and paste a fancy definition of composition here (I just did, then deleted it), but essentially, composition means being conscious of what’s in your shot and of what elements you pull from to make is a strong photo.

The most obvious principle used in sports photography is movement. With the new camera maximum burst speeds, movement has become easier to stop at the pinnacle moment. I’m not on team “spray and pray,” as I know there’s a post-processing phase of my shoot when I get home. I do, however, track the subject as they come into the movement, shoot a burst through it, then release.

I use continuous autofocus for tracking. This uses the AI of the camera to work with you as you follow the movement. I use AI Servo with back-button focusing for people who like talking technical. Also, I try to not only notice the movement of the athlete, but observe other things that express movement in the story, such as the water wrapping around the body or the hair moving in interesting lines. Notice the details. They make for thought-provoking shots.

Framing is another principal of art that pays off big time in composition. Your shots don’t always have to be informational. Try to think beyond delivering informational images. Layering a shot by shooting through something or inserting an element in the foreground can really increase the dimension and interest of the image.

3. Emotion

Last, but perhaps the most important of all, is emotion. As I wrote this, I sat and thought: “But how do I actually capture emotion?” When I try to fabricate emotion, it doesn’t often look authentic, and the image fails. I remember shooting a renowned MMA fighter. I laid on the ground and instructed her to take swings towards the camera and to try to express intensity or aggression. After many swings, I looked at the images, and they felt unconvincing. I had to stop and create a different scenario that was more realistic. Only then did I get that terrifying knockout shot I had envisioned. The emotion has to be authentic. The answer to how I capture emotion is I wait for it. I often sit on the ground with my knees up or even lie on my stomach (for that heroic perspective) as I track someone. I don’t look with my eyes and try to bring my camera up to my face in time to grab the shot. I watch through my viewfinder, ready for that split second.  

If I’m producing a sports portrait, I try to have a pep talk with the athlete to direct them to set aside the contrived environment of the shoot and really mentally enter the space in which they would be if they were competing. What people think in their minds shows on their faces. I have them repeat the movements and capture them from different angles.

When I was preparing to write this article, I asked a few people: “If you were interviewing a sports photographer, what would you ask them?” I got some interesting questions. “How do you prepare for shooting a sporting event?” “Does the photographer’s fitness influence their ability to get shots?” “What’s in your gear bag?” The most common question, however, was variations of the same one: “How do you get the shot?” If I were to boil down my answer to the most concise phrase, it would be: shoot in bursts, use the elements of art in your composition, and track for emotion.  

I would love to hear from you now! Your valuable engagement is always one of my favorite things about writing for Fstoppers. If you’re a sports photographer, what is important in your work? What are some of the foundational concepts that you rely on to get the shot? If you’re more in the early stages of your career, what questions do you still have? Drop a comment below. Happy snapping this week!

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