10 Tips for Shooting Action Sport Photography
Get beyond Instagram and sharpen up your action sports photography skills
Photography allows the viewer to capture a moment in time and it lasts forever. Capturing action sports can be harder due to the extreme and unpredictable nature of the sports and athletes involved. Perhaps this is why there are so many rules and ways to take these photos to ensure you get a quality image.
Action sports photography is a craft of its own, each discipline has its own rules and guidelines and professionals who operate in each. More importantly, the way you use your equipment and prepare yourself to take photos will decided whether the final product you get is good or bad.
Go check out our top ten tips on action sports photography, to learn more about how to properly capture the special moments in your particular sport and then go share them with your friends.
[part title="Understand your Sport"]
Great photography starts with a passion for the sport they are documenting. “I love photography," says famed surf photographer Ted Grambeau, "but I love surfing more." This combination is key.
By understanding and being passionate about your sport, you will better capture the adrenalin, pain and emotion that it provides. Be aware though, that being good at sports photography means often doing less of the sport you love. You have to be prepared to watch perfect waves, and not ride them. Or photograph pow days and not shred them.
[part title="Don’t Watch – Shoot!"]
“You have to watch the action with your own eyes. That’s the way you best anticipate the killer shots that might come," says Andrew Buckley, noted surf and snow photographer. It is sometimes difficult, but there is an old sports photographer’s adage that says: ‘If you see the action through the viewfinder, then you’ve lost it’.
So, If you’re looking through the viewfinder at the moment needed for exposure by the time-shutter retracts and opens, it will be too late. It takes practice and confidence, but anticipation is one of the most crucial factors in getting the money shot.
[part title="Continuous Mode"]
Unless you’re shooting lawn bowls, most sports action tends to happen quickly, giving no time to manually focus on the action. The solution? Set your camera’s focus mode to A.I. Servo (or burst) mode which is made to shoot continuous movement and for panning.
You will also need to make sure your focal points are active, so you have the best chance of capturing the shot in focus. Even Aperture Priority mode can be used, as exposure is crucial, and there is often no time to toggle the shutter speed manually.
[part title="Freezing the Moment"]
Freezing the action is the ultimate aim for a lot of sport photographers. It is the capturing of furious movement, into one stopped-still moment, that gives sports photography its power.
There are two basic ways of doing that. The first, and most common, is through fast shutter speeds which require a fast lens, a high ISO setting and good clean light. Or alternatively, by exposing your shot with a light source that has a very short duration, like a portable flash, that allows you to freeze the motion and get the gold, whilst keeping normal shutter speeds.
[part title="Work With your Subject"]
Whether it be shooting action, or trying to showcase the personal athlete’s aspect of a sport, the better you know your subjects, the better off you will be. “I’ve been lucky enough to travel with Mick Fanning for over a decade now," says Ted Grambeau. “Our personal relationship has meant I have been able to capture way better photos of him, both surfing and portraits."
Now of course, you don’t have to share a room for a decade with a dude to take killer sports photos, but it’s always it's always a good idea to speak to the athletes first and let them know what you are trying to achieve. In an ideal world, they should have an input in the creative process.
You’ll definitely need one of these. In the interest of getting the sharpest images possible, you’ll need to use a tripod or monopod. Most sports require at least 300mm long lenses which are super heavy and impossible to hold steady.
You will also find that camera shake becomes a lot more of an issue when you start to use long focal length lenses. A good tripod with an easier to use head or a monopod fixed to the tripod collar of your lens will help solve these problems.
[part title="Plan your Angles"]
By thinking ahead and framing your conceivable shots, you can maximise the potential of each session. In surfing, a walk down the beach, or up a hill, can give a new perspective on the one break.
If you have the time, scout the location beforehand and take a few sample shots. It’s crucial that you know the lighting effects of the sun’s movement on the surf, mountain or ramp and plan your day and shoot accordingly. While spontaneous moments of action are the key to good sports photography, being totally ready for them is the key to actually capturing them.
[part title="Get Down Low"]
One of the most important, and lesser-known, composition tips is that shooting from down low can make your subject look powerful. Often shots from a low angle can make a person seem like a towering giant (hence why CEO portraits are shot this way).
The same is true in action shots, where photographers generally want to make the subject look dramatic and powerful.Get down and get dirty - it can make a huge difference to the composition and adds variety your photos.
[part title="The Eyes Have It"]
When photographing most sports, a key rule is to include the eyes of the subject. Sure, that is not always possible if a skater is 25-feet in the air, or a surfer 10-feet back in the tube. But when given the chance it is the face that registers most of the emotion of an athlete, and the eyes specifically that tell all.
By keeping alert for the moments when an athlete’s eyes may light up (or go downcast) you’ll have images that tell a story. Shooting someone’s back doesn’t seem tend to have the same effect.
[part title="Don’t Chimp"]
Like masturbation, which everyone does but no one admits to, chimping is rife in sports photography. Chimping is when you check every photo you take on the LCD. While the odd check to make sure your settings and light is good is okay, too much chimping and you’re guaranteed to take your eyes off the field and the action.
And in most sports photography the nature of the beast means that you get no second chances. The moral? Too much chimping will make you go blind.