June 12, 2009 / Photography

Capturing the action

Written by Bruce Konkle

Sports photography is different than candid photography Photographers need to keep in mind certain guidelines

1. Shots

  • Action shots are the most obvious: people running, people throwing a ball, people sliding into second, etc.
  • Non-action shots can be the harder shots to find: cheerleaders crying after a close loss, coaches ranting and raving on the sidelines, players warming up before a game, runners holding on to their coaches just after they have finished a hard race, etc.
  • Group shots are the most obvious: pose teams in straight rows so every face is visible and as large as possible with no props taking away from the group.

2. Photo ranges

  • Close-ups are almost always the most effective, bringing the reader (or looker, in this case) right into the action. Good close- ups show detail that makes the photo come alive. But if you are shooting for a yearbook spread, you do not want all close-ups. Too many close-ups on one spread tend to take away from one another. You need a good variety of shots in this case.
  • Medium range photos might be the ones you want, but of the three, they are definitely the weakest because they tend to not have the “stopping power.”
  • Long distance shots should be used to set the stage for the close-ups. In other words, they give the big picture while the close-ups take you right into the action. If they are used exclusively because the photographer just does not, or cannot, get closer to the action, then they usually fail to do a good job of telling the story.

3. Techniques

  • Pre-focusing might be a simple way for you to get clear, crisp photos. Aim the camera at areas where you believe (or know) action will be taking place. By pre-focusing on that area, you can now wait for the players or runners to be in that area.
  • Panning, a popular and sometimes overused technique, is a difficult one to learn. This technique involves moving the camera with the moving object. By following the motion, and by using a faster speed in most cases, you capture subject in sharp focus while the background becomes blurred. By blurring the background, you even add another dimension of speed to your subject.
  • “Angle” shooting is relatively simple. Get in a position where the subject is moving towards you. That way, you neither have to pan the action or area focus. If you are using a high F-number (say 11 or 16), you have plenty of depth of field and the chances of getting much sharper photos are very high. Of course, this is not always practical in shooting some action photos, such as car races, but it is the case when shooting most high school sports events.

4. Lens and Sports

  • Basketball: You will need an 85-105mm lens. Action on the court is too far away to use a normal lens in most cases. On the other hand, a lens that is too long will get you too close to the action, making it almost impossible to focus fast enough and get everything in the frame that you need.
  • Football: Longer lenses, such as a 135mm and possibly a 200mm, are a must for on- the-field action photos. However, many photographers prefer a zoom lens (i.e. 75- 210mm) so they can be flexible in what distances they can easily shoot.
  • Track: You definitely need a variety of lenses, or, again, a zoom lens. Not only are you covering events where you can get close-up, dramatic shots (such as the high jump and discus), you are also covering running events that take place all over a 400 meter oval. Shooting track is perhaps the easiest for some beginning photographers because they do have the flexibility of moving all over the track and picking their angles.
  • Baseball: This sport restricts the photogra pher to a certain degree. Some of the best baseball shots have been taken from either the first or third base positions on the side lines or from behind the fence and catcher. A longer lens is almost always a must to get close-ups. Professionals always tend to get that right photo because they have studied the sport and realize what angles/lenses go together to make a pleasing photo.

Films (if not shot on a digital camera)

  • Normal: Most film that is pre-marked a certain ASA/ISO. Most professionals tend to use Fugicolor 100, 400, 800 or 1600 film when shooting news or sports. This is really one of the most versatile films around today. If processed correctly, grain is not obtrusive even for 8 x 10 prints for even the ISO 800 film. That is usually large enough for 90 percent of the prints used in yearbooks and newspapers. In shooting some sports events, even 1600 film is often too slow.
  • Pushed: The term comes from the process you do to the film-you push it beyond its normal ISO limit to allow for shooting in low light situations. By pushing 1600 film to 3200, you can gain one stop. By pushing the film beyond its normal ISO, you also, unfortunately, enhance the grain factor. Thus pushing can help you get that photo if you need those extra stops, but be aware of the increase in the amount of grain. Some photographers even like some grain in their prints because it adds a certain quality of texture to the photo. Kodak’s T-Max 3200 should also assist students in shooting in very low light situations. T-Max developer is preferred when processing this film. Pushing film is becoming unnecessary, however, as fast-speed films are refined and often simply adjust to the lighting situation.


  • Keep on shooting: To become good at shooting sports, you have to do a lot of shooting. It may take multiple tries before you get a feel for the game, learn the best shooting angles and realize the various types of interesting shots you can get.
  • Film is relatively inexpensive: If it takes five rolls to get those three or four good shots for your assignment, take them. Pro fessionals do not get those “perfect” shots by just shooting a few frames. It is often stated that there are 2000 or more photographs taken for every one used in Sports Illus trated each week; it would be nice to be this selective but, of course, school photography budgets aren’t that flexible.
  • Watch the experts: Observe how local sports photographers cover your high school teams. See what angles they choose and try to understand why they shoot from the posi tions they do. Study sports magazines or books and see what angles “stop” your eyes as you look over the pages. That’s not to say that you can’t come up with your own angles. But, remember, you are the beginner. Reknowned sports photographer Neil Liefer, for one, is not. He has shot hundreds of thousands of frames of sports photos and probably knows where the better angles are located for most sports.

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Bruce Konkle

Dr. Bruce Konkle's previous work experience includes being a journalism teacher and publications adviser at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. He is the former director of the South Carolina Scholastic Press Association and former director of the Carolina Journalism Institute.