May 13, 2009 / Photo Quest / Photography

From Static to Stunning

Written by Bill Hankins

A thinking photographer gets more out of each sports shooting experience.

Of all the equipment a shooter takes to a sports event, perhaps the most important and least regarded is that equipment located just above the shoulders. A thinking photographer will bring back better images – maybe even stunning images – from any sports shooting experience. A photographer whose head is in the game will be a real asset to his or her yearbook staff. Here are a few examples of some sports where a little planning and a little thinking go a long way toward capturing nice images.

* Click on the images for enlarged views and slideshow options.

Cross Country
Cross country is difficult to shoot because of the great distance between potentially good shots. A thinking photographer will narrow the playing field by thinking of where he or she will be most successful. Of course, the starting and finishing lines are important. However, by looking over the course ahead of time, the photographer can plan to shoot at other locations after the start and still be in position to shoot the finish line.

I waited for the runners I wanted to come into the light, and I was ready with my 70-300 mm lens. Notice how the front runners pop out of the darker background.

I saw a curve in the course that I thought would be good for getting a number of runners about three-quarters of the way through the race. When I got into position, I noticed part of the course was in shadows. So I waited for the runners I wanted to come into the light, and I was ready with my 70-300 mm lens. Notice how the front runners pop out of the darker background.

if you shoot 100 yards down the course, the runners begin to separate a little, and you have a chance of seeing more runners' faces.

The start is a good place to get most of your school’s runners. However, if you shoot 100 yards down the course, the runners begin to separate a little, and you have a chance of seeing more runners’ faces.

It is harder to shoot runners coming directly at you. You have to handle focus very quickly. On this part of the course, the path narrowed, so the runners bunched up as they came down a little hill. This allowed me to see faces more easily, and I was able to pick out the runner I needed to shoot, leaving the other runners out of my depth of field range.

It is harder to shoot runners coming directly at you. You have to handle focus very quickly.

Shooting details
Shutter speed – Always shoot as fast as you can, but at least 1/250th of a second.

ASA/ISO – 400 works well, but in bright sunlight you can use a slower film or adjust your digital camera to around 200.

Motor drive – This is helpful when you want to crank off several shots of peak action. It is not necessary for capturing great sports shots, but it gives you more choices in editing.

Football
Action on the football field is tough to capture unless it is a daytime game. Most high school games, however, are on Friday nights. A thinking photographer will be looking for shots that will tell the story of what is happening on the field. Sometimes that means looking toward the sidelines. Emotions on the sidelines often enhance the action shots or, because your equipment could not capture that 70-yard touchdown pass, you turn to the sidelines to get the response. Here are photos that illustrate how important the sidelines can be.

When this team lost its first game in four seasons, the cheerleaders' faces told the story.

When this team lost its first game in four seasons, the cheerleaders’ faces told the story. As you shoot a football game, move up and down the sidelines to get yourself into a good position to capture the field action. However, constantly keep an eye toward the sidelines, so you can be in position to turn and shoot a section of the crowd, the cheerleaders or team members if their reactions warrant it.

The crowd at a different game reacts joyously to a TD.

The crowd at a different game reacts joyously to a TD. I was not in position to get a great shot of the play, but the crowd gave me a better opportunity to crank off four to five shots.

Once the touchdown was made, I immediately looked for the coach and players, who were excited with the results.

I was down by the goal line to shoot the action on the field. Once the touchdown was made, I immediately looked for the coach and players, who were excited with the results.

Shooting details
Shutter speed – Always as fast as you can, but at least 1/250th of a second.

ASA/ISO – 1600 or higher. If your camera and flash sync at 1/250 or higher, shoot 400 ASA with a flash.

Motor Drive – This is useful, but if you are using a flash, it probably will not recycle quickly enough to be used with the motor drive.

Golf
Being patient helped as this golfer's body language shouted "near miss."With golf, you must be a courteous photographer. You cannot crank off a motor drive in the middle of a golfer’s swing, so time your shooting to capture moments before or after the swing or putt. The thinking photographer will be in a good position for success, and then be patient. Watch for body language, facial reactions or interesting composition to put some pizzazz into your golf images.

I framed this shot from the fringe, using the flag to help the composition. The player, the ball and the flag all contributed.

To get some visual variety in golf, get more than one player in some shots. This can be tough if you are following a foursome in which only one player is from your school. If you have two in the foursome, watch for times when the two golfers can be in the same frame. This kind of visual variety can help in editing for a yearbook spread.Nothing is really exciting about lining up a putt, but by being ready, I captured a bit of the intensity of this golfer who tried to block the sun and distractions.If you have two in the foursome, watch for times when the two golfers can be in the same frame. This kind of visual variety can help in editing for a yearbook spread.

Usually, the golf ball is hard to see and isolate off the tee, but the player’s follow-through can often yield a bit of intensity through the facial reaction.

Shooting details
Shutter speed – Always as fast as you can, but at least 1/250th of a second. In daylight, you can often get 1/2000 or faster.

ASA/ISO – 400

Lens – 70-200 or 300 is a flexible lens for most of these shots.

Usually, the golf ball is hard to see and isolate off the tee, but the player's follow-through can often yield a bit of intensity through the facial reaction.

Motor drive – This is useful  to capture the flight of the ball off the club or the putt to the hole.

Swimming
To get these kinds of action photos, you must put yourself in position to be successful. It is tough to capture action coming straight at you, but practice and you will get a rhythm of when the swimmers’ heads will be out of the water. You can practice by shooting swim team practices. However, do not forget the good action that can be found on the sidelines. Swimmers often try to coax their teammates along with some good old-fashioned screaming from poolside. Watch for it.

Both of these were shot from in front of the swimmers as they came toward me. I had to constantly focus as they got closer and closer. In this situation, beginning photographers can have trouble knowing which way to turn the focus ring. In some shots their heads were not out of the water. These were the best.

I saw these girls talking at poolside before the meet. I shot, but realized this was probably more of a feature type shot. However, that reminded me that during the meet I ought to keep my eyes open for other sideline possibilities. The girls did not disappoint me. With every race, but especially the close ones, they gathered to scream their teammate on to the best finish they could. From where I stood, I focused and zoomed in as tight as I could, and it paid off.

Shooting details
Shutter speed – Always as fast as you can, but at least 1/250th of a second. With a flash, make sure it syncs with the camera at 1/250 or faster.

ASA/ISO – 400

LENS – 70-200 or 300 is a flexible lens for most of these shots. A 135mm could be good, too.

Motor drive – This is useful, but with a flash, you probably won’t get a fast enough recycle time to use it.

Track
Shooting track is all about planning and patience. First, know the events and the meet schedule. Do not catch yourself on the other side of the field when an event you wanted to shoot begins. I can’t outrun my subjects to get to a key shooting position. I have to be there ready to shoot.

Pole vault is a good event to show what a thinking photographer can do. For several jumps, I stood back where the vaulter started her run. I had focused on the bar, and when she started up I cranked off four or five shots with the motor drive. The best is shown here. But then I decided to try some shots from beyond the pit. Here I focused about where she planted the pole and again cranked off some shots. The best ones showed her intensity as she started her upward flight.

These three shots show key positions to be in when shooting a running event.

The finish line can be shot with a long lens (70-300 mm) to capture the agony at the end of the race.

Handoffs can be nice moments. Position yourself so you can capture your runners in the sequence of the handoff. Focus continuously as you crank the motor drive to get four or five sequential moments. One will probably stand out.

Don’t forget the emotions after a race – in this case, a high-five from one relay member to another.

Shooting details
Shutter speed – Always as fast as you can, but at least 1/250th of a second. In daylight, you can often get 1/2000 or so.

ASA/ISO – 400

Lens – 70-200 or 300 is a flexible lens for most of these shots. A 135mm could be good, too.

Motor drive – This is useful,  but not a must if you work on your timing.

Volleyball
Often the volleyball net is thought of as a key focal point for a shooter. Focus on the net and the action will come. True as that may be, as in the photo to the right, following the action from the sidelines can also produce good images. This does not mean shoot from the stands while sitting with friends. Position yourself 15 feet or so from the sidelines and follow the ball from there.

These two shots were taken from the sidelines with a 70-300 lens. I used a flash that syncs with my camera at 1/400 of a sec. I follow-focused wherever the ball went and was ready when this action occurred. You have to be ready to move if the players come diving out of bounds, but if you position yourself far enough away with the appropriate lens, you will be OK.

Shooting details
Shutter speed – Always as fast as you can, but at least 1/250th of a second.

ASA/ISO – 400 with a flash or push to 1600.

Lens – 70-200 or 300 is a flexible lens for most of these shots. A 135mm could be good, too.

Motor drive – This is useful  if you are pushing film, but if using a flash, your flash may not recycle fast enough for a drive.

Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.