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Sports Photography – Learning The Basics (1)

Robert Zanzalari (zanz34)

Keywords: sports_photography, zanz34

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This is the first part of the series on Sports Photography.

Sports Photography

Sports photography, and photography in general, have become a passion. My first Nikon DSLR was the venerable D300 with the 70-300mm/f4.5-5.6 G-AFS ED IF VR lens purchased in September 2008. I eagerly learned everything I could about the camera’s capabilities and couldn’t wait to try my hand. You see, I was driven by the opportunity to photograph my sons whom had just begun to embark in participation with their Middle and High School teams.


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Sports photography refers to the genre of photography that covers all types of sports. For this article, I hope to share my experiences with field sports (football, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, baseball, and softball); indoor sports (basketball, swimming, wrestling, volleyball); motor sports (in this instance drag racing); and horse racing. By no means am I an expert in any one (as my photos will attest, continued practice is warranted.) Rather, I have experienced each and hope to relay guidelines for those that are interested in trying their hand with one. For additional insights, I highly recommend joining or viewing the Sports Forum. You will be exposed to many other perspectives and have access to additional information that will deepen your knowledge.

When learning about a subject, I tend to want to know details, considerations, or pieces of information which to some may seem as unimportant matters. Did you know, professional sports photography is a branch of photojournalism, while amateur sports photography, such as photographing your children or grandchildren playing a sport is a branch of vernacular photography? As my entre’ into photography falls into the latter branch (equipment investment needed to become a professional sports photographer is substantial), it is with vernacular photography in mind that I write this article.

For the record, professional sports photography’s main application is for editorial purposes. Dedicated sports photographers work for newspapers, sports magazines, major wire agencies, or professional sport teams. Sports photography is also used for advertising purposes both to build a brand and as well as to promote sport in a way that cannot be accomplished by other means.


The subject is the focus of the image, both literally as the sharpest point in the photograph and in a more imaginative sense. Some questions to think about before you begin: How old are they? How big are they? How fast are they? Is it a fast sport like auto racing or something slower like baseball? Are they on the field with a bunch of other players in a confined area (football), or more spread out and isolated (baseball)?

The best action shots often come when the subjects are moving towards you, instead of from side to side, but, beware of large bodies moving toward you in a rapid fashion as they can (and usually do affect Auto Focus tracking.)

Embrace the tight shot. Sometimes it's nice to have a rather wide view to put everything in context, but tight shots can really concentrate on the action, not to mention show facial expression more clearly. You can see the intensity, concentration, and effort.


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Placement, perspective, and surroundings matter. Choosing where to place your subject in the frame can help your subject demand even more attention. Centering the subject emphasizes symmetry and pattern, while using the rule of thirds and placing the subject off to one side tends to draw the eye. For moving subjects, leaving extra space in the frame provides a sense in the direction the subject is headed in. The angle that you choose to shoot the subject from plays a role in how it’s perceived. The more you shoot a variety of subjects, the more you’ll get a feel for what would make a great subject. There’s exhilaration when capturing a photo of a player going up for the dunk or having the bat contacting the ball. However, simply shooting the play doesn’t necessarily give you an idea of how epic the action was or what personal triumphs a player may have to overcome. The background and foreground help to enhance that story. Consider everything in your photograph and if it doesn’t have a reason to be there, move in closer or adjust your angle to minimize distractions. Sometimes the most dramatic photo is found after the play or by illustrating conditions of the event. Athletes and coaches show emotion, capture them!


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Decisive moments can be difficult to capture as we are looking for a moment that occurs in a few fractions of a second. One way to increase your ability to “time the shot” is to arrive at an event early and take in practice. This could be batting practice at a baseball game or speed trials at an auto race. Observation and understanding of the event surroundings and the participants heighten your opportunity to capture the “money shot”. In practice situations, work out the framing ahead of time that way you don’t have to think about it. Action shots involve being thoughtful about the scene in front of you. Ask yourself these questions: Where will the decisive moment take place? What is the best composition here? What story do I want to tell?

Using a baseball game to illustrate, some players are much easier to capture than others. A batter may have a characteristic hitch in their swing, or a pitcher may have a certain way he holds his glove prior to beginning his pitching motion that makes it easy to time. Learn the anticipation signs each player gives when their swing starts – movement of the hands, a dip in the shoulder, lifting of a heel, cocking-back of the bat, etc. The same timing goes for attempting to capture a golfer’s swing. Being aware of these tips and cues will aide in your “keeper rate”.

I must digress for a moment to impart an important lesson-learned. I was driven to capture that magical moment to the point of frustration. Why couldn’t I capture the “decisive moment”? I have quality equipment and excellent knowledge of the events being captured, yet my results and self-criticism were extremely bothersome. Sticking with the baseball example and asking for forgiveness because the engineer in me has appeared, getting the bat-on-ball in my opinion is really an outcome of good fortune. You see, a batted ball is in contact with a bat for approximately 1/2000 of a second making it extremely difficult to time. The frequency of the bat-on-ball moment varies considerably with factors like how “squarely” the ball is hit, impact velocity (combined pitch and bat speed), length of bat, diameter of the bat’s barrel, type of wood the bat is made of, where along the length of the bat the ball strikes, etc. Using the tips and ques above, adjust your perspective to maximize the occurrences of capturing the ball being in the frame. You’ll be pleased with the results.


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(10 Votes )
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Originally written on October 16, 2019

Last updated on December 17, 2020


Robert Zanzalari (zanz34) on October 18, 2019

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous donation to the 2019 Fundraising Campaign

Hello everyone. I hope you are finding this article to be interesting and informative. I most welcome your comments, feedback, and personal experiences as my intent was to use this as a forum to give back because of all the contributions made by the many outstanding members from which I have personally gained a tremendous amount of knowledge. I would like to alert you to a typographical error in the equipment table. There is duplication of a "D7500". The second entry should have read "D750. Thank you Ralph for catching this.

Bob Chadwick (Bob Chadwick) on October 17, 2019

I like your comments of the proverbial hunt for the Grail, the ball on the bat. I don't shoot as much sports as I used to but I can remember chasing that shot to the exclusion of almost all other player at bat shots. What I found is that when I did get that shot, I almost always missed the face and expression that went with it because the player was looking down, the helmet brim got in the way, etc. I have since come to the conclusion that there are several decisive moments when shooting a batter and not just that one.

Ralph Butschko (rbutschk) on October 17, 2019

Thank you, Robert, for your instructive article. In the table the D7500 is mentioned twice. The second time should be the D750, I guess. Greetings from Berlin! Ralph

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