Even as the COVID pandemic is changing the rules of sports competition, which is no doubt reflected in sports photography, one truth remains indisputable for this genre: access is everything. In this post, based on an article by acclaimed photographer John Harris, we’re going to look at a few tips for the aspiring sports photographer, both in terms of equipment and skills. So, back to our hard truth: if you’re not near the “action”, you just won’t have a photo.
Does this mean that you definitely need a pass to the curb? Not necessary. Of course, it’s nice to be able to shoot competitions in close proximity, but you can get this “access” in many ways. A good sports photo can even be taken off the field, so not having a badge shouldn’t scare you. However, in order to get into the “major league” of professional sports photographers, you, of course, sooner or later will have to somehow get passes to events of interest.
Source: John Harris/bhphotovideo.com
As for “interesting events”. While you may one day photograph Wimbledon or the Paris-Dakar Rally, the only way to hone your skills is to start by shooting the sports and events you know and love. And it doesn’t have to be big spectator sports. Mountain biking competitions, table tennis, sailing — they all include fast-paced action with beautiful backgrounds, that is, everything you need for great sports photography. When participating in sporting events, take lots of pictures, edit carefully, and look for relevant publications to present your work.
If you’re primarily interested in the most popular sports but can’t get into a stadium, try honing your skills at smaller venues and events. Amateur tournaments, camps and pre-game practice are all great opportunities to develop skills and build a portfolio. Also, try to get access to regional events and tournaments that may not be covered by the mainstream sports media.
Also study the work of other photographers and analyze the difference between shots in daily news releases, online publications and specialized publications. Sports photos in the daily news should simply illustrate the events of the last game — they usually don’t take too much time to prepare and are often not very artistically interesting, but they tell a story. On the other hand, there are sports publications in which sports photography is a real piece of art, such as the Victory Journal.
No matter where or how you would like to post your shots, there is a standard set of cameras and lenses for sports photographers to get the job done.
Of course, almost any camera can be used for sports photography, but it must be able to capture fast action and withstand harsh weather conditions, so a professional DSLR or mirrorless is the best option. There is a suitable range of lenses for these cameras, in particular fast zooms and long telephoto lenses.
Sony a9 II
Although mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a9 II and new full-frame models from Canon and Nikon are becoming part of sports photography, high-end DSLRs from Canon, Nikon and Pentax are still the pros’ preferred choice. The Nikon D6 and Canon 1DX Mark III, for example, are flagship DSLRs capable of high-speed shooting with fast and tenacious autofocus and excellent high ISO performance. They can shoot high-quality video, and the robust body of these models is reliably protected from adverse weather conditions.
Pentax K‑1 Mark II
The Pentax K‑1 Mark II is also worth considering. Although the Pentax model is not as fast as Nikon and Canon flagships, it is significantly cheaper. In addition, it has one of the strongest bodies of any full-frame DSLR on the market.
It is important to re-emphasize that while high-end cameras, when used to their full potential, can increase your potential and improve your work, there is no need to start with them. In addition, this is far from the only choice of professional photographers. Incredible sports photos are created using a variety of devices — from smartphones to medium format cameras. However, there are mandatory criteria for a sports camera: it must be a model with fast focusing, fast continuous shooting and support for various lenses.
The Olympus OM‑D E‑M1X is just such a camera, in MFT format (Micro Four Thirds, Micro 4:3). Despite having a smaller sensor, it retains features on par with the best DSLRs, including a powerful processor and a built-in vertical grip with dual batteries. In addition, the crop factor of the smaller sensor creates a longer equivalent focal length, which can be advantageous when shooting from the sidelines of the playing field, especially given the cost of premium telephoto lenses.
Canon and Nikon’s lineup of DSLRs also has many offerings that strike a balance between performance and budget. If you’re buying your first camera, consider the Nikon D500, D7500, or Canon EOS 80D. These are cameras with a smaller sensor compared to full-frame models, but they are suitable for the needs of sports photography and are compatible with the best lenses of their brands. This is important because if you continue with sports photography and eventually decide to switch to a high-end camera, you will be able to use the lenses you buy now.
If you already have an entry-level DSLR, you can of course start shooting with it, but if you’re buying a new one, we wouldn’t recommend “beginner” DSLRs. Often they are not strong enough in terms of build and do not provide the speed and options that you will eventually need. Also, do not pay attention to bridge cameras with integrated telephoto zoom lenses. While these are affordable and multi-tasking devices that can capture crisp images at long range (under ideal conditions), these cameras lack speed (focus and burst speed), lens aperture, and ruggedness for professional sports photography.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Then there are cameras like the D850, a high-resolution Nikon DSLR that doesn’t prioritize continuous shooting like the Nikon D6, but its focusing system, detail, and very compact size make it a desirable model for many sports photographers. The same applies to Canon 5D series cameras. We can also recommend the Nikon D750, which, despite its venerable age, can still be found new — this is Nikon’s most affordable full-frame model.
Cameras come and go, but your best lenses are here to stay. Therefore, you can often find tips on the net that suggest saving on the first camera and investing in a quality lens. When it comes to sports photography, don’t limit yourself to a bad camera, however, by and large, this tip also works. First, you need to find a couple of quality zooms and, perhaps, a telephoto lens with a fixed focal length (the so-called “fix”).
Canon EF 70–200 F2.8L IS III USM
A telephoto prime is often a real financial hurdle for an aspiring sports photographer, but it’s always worth keeping in mind the possibility of renting telephoto lenses for specific events, as well as the possibility of using teleconverters. In addition, you do not have to try to capture the facial expressions of an athlete from 50 meters, at least at first.
Major brands have their own versions of the 24–70mm f/2.8 and 70–200mm f/2.8 lenses, which are good lenses to start with. You can also consider buying a 24–105mm f/4 and a 400mm lens. When choosing a 400mm lens, you can quickly notice the difference in price between models, and this is usually related to the maximum aperture, or “aperture” of the lens. In addition to advanced optics and additional features, more expensive lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8, which allows more light to pass through the lens and, in sports, use faster shutter speeds to freeze motion. In daylight conditions, such “bright” lenses may not be as necessary thanks to improvements in optical stabilization systems, so weigh your needs well before investing heavily in an f/2.8 ultra-telephoto prime.
Nikon 24–70mm f/2.8G ED AF‑S Nikkor
The combination of the aforementioned zoom lenses and the zoom teleconverter will prepare you for almost any situation. At the same time, do not forget that the teleconverter causes a slight decrease in aperture ratio. Other more affordable options include using ultra-telephoto zoom lenses such as the Nikon AF‑S NIKKOR 200–500mm f/5.6E ED VR, with its versatile zoom range, or even the Sigma 150–600mm f/5.6–6.3, which offers wide range of focal lengths, but requires constant monitoring when working in less-than-ideal lighting.
Modern telezooms have advanced significantly in image quality. Two noteworthy models are the Nikon AF‑S NIKKOR 180–400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR and the Canon EF 200–400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x. Both offer a versatile zoom range, constant aperture, and a built-in teleconverter for zooming up to 560mm at f/5.6. For the MFT system, Olympus has the M.Zuiko Digital ED 150–400mm f/4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO, which is equipped with a 1.25x teleconverter. Add a teleconverter to the crop sensor EGF and you have an extremely efficient 1000mm EGF lens.
Many sports photographers prefer telephoto primes for their speed and sharpness, and the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS is one good example of these incredible lenses, but their size and cost are understandably problematic for beginners.
Nikon AF‑S NIKKOR 14–24mm f/2.8G ED
Telephoto lenses are essential for sports photography, but normal and wide angle lenses are just as important. The 24–70mm f/2.8 has already been mentioned earlier as an essential item for your lens kit, but you will also find 85mm primes and wide-angle zooms in the backpacks of many sports photographers, like the Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM and the Nikon AF‑S NIKKOR 14–24mm f/2.8G ED.
Apart from cameras and lenses, there are several accessories that are especially important for sports photography. Support for heavy lenses and maintaining stability during extended gaming is critical. While tripods are preferred by some photographers, the portability offered by monopods makes them the preferred choice.
Monopod Manfrotto MVMXPROA4
You may not always want or be able to use an on-camera flash, but for indoor events you should have a flash, ideally as powerful as you can afford. Since you will be working a lot in burst mode, memory cards with high read and write speeds are essential. Additional batteries are also required.
Working in the rain and in other adverse conditions is not uncommon for a sports photographer, so you should use additional protection for the camera and lenses.
Whether you have serious experience in professional photography or are just starting your career, we will be glad to hear your comments and suggestions regarding sports photography equipment in the comments.
* when preparing the article, materials from the resources bhphotovideo.com (John Harris) and onfoto.ru were used.