Sports photography

“…the great arenas where dreams are made and crushed in equal measure.”

Sports photography

Sports photography
Mike McNamee

It is some time since we had an in-depth issue centred on sports photography and with the Olympics looming it seemed a good time to take another look. Sport has always been a glamorous side of our profession: fast action, fast lenses, high-speed cameras, a smattering of lovelies (male and female) against a backdrop of the roaring crowd, layered up behind the photographer, who has arguably the best seat in the house!

As a genre, sport requires many disciplines, but a good eye, fast hands, knowledge and dedication are prerequisites for success. We have therefore concentrated on the technical aspects of selecting and using gear, looking after both it, and yourself, and illustrated this with the work of as many Societies’ members as we could get our hands on. If you look through the monthly competitions you will see many superb shots made at some of the best locations around, long may it continue.


In its sport section, the Handbook of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers starts at Air Gunner and finishes at The Wisden Cricketer with 31 publications in between. On top of that there are all the nationa news papers and local rags, all of which have sport sections. It is not coincidence that sport is almost invariably placed on the back pages of the papers, such is its importance to the readership. All this activity needs pictures and they are only topical for a day or two at the most, so new ones are needed daily. Despite this, it is a tough sector from which to make a living and only a handful of professionals travel the world to the big glamour events – you are unlikely to get access to close action without the backing of a major publication or agency. There is, however, the opportunity to learn your craft and build your portfolio at lesser events. In social photography a wedding is a wedding and you launch right in at the deep end with people’s lifetime memories at stake; at least with sport you can cut your teeth at the local park, league matches where you can make your mistakes and progress from them. Many sports meetings will support the presence of an ‘event’ style photographer, providing an opportunity to make a living.

The importance of sports photography is emphasised by the number of competitions that it supports. This serves to showcase the inspiring work of the best practitioners and provides plenty of double-page spreads for magazines. Competition photography is slightly different to day-to-day sports work. The moment is crucial, rather than the ‘name’ in the frame (although it never hurts to capture a big name doing what they do best!). The actions and expressions need to be tense, the composition tight and dynamic. A big crowd piled up as out-of-focus dots behind the action always helps, it shouts ‘this was a big event, look at all those people!’ Conversely the quiet, contemplative moments as athletes prepare for what might turn out to be the highlight of their lives are rarely short on drama. Being part of this is a privilege that the photographer has, moments that are not always seen by the spectators, outside in the great arenas where dreams are made and crushed in equal measure.


All of the lenses in a manufacturer’s line-up are likely to have been used in sport at some stage. Despite this there are three lens types which stand out as being more common: the 70-200 f2.8 zoom, the 300mm f2.8 and the 400mm f2.8*. They are popular with professionals despite the savage costs. The zoom is generally used at close quarters, most often on a spare camera body. The telephotos are most frequently used on a monopod or hand-held; few people can hand-hold a 400mm f2.8 for the duration of a soccer match. The 300mm and 400mm lenses are often matched with a 1.4x or a 2x teleconverter which gives a usable aperture although some auto-focus features may be compromised. In all instances the aperture of f2.8 is favoured for dropping the background out of focus and for keeping going in low light. For indoor sports, the 200mm f2 lenses are much admired.

*The lens choice will need to be matched to the chip size. By way of example, for field hockey, 300mm onto a full frame is about right, 400mm is too long unless you are situated well back from the lines. Thus a small chip with a 300mm lens is too long, at perhaps as much as 450mm equivalent. For a small chip camera a 70–200mm f2.8 zoom suddenly looms as an ideal combination, saving a bunch of money at the same time! Almost all of our comments on lens size are judged against a full-frame chip.

Cricket has particular and specific problems. First-class pitches are even bigger and for most county grounds the 300mm is a wide angle, a 600mm just about copes and 800mm may be even better. An 800mm lens brings additional problems of both weight and stability, it’s bad enough carrying the brutes into the ground let alone holding them! Only three 800mm lenses are currently available, primes from Canon and Sigma and a 300–800mm zoom from Sigma.


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Last Modified: Friday, 16 August 2013