Getting started in sports photography

Everyone’s getting into it–Sports fans everywhere are more than willing to do it for free for better access making it more and more crowded for working professionals at sporting events. Sometimes tempers flare in the trenches because amateurs without credentials aren’t considerate when working around others often times stepping in the way of legitimate working pros.

I heard from Liz of Kansas City who is very interested in being a sports photographer.

So I thought I’d write about it having dabbled with it in my previous life.

Foremost on the minds of those of you with similar aspirations should be this: sports, a past time, happens in the evenings and on the weekends.

So, if you have a family with young kids, expect major negotiations with your spouse on the scale of SALT talks (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the Cold War era)

Naturally you’ll have to take me on my word that I know what I’m writing about.

If you’re that gullible, I’d like to introduce you to some Nigerian princes who have oil fields.

Luckily for Liz, this is not her situation.

She has a free pass since her hubby is a sports fan and her kids are grown.

So what would someone like Liz need?

Access & Equipment

Skill and talent aside, access and equipment are often the biggest hurdles for most folks.

If you’re interested in shooting sports, you’ll need at least a 300 mm telephoto lens and at least 2 bodies.

Sorry, there is no 2 ways about it.

The long lens is  for your safety and the athlete’s safety.  I’ve seen my share of linebackers plowing through a row of photographers on the sidelines.

Think bowling if you can’t picture it.

All by myself–In the early 80s when the Raiders were still in LA, the sidelines were pretty roomy, as this picture shows. Note the 3 bodies I have. I wasn’t showing off, I swear. Shooting film is quite different. That 3rd body can save you if you run out of film and don’t have time to re-load, so no, I wasn’t showing off. 😆 Listening to the game while shooting helps because the radio broadcasters are sitting high above the action. They can see what’s going on. Being on the field peering through a long lens tend to give you tunnel vision

And the 2nd camera body?

That’s for when the action has approached your long lens’ minimum focusing distance and all you see is the player’s nostrils.

Most of the time, sports photographers use a 70-200 mm zoom on the 2nd body.

If they have a 3rd body, they might stick a wide angle on it.

Carrying any more bodies is bordering on showing off because you only have 2 hands.

In case there are some of you not familiar with telephoto lenses, they are not created equal.

The difference of one f-stop can be quite a chunk of change as this comparison shows

If you have to ask which of the 2 lenses, I’d recommend, let me put it this way: I’d willingly eat  Top Ramen for however long it takes to save for the $800 difference. That answer your question?

Original manufacturer’s glass or lenses always cost more. But they tend to be built better and therefore can handle your abuse better.

Let’s pretend you’ve won the lottery because you’ve read this far. Money is no object so you got your 2 bodies and your requisite telephoto lens.

So how exactly can you gain access to those very crowded sidelines or sporting events?
Every sports fan I know wants to be there too. Without a sports portfolio, you have very little chance unless you have the goods on the media person of a sports team.

Building a Sports Portfolio

There is no formula or recipe to building your “book” of sports photos.

If I were hiring, I would want to see something different. Think of how many wannabe’s have come and gone before you.

The poor editor has probably seen so many basketball, football or baseball pictures that the bar has been set pretty high in his mind.

Might I suggest you show some guts and shoot sports that are not seen so much?

If you don’t have a long lens or a fast lens, don’t sweat it. You can always rent one. You do need to have a body of work which shows you can capture action or reaction.

You could offer your pictures for the school to use in exchange for closer access on the field.

Just expect to pay your dues. There is no shortcut.


Don’t be a jackass when you’re new and learning the ropes.

If there is one advice I can give. Please be aware of your surroundings.

The access you are given is not yours alone.

Respect that others have a right to be there as well.

That means consideration and probably priority should be given to working professionals who make their living from photographing the event.

You are there to better your portfolio. If you blow it or miss a picture, it’s not that crucial.

But if you walk into someone’s frame at the worse possible moment, you will likely incur the wrath of the big boys.

They have the clout and won’t hesitate to have you thrown out.

While I was at the US Open Badminton tournament earlier this year, I was probably the only person that I could tell that had a credential.

Folks with cameras just walked down on the courts and sidled up next to me to shoot. My pictures were for IBF–International Badminton Federation.

I didn’t have a problem with that at all. Then one of them walked right in front of me at the worse possible moment.

I’m not the most competitive person nor am I the most egotistical.

I don’t believe that the world revolves around me, but I had to tell Invisible Man, “You didn’t have to walk in front of me there, you could go behind, you know?”

His answer was, “Oh, the action was over already so I didn’t think it mattered.”

Related posts on sports photography:

3 thoughts on “Getting started in sports photography”

  1. Hello Lynne,
    I appreciate your taking the time and trouble to leave a comment. Newspaper photographers tend to have lots of anecdotes because they find themselves thrown into all kinds of situations.

    I’m not sure how to say this without coming across as if I’m bragging, but often times there is no time to think. We just have to react or we’ll miss the picture.

    That was the appeal for me when I entered the biz. There is definitely artistry in photojournalism as well, but the underlying intent is always to tell a story visually.

    Share with my readers your work if it’s online by posting a URL. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the article. It gave me a great insight to what it really entails to be out on the field and shooting. You mentioned many things that I probably wouldn’t have thought about, being more involved in artistic photography, but it’s great to step into someone else’s shoes for a while. Well written.

  3. Paul,
    Too bad no one got a picture of you and the Mailman when it happened.
    My good friend Carlos Puma had Kobe fall onto his lap at a Laker Game.
    We still tease him about it every now and then.

    Here’s the picture captured by AP photographer Michael Conroy

    Yes, patience is definitely needed for baseball. Even though I never played it, I think I was pretty good at shooting baseball because I was stubborn and probably more patient than most folks.

  4. Nice article. Strong advice.

    But one of the most needed pieces of equipment is patience. Especially in your favorite sport of baseball. 😉

    The tip on etiquette is great. I’ve been on the sidelines of important football games and had people stand in front of me during the celebration phase and miss a shot. It’s so very important to watch your surroundings and to be fully aware of the play both on and off the field.

    But the funniest story I have is when I was interning at the Ogden Standard-Examiner in Utah. It was my third time photographing the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center. The spot the paper had was right next to the bench. A really cool spot. I was sitting there watching them practice before the game when I noticed movement to my left at the bench. I turned just in time to see a size 20 shoe step on my thigh and when I looked up, it was Karl “The Mailman” Malone stepping on me. He quickly apologized and I just smiled. After all, how often will you get stepped on by one of basketball’s greats?

    But back to the article. Don’t forget patience.

Comments are closed.