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Learn sport photography basics with Kevin Clarke

1. Plan and prepare

It is never just sport. Sport is life and encompasses emotion, glory, tragedy, and more. Photographing sport is all about encapsulating this passion into a single moment. Being a sports photographer is normally as close as you can get to the action without being a player. All very romantic but it is a tough job with long hours too. Being prepared, having the right gear, the right information, and being fit and healthy make the job a lot easier.

Prepare by asking some questions such as:
 • What is the venue like?
 • Where will the sun be? Be sure to check the weather forecast.
 • Who are the best athletes?

Before any event, it is important for me to know as much as possible about the event I am covering. Viewing the venue through Google Earth is very handy, I look at plans and read any information available from the event organisers.

Browsing through images from previous events is another way to familiarize yourself with the area. If the venue is local, ask to do a site visit – this is especially important for mountain biking where it is invaluable to have walked the track to pick out the best locations.

It is important to get to the event early so you can also get your settings right using the practice time for the players. For international events, I would often be there two to three days early to take in the sights and would spend most of the day prior checking lighting, getting to know the venue and watching the light so I knew I would not be shooting into the sun.

Getting your gear ready is just as important. Ensure your sensors and lenses are cleaned, and batteries are charged. I always preload my metadata using Photo Mechanic, so all the basic information is in the system, saving time and effort on the day.

2. Gear

I highly recommend a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or mirrorless camera that is capable to shoot high speed to capture the motions of sports. The choice of lens would be dependent on the type of sport. For field sports such as hockey, rugby, and football; I use a Canon EF 28-300mm F/3.5-5.6 L IS USM paired with the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II. This provides me with the ability to keep capturing images when the action gets close to where I am shooting from.

For motorsports and cycling, I would opt for either a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM or EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM.

If possible, I highly recommend having a backup of all your gear aside from lenses. Ensure they are well maintained and regularly serviced through the Canon Service Center.

3. Capturing that moment

Capturing the true essence of a sporting event in a single shot requires planning, knowledge, commitment and equipment. You have absolutely no control of what the athlete is going to do or what is going to happen in a game, but you can have control over what happens your side of the lens. Try and get in the right position for the shot, choose the right gear, familiarize yourself with the sport and the athlete as it will increase the chances of capturing the moment when it does happen. ­­­­

4. Editing

How an image is edited can drastically affect the result. Get rid of all the clutter and focus the viewer’s attention on what really counts to convey the story. Do not be afraid to crop in close where necessary or leave it wide if that works better too. I always make the crop fit the image not the other way round.

How to shoot kid's sport

It’s important to be conscious that kids' sports are often below eye level and as photographers we need to get into their world which can mean getting down on the ground and shooting at their level.

This is vital if you want to see faces and capture the players expressions, especially with sports like football and hockey. It can be uncomfortable, and the ground is often wet so get yourself a small three-legged stool to sit on.

How to shoot football

99% of the action is where the ball is, therefore, you should follow the ball.

I tend to shoot from a seated low-down position behind the goal around the edge of the penalty area. Shutter speed always a minimum of 1/1200sec and my choice of lens is either the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM or the Canon EF 28-300mm F/3.5-5.6 L IS USM, my third recommendation being Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.

Try setting your focus point to the left or right of the centre so you target the players in focus rather than signage in the background. If you are placed at the corners, focus on the goalkeeper as they normally end up in the thick of the action.

How to shoot swimming

Swimming can be difficult to capture due to water reflections, lots of distractions, and officials everywhere. Sometimes it can be impossible to get close to the action so a long lens like the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM is necessary.

My preference is to shoot from the turn end of the pool and if I can get down on the pool deck then up in the seating is also a suitable alternative. The calmer the water the better the reflection so be ready for the first lap.

Try to pick your focus point on the water line in just in front of the swimmer as they surface on that first lap. I do short bursts of three to five shots each time they surface as it gives me the best chance of getting the shot I want.

How to shoot motorsport and cycling

When shooting motorsports, it is important to capture movement otherwise it will look like the subject is stationary.

If the subject is moving, the wheels need to be blurred and the body or rider kept sharp. It is certainly more difficult to do than shooting at 1/4000 =sec and freezing the action requiring being able to pan (flowing with the action) with a shutter speed of anything from 1/60sec to 1/500sec depending on how fast the subject is moving and how close you are to the action, but the image you capture is so much better.

Scout out a position on a corner or a jump where you can hold the focus on the subject as they move past you through the corner and shoot in bursts until they get to be level with you…anything after that is not going to work. In a velodrome I love shooting from the far side of the stands with a 400 and slowing my shutter speed right down as far as I can, keeping the riders sharp and everything else beautifully blurred.

How to shoot basketball

To get the best dribbling, shooting and action shots position yourself along the side-line at the end of the court and get as near to the basket as you can. Shoot from a low seated position on the floor is best. This makes you look up into the action, adding more drama.

I prefer to use a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM or EF 70-200MM f/2.8L IS III USM when I am shooting basketball. Utilizing a lens with a wide aperture is necessary to avoid noise and keep the shutter speed as high as I can above 1/1000sec. Try and capture the ball as it’s getting dunked into the net. A wider lens setting works best for those under the net shots.

Indoor lighting can be a problem especially when there is a lack of it as it can affect the white balance greatly. I carry a grey card with me and take three test shots of it when I shoot indoors. Shooting in RAW also simplifies the process to correct the colour in post-production.

5. Summary

Impactful images tell a story; the wow factor that comes from capturing that precise moment when emotion and action combine to produce something truly special. The feeling you get as a photographer when you get it right and can record that is incredible. It is such a buzz to know that all the training, the planning, all the hard work was worth it. Being a sports photographer is the best job in the world.