Sports photos: composition tips and tricks

Discussion in 'Photojournalism & Sports Gallery' started by photoflyer, Dec 10, 2017.

  1. photoflyer

    photoflyer No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    I struggle with sport photographs and composition. I generally shoot images to include the primary athlete (the one with the ball/bat/puck etc) and competitor with an eye to cropping for composition later. The question then becomes what should that composition be? I am interested in ideas, tips and tricks.

    I know this really depends on the nature of the photo being edited but what are some good rules of thumb, specifically for sports photography, that can lead to a more pleasing image?

    I will say this. If I have an image that captures the athletes eyes I crop it in such a way that the image centers around the emotion on the subjects face regardless of the action in the image that may be left out.


     
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  2. Derrel

    Derrel Mr. Rain Cloud

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    Good composition is making the best use of the available space. Typically you need to allow some room for the athlete to "move into", meaning more space in front of them than behind them; more space in front of the running back than there is behind him. On a tall shot, the amount of space behind will often be less than on a horizontal shot. But just remember, perfectly centered often feels static.

    Tall or wide, that is often _the_ question. Is this a tall frame? Or should this be a wide frame? If you shoot tight,with a long lens, you will sometimes be locked into either tall or wide. Do not shoot wides with long lenses on standing athletes unless there's a good reason for it; I suspect you might not be shooting "talls" very often if you're asking this question about how best to compose after the fact, since when you shoot a "tall", the composition is often done, right there, in the camera, and there is very little extra space for cropping.

    Show the scene and setting, or shoot tight and go for faces? Ahhhhh, an interesting question. Many pro shooters shoot the same, uber-tight, close-in, lower-body-cropped-off-zero-content cliched shots with their 300 and 400 f/2.8 lenses. Sports photography has been plagued by this tendency for years now, the context-free shot of an athlete, in some stadium or on some court, isolated, no opponent in sight...is that always a good way to compose? I think not. But, some shots do work that way.

    Is it more effective to show a running back blasting through three defenders (four people in the shot, in total), or to show the guy clutching the football from the waist up, with a grimace on his face? if you capture the four guys, and then crop-in heavily, and eliminate the three defenders he is blasting past, what do you have? A context-free example of a guy, holding a football, with a scrunched up face. Which is the truly better sports action shot? The uber-tight shot, or the moderately-tight shot with context and opponents in the frame?

    I dunno...compose the photos for their intended end use. Some editors, like in small town local weekly papers, want the pictures to show some context, to show the field a bit, to show the stadium crowd as the backdrop, to show the bleachers as backdrop, with the action close-up and placed in front of the camera. I shot sports for two area newspapers (part of an 18-paper chain) and they always preferred context over close-and-cropped...they always wanted a more medium-tele type look on at least some of the shots. Show the player and at least _one_ opposing player.
     
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  3. photoflyer

    photoflyer No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    I should open myself up to criticism.

    Something else I struggle with is image leveling. I have the level turned on in the viewfinder to ensure it is shot level but often the angle from which photos are shot makes them look angled.

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  4. Destin

    Destin Been spending a lot of time on here!

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    Level the photo so that vertical lines in the frame appear vertical and players appear upright. Sometimes what appears level and what is level in camera are two different things.

    Make sure you correct distortion before you level the photo. This point is more important the shorter the focal length is.

    Trying to use the in camera level for sports seems too tricky to me. I tend to concentrate more on tracking the action.. I can always level the photo later as long as I’m in the ballpark.
     
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  5. OnTheFly7

    OnTheFly7 No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    Sports photography is unique unto itself. Some great pointers already.

    Regarding leveling.......

    Really difficult with fast paced action, even if you are using a monopod. While sports photography is what I would consider a specialty, I am fortunate enough to cover what I call a niche, within that specialty.......Rodeo and Bull Riding.

    With sports photography, things happen FAST. Technical things aside, the greatest tip I can give is to know the sport you are shooting. Each sport, has its own moments of climax. As a photographer, it is up to us to understand the sport, prepare for that moment of climax (which can be predicted to an extent) and be ready for it. Much can be done in post processing. However, to me, the single, largest factor in great sports photography is telling the story of the sport you are covering. We can do many things in post, but having an understanding of what you are shooting reveals itself in your images. Each and every sport has its defining moment. Focus on capturing that moment and worry about the minutiae in post.

    If you capture that tell tale moment of the sport you are covering, some composition errors can be over looked, for the right image.

    Lastly, remember.......

    Photography is an art. Create your own style. You may not know what that style is ( I had no idea what mine was, nor did I have an intention of creating one), but have one. I know this based on the feedback I receive. Your style will be defined by how you shoot and you "eye" for the shot. There is no right or wrong. There is only the image you see and the image you capture.

    Have fun and enjoy!

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  6. BKMOOD

    BKMOOD TPF Noob!

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    I am in my 11th year of shooting college sports. I don't worry about composition much. Maybe at this point it's instinct. I just make sure I get it all in. My images usually get cropped this way and that, depending on the intended use.

    When I shoot, I usually want three things in most of my shots: FACE - BALL - FOCUS

    [​IMG]
     
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  7. ac12

    ac12 No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    In some sports you can plan and compose the shot; diving, golf, volleyball, etc.
    In other sports, you take the action when and where it happens; football, soccer, basketball, etc.
    Some sports are a mix; you can plan some shots, while others are when and where it happens.

    One example is BK's pix.
    If he had used a smaller aperture, the crowd would be in focus, distracting from the subject.
    I generally do not like the crowd in the background, as I always end up with people in bright "look at me" clothes that distracts from the athlete. And depending on what and how I am shooting, I sometimes cannot knock them out of focus.

    Sometimes you can move around the court to choose the background. In my high school, the bleachers on one side of the gym is pulled out, the other side is left closed. So by choosing which direction I shoot, I can get or avoid the crowd in the background.

    Regarding leveling the shot. If you can, do it in the camera, but I leave plenty of space, because I expect to have to level the image in post. I don't want to distract my attention from the action by trying to also keep the camera level. That is OK for staged shots or slow sports, but not for fast sports and sports where the action requires you to pivot to follow the action. If you can hold the camera level instinctively, that is good enough.

    As OTF said, learn and know the sport. It then becomes easier to plan what shots to get and where to stand.
    Example, I never shot water polo. It took me shooting a game to kinda figure it out, and where to stand to get what pics. So that first game I shot, was just for learning, I did not get a single good shot out of it. But what I learned, I used to get a few GOOD shots out of the next game.
    I have never shot lacross, and I know nothing about it, so I have to study up on that game for the lacross season.
    Football on the other hand, I shot enough that when I shoot, it is instinctual.

    As Derrel said, if you leave space, you can crop TIGHT later if you want to. Also for publication, you don't know the size of image that is needed, so another reason to leave space to crop.
    For me, zooming in TIGHT with the lens, makes it more difficult for me to follow the moving subject than when I zoomed out, to give me more space around the subject. This is especially so where the subject can quickly change directions, as in football, soccer or basketball.

    Finally, go study the various sport magazines for ideas. And watch the TV coverage also.
     
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  8. JoeW

    JoeW Been spending a lot of time on here!

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    I've shot some professional events (club and some national team competitions at soccer, some MLB games and an NFL game), some training events, some college, some high school. Here is what I'd advise:

    1. Pre-game/pre-event is critical. Scout the lighting, the space. Figure out where you want to me. Find out what restrictions there are on your press credentials (found out at one women's pro soccer setting that once I set up, I couldn't move from that area b/c of sideline restrictions). Try to anticipate where the action will play out and what that means for your positioning. One of the big differences between a fan with a camera and a serious, professional photojournalist is going to be this stage: the pre-game prep and planning. B/c this is going to affect what shots you have a chance for.

    2. Know the sport. You don't need to be experienced enough to coach it. But know how the sport flows, what are critical events, how fast it transitions, what might be good opportunities for particular shots. For instance, with soccer you know that the space in front of goal is going to be congested on a restart or corner. It will lend itself well to a lot of close-ups with facial expression and tension. During the run of play, the ball will often be wide and then played in front of goal so you need to anticipate some of this movement. If you expect a pass play in a football game you can adjust your positioning to provide a better composition of the QB before he releases the ball (if you're shooting from the defensive side or where the line of scrimmage is, the actual pocket will be cluttered and 75% of the time an unusable shot of bodies and helmets with no visible QB. If there are going to be a lot of shooters and you're going to have to pick a spot and live with it, then you'll do a better job of anticipating a good spot to capture the best action shots.

    3. Use DoF. I'm a big fan of a narrow DoF with bokeh in front and back of the subject. Let that blur help define your subject.

    4. Try and get the art and symbolic shots out early (the helmet in focus on the ground with the blurred players in the background warming up, the player with drops of gatorade on his face, the slow exposure with the blurred movement) b/c if you're shooting for a publication you will need to be sure you get the "money" shots (the game winning goal, the home team celebrating or walking away heads down in defeat, an expressive shot of the team star playing her first game after being out a month). Let me explain: I shot a professional women's game a year ago. It happened to be the game in DC where Megan Rapinoe had announced ahead of time she wouldn't be standing for the national anthem (which at the time was big news--it was her and Colin Kaepernick and that was pretty much it). So warmups, Katherine Frey of the Post and myself were both glued to the Seattle sideline so we could get a shot of Rapinoe kneeling or sitting and the honor guard and colors in the background. That news was why both of us were at the game--to get that shot (and then the owner had the anthem played when both teams were in the dressing room). Unless you're shooting just for pleasure, there will be shots that you are expected to get, that you MUST get. So in order to get those (like planting yourself in front of goal and then being unable to shoot 80% of the action effectively) you plan effectively. Want an artistic shot of aerobatics with cheerleaders? Shoot that early (or during a timeout or half-tie) b/c once you get in to going after your required shots mode, by going for the ones you've always wanted to get you may miss the big play or critical moment or find yourself positioned on the sidelines with the cheerleaders while the teams are lined up by the end zone for the 1 yard TD dive.

    5. I find it useful to anticipate and prefocus, especially for sports that are fast moving and the ball/puck may cover a lot of distance quickly (so: soccer, football, hockey in particular).

    6. Put together a checklist (an actual checklist) of players you need to capture or shots you need to or want to get get. What you may discover is that if you're covering a particular team, it's useful to have a file of obligatory shots (a bunch of the coach, a bunch of all the key players, of all skill positions, of happiness and disappointment) so that when the sport gods conspire against you, there are still shots the publication can use (just so long as you don't misrepresent them as coming from that match).
     
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  9. vintagesnaps

    vintagesnaps Been spending a lot of time on here!

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    I took a workshop with a couple of pro sports photographers some years ago and one thing I learned was to go early. Figure out good vantage points. Notice where the lighting looks better (I try to avoid dark corners indoors).

    Another thing I learned from one of the pros was as others said - know the sport. Go to a game/event a day or a few before and just watch. Notice when things happen so when you go to shoot the game you can anticipate when something may happen. His example was bull riding, and noticing that there was a certain way the bull would move so the bull had hind legs up and head down and rider going up with an arm in the air and he knew that would be a good moment to capture.

    Keep the camera straight. Frame shots the way you want them. I learned to go for a 'clean' composition and keep clutter out of the frame. Sports are fast and depending on usage these days they want photos before the game's even done so you can't depend on doing much cropping or editing.

    I've mostly done hockey and I would often focus on the net and wait for the players to come to me rather than chase them around the ice with the camera; that way I got some nice shots of action in the crease.

    Notice backgrounds - even if you're doing a close up shot with a larger aperture, there are lots of lines and posts and lettering and it's still going to show, just will be more or less blurry. I usually try to think about how the crowd looks and how much I'm including (if the play moves to the other side of the rink) so I'm not cutting people off at odd places.
     
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  10. Overread

    Overread has a hat around here somewhere Staff Member Supporting Member

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    Few thoughts from my experience, some repeated from posts others have made

    1) Know the sport - yep this is a big one because it makes it a LOT easier if you know what's going on. It's not just about predicting where the action is likely to head; or where hot-points of interest are to be. It's also about knowing what's good and bad within the sport. You start to learn the subtle things that make a good moment within the game itself and you also learn what views are slightly not so good. Sometimes even a solid "tack sharp" well composed photo is still a poor shot to fans of the activity (which might be very important to know if you're pitching to gamers/magazine/etc....)
    If you get really into a sport then taking part in it yourself; attending training; chatting about the process and flow of matches etc... These are all things you can do to increase your upstanding of whatever it is you are viewing

    2) Compose a little wide. Cropping isn't a sin and, in my experience, its very easy to zoom in and focus on the action and come away with shots that are composed just that bit too close. When a tiny slither of frame would have helped. Or when you want just a little more frame one side to crop to show a stronger flow of motion etc... Composing a little wide gives you that little extra edge.
    Note that along with this is the fact that it means you can stick to one focal point (oft the middle) and then adapt shots as you need. Changing focus points on the fly can be done, but it can be an extra step you sometimes don't have time for.
    In addition monitor how you crop. If you always find you're cropping shots a certain way then that can help teach you how to compose those shots to get them straight out of camera.

    3) Get there early - yep setup time helps a lot. You can also double check with organisers where you can/can't be what you are allowed to do (eg can you move around or must you stay seated). It's also a time to check the light, backgrounds and other aspects.

    4) Backgrounds - hit and miss. Sports is an area where sometimes you've got to take a hit on the backgrounds; you might be limited on where you can stand; limited on the distances involved and sometimes you've just got to accept that the background isn't going to be perfect. Learn to work with it and as best as possible avoid the worst, but don't get disheartened if its not perfection - not every sports pitch will give you want you need.

    5) Practice matches - sometimes a practice match can be an ideal time to get into a new pitch and try out what works without the crowds and public around. This will typically give you far more room to move around than on a match day. A great time to play around when its not so critical and to see what works - esp if organisers will let you position differently but don't want you moving around.

    6) Light. The sun moves, keep in mind that if you're covering an event or series of games that the sun will shift around. Be prepared to move so that you can adapt to the fact that the light will change its angle.

    7) Fatigue - fatigue might not sound like its got anything to do with composition, but it can be make or break. If you're worn out, wet, cold and haven't eaten then your composition and shooting will go straight out the window. If you've got a snack/lunch with you (sometimes I've done events where the series of games doesn't stop for lunch - the competitors are fine as they only play for stages, but if you're covering the event you won't get a break to go buy and eat a lunch); if you've got those gloves and scarf; that waterproof top (and camera cover) etc... All this can really help you focus on your game of shooting the game with the least amount of distraction.


    The really nice thing about sports is that you know where the action is going to happen; you've got a good idea of what time, how, etc... This provides a really intense period of time to practice and shoot and get those shots in. Be sure to have more memory cards than you need and just shoot away and then review after. The more you review the more you'll learn when to hit the shutter.
     
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  11. Destin

    Destin Been spending a lot of time on here!

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    Everyone here has covered what I would say, but I’ll add this:

    Stop chimping.

    Yes, it’s hard. I know it’s tempting to check out that awesome shot you think you just got. But I guarantee you that the second you look at the image on the back of the camera you’ll miss another great photo opportunity. Once you have your exposure settings locked down, don’t review your images until the game is over.

    I still struggle with this. But you really do get better shots when you’re taking photos and not looking at ones you’ve already captured.
     
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  12. Derrel

    Derrel Mr. Rain Cloud

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    Yessssss. A thousand times, YES! STOP chimping, and shoot. Shoot, shoot. Looking at the back of the camera, when you should instead be focusing on making photos of the action in front of you, is a great way to blow shot opportunities.

    A good "add" to this thread, Destin.
     
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