Sports Photography: A Complete Guide


Capturing a sporting event's movement, dynamics, and highlights, be it football, hockey, rugby, running, or tennis, is not as easy as it may seem initially. 

The right attitude is important for a great sports image: you need to get out of the house as often as possible with a camera at your side. If photography is not your main job, you will have to devote evenings and weekends to photography to add to your portfolio and improve your skills.

Don't limit yourself to one sport - gain experience in different areas. Even if you prefer soccer, in the off-season, it's better not to sit still, but to get involved in shooting another discipline. There are probably different sports clubs in your area that have regular training and competitions. Find out their schedules, grab a camera, and go!

In this article, our Portfoliobox team will give you interesting information as:

  1. What is sports photography?
    • What are the features of sports photography?
  2. How to photograph sports?
    • Cameras for sports picture
    • Cameras' lenses for iconic sports photos
    • Accessories for sports images
  3. Tips for becoming a successful sports photographer
    • Forget about the auto mode
    • Use slow shutter speeds
    • Use aperture priority mode
    • Don't forget ISO speed
    • If aperture priority mode is not available, select shutter speed priority mode for iconic sports photos
    • Use both high-speed autofocus and burst mode
    • Choose a great vantage point
    • Take as many sports pictures as possible
    • Shoot from a low angle (knee-high) and use a tripod
  4. What qualifications does a sports photographer need?
    • Theoretical skills
    • Professional skills for great sports image
    • Personal qualities for pro sports images

What is sports photography?

What is sports photography

Sports photography is a photographic art field covering all sporting events, outdoor activities, and photography of fast-moving objects. The genre focuses on competitions, training, the environment, and the emotions of participants and spectators. Sports photography is close to reportage photography. Masters of this genre often cooperate with newspapers and magazines covering sports and take photos for advertising. Photographing close-ups of athletes also requires skills in portrait photography.

Pro sports images are first and foremost about movement. It is complicated by the contradiction between the essence of movement and the importance of photography - the still image. A photograph should not look like a still frame from a TV screen. And there are two ways of doing this:

  1. The first is to shoot with slow shutter speeds, giving a precise outline but creating the effect of moving through the image composition, lines, objects, their intersection, perspective, and so on. 
  2. The second way, on the contrary, is to shoot at slow shutter speeds, obtaining blurry images with traces of movement, creating the illusion of faster movement of the object.

The great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson introduced the concept of the decisive moment into photography. In a sports picture, this can be understood as the correct phase of movement that maximizes the essence of a sporting element; be it a throw in wrestling, a figure skater's spin, or a gymnast's leap.

What are the features of sports photography?

What are the features of sports photography

The main features of sports images are:

  • dynamism
  • understanding and love of sports
  • mobile and quality equipment
  • high-speed shooting mode

Sport is not just about what happens on the court. Sport is also about team and individual training, both for athletes and cycling clubs, for example. It is also various games and extreme sports such as: kiting, skiing, skydiving, and rope-jumping.

Of course, there are sports where skill is unnecessary, but they still presuppose that the photographer knows what is happening in front of them. It is impossible to make a pro sport image report without understanding the essence of what is happening. Most importantly, the photographer will have difficulty navigating - where best to stay and where, on the contrary, not allowed to stand.

Each photographer is mostly interested in the athlete and only after that - in everything else. Everything else refers to:

  • referees
  • numerous spectators
  • emotions, which are often more interesting than the action itself
  • scenery and scoreboards
  • stadium stands
  • competitors waiting for their turn

The hardest thing in sports images for photographers is the athlete. They require maximum effort from the photographer. The competitors can be moving very quickly around the stadium or sports ground. They are hardly standing still and do not allow photographers to make a proper 'aim.' Reportage of competitions is a constant search for the optimum balance between aperture and shutter speed, a constant battle for the best sharpness.

A photographer needs not only to see everything but also to anticipate to some extent. The ability to anticipate events is one of the characteristics of iconic sports photos in general. And the more experience you have, the better you see the process, and the better you can frame your shots.

How to photograph sports?

How to photograph sports

When participating in sporting events, take lots of photos, edit them carefully and look for relevant publications to present your work. The only way to hone your skills is to start by shooting sports and competitions you know and prefer. Although you might photograph one day either:

And it doesn't have to be a big spectator sport. Activities such as:

  • mountain biking competitions;
  • table tennis;
  • sailing involve dynamic action with beautiful backgrounds. That is everything you need for a great sports image. 

If you're primarily interested in the most popular sports but can't get to the stadium, try honing your skills at smaller venues and events. Amateur tournaments, training camps, and pre-game workouts are great opportunities to hone your skills and build a portfolio. Also, try to gain access to regional events and tournaments that may be out of sight of the mainstream sports media.

Also, study the work of other photographers and analyze the difference between:

  • shots in the daily news;
  • online publications;
  • specialized publications.

 Sports pictures in the daily news should simply illustrate the events of the last game - they usually don't take too much time to prepare. They are often not very interesting artistically, but they do tell a story. On the other hand, there are sports publications where sports photography is a real piece of art, such as Victory Journal.

Sports photographers have a standard set of equipment and lenses to do any job, regardless of where and how you would like to publish your images.

Cameras for sports picture

Of course, almost any camera can be used for sports photography, but it has to capture fast movements and withstand harsh weather conditions. So a professional DSLR or mirrorless is the best option for pro sports images. There is a suitable range of lenses for these cameras, including high-speed zooms and long telephoto lenses.

Mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a9 II  and the new full-frame models from Canon and Nikon are becoming part of iconic sports photos, and high-quality DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, and Pentax are still the preferred choice of pros:

  • For example, the Nikon D6 and Canon 1DX Mark III are flagship DSLRs capable of high-speed shooting with fast, tenacious autofocus and excellent performance at high ISOs. They can shoot high-quality videos, and their rugged bodies are weatherproof. 
  • The Pentax K-1 Mark II is also worth considering. While not as fast as the Nikon and Canon flagships, the Pentax model is considerably cheaper. It also has one of the most durable bodies of any full-frame DSLR.
  • The Olympus OM-D E-M1X is just such a camera, in MFT format (Micro Four Thirds, Micro 4:3). Despite the smaller sensor, it supports features on par with the best DSLRs: including a powerful processor and a built-in dual-battery vertical grip. In addition, the cropped 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 considering the cost of premium telephoto lenses.
  • If you already own an entry-level DSLR, you can start shooting with it. But if you're buying new ones, we wouldn't recommend "beginner" DSLRs. They're often not strong enough in terms of design and don't offer the speed and options you'll eventually need for sports photography. Also, don't look for bridge cameras with integrated long zoom lenses. While these are affordable and multi-tasking devices that can capture crisp long-range images (under ideal conditions), these cameras lack speed (focus and continuous shooting speeds), lens aperture, and durability for pro sports images. A Nikon D7500 camera would be great.
  • Then there are cameras like the D850, a high-resolution Nikon DSLR that doesn't prioritize continuous shooting like the Nikon D6. Still, its focusing system, detail, and compact size make it a desirable model for many sports photographers. The same goes for the Canon 5D series. We can also recommend the Nikon D750, which, despite its venerable age, can still be found new - it's Nikon's most affordable full-frame model.

Pros and cons of the most popular cameras: 

Before you buy, weigh each product's pros and cons. See the table below for a comparison of popular cameras.

Camera’s name

Cons Pros
Sony a9 II   high price, touch control, separate recording system fast, full-frame model, outstanding image quality
Pentax K-1 Mark II  heavy, weak battery, focusing picture quality, ergonomics, very quiet, logical operation
Nikon D6 high price image stabilizer, LCD size, battery capacity
Canon 1DX Mark III no image stabilization, Bluetooth, Full HD video optical viewfinder, GPS, full-size CMOS sensor
Olympus OM-D E-M1X memory, camera weight, lens sensitivity exposure processing, continuous shooting mode, price

Cameras' lenses for iconic sports photos

Cameras tend to change a lot, but your best lenses will stay with you long. That's why you'll often find advice online that suggests saving money on your first camera and investing in a quality lens. As far as sports photography is concerned, you shouldn't limit yourself to a bad camera; generally speaking. For starters, you need to find a couple of quality zooms.

Expensive lens options

Telephoto fixes are often sports photographers have financial hurdles for the aspiring sports photographer. Still, you should always keep in mind the possibility of renting long lenses for specific events and consider using teleconverters as well. Also, you don't necessarily have to try to capture an athlete's facial expressions from 50 meters, at least at first.

The major brands have their version of the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses - these are good glass to get you started. You can also consider buying a 24-105mm f/4 and a 400mm lens. When choosing a 400mm lens, you can quickly notice a difference in price between models, usually due to the lens's maximum aperture, or "aperture ratio." In addition to advanced optics and extra features, more expensive lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8, which allows more light to pass through the lens and, in the case of sports images, use shorter shutter speeds to "freeze" motion. In daylight, such "bright" lenses may not be as necessary thanks to improvements in optical stabilization systems, so weigh your needs carefully before investing heavily in an f/2.8 ultra-telephoto fix.

The combination of the zoom mentioned earlier and a teleconverter to increase the focal length will prepare you for almost any situation. Remember, though, that a teleconverter causes some reduction in aperture. Other more affordable options include ultra-telephoto zoom lenses like the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, with its versatile range of focal lengths. Even the Sigma 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 offers a wide range of focal lengths but requires constant control when working in light that is far from ideal.

Cheap lens options

  • Modern telezooms have made significant advances in sports 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, a constant aperture, and a built-in teleconverter to extend the focal length 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 has a 1.25x teleconverter. Add the teleconverter to the EFR of a cropped sensor, and you've got an extremely effective lens with an EFR of 1000mm.
  • Many sports photographers prefer telephoto zooms for their great light output and sharpness, and the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS is one good example of these incredible lenses. Still, their size and cost cause understandable problems for beginners.

Accessories for sports images 

In addition to cameras and lenses, several accessories are essential for pro sports images. Support for heavy lenses and maintaining stability during a long game are crucial. Although some photographers prefer:

  • Tripods, the mobility offered by monopods makes them the preferred choice. Manfrotto MVMXPROA4 monopod is quite a good choice, for example.
  • You may not always want or be able to use an on-camera flash, but you should have a flash, ideally as powerful as you can afford for indoor events.
  • As you will be doing a lot of continuous shooting. Memory cards with fast read and write speeds are required. 
  • You'll also need extra batteries.
  • Working in the rain and other adverse conditions is not unusual for a sports photographer, so extra protection for the camera and lenses should be used.

Tips for becoming a successful sports photographer

Tips for becoming a successful sports photographer

Sports photography is a hobby or profession for avid sports fans. Capturing a sporting event's movement, dynamics, and highlights, be it football, hockey, rugby, running, or tennis, is not as easy as it may seem initially. If you've ever paid attention to the photographers at a football stadium - their equipment can cause both envy and amazement - huge lenses that require their tripod, lots of accessories, and continuous tracking of every movement. You need to know a few secrets to master this profession. They are described below:

Forget about the auto mode

It's not customary for more or less professional photographers to be reminded of this. Still, it's always worth pointing out that it's extremely rare for an auto mode to come in handy in sports photography, and there's a reason we're offered plenty of manual settings. The first thing to do is read the camera's manual to understand how and what works. Then you will be able to understand each parameter separately, and you will not be frightened by the terms ISO, aperture, white balance, etc. So forget about automatic modes, even if they are called Sports or Action. We need a manual mode for pro sports images.

Use slow shutter speeds

This rule is hard to forget. You will be shooting fast action, so, logically, we want fast shutter speeds to get clarity and avoid shadows and blur. A minimum shutter speed of 1/500 sec is all you need to capture the moving subject. A slow pace will reveal all the associated risks.

Use aperture priority mode

Let's look at the typical shooting modes of the average DSLR or mirrorless camera. Besides automatic and manual modes, there are shutter priority and aperture priority. Aperture is a value designated as A or AV, measured in f/, or steps, and refers to how much light passes through the aperture directly onto the sensor.

If you set it to aperture priority, the camera adjusts the shutter speed. It's a perfect mode for shooting on a sunny day and is used by many professionals in sports pictures. But what exactly do you need to do to get the aperture set correctly? We need to set it to a high value, i.e., the number should be the opposite, lower. For example, f/2.8 or f/4. It will get the most light onto the sensor, and the camera will automatically set a fast shutter speed for proper exposure.

Don't forget ISO speed

Shutter speed and aperture are important, but the third important exposure value is ISO or light sensitivity. When we shoot in semi-automatic modes, be it aperture priority or shutter speed, we have to set the ISO manually. We consider the location, weather conditions, and time to do this. For instance, ISO 400 is sufficient for daytime sunshine, but if the sky is overcast, ISO has to be set to between 800 and 1200. For more information on this setting, consult the manual, of course.

If aperture priority mode is unavailable, select shutter speed priority mode for iconic sports photos

You have to use that mode if you're not shooting with an SLR but with a camera that only allows you to operate with shutter speed. Even travel cameras usually allow for it, though there is a tendency to do more with modern cameras. Still, let's note a few details. Instead of telling the camera how much light to let in, we'll specify how fast the shutter speed should be - 1/500 second will suffice. But don't forget to take a few test shots to see on the fly whether the value is set correctly, given the surroundings.

Use both high-speed autofocus and burst mode

To keep the camera in time to track the quick movements of the athletes, it is best to set a long focus on the subject or subjects rather than focusing on a single point. Also, be sure to set the camera to continuous shooting mode. The Burst value measured in fps (literally frames per second) will tell you how many frames per second you can shoot. A high fps value is better. So if you want to start as an amateur shooter but plan to continue doing sports event photography, the best choice is a mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras, as we've already noted, allow you to shoot many frames per second and DSLRs lag far behind in that regard.

Choose a great vantage point

The most convenient location is usually where the sun is behind you. That way, the shooting area will be well lit. Of course, having a good idea of the sport doesn't hurt. You are about to shoot. This way, you can predict the action and the play and therefore know exactly where you should aim the lens so you don't miss a critical shot. Everyone can see what is happening on the field, and your job is to get closer to the players and get the images that cannot be seen from the stands.

Take as many sports pictures as possible

This rule is practically golden. Of course, you'll need a big memory card and a good camera battery, but the aim is to shoot first and choose later. The essence of competition, whether a football tournament or a tennis match, is dynamism and speed. So, it is these qualities that the photographer will have to adopt as well. You can see the results later and select the best shots. Shooting in RAW format, you can correct some of them in post-processing, but the most significant thing is to capture the most spectacular moments. That's why it's common for a sports photographer to go home with more than 2,000 raw images, of which 50 of the most iconic sports photos will be published.

Shoot from a low angle (knee-high) and use a tripod

What is the importance of a comfortable low angle? It adds drama and a bit of attitude to the shot, and apart from that, you can shoot a player in front of the grass, a stand, the sky, or spotlights to get interesting angles. It's a technique that professionals often use, and it's something you should learn from them straight away.

What qualifications does a sports photographer need?

What qualifications does a sports photographer need

A sports photographer captures the movements and emotions of athletes during a sporting event or competition by finding and using the best angle, lighting, color, phase, and moment in time. They present the viewer with a photo report of the event. After the photo shoot, they prepare and print the sports pictures for various media.

Theoretical skills

  1. Current trends in contemporary art and photography
  2. Main photographic trends, aesthetic principles, processes, and practices
  3. Arrangements of photographic equipment and illumination
  4. Types, properties, and uses of photographic materials
  5. Techniques of analog photographic printing
  6. Composition, light, and shade techniques
  7. Colour management, rules for using color in photography
  8. Digital & New Media
  9. Unique designs and methods for sports shooting (many frames, angles, etc.)
  10. Principles of visual perception psychology

Professional skills for great sports image

  1. Creation of photographic work tailored to the target audience and purpose
  2. Photographic workflow from creative conception to post-production
  3. Practical work with composition
  4. Use of a range of professional photographic equipment, optics, and auxiliary aids
  5. Use of lighting and measuring equipment
  6. Photo staging
  7. Skills in Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop (and analog)
  8. Post-processing, retouching, and color correction

Personal qualities for pro sports images 

  1. Customer focus, working with clients
  2. Professional communication
  3. Time management, efficient workflow
  4. Independent work
  5. Teamwork
  6. Multitasking, ability to handle several projects at the same time
  7. Attention to detail
  8. Responsibility for the result
  9. Self-development, professional development

Create your portfolio with Portfolibox

Create your portfolio with Portfolibox

Sports photography is a complex field of photographic art. It takes luck, experience, good technique, and prior preparation to take a picture that will evoke vivid emotions in the viewer. For example, choosing and getting a comfortable position is essential. Professionals often take pictures from VIP positions that offer the best view. Accreditation is a prerequisite for working at significant events.

It is very important for every photographer, even a beginner, to have their portfolio with the best works. Professionals from Portfoliobox will be able to help you with competent portfolio preparation. Also, the author's need for good physical preparation is an unobvious peculiarity of sports and extreme image. Typically, they have to run, climb a mountainside or stand waist-deep in water - all with a camera in hand.

Every sport has its unique moments. There's a basic principle: you must be in the right place at the right time and press the shutter. It's all resolved in fractions of a second. What's significant is to capture genuine, vivid, vibrant emotions. Nowhere else can you find so many emotional, exciting and intense shots, except perhaps in sports pictures. 


What is the best focusing trick for high-speed photography?

Keep the shutter release button pressed halfway in continuous autofocus mode. Continuous AF is most commonly used when shooting moving subjects and is particularly effective for those shooting sports events. In this case, the camera focuses and adapts the focus point based on the main subject's position in the frame.

What is the best camera for sports pictures?

Apart from all those mentioned above, the Fujifilm X-T20 is an excellent camera for sports shooting. With all the settings available and an impressive 14fps, it would make a great companion for sports events. It has long focus times, RAW shooting, and 4K video capabilities.

What are the best lenses for sports images?

А fast lenses are the best option to use. These are required for long focal lengths and slow shutter speeds. It's the lens that usually becomes the most expensive piece of equipment for sports shooting.

What is the essential quality for a sports photographer?

It is a personal view of any event. The influence of the photographer's perspective cannot be overestimated in sports photography. The photographer's choice of 'what and how to shoot will create a joyful or tragic atmosphere, allow you to laugh at or sympathize with the participants, or even see amusing details outside the 'main action.’ Two photographers may see the same sport entirely differently.

Een online portfolio gemaakt voor creatievelingen

Met alle tools die een professional nodig heeft

  • Dynamisch raster
  • Regelmatige rijen
  • Gulden snede
  • Vierkante verhouding
  • Centreren
  • Puzzel
  • Willekeurig
  • Horizontaal
  • Horizontaal 2
  • Horizontaal 3
  • Verticaal
  • Twee-één
  • Drie-één

Gratis aan de slag

Maak jouw online portfoliowebsite

Bouw je eigen portfolio