Action photography: tips from a pro
Find out about action sports photography from this mentor session with a mountain biking master.
Love sport but not sure how to capture it in a unique and fun way? With a bit of practice you can learn to take creative shots that will help you relive a game's greatest moments.
Here, five professional sports photographers share creative techniques and tips that they've learned over years covering matches and tournaments around the world. Whether you're shooting on a Canon EOS 90D or a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, the principles of photography are the same. Learn how to perfectly freeze a knockout punch, how to drown out the crowd to convey raw emotion, and how to use zoom and framing to capture something completely different in this beginner’s guide to match-winning sports photography.
Getty Images photographer Mark Kolbe, who captured this image with a table tennis ball seemingly hovering over a player's head, explains the story behind his shot: "I got this shot for Getty Images the first time that I'd ever shot table tennis. I knew that tight images of competitors serving are always popular, so I looked for competitors with an unusual or different serving style.
"I set my sights on the red wall of the venue and Rhikesh Taucoory of Mauritius caught my eye – not only because of the style of his serve, but also the way the strong overhead lighting was hitting the top of his head. The match was well advanced, not leaving me long to capture the shot I could visualise. I used a 400mm fixed focal length lens, because I knew that if I could get everything right, the zoom would allow me to best capture the ball toss and his intense concentration. I was shooting for the ball directly above his head, with both eyes fixed on it to give the impression of levitation. This was another reason I shot the image very tight on the 400mm lens: I wanted to isolate his head and the ball against the red background. The margin for error isn't great when shooting that tight, but I stuck to it and, on his eighth and final serve, the ball, eyes and service throw all lined up for me to capture the shot."
Mark's advice for emulating his quirky framing is: "When zooming in to focus on the action, try to plan ahead where possible to pre-empt where you think the best imagery will be, and go for it when it lines up! Often with zoom lenses, there is a great temptation to zoom in, then zoom out, then zoom back in… which can lead to you missing the focus. You will have a greater chance of capturing the moment if you're patient: fix on a focal length you are happy with and wait for the image you are hoping for."
If you’re looking for similar results with a Canon EOS 90D, consider pairing it with the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM lens. Used at full zoom, you’ll be able to sit on the sidelines and still pick out incredible detail and the 32.5 megapixel APS-C sensor on the Canon EOS 90D lets you get even closer to the action by increasing effective telephoto reach.
Canon-shooting sports photojournalist Elizabeth Kreutz, who shot the image above of the boxers mid-fight, says that freezing the action at just the right moment is a useful skill to learn. "For this shot of Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley Jr., I used the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens to get in tight and capture the drama and power of a hard punch. I love the timing of this image: the connection of the punch, the grimace on Manny's face, the muscle contractions and sweat flying from both fighters, and the spotlight shining down between them."
To freeze motion like this, Elizabeth says it's important to "be ready at all times". She explains that preparing your camera to fire a continuous burst of shots will also help: "Choose Shutter Speed mode and select a shutter speed faster than 1/1000 second. You’ll also need to set your camera on Continuous Shooting mode for the maximum fps.” The Canon EOS 90D can shoot at 10 frames per second (fps), which means you stand a good chance of capturing the frame you want.
When it comes to focusing, Elizabeth prefers to maintain full control: "I use the single point autofocus and change it manually during the fight to create my focal point and composition. This takes some practice, especially with faster boxers," she says. If you’d rather not rely on single point autofocus, tracking autofocus (AF) – available on many Canon cameras, including the Canon EOS 90D – enables you to focus on and track a subject wherever they move to in your frame, which is a great help for sports photography.
Tom Jenkins is a sports photographer for The Guardian and The Observer national newspapers in the UK, and a former Canon Ambassador. He recommends experimenting with motion blur to convey a sense of speed and excitement, as in his photo above. "I took this shot for The Guardian of the Men's 1,500m heats," he says. "This race wasn't particularly high profile, so I decided to experiment with slow shutter speeds and combining multiple exposures. I was trying to illustrate the motion of the runners and to get creative with the colours of the shirts, shorts and shoes, as well as the stadium scoreboards. I got the shot I wanted after a few attempts playing with location and shutter speed, plus I panned with the runners as they sped past. This image is actually two frames combined in-camera, with me zooming out quickly in between exposures.
"Whenever I get the chance to experiment like this, I always take away from it what I have learned: what went right, what didn't work. I try to store that knowledge, hoping that one day there might be another sport where I can use the same technique."
Tom's advice for you is: "Experiment with shutter speeds, zooming and panning with your own camera. I have a Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, and it's great for panning at slow shutter speeds. In my opinion, panning shots tend to work best if you are parallel with the action, so think about your location and whether there might be a better spot for taking the shot."
Press photographer Marc Aspland is chief sports photographer at one of the biggest daily newspapers in the UK, The Times. He is also a Canon Ambassador who likes to position his Canon kit in strategic places to get different shots, such as this horse racing shot. "I took this particular shot using a remotely controlled camera from approximately 18 metres away. I positioned the camera with a transmitter attached, under the rails, ensuring that I had the winning post in the frame. When I knew the horse was passing the finish, I fired a burst of 12 frames per second (fps) to give the remote camera the best chance of capturing the moment. Luckily for me, the winning horse came up on the inside, so it's larger in the frame, whereas the number two horse coming up in the middle appears much smaller.
"What also makes this shot special is that the horse is mid-stride; the light is good, so you can see all the details of the form, the horse's muscles and the jockey's face; plus the winning jockey is wearing dazzling orange – if he'd been in black it might not have been as eye-catching. And, of course, there's the winning post."
To emulate Marc's approach, you could position your camera and control it remotely using the Canon Camera Connect app on your smartphone (if your camera has Wi-Fi) or using a wireless remote. Alternatively, you could use your camera's tilt screen (if it has one) to shoot from unusual places or angles. "Step away from the obvious," says Marc. "Step away from the regular 'stock shots'; step away from standing where you think all photographers 'should' stand.
"If you're shooting youngsters playing football, stand behind the muddy goalmouth where the kid is stood in a puddle poised for the oncoming striker – it's about looking at a situation and finding the unusual in it."
Canon Ambassador and sports photographer Andrey Golovanov says that the setting of some sports events can add an extra layer of interest to your photos. "I decided to shoot the Moscow Marathon for myself in 2014, after having been employed to shoot portraits of runners completing the race two years before," he says. "As such, I knew all the subtleties and the best places to photograph from along the route: Moscow City and Moscow Kremlin embankment. The first place I chose was Moscow City, with its background of skyscrapers. There I found the perfect puddle on the asphalt to reflect one of the towers of the Kremlin, while also capturing the runners' feet. I think this shot is spectacular, and it was awarded first place in the Unusual category at Sportfolio Festival in France.
"My advice for novice photographers is to hone your skills by capturing interesting compositions at local events that are easy to attend, rather than travelling to world championships. Marathons are a great sport to photograph because they are usually open to everyone. Most places offer some sort of long-distance race throughout the year, and there is a lot of time and opportunity to play with and perfect your technique.
"Look at the environment you are shooting in and imagine a creative way to tell the story visually. For example, if your screen can be moved, try shooting from unusual vantage points, such as over the top of the crowd, through the crowd, or lying on the pavement. Using reflections, such as this puddle, is another great trick. Look for still water or shiny windows, be that from cars or buildings – even sunglasses can work well. Then it's just a case of the more you practice, the better the photos."
Get Inspired is your key source of useful photography tips, buyer’s guides and insightful interviews – everything you need to find the best camera or the best printer, and make your next creative idea come to life.Back to all Tips & Techniques
Find out about action sports photography from this mentor session with a mountain biking master.
Top sports photographer Dave Rogers shares his 10 best tips and techniques for improving your sports photography.
Five pro sports photographers offer advice on how to capture standout sports shots.