Molly Darlington: what it takes to break into sports photography

From putting in the hours to managing expectations, former Canon Ambassador Molly Darlington shares six essential tips for young sports photographers.
Carli Lloyd, captain of the US women's national football team, lifts a glittering gold trophy above her head as her teammates celebrate in a shower of confetti.

Sports photographer Molly Darlington has covered some of the biggest football matches in the women's game including the final of the world's most high-profile tournament. And she's determined to one day do the same for the men's equivalent. "For a football fan," she says, "there's nothing bigger." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 200mm, 1/1250 sec, f/2.8 and ISO640. © AMA Sports Photo Agency / Molly Darlington

Although still a relatively fresh face in sports photography, freelance sports photographer and former Canon Ambassador Molly Darlington, at 23 years old, already has a CV to inspire envy in those twice her age. She has covered high-profile motorsports championships, as well as domestic and international football competitions, and this year is photographing the world's leading international multi-sport event.

But Molly, who was born in Northwich, England, is not just concerned with her own success. Sports photography is an industry historically populated by experienced, older photographers, meaning that many students and young amateurs can see it as impossible to break into. Molly wants to challenge this way of thinking, encouraging newcomers to follow in her footsteps for the benefit of both themselves and the genre she loves.

"Sports photography is the best job in the world – I'd encourage more young people to get involved," she enthuses. "Gaining skills and being mentored by experienced photographers is vital to achieving success. If you work hard enough, you can do it."

Here, Molly shares six invaluable tips for aspiring sports photographers.

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Norwich City's Todd Cantwell and Huddersfield Town's Juninho Bacuna jostle for the ball on a football pitch bathed in sunlight.

Molly often uses the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) for a match, relying on its superb AF to track and hold focus even in rapidly changing situations. "It sounds silly," she says, "but I've spoken to quite a few colleagues and we all say the same thing: with this camera, we find it easier to get the goals." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Action Images via Reuters / Molly Darlington

1. Use youth and inexperience to your advantage

There's no shame in inexperience. In fact, says Molly, being a fresh face allows you to look at things in a different light. Contact people in the industry to ask for help and get feedback from them on your work in order to improve.

"It's helped me along the way," Molly admits. "There are a lot of photographers out there to advise you. When you start out it can be daunting, but people are willing to guide you.

"Put together a portfolio and build a network of contacts," she continues. "Most sports photographers will reply if you ask for help – it might not be straight away, as we're not the best at communicating, but they will reply eventually and give good advice. Even if you just want someone to look at your photos, know there are plenty who will."

Young players battle for the ball during a match between England's Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Manchester.

"The most valuable thing you can do is practise," says Molly, who worked her way up to shooting Premier League and international matches via university derbies and Sunday league football. "Small games are a great place to hone your craft." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 140mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO500. © Molly Darlington

2. Put in the hours

It's easy to assume that someone as young as Molly must have had a stroke of luck to achieve all she has. However, to get where she is today, Molly has already put in most of a decade of hard work, beginning at the age of 16, when she began photographing her local club.

"I saw an advertisement for my local non-league football club, 1874 Northwich F.C., asking if anyone wanted to be a photographer, just for experience," she explains. "I did that for nearly four years, following them at home and away. I loved it. So that's what I carried on doing. I believe I have got to where I am today through hard work and determination to succeed."

Accordingly, Molly's primary advice is to put the hours in and keep practising. "When young people come to me for advice I just say, 'Keep taking photos.'" I was rubbish when I started. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I often messed up, but I kept practising my settings."

3. Manage your own expectations

"When starting out, young photographers need to accept that photographing sport at all levels will only help you to improve," says Molly. "You don't have to walk straight into a Premier League game in your first year in the job. Learn the trade and the benefits of higher profile sporting events will come with time. You also need to be willing to learn and take on advice."

Don't expect to cover anything but Sunday league football for a while, Molly says, and don't be dejected if progress feels slow – it took her years of shooting smaller games before getting to cover larger ones.

Often, Molly admits, small clubs may find it difficult to pay. "Just keep shooting," she advises. "See it all as practice and use the time to master using your equipment at the fast pace sports photography demands."

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A bank of closed seats in a football stadium, with a few marked "sit here" amongst a far greater number marked "do not sit here".

Telling the story often takes Molly away from the pitch, photographing fans, empty seats or wider sports-related issues to provide context and backstories to many of the games she covers. In this image, for example, social distancing signs are seen on seats in an empty football stadium, as play resumes behind closed doors during the Covid-19 pandemic. "Telling a story is important. Your photography shouldn't just be, 'Here's a football match, here's what happened in the football match.' Turn it into a feature," says Molly. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Action Images via Reuters / Molly Darlington

4. Create emotion even where there is none

"You have to tell the story of each game. Sometimes that's hard, especially mid-season. If a team is going to get promoted or relegated or is going for the play-offs, there's way more emotion than in a game with nothing resting on it. You have to create emotion there because people can relate to that – fans can think 'that is how it feels during games'."

Molly advises utilising the individual surroundings of each game, for example the stadium and crowd, to add layers and emotion to your imagery. Again, she says, lower leagues are perfect for practising this. "Turn every game into a feature and make it individual. The other day I went to a League Two game in Carlisle. Because it's an old ground, I could use the character of the old stadium in my images – the big new grounds all look the same. And because it was League Two, there was no pressure to make it onto the back page of every paper, so I could be more creative."

Stoke City's John Obi Mikel and Millwall's George Evans tussle for the ball in an empty stadium during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Spend enough time watching and photographing football, and reading the game becomes second nature, according to Molly. "You have less to think about. I guess you could describe it as like driving a car," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO100. © Action Images via Reuters / Molly Darlington

5. Know the game

A crucial factor for success as a sports photographer is knowing the sport you're shooting. This, Molly says, is the only reliable way to capture those game-changing, split-second moments.

"I'm a football fan. My dad's a football fan. My brother's a football fan," she explains. "Because I've always watched football, I know how the game works. If a player runs down the wing you have to think, 'Will they cross it this way, pass it that way?' You have to be aware of what's happening, know the game and be able to judge what will happen next."

Your camera's fast continuous shooting is great for sport, but it's not needed all the time, Molly says. "Sometimes if a player is running towards me with the ball, I will wait for them to come to me and take the photograph when they begin to fill the frame. I would rather take a shorter sequence with the frame filled than have the player too far away in the shot."

Molly advises that you plan boundaries for every different angle or fixed point you intend to shoot from. This requires a good knowledge of the game and it might take a while to perfect your timing, but you will end up with more considered final images.

"I will only take a photo outside of these boundaries if there may be a goal or important moment," she says.

A footballer in a white shirt and black shorts runs with the ball in an image framed by the barrier the photographer is sitting behind.

Molly often uses an ultra-wide angle lens to get creative with riveting goal line panoramas or beautiful wide shots of entire stadiums. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 16mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO4000. © Action Images via Reuters / Molly Darlington

6. Forge your own career path

Higher education can provide a fantastic opportunity to formally learn photography and receive expert guidance, but if you choose a different path, you can absolutely still succeed, says Molly.

"A lot of university courses aren't geared towards sports photography," she explains. "In the end, mine was fine with me doing it. They tailored my degree and my modules as they knew I was working a lot outside of the course.

"But remember, there are other routes – a lot of it is about who you know and learn from. It will seem quite scary going it alone, but it's not actually that bad. When I was 16, I thought the industry was petrifying. Now I'd tell you it's absolutely fine."

Peter Wolinski

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