Even the most abject sports-refuser can call to mind a seminal sports photograph—Michael Jordan’s dunk or Brandi Chastain’s shirt-tossing triumph—that moved the masses. Great ones capture a single moment of extreme exertion, physical prowess, and the ironclad determination to ball so hard. The pros who create them spend years developing their technical abilities and typically have a backpack of lenses that probably cost the GDP of a small nation. How can normies like us get shots like that?
We caught up with Kris Erikson, former photographer for the US Olympics Committee, to get his best tips for taking great sports photographs. Kris has made the unusual transition from professional photographer back to amateur, as he switched careers and started a family. Now he takes all his pics with a $100 point-and-shoot camera and the athletes he shoots are usually kids. But he still uses what he learned as a badge-toting photographer for the Olympics, the World Cup, and the Goodwill Games to capture the thrill of victory and the argh-ony of defeat.
Know your subject
As you’re preparing to shoot an event, Erikson’s advice is to learn, learn, learn. Take advantage of anything that will get you in deep on this sport: hang around with people who follow that sport, read magazines, watch televised events. And, for sure, you gotta know the rules of the game or competition.
Plan around the basics
Great sports photographs don’t happen by being at the right place at the right time, says Erikson: it’s all about planning. The basics you need to consider are:
The limitations of your camera: What kinds of shots can you get, given your focal length and shutter speed?
The time of day: if it’s an outdoor shot, where will the sun be at that time? Will the light change?
The weather: if it’s an overcast day, you won’t get a lot of contrast in your shots. What can you do to heighten it? What kind of shadows will you get in the bright sun?
Location: Where will you be allowed to stand, sit, or run to? How close can you get to the action?
Plan around the story
Go to a few practices before the game, and get to know the players and their positions. Who are the rivals of this team? What happened last year, and what is the team hoping to achieve this year? Knowing these details helps you capture the story behind the picture. For example, if the team you’re shooting is going against an undefeated team, they’ll be on heavy defense. So your planning question becomes: what kind of defender shot will I capture? If it’s an individual sport, this kind of story planning is the same.
Plan around the action
“Athletes meditate on the sport before they go into a competition and so do sports photographers,” says Erikson. Try to imagine the game in your head, and focus on the type of actions you’ll want to capture. When does the action slow down? When would the shot look the most exciting?
If it’s a volleyball game, for example, the jump shot’s got great potential: faces grimacing, hands stretched high above, slapping the ball. You know their body motion will stop at the top of the jump; try to catch the action there.
Position yourself right
One of the most troublesome aspects of shooting a spectator sport is finding ways to capture the subject (an athlete or a group of athletes) against a background that’s not visually cluttered, like crowds in bleachers. Find a spot where you can get the athlete against the green of the field, the wood of the court, or the snow of the slope.
Anticipate when and where the exciting moment will be. “At the 1988 World Cup ski races, I positioned myself at the steepest part of the slope, where the skier would have to cut the deepest edge on the course,” says Erikson. “So the shots I got showed a moment of intense difficulty, the skier sending snow flying off their skis like a wave.”
Stay with the action
Erikson suggests you use an old technique to keep the action in focus: always move with the action. If a soccer player is going down the field, for example, a novice will click a bunch of shots in place, shoulders squarely facing forward. Instead, you want to twist at the waist as fast as the player is moving so that you’re moving the lens with the image.
But it’s not just about the action
Erikson advises you to keep thinking of the bigger picture so that you get more than just the action shots. Sometimes part of the story is what’s happening on the sidelines: an injured athlete shouting to support his team mates. Or an assuring glance from a coach to a skier before she gets onto the course. Or maybe it’s a fan’s elated cheer when the final buzzer sounds.
Above all, let your admiration and enthusiasm guide you. “Even though my photos have been published in Sports Illustrated, I still have just as much fun shooting with a nothing camera,” says Erikson. “So don’t be limited by your equipment or your level of expertise. If you have passion for it, your photos will show it.