When it comes to photography, there are many assumptions and cliches that go along with them. One of the most rudimentary is that expensive equipment automatically makes better photos, or that owning certain equipment makes someone a “pro.” While better tools makes the job easier, what makes good sports photos possible are knowledge, technique, and timing.
Recently, someone made a somewhat snide “Must be nice...” comment referencing my equipment. To make a point, I dusted off cheap old equipment from when I first started shooting in 2009 and brought them along to the game against Real Salt Lake.
Behold! The Sony A200 with a Minolta 70-210mm lens, lovingly referred to as “The Beercan.” With an astounding 10.2 megapixels of photo goodness and firing at an unparalleled rate of 2.83 photos per second, this combination cannot be beat, except maybe by Glass Joe on easy mode.
To cut off those who wanted to make a quick jump to the comments, I know that Mike Tyson’s Punchout doesn’t have an easy mode, just good game play and rather racist (even by 1987 standards) stereotypes.
Speaking of the mid-80’s, that’s when the Minolta Beercan came out. It was mass-produced as a consumer lens for Minolta and still holds up today, especially compared to modern “kit lens” standards. When Sony acquired the Minolta mounting technology, it meant that the old Minolta lenses could be used on modern cameras. Due to the sheer number of them still in circulation, it can be found on eBay for around $50, which is a bargain by photography standards. It’s not “great,” but it certainly is capable of doing the job. The Sony A200 was an entry-level camera, first released in 2008. You can find one on eBay nowadays for around $80 (although I would not recommend it).
Knowing the limitations of the equipment, the initial plan was just to shoot warm-ups with the equipment to demonstrate that satisfactory photos can be taken. Warm-ups are a good time to practice specific shots because it’s a controlled environment and it’s easy to anticipate what’s going to happen next.
I was pleasantly surprised with the initial results. The background was blurring nicely and the lens was producing some nice, sharp images. The camera has a lag and only fires one shot at a time (there is no burst mode), but I got the timing down after a few tries. I was happy enough with the results that I decided to use it for the first part of the game.
No matter what equipment a photographer is using, one of the keys is to anticipate the action and not try to follow the ball. When the ball ricocheted into the air and Chad Marshall had Silva beat on initial positioning, I pre-focused, zoomed in tight, and fired what is hopefully my A200’s last ever photo in a sports environment.
At this point, many people may ask, “If it’s possible to get those photos with cheap equipment, why do photographers shell out inordinate amounts of money for equipment?”
In sports photography, the “keep” rate on photos is remarkably low, generally around ten percent or less. Upgrades in camera bodies, especially when it comes to frame rate and auto-focus speed, will help increase the number of usable photos at the end of the day. A good, fast lens is needed for low-light situations. The Beercan is actually a very sharp lens and a bargain at the price, but it will fall short when trying to shoot at night games or in high school gyms. Longer lenses can capture the action at midfield better, where most of the action takes place. I joke about the Sony A200, but it’s not designed for sports - as a beginner camera for someone who only wants to take portraits or landscapes, it works fine. The point of the article is that, while we have better tools for the job, we still have the knowledge and experience to coax good photos out of basic equipment as well.
However, you’re probably here to actually learn something and not just read about me patting myself on the back for showing up a Random Snarky Internet Citizen™. I’ll write another article later going into detail later, but here are some tips for those who are just getting into sports photography.
Principles for beginners in sports photography
- Anticipate the play and pre-focus: Most sports have moments of anticipation. If two players are about to go up for a header, they’ll coil their bodies, at which time you lock in your focus. They’ll then spring into the air, at which point you fire. Don’t follow the ball - determine where the ball is going to be and do your best to anticipate the moment. If you wait until the action has started to try and focus, you’ve likely missed the shot.
- Faces and balls: After you get your mind out of the gutter (or leave it in - either works), the initial rule of thumb, especially when one photo is needed to convey a game, is “two faces and a ball.” While this probably is the most flexible “rule” and most acceptable to break, it’s a good habit to look for, as it (and celebration shots) are most likely to tell the story.
- Zoom in (“Fill the frame”): Get your fainting couch ready, because here’s a dirty little secret: sports photographers crop their photos. With that said, the more you zoom in initially, the better the quality of the shot and the more your subject will be isolated from the background.
- Know your lens’ reach: One of the biggest mistakes I see beginners make is trying to shoot the action across the field with a lens which cannot reliably reach it. While modern memory cards make it less necessary to discriminate in shot selection, it is extremely tedious to sort through and extra 200-300 photos later for a small handful of photos which might be “okay.”
- Less is more: Don’t be afraid to shoot, but remember that most people don’t want to flip through a gallery of 200+ photos. Get your 2-3 best, highlight them, and then have another 30-40 ready for the gallery. There are exceptions to this, of course, but you’ll get better reactions when you keep it simple.
- It’s okay to fail: Miss a specific shot? That’s okay. We all do. Don’t sweat it. Keep shooting. Laugh about your mistakes and move on from them. Don’t try to force yourself into publishing something you won’t be proud of. Sometimes everything is perfect, but the auto-focus slips. Case in point below.
- Set yourself up to succeed: Especially when you’re starting out and using more basic equipment, set yourself up to succeed. Start in situations where you’re guaranteed plenty of ambient light (in other words, middle of the day). Even professional stadiums like CenturyLink, with its massive bank of stadium lights, is more difficult to shoot once the sun goes down. There’s a reason I picked a 2pm game, rather than a 7pm game, to experiment with my old equipment. Your local rec field or high school field is going to have awful lighting. If you’re looking for things to shoot, there are plenty of youth rec games, semi-pro soccer clubs, and high school games which are always looking for people to come in and take photos. If you have kids, or friends with kids in youth sports, these games are great because the field is much smaller, giving you more opportunities to take photos of the action.
- Have patience: With that said, temper expectations. You’re not going to become a rock-star overnight. Many games you shoot will be for two teams who couldn’t care less that you’re there. Use those opportunities as a stress-free opportunity to push your boundaries and focus on improving on one or two specific things. Remember, most people just want one or two good photos and don’t want to wade through 50 or 60 to find the one they want.
- Professional conduct: Before you shoot, ask yourself, “Today, am I a photographer, a referee, an athlete, a coach, or a spectator?” In sports, photographers are expected to be quiet and impartial. Don’t abuse the ability to get close the action by yelling at the referee, athletes, or coaches. At youth games, you’ll look like a jerk. At professional games, you’ll have your credential revoked and be escorted from the premises.
Photography is a grind. There’s a lot to learn. Photographers’ eyes need to be developed (heh) and that comes with practice. Don’t worry about things like the lens of the person next to you, camera brand, etc. Keep shooting, keep learning, and enjoy the process.