Monday, September 08, 2008

Lessons in sports photography

I have always admired sports photography for the stunning action images as well as the emotions they portray. I wanted to first hand experience how easy/difficult it was to capture such images. So, on the first opportunity I had I went to the Marymoor velodrome armed with my camera and lenses. Here is an account of what I learnt, and how to take better sports pictures.
First of all, here is what I took:
- DigiSLR
- 100- 300mm (1:4.5-5.6) zoom lens
- 16- 35mm (1:2.8) wide angle zoom lens
First mistake that you notice is that I didn't pack my tripod! My lenses are not extremely fast, and to top it off, the races were held at night. I realized this as soon as darkness engulfed us, and flood lights turned on.

Lesson #1: Do your homework on the gear you will need.

As a spectator, I had visited the velodrome several times, but had never thought of the different locations and the angles they provide. Armed with a camera, I started noticing all of this when I started shooting, and looking for the angles you see on a sports publication. As I started shooting, and moving around, I discovered that most of the coveted spots were already taken!

Lesson #2: Do your scouting in advance and pick the best location.

When it comes to angles and composition, it pays to know a bit about the sport. How does it start? What happens during the event? How does it end? What do the competitors do: before, during and after the event? Knowing all these lets you pick the right spot, and be there when the action is happening. Strategize in advance.

Lesson #3: Learn about the sport you are shooting.

I shot a lots of pics from different angles, locations, and most of them turned out mediocre (see examples above). About a third of them were blurred. Many of these can be attributed to the equipment I had.

It is always a good idea to experiment and shoot lots of pics and keep good notes on the parameters used.

First of all, you need a fast lens to shoot in low light. Since you need to use fast shutter speed to freeze action (if that is the intent), a fast lens helps immensely. Image stabilization on top of it will add to the sharpness. Setting a higher film speed also helps, but there is threshold (ISO 800?) beyond which the images become grainy.

A long lens adds to the effect by laterally compressing the scene. A wide angle lens lets you capture the bigger picture, including the spectators. Larger apertures are helpful in blurring out the background.

A tripod would help, but a monopod will do better. A monopod will offer a lot of flexibility when the subject keeps moving and changing direction. I would love to take a monopod during my next visit.

Last, but not the least, shoot a variety of pictures. Keep in mind that your subject in a sporting event is not only the sportsperson during the event, but also the sportsperson before and after the event. Your subject could also be the spectators and their reaction. Your subject could be the equipment, the organizers, the concession stands. It could be anything that symbolizes the sport and the spirit of the sport.

Final lesson: Look at the bigger picture.