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Globe tipsheet: Sports Photography

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  May 28, 2009 05:59 PM

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Our June contest theme is Spring Sports, so I asked the Globe's talented sports photographer, Jim Davis, to write up some tips for taking good sports pictures.

Jim, who's been on the Globe staff since 1993, has been named Photographer of the Year by the Boston Press Photographers Association twice, and was also National Football League Photographer of the Year. Before coming to the Globe, he was on the staff of the Boston Herald for 8.5 years and with the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune for 5 years.

You can see a portfolio of his work here.

Jim mostly shoots professional sports, and the photos I chose to illustrate his points are of Boston's pro teams. But his tips are designed for the amateur standing on the sidelines of his daughter's softball game as well as sitting in the stands at a Celtics game.

By Jim Davis
Globe Staff

One of the most important tips for shooting sports for an amateur (as well as a professional) is to fill the frame as much as possible. If you don't have a long telephoto lens, that means you have to get as close to the action as possible. Even if you do have a long lens, you still want to fill the frame with the action to avoid having to blow up the image too much, which can lead to a loss of quality in a print.

Justin Masterson

The Sox' Justin Masterson fired a pitch in an April game. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
1/1000 sec. at f/4.5, ISO 200, focal length 420mm


Some sports are easier to get close to than others: Basketball, for example, where you can sit on the baseline under the basket. Others, such as ice hockey, are much more difficult to get as close up as you need to be.

For a lot of sports, you can get decent photos without long glass, but you will have to limit yourself to only certain parts of the playing surface. For example, if you are shooting football, stay in the back of one end zone, or on the sidelines near the end zone, and wait for the action to come to you. The same guidelines that you use for football will also serve you well for soccer and field hockey.

Patriots Touchdown

The Colts' Antoine Bethea couldn't stop BenJarvus Green-Ellis
from getting over the goal line last November. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
1/1000 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600, focal length 400mm

Sports such as track and field present opportunities for good photos without the benefit of long glass. For instance, you can position yourself inside or outside one of the curves of a track, and shoot your subjects as they come around the corner right in front of you.

For baseball or softball, you should get as close to either first base or third base as safely possible (without being in the field of play) and just concentrate on action in that area. Usually first base will see more action because many more runners in a game reach first than will reach third.

Dustin Pedroia

Dustin Pedroia rounded first after hitting a home run in the first inning
of Opening Day at Fenway against Tampa Bay. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
1/1300 sec. at f/6.3, ISO 1000, focal length 200mm

Ice hockey presents its own unique challenges. Shooting through the glass along the boards is very difficult, as most rinks have older glass that is scuffed and scratched from pucks and bodies bouncing off, which is not conducive to clear photos. If you have a lens that is at least a 200mm or longer, you can find a spot high up in the stands and shoot over the glass. Sometimes there are spots in the penalty boxes that can produce nice shots, but it can be dangerous, and wearing a helmet would be recommended if you shoot from there.


Shane Hnidy (L) and the Canadiens' Josh Gorges were separated by a linesman
during an April playoff game fracas. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
1/640 sec. at f/3.2, ISO 1000, focal length 300mm

Cross-country can make a nice photo with shorter lenses at the start of the race, when all the runners are bunched together.

Tennis with a short lens is difficult, but if it's possible, position yourself off to the side, near the net, and shoot the players when they come to the net.

Swimming and diving present a challenge, and not just because of your proximity to the action. The pools where the events are held are often very humid, and (especially in winter) your lens can fog over because of the change in humidity when you come in from the cold. You can try to prevent this from happening with this trick: In your car during the ride to the pool, put your camera on the floor under the passenger's side glove box with the heat fan set to blow from the floor vent on to the camera.


Once you've decided where you are going to shoot from, the next step is deciding what and when to shoot.

Some sports offer almost constant action, such as basketball, volleyball, and ice hockey, while others, like baseball and softball, can be slower paced. Capturing peak action takes time and practice (and usually a lot of wasted film or disk space).

How much to shoot depends on whether you are using a digital camera or a film camera. With digital, you can shoot much more because of your ability to delete frames that are not up to par, but with the cost of film and processing, it can be VERY expensive to shoot too much film.

Action shots are good, but reaction pictures can be more memorable, especially if the event you are shooting is a tournament game of some kind -- the emotions and reactions of the players can make great photos. In that situation (particularly if you are shooting film), you should always remember to save some frames for the end of the game, where the strongest emotions are usually exhibited.

Glen Davis
Glen "Big Baby" Davis screamed after he hit the winning shot against Orlando
in Game 4 in the second round of this year's NBA playoffs. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

Capturing the emotions at their peak requires some advance planning, such as positioning yourself so that you have a good angle of the bench or the dugout when the players react at the precise moment the contest is over. Or try to anticipate where the players will run at that moment: Baseball players quite often head for the pitcher's mound; basketball players usually run to the center of the court.

Yankee Killers

The Sox celebrated at the mound after beating the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS.
(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

If you want to concentrate more on the players still on the field, pick someone like the pitcher in baseball, or the goalie in hockey, and focus on them as the game ends.

Montreal goalie

Montreal goalie Jose Theodore watched as the winning shot by Bruin Patrice Bergeron
got by him in overtime in this year's playoffs. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
1/640 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 800, focal length 300mm

Another important thing to watch out for is your background, which is more crucial with a shorter lens, not as crucial with a long lens. Before you start shooting, especially outside, look to see what is going to be in the background of what you are shooting. Try to avoid bright white things such as walls, or shiny reflective things such as empty bleachers. Not only can they be distracting in a photo, they can also throw off your camera's meter readings, giving you incorrectly exposed pictures.

Shooting inside dimly lit gymnasiums, pools, or tracks can pose problems as well. Today's newer camera models are a vast improvement over the equipment of the past, but you will still have to be careful about your camera settings. Make sure you adjust the ISO to a high rating (probably at least 1600 or above), and, although it's not always possible, try to keep your shutter speed at 400 or higher. Obviously in the indoor settings, you want your lens aperture to be wide open, hopefully at 2.8 or lower.

Jim Tildsley

Andover High girls' basketball coach Jim Tildsley held practice in the school gym.
(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
1/250 sec. at f/2.8, ISO 2500, focal length 300mm

These are just guidelines; each situation is different, and you will have to adjust accordingly. If you are shooting with a digital camera, do some test shots and look at them in the back of the camera and see how it looks. If you are shooting film, and if you shoot at the same venue a lot, perhaps you can shoot a test roll at different exposures (this is called bracketing), and see which one works best.

I try not to use a flash for any sports photography, but you may find that some buildings are just too dark to avoid it. If that is the case, try to use just a small amount of light to fill in the shadows and see if that works. As far as white balance on a digital camera, each model is different, but automatic might be your best bet.

As you get better at sports shooting, you may want to try to get into some more intricate methods. Panning, for example, blurs the background while the subject is sharp -- that gives the photo a feeling of motion. To achieve this result, you will probably need a monopod or a tripod, which will help you keep the camera as steady as possible.

Panning can help you get a decent picture in low light situations because you shoot at a low shutter speed (anywhere from 125th of a second down to a 15th of a second should work) which enables you to compensate for the lack of light.

It is best to position yourself so that the subject is moving from right to left or left to right across your field of vision rather than coming right at you. Make sure that you check your exposure and that you find the correct settings for the ISO and shutter speed you are using.

As you follow the subject, the idea is to move the camera at the same speed that the athlete is moving. That will keep the athlete sharply in focus, while the low shutter speed will cause the background to blur. Try to keep the subject in the center of the viewfinder, and shoot a LOT of frames.

Indy 500

Sarah Fisher of the US raced in the Indy 500 this month. (Larry Papke/Reuters)
Shot with a 80-200mm f/2.8 lens at about 1/400 sec.

Unless you own stock in Kodak or Fuji, I wouldn't suggest trying this with a film camera. I have sometimes shot as many as 200 to 300 frames in order to get one that is usable. You may get lucky and hit the jackpot early, but at least with a digital camera you can delete the MANY useless frames that you will shoot. Be patient -- this takes a lot of practice to get right!

These sports photography tips are general guidelines. Remember that every venue and every situation is different, and that what works in one place or at one time might not always work in another. Have fun and experiment to see what works best for you and the equipment that you have. But always remember: "FILL THE FRAME".

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