Elite sports photography is an action-packed exemplification of energy, stamina, character, courage, and determination. Athletic performance at its highest level is recorded as a visual history, capturing results and defining both the pain and glory of an event.
As a genre, sports photography requires skill and a thorough understanding of how to capture speed and action in camera with tack-sharp proficiency. It also helps to know the basics of the sport you are shooting and what the performance expectations are around the athletes competing.
“I am naturally drawn to sports, particularly elite amateur sports,” says Dave Holland, photographer for the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary. “The three key things I look for when I am assessing photo positions are where the best light is, where the best background is, and where the peak action will be. All three go hand in hand. If you have great action and a great background, but the action is terrible, it won’t work. Another key consideration for location is the finish line, if the finish is critical. Often there will be a group of photographers in a certain area. This will give you an idea of where some of the best shots will be, but you will also get the same shots as they do, so I usually go elsewhere.”
Holland, who is self-taught, started shooting sports for his high school yearbook, but then didn’t pick up a camera again until 2008, when he was on a five-month trip around the world. In 2009, Holland began shooting at the bobsleigh track in Calgary, eventually expanding to photograph other World Cup events.
“The first thing to shooting an event is knowing what kind of credentials or access you need,” Holland says. “For bigger events you will need a media or photographer’s credential to bring your camera in. Once you are in, introduce yourself to the media representative to see where you can and cannot go.” Being completely comfortable with the manual settings in your camera, along with an intuitive know-how of setting shutter speeds, inversions, exposure, and aperture, all within a second’s reaction time, are paramount to capturing winning images. “In most of the elite sports I shoot, faster is better,” Holland says. “A very fast shutter speed for me is 1/4000 to 1/8000 of a second. Speeds in this range will freeze motion. I prefer to shoot almost entirely in manual mode so I can control exposure settings. Some sports photographers shoot in shutterpriority modes (TV for Canon, S for Nikon). I prefer to control my aperture, which controls my depth of field. I usually shoot wide open, (f/2.0, f/2.8, or f/4.0), so that my background blurs the most. My process for setting exposure is to set my aperture (usually wide open) and my desired shutter speed (for indoor fast events, usually at 1/640 or higher). Then I increase my ISO until I get the desired exposure.”
While most of us wonder how photographers such as Holland consistently produce such exceptional work, Holland shares some secrets and tips of the trade: “I end up with lots of blurry images, but I never publish them. If 10 percent of the photos I take are keepers, I am usually happy. This 10 percent represents images that are tack sharp, show peak action and perfect form, and have clean backgrounds.”
“One mistake I commonly see is people using the wrong focus mode when shooting sports,” Holland says. “AI Servo AF (Canon) and AF-C (Nikon) are continuous modes for shooting action. One-shot modes are designed for subjects that don’t move. Many cameras will have various, and sometimes customizable, autofocus modes. Some modes are better for tracking subjects (ski or bicycle racers), and some are better for subjects that move erratically (such as in gymnastics or soccer). Another tip is to use a centre focus or a small group of focus points. I aim my focus points on an athlete’s face as I want the eyes in focus.
Next, understand how autofocus works. Most autofocus systems look for contrast to help them focus. Sometimes you may need to look for points of higher contrast if your camera has trouble autofocusing. Sometimes the best way to get the shot when the subject is moving fast is to trap focus. Pre-focus on a selected point and then take a few shots when subjects move through this point. You can pre-focus using autofocus mode, but you will need to use the back button to focus, and the shutter button to shoot.” With longer lenses, a monopod is a necessity (tripods are rarely allowed) to stabilize the lens. Holland believes that the key to being successful at whatever genre you want to shoot is to develop your own style and then to get out there and shoot — a lot. Accomplished photographers learn from the best photographers in their field and understand what makes their photos stand out among all the other images. Tack-sharp quality images — especially those shot under extreme or high velocity conditions, invariably without a tripod — tend to be exceptional rather than average.
“Look at photos and bookmark the photos you really like,” says Holland. “Then every once in a while go through them and decide what you like and dislike about these images and then try to work that into your photography. Have an awesome website and link it to social media. The final piece of advice is to have fun. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, don’t do it. It will show in your photos.”
See more of Dave Hollands work at: WWW.DAVEHOLLAND.CA