Advice and help on becoming a world class photographer by Sports Photographer Vince Rush

Know your Sport…Know your Players! Part 1

Batters Eye View

Monroe Hornets Sports Photography by Ohio Sports Photographer Vincent Rush


Know your Sport, Know your Players Part 1

Each sport is different in the techniques used to capture the moment. Each sport has a limited number of unique shots. You can only shoot so many basketball games before you start feeling like, “been there, done that”. Each sport also has opportunities to get “safeties”. A safety is a shot that is easy to get and will give you something to publish if you fail to get good action. For instance, I was shooting a baseball game. In the visitors at bat in the second inning, the skies opened up and it started raining. I had time to shoot the home team in the field and at bat once. Realizing the pending weather, I concentrated on getting some simple usable shots instead of waiting on some excitement at a base, like a steal. Safeties include things like batters batting, pitchers pitching, basketball players shooting free throws, the quarterback under center. Take times when the action is slow to get some good tight shots to use in case no good action materializes. Shoot your safeties first, concentrate on action later. You always want to come back with something.

Its also important to spend some time at an event and not rush the assignment. Many photographers are under intense deadlines and cannot devote enough time to their sporting events and it shows in their work. I expect one usable shot every 20 frames. I like to shoot at least 72 (2 -36’s) per event and I can come out with several usable shots and some fantastic ones. If you go to a soccer game and shoot a 1GB chip, don’t expect much.

Its very important to know the sport you are covering. You have to know the coach and their coaching style. You have to understand some basic fundamentals of the game or you will become very frustrated. For instance, in football, if its 3rd down and 1 yard to go, don’t expect a pass, but point the camera at the full back. In most likelihood, he will be getting the ball, unless its late in the game and they have to pass. Or don’t wait on a steal at 2nd base with 2 outs. Coaches hate making the last out of the inning on the base paths.
You also need to know players and their habits. Some players are full of emotion and tend to display their patterned moves. For instance at a local high school girls soccer match, I got a dramatic sequence of a player doing a cartwheel throw in. I knew it was coming and I was prepared for her move when she got the ball.
Knowing your sport goes beyond the rules and players. Know your coaches and what tends to make them emotional. Get fan shots or cheerleader shots with their emotion. A co-worker once told me “even a blind pig gets an acorn once in a while”. Any photographer will eventually get the “action” shot, but sometimes you need that crying cheerleader after a loss, or fans in costumes going nuts to completely tell the story. The game goes beyond the boundaries of the field and the rule book.

Baseball is one of the hardest sports to shoot. The action is unpredictable. You wait and wait and then when you are half asleep, something happens. Much of the field is out of range of normal zoom and telephoto lenses. Depending on the level of your sport, you will need long lenses. For most regulation fields (90 feet between bases, 350+ feet to the wall), you need 400mm or longer if you are shooting from the dugouts. It lets you shoot all the infield positions reasonably tight from the dugout/press area. The near base can be gotten with a 200-300mm lens. If you are shooting little league, you can get away with a 200-300mm lens because of the smaller fields unless you are trying to catch the outfield. Night baseball is too poorly lit and you need professional long telephotos to capture good images here.

Your safeties in baseball consist of the pitcher, throwing the ball, the batters batting, the catcher catching or getting a sign from the dugout. After these shots, the game becomes a little less predictable. When a batter hits the ball to an infielder, you have to find the play, aim the camera, focus, and fire. Generally its too late. What you have to do is kinda keep the camera pointed at the short stop or the second baseman. Keep the camera near your face, but you need to watch the play. In particular, if you are standing where you can see the batters stomach, you are in risk of getting hit by a foul ball. If you see the batters back, you will rarely see a foul ball. Once you have an idea of where the play is going, you can adjust, focus and fire. If you are shooting from the first base dugout, 3rd and Short Stop should be about the same distance away, so you can zone focus here. Likewise, from the third base dugout, 2nd and 1st are about the same distance.

Unlike baseball, basketball is the easiest sport to shoot. Action is contained in a 100 foot x 50 foot area. There are two objects (the nets) where the action always heads. Basketball is a game of limited shots though. You can shoot jump shots, lay ups, free throws, blocks, dribbling, and defense. Zone focus works well in basketball. You know lay ups are going to happen close to the net, so focus on the net and wait on the action to come to you. Your focusing techniques will vary somewhat if you are on the side line or base line. If you are on the baseline, zone focus is the best method. If you are along the side, you can follow focus. Your safeties are free throws and players dribbling or looking to pass. At these times action is minimal and you can get some good tight shots of players.

Basketball (and other gym sports) is probably the worst lighting situation you will get into, however, you can get away with much slower shutter speeds. When a player drives for a lay up or takes a jump shot, they almost pause at the top of their jump. This is the peak of the action and the shot should be taken then. Since they have stopped moving for a millisecond, that is the best time to freeze them. Once you have these shots under your belt, you can then start working on emotion shots, blocks, and other action which may not come along as often.

Generally you can get away with anywhere between a 50mm and 135mm lens with 85-105 being optimal. This lets you cover out to about mid court. If you want to shoot shots under the far basket, you will need a longer lens. However a fast lens, like an 85mm F1.4 is an excellent choice for most of your basketball action shots.

Football is also an easy sport to shoot but may be one of the most equipment intense sports. Most of the time, you will be shooting at night and fast glass is required. Motion is predictable and a student of the game can almost predict the plays to allow you to get ready. Knowing your sports allows you to know if its a passing situation or running situation so you know where to focus your attention. For instance, in a football game, if it is 3rd down with 1 yard to go, you can be pretty comfortable that a running play is coming. So get your lens pointed at the backfield and get ready.

Football affords the fewest safeties. You can get the QB getting ready to pass or the coach on the side lines. However, the action shots are plenty. You will get opportunities to photograph the quarterback throwing the ball and running backs running the ball. Make sure you get these shots. Then you can go hunting pass plays to the receivers.

If you have freedom of movement, you want to set up 5-10 yards down field from the play. That way you get the QB and running backs coming at you. If you are stuck in photo zones between the goal line and the 35 yard marker, you will be limited to shooting plays that occur in that area. Big glass is important to football. If you have freedom of movement, a 300mm F2.8 is the ideal lens. However if you are restricted, you either need a 2x on the 300mm or a 600mm to reach plays on the far end of the field. If you are patient or shooting youth league, you can get away with an 80-200 zoom. You will have to wait on more plays to come your way. You wont get much in the middle or far side of the field.

Since football movement is up and down the field and most photographers shoot from a side line, football is a follow focus sport. It is a pretty easy sport to follow focus because the subject to camera distance changes constantly, so once you start focusing, you should be able to time your turning the focus ring with their movement.

Soccer and Hockey
Auto focus was invented with soccer and hockey in mind. These two sports involve rapid changes in direction. The subject to camera distance changes so fast, its hard to follow focus because in an instant, the play is heading another direction. Zone focusing is a bit more applicable, except there is no guarantee the play will enter your focus zone. AF solves this problem because it tracks the play better than you. These two sports alone are the reason I moved from manual cameras to auto focus.

Soccer is a game where you need long lenses. Generally, you have good access to the side lines. At the major league and college level, there may be some limits, but they probably are not as tight as football because the number of players on the sidelines is much less. You will typically shoot from the touch (or side) lines, though you can get some real good shots from behind the net or along the goal line. The lens of choice for Soccer is a 400mm F2.8 or longer. Many pro soccer photographers will have two cameras. One with the long lens mounted and a second with an 80-200mm zoom. This gives me some flexibility in composition while giving me the length needed to capture this large field game. If play gets close, they can switch bodies and go to the shorter lens.

Soccer is a good game to get some dynamic and exciting photos. Your safeties include players dribbling the ball and throw ins. Get these shots and then work on catching headers, traps, corner kicks, and goalie saves. Soccer headers require the most accurate guessing on timing. The ball will be out of the frame quickly. It takes a lot of practice to capture these.

Hockey, while similar to soccer in its unpredictable movement, has an advantage of being played in a smaller contained area. An 80-200mm lens is good for shooting hockey regardless of where the play is. To get shots on the far end of the rink, up to 300mm may be needed. Hockey however has some quirks that you need to be aware of. Frequently you are limited to shooting through the glass which limits the angles you can shoot or through chain link fence for outdoor roller hockey. Some arenas you are limited to one location and have a small hole to shoot though and you most likely will be competing with other photographers for this real estate.
The ice or deck wrecks havoc with your camera’s meter. You will need to overexpose by at least one stop in ice rinks to get white ice. This takes away from your available shutter speed. Your safeties includes face offs, and players skating with the puck/ball. Good shots can be had of the goalies, though many of your shots will be of players on the rink.

Written by Sports Photographer Rob Miracle and posted by Cincinnati Ohio Sports Photographer Vincent Rush of Cincinnati Sports Photography.

Posted by Monroe Ohio photographer Vincent Rush, Cincinnati Sports Photography and Dayton Sports Photography of Monroe Ohio. Vince Rush can be contacted by phone at (877) 858-6295 or by email at or visit Check out my profile!


One response

  1. Great post and photo Vince. I’m a big fan.

    March 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm

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