January 25, 2023


The sports photography starter guide

Image by Leah Hetteberg

Want to become a professional sports photographer? This guide has everything you need to know.

Section 1: Starting out in sports photography

There is no easy manual for getting into sports photography as a professional. Every photographer will bring something different to sports photography.

Importantly, not every successful sports photographer starts the same way, and it’s very rare to find two sports photographers sharing the exact same journey in their craft. So, what path you take to become a sports photographer will depend on two things: how passionate you are about taking images of sporting events and what you are prepared to do to get an opportunity to be able to shoot at a sporting event.

How to become a professional sports photographer

If you think that you can buy the longest telephoto lens and a mean-looking camera and walk through a sports editor’s doors, and you’ll be offered a special pass to shoot the next MLB game – well, It doesn’t work that way.

You have to work your way up, one shot at a time.

One definite way is to build a portfolio of sports photos by working at events at your school or college. Once you have a decent portfolio, you can approach local newspapers and try to get a freelance position to shoot local sporting events. Some photographers I’ve known have worked for free during their initial days starting out, just so that they have the opportunity to shoot and learn and get a feel of the work.

As you progress, your contacts will also increase. You can then leverage those contacts into more lucrative and better-paying assignments. It’s hard to get permanent sports photography positions, and many photographers, even experienced ones, are still doing freelance work. So keep an open mind and don’t hesitate to approach anyone you can.  

5 Sports photography tips every beginner should know when they are starting out

1. Familiarize yourself with the sport

One of the best tips we can give in the field of sports photography is to learn the sport you’re trying to photograph, otherwise you will quickly find yourself out of your depth if you miss doing your homework in this aspect.

It’s also important to remember that different countries play different sports, and you should be familiar with the national sports and all the various teams that make up those sports from the local level right to the professional leagues. From a practical perspective, you might be pretty confident in your ability to shoot the decisive moment, so to say, when you’re covering the most popular sports. But the challenge is when you cover sports that you’re also unfamiliar with.

The least you can do as a sports photographer in training is to give yourself the best chance by familiarizing yourself with the sport and how it’s played. Find out where the key moments are in the game and how the tempo changes over time. These things will give you the best chance of getting the best photos.

2. Familiarize yourself with your camera equipment

There is nothing worse than fiddling around with your equipment at the venue. Because that means you’re missing out on moments where you could be capturing the best shots. Whatever organising and setting up that you need to do, you need to do that in your spare time and when you’re not working. There is enough time to familiarize yourself with your equipment before the game.

Because professional cameras and lenses can cost a fortune, and when you’re still learning the ropes, you probably don’t have the budget to pay for that equipment. Renting out makes sense. But what does not is renting unfamiliar equipment just before the event.

If you’re planning on using equipment more frequently, I recommend renting it out for a few days when you’re not shooting on an assignment so that you familiarize yourself with the equipment. So that when you do rent it just before an event, you know what the equipment does and how to work with it.

By the time you get regular gigs in sports photography, you will know exactly what camera and lenses you prefer and that first initial purchase will likely be the right purchase instead of based on a gut feeling of what you think you will need before the big game starts.

3. Learn about the autofocusing mechanism

The most important thing you need to remember when you’re shooting sports photography is that autofocusing needs to be on the money at all times. The more that happens, the higher the chances of getting sharp images.

Now, autofocusing technologies vary from brand to brand, and so do their names and acronyms, but deep down, they all do the same thing. They lock focus where you intend to. Learning to autofocus correctly with your camera is an important aspect of taking great sports photos. Learning how the system works is also important.

And because sporting events happen so fast (for the most part), you must always be sharp.

Many cameras offer eye and face identification and tracking – which provides a great way to lock focus easily. Simply set your camera to identify the subject’s eye and face and let the autofocusing do the rest. The less things you’re bothered from when you’re shooting, the more you can experiment with your compositions.

4. Avoid getting external distractions. Take your focus when working

Sports photography is a demanding genre. You often don’t get images you’re proud of, even after spending the entire afternoon. Sometimes there is but one chance only. Good exponents of the art make those one-chance or the half-a-chance count.

They can do this because they’re focused on the work and let all their external distractions not come in between. What would those distractions be? Your smartphone, for example, is the number one culprit.

5. Shutter speed, monopod, and image stabilization

This is important because image blur or subject blur is a major issue in sports photography. You can say an image with a subject is a great photo. You need tack-sharp photos with no image blur if you’re to have your images see the light of day. So what do you do? Image stabilization is perhaps what every beginner will try to use because it’s there for use on most telephoto lenses. The sort of lens you would be used for sports photography.

But there is a downside to using image stabilization, which is sometimes a bit of hesitation in the camera when you’re shooting multiple frames one after the other.

Switching off image stabilization is a good way to go about it (I say this even at the peril of sounding stupid), but as long as you’re using a shutter speed faster than the focal length, you should be fine. So, you’re okay if you’re using a focal length of 600mm and your shutter speed is 1/1000 sec.

Last but not least, and since you’re using heavy equipment, I recommend using a monopod. Not a tripod because they take up a lot of space, and you might have to share the space with other photographers. In any way, a monopod is a much more flexible tool. With a monopod, you can reduce the image shake even more.

Section 2: How to shoot sports photography

The sports photography camera settings worth learning the most

Sports photography is a skill-based genre as much as it depends on the right tools. So, even if you’re using the best camera and the best lens, you still need to be able to use the right settings and the right techniques to shoot the best images.

How to choose the right camera and exposure settings for sports

When shooting sports photography, your exposure settings should be the priority. By exposure settings, I mean aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. In terms of shutter speed, you should be around 1600 to 2000 in that zone. This can vary a little, depending on the sports you’re photographing. Ideally, faster the action faster should be the shutter speed. The best option would be to switch to shutter priority mode because your shutter speed is the priority. Sporting action is fast; the last thing you want is image blur and subject blur.

• ISO in sports photography

Your ISO settings can be left on Auto, depending on the shutter speed that you’ve selected. Also, the available light is an important factor in determining what ISO you would pick. Leaving the camera on auto ISO means you’ve one less thing to think about when photographing. Finally, the camera determines your aperture when you’re shooting at shutter speed. So, you’re free to fiddle with the composition.

• Group Autofocusing Points

Choose Group Autofocusing points rather than a single autofocusing point. As the subject usually moves very fast, it becomes difficult to focus with a single autofocusing point. Multiple AF points, when grouped, are a much better option. When the subject moves, as in sports events, the grouped AF has a better time focusing. Plus, when you’re trying to track and refocus grouped AF points makes it that much easier.

• Shoot in JPEG + RAW?

Sports photography is a genre that requires a large amount of data storage. This is because 99% of the time, you’re shooting in continuous mode, which fills up the memory card pretty quickly. Yes, you will require several cards when you’re on an assignment, but even then, shooting in RAW not only slows you down because RAW files take longer to write to the memory cards (because the files are larger), you also need to post-process them before they’re ready for publishing.

JPEGs don’t require any post-processing. They’re a web-ready file format and smaller in file size. So, when you’re shooting in JPEG, you’re not only saving space, you’re also saving a lot of time you would have to spend converting those RAW files to JPEG. I am not in any way discounting the importance of the RAW format. If you can shoot in RAW that does not affect your workflow, go ahead and do that. The disadvantage of shooting JPEG is that you will have fewer opportunities to change the lighting of the image during post-processing. You will need to weigh up this challenge with the need for capture speed.

For sports photography, keep these key points in mind:

  • Use auto ISO
  • Use shutter priority mode
  • Use a faster shutter speed
  • Choose group AF points
  • Choose the continuous autofocusing mode
  • Shoot in JPEG.

What depth of field do you want in sports photography?

Images have an inherent beauty where the subject is isolated from the background. This effect (known as bokeh), where the background is softer, and the subject is sharp in focus, adds that much-needed spice that makes your images stand out. Because of how these lenses are designed, it’s very easy to capture this effect with telephoto lenses.  

Ideally, when using a telephoto lens like 300mm or 400mm (or even longer), the magnification aspect always creates a shallow depth of field in your images. This is something that cannot be avoided in sports photography.

When we talk about sports photography, it’s important to note that your telelenses are rarely going to open up to an aperture wider than f/4. The longer the telephoto reach of the lens, the smaller is going to be the maximum aperture.

As we know, smaller apertures give a larger depth of field. But sports relies on distance and often because of the vast distances at which our subject is placed and the magnification effect that telelenses tend to have, shallow depth of field invariably happens.

If you’re shooting with a smaller focal length, like 200mm, it’s possible to take advantage of the larger aperture such lenses tend to offer. For example, you can shoot with an f/2.8 lens and capture that shallow depth of field that makes a subject stand out from the background.

Best ISO for sports photography

I have already stressed the importance of ISO in a previous section. ISO is one of the important parameters that govern exposure. Your ISO parameter will depend on the shutter speed that you select. Ideally, your shutter speed should be more than 1/1000 sec, so your ISO should be pretty high. Another aspect that governs ISO is the available light in the scene. If the scene is dark, it is late in the afternoon, or it’s overcast, you need to push your ISO to a higher number to be able to compensate for the lack of light.

Camera technologies have evolved over the years, and one of the areas where it has evolved rapidly is ISO tolerance and low shooting capabilities in particular. Modern Cameras can effortlessly shoot at ISO 1600 and up without degrading the quality of the images. Twenty years ago, this was almost impossible without an incredibly expensive piece of kit.

Today, this feature is particularly useful for shooting fast action and sports photography which is shot with a fast shutter speed and often in less than optimum light. If you’re shooting at a high ISO, you can always push your shutter speed and go for a sharper picture.

Photo by Yente Van Eynde

How to capture pro-sports photography lighting techniques (like a pro)

Depending on the time of day and the type of sports you are you photographing, light will either be to your advantage or disdvantage. In photography in general, there is no such thing as enough lights. A photographer can never have enough lights. You can create adequate images with as few as one light. But as you add more lighting, the image can undergo a world of transformation. A three-light setup is a decent professional setup that can produce images you would be proud to see on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But let’s not jump the gun. Let’s figure out why more is better regarding lighting techniques. And since we’re discussing sports photography lighting, how can multiple lights help us to create a professional setup?

Please note much of these techniques are used to shoot pro sports portraits of athletes and do not apply to game-day sports photography.

The first element of sports photography lighting to understand is that multiple lights help us create edges, shadows, and dimensions. It’s very important to understand that when it comes to sports photography, you want the lights to be edgy, and that gives the best results.

You will also need textures. And you need to play around with the shadows because shadows and the edges help achieve dimension in images. You can replicate the three-dimensional figure of a sportsperson on a two dimension medium.

Technique 1: Cross-lighting

One of the techniques that pro sports photographers use in portraiture is known as cross-lighting, and the lights are usually placed on either side of the subject, creating what is known as edge lighting. These lights are known as edge lighting because of that. They’re also referred to as kicker lights as well.

The third light is placed upfront facing the subject. But this light isn’t placed directly in front but slightly overhead so that the light falls at an angle. This is your key light.

Technique 2: Edge-lighting

The second technique that I will share is a two-light setup. In this setup, you place the key light in front of the subject but at an angle. The light is off-axis to the axis of the camera and lights the subject from a slight angle. A second light is placed just behind the subject.

Again, this light is placed at an angle and produces an edge around the shoulder of the subject facing the subject. Please note the subject is standing at an angle to the camera. The body faces the key light while the face is turned slightly toward the camera.

What is the best shutter speed to use?

There is no single shutter speed that works in every situation. The shutter speed that you choose to use will depend on the sporting activities that you’re shooting. The faster the sporting action, the faster the shutter speed should be.

Even then, what is a ballpark figure for shooting sports? The minimum recommended shutter speed should be the inverse of the focal length that you’re using. That means if you’re shooting with a 300mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of 1/300 sec. But the truth is when you’re shooting sports, 1/300 isn’t going to be enough most of the time; that means you’ve to start with a higher shutter speed before you can take a few test shots and decide what shutter speed to stick to for the next shots. If I am shooting a sporting event, I will start at a minimum of 1/1000 and then decide to adjust the shutter speed depending on my results.

Some may argue that with image stabilization, you don’t always have to shoot at a minimum shutter speed. Depending on the quality of the stabilization, this can also be true and you can slow down your shutter speed by a few stops.

But as I have already mentioned elsewhere in this discussion that when you’re shooting sports photography with image stabilization switched on; sometimes the camera feels a bit hesitant to fire the shutter release. Switching off the shutter release and instead using the older shooting method at the inverse of the shutter speed is the better option. Subject to what I mentioned about my preferred shutter speed.

What settings should I use for night sports photography?

Sports photography is challenging, but night sports photography takes that challenge to a new level. This is arguably one of the most difficult genres of photography to shoot. The simple reason is that the light isn’t ideal for photography.

When you’re shooting any other genre of photography where the subject isn’t moving about, it’s easy to compensate for the lack of light. You have to set up the camera on a tripod and then shoot using a slow shutter speed. That trick, however, will not work when you’re shooting sports photography.

When you’re shooting sports photography in less than adequate lighting, you’ve to ensure that your camera can compensate for that by using a high ISO number.

But even then, you need to keep your eye on one more thing, and that’s the high ISO problem. Most older cameras, especially crop cameras with a small sensor, have serious noise issues when shooting at high ISOs. The best cameras that do not show huge noise issues are full-frame cameras, cameras with a BSI and/or stacked sensor architecture, and low-resolution sensors.

These days, modern dual native ISO cameras are also available that offer you a similar advantage of shooting with two film stocks on a single film camera. These cameras have a twin-base ISO system. The camera uses the lower base ISO when you’re shooting in normal light. When the light goes down and you switch to a higher ISO, the camera switches to the higher base ISO. This amazing technology is possible because of the use of two analog circuits for each pixel of the sensor. Consider the two different native ISOs before the camera gains processors kick in and boost the signal. This is how it’s possible to maintain a clean image even when working at a high ISO.

Photo by Library of Congress

Section 3: Sports photography gear and career tips

Starting out in photography is not cheap at the best of times and sports photograohy is often weighed down by the cost of expensive lenses, steady-cam style gyro-scopic support systems (for those moments you will need to run to catch that perfect shot) and modern camera bodies with low ISO.

With that in mind, here is our short list of camera gear you should consider for sports photography.

The 8 best camera lenses for sports photography

If you want to capture images that make These are our personal picks for the eight bestn camera lenses for sports photography

Nikon NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S

Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS

Nikon NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S

Canon RF 800mm f/5.6 L IS USM

Canon RF 600mm f/4 L IS USM

Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR

The seven best cameras for sports photography

Sony a1

Sony a9 II

Canon EOS R6 Mark II

Nikon Z9

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Nikon D6

Nikon Z6 II

The Best Canon sports camera for sports photography

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

A bunch of features in the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II make it one of the best sports photography cameras, even in 2022. One of them is the high battery life that the CIPA rating states – 2850 shots on a fully charged battery using the viewfinder. The more shots, the merrier. Then there is the HEIF file format which offers a better balance between file size and adjustment flexibility.

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II uses the same sensor as the older Canon EOS-1D X Mark I, so resolution-wise, there is no change. However, the Dual DIGIC 6+ image processor promises good things.

The 14 fps continuous shooting speed (using the OVF) is a great helper for sports photographers. Looking inside the camera, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II has twin CFexpress cards which is a great option for sports photographers. They’re going to need more storage space and the associated speed of writing, so twin CFexpress cards are a great option.

The camera has a very useful AF-On button which comes with a thumb reader option. You can gently swipe and change the AF point selector. This is very useful when you want to switch the AF pointer in a hurry. You don’t have to remove your finger from the AF-on button at any time and then use the tiny joystick.

The Best Nikon camera for sports photography

Nikon Z9

The Nikon Z9 is a tremendous camera in every sense of the word. The Z9 is also currently the Nikon flagship mirrorless, which says a lot. But is that enough to make it one of the best cameras to shoot sports photography? The world is making its slow and silent transition to mirrorless, and both Nikon and Canon are adapting to it. So much so that both these camera makers are churning out bigger and better mirrorless cameras to intrigue discerning customers.

The Nikon Z9’s best thing and this is for users who are migrating to the Z9 from a Nikon DSLR, is that you can use all your legacy Nikkor lenses with this camera using the FTZ adapter. And we have seen there is no discernable difference in autofocusing performance.

If you use the Z9, you will figure out that the new camera (the Z9 is now one year old, so it may not be as new as you think it is) does a commendable job in terms of subject tracking. As you can imagine, when it comes to sports photography focusing and tracking are two important issues that govern the quality of the camera. The Z9 is a much better camera in terms of face detection and tracking.

Top 10 famous sports photographers to learn from

Every photographer has influences they draw upon. We reccommend these accomplished sports photographers to help you draw insight on your journey as a sports photographer.

1. Bob Martin

As a sports photographer, Bob Martin has covered over a dozen Summer and Winter Olympics, among many other sporting events. His work has been featured in some of the leading sports publications of the world, including but not limited to Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.  

2. Samo Vidic

Samo Vidic is a Red Bull sports photographer who has also traveled the world and covered some of the best sporting events. His work has been featured in ESPN publications, among many others.

3. Brian Bielmann

Brian Bielmann is best known for his stunning images of surfers riding giant waves. He has captured some of the most iconic images of surfing events. His work has been showcased in Men’s Journal, National Geographic, and Sports Illustrated, to name a few of the publications.

4. Lucas Gilman

Lucas is an adventure sports photographer. This California native has traveled far and wide to cover some of the most demanding sports photography assignments. He has photographed surfing events, NFL playoffs, and X-Games, to name some of the best sporting events in the world.

5. Andrew D. Bernstein

Andrew D. Bernstein is an American sports photographer who has been shooting professional sports photography for more than 40 years. He is a hall of famer, like the many sporting icons he has photographed over the years.

6. Patric Smith

A Getty Images photographer Patric Smith has been photographing different sporting events for many years. Widely considered one of the most influential sports photographers in the world, Patric has taken many iconic images in his career.

7. James Rushforth

James has been associated with National Geographic, the Daily Telegraph, and many other sports photography publications. He mainly shoots photographs of climbing and skiing events and is part of the Norrona Pro team.

8. David Bergman

A veteran with over 30 years of experience, David Bergman photographs sports and action photography. His work has found its way to the cover of leading sports publications like Sports Illustrated.

9. Al Bello

Al is a specialist in water sports and has dedicated his life to shooting major water sports events worldwide. Be it diving, synchronized swimming, or water polo, Al has been frequently by the pool with his camera and telephoto lenses.


10. Michael Willson

Michael has been photographing a very special sporting event: Aussie rules football. There are very few professional photographers in the world who shoot this sport, and Michael is one of the leading photographers who do so.


Section 4: Sports photography copyright and image theft

Just like in any other genre of photography, sports photographers spend long hours covering sporting events. They spend their time, their energy and use expensive equipment to take photos of the key moments at a sporting event. Those key moments can be a decisive play at a football or baseball game, a goal-scoring moment in soccer, or an important rally that breaks a tie in a Tennis match. The list is endless.

Sports photographers spend countless hours capturing those magical moments. Unfortunately, their work gets stolen and used by others, and they don’t get any compensation for that. The sad thing is photographers have to spend countless hours taking those images and are left in the lurch as others profit from those images. This isn’t an isolated incident, but it happens quite often.

How to protect yourself as a sports photographer: Understanding copyright

Some publishers choose to use sports images taken by others , assuming that they don’t have to pay anyone a licensing fee. They will simply find an image and use it. Even if they credit you for that image (without asking you first), it’s not the way to go about it and is considered an infringement of your copyright.

As sports images are widely viewed and immensely popular, the chances and instances of copyright violation of sports photos are higher than most other types of images. Sports photographers often find their images on t-shirts, memorabilia, and other items of use.

At Pixsy, we dedicate ourselves to the cause of upholding your copyright. We already offer our services to numerous sports photographers worldwide and using our network of law firms and legal partners; we’re in a position to pursue each instance of copyright violation.

How to fight image theft as a sports photographer

Copyright infringement is a confusing subject that average photographers don’t often understand. Neither do people who use copyrighted material. But it’s simple to understand one thing when you’re using material that someone else has made without any reparations or permission; you’re exploiting someone else’s hard work for free. That’s a no-no.

Pixsy can help you by reporting the infringement incident to the legal owners of the platform where the infringement occurred and issuing a takedown request or assist you with a support team to help you take legal action in cases where there is actual copyright infringement.

Without a company like Pixsy assisting you on your journey, you can elect to go it alone. This can be a long-drawn process, and it will involve a lot of time, energy, and not to mention money on your part. You also must successfully establish that you should be compensated correctly for being the rightful copyright owner.

Photo by Jacob Rice

Section 5: Sports photography FAQ

What is the average salary of sports photographers?

The average salary of a sports photographer is highly subjective (like most of photography in general). It depends on several parameters, including education, years of experience as a sports photographer, and the photographer’s location. Different salary aggregate websites all offer different numbers. These numbers also vary based on the number of respondents and the highest and lowest salary figures entered by those respondents.

These numbers are completely anonymous, so it’s difficult to make an educated guess. Still considering salary aggregate websites such as Payscale, Ziprecruiter, Indeed.com, Salary.com, and Glassdoor, we can reach a ballpark figure of $49,000. The U.S.Bureu of Labor Statistics states in a 2020 report that the median hourly wage of sports photographers makes about $17.44 every hour. The top tier of photographers makes about $38 per hour.

What type of sports photography jobs are there?

There are a few types of sports photography jobs that you can research. One is the staff photographer. This is the resident sports photographer in the publication. These positions are usually assigned the best and the most lucrative assignments, and they’re on the payroll of the publication. There are increasingly few of these positions available, and the competition is pretty high.

Then there are freelance sports photographers. These photographers are not on the payroll of the publication. They’re assigned jobs based on freelance assignments. This is a contractual relationship, and the compensation that they get is also based on the contract that they do.

Where do I find sports photography jobs?

Reaching out to sports publications and editors on social media or in person is a good idea for getting your name and portfolio across. Reach out to local newspapers, sports magazines, and media agencies and find out if they’re interested in working with you.

However, before you do that, you must have a decent amount of experience shooting some sporting events, even if you’ve done them for free. You should also have a working portfolio, especially a printed portfolio. I always insist on having a printed portfolio that you can leave with a sports editor. This is because when you show your work on a tablet or iPad, those are intangible, and the editor can quickly forget them. A business card can also get misplaced. A printed portfolio is hard to misplace.

What is the best sports photography equipment every professional should own?

Without a doubt, it’s the lens. The lens is where the magic happens, and having the best lens you can afford is a great investment for the future. If you do good work, that lens will give you returns for a very long time. Take a look at our best camera lens picks above for more details on what we recommend.

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