Read this before you invest in Digital Sports Photography

a photographer documenting the sports photographers in action

I recently encountered a couple of professional sports photographers that led me to the question: why would someone pick up digital sports photography as a hobby? If you are considering to invest in professional equipment in this photography genre, you should read this article first.

The Sports Photographers at Sydney Open

I was at the Sydney Open last week, the largest annual tennis event here in Sydney Australia. The day turned out to be cool and forgiving for the athletes in usually unbearably hot Sydney mid-summer. I enjoyed a few fantastic games at the front row, right on the courtside behind the television cameraman. This is when two vest-wearing photographers appeared in front of me with their massive CANON cameras and lenses on tripods with poles the size of my arm.

It’s the first time I paid attention to how sports photographers work. To cover a tennis match they work in pairs, one focusing on each player full-time. They don’t really follow the movement of the tennis ball, but each time the player hits the ball, the photographers press the shutter in burst mode. The camera clicks like a machine gun for a moment until the ball was returned and the player hits the ball again. Over the course of the game (and especially so around the set points and match points), the photographers would capture every single moment the player hits the ball without exceptions, in burst mode. I reckon this must mean thousands of photos to be reviewed, sorted and post-processed later. Imagine working like this for a day covering a few tennis games, photographers could easily have 10,000 photos or more at the end of a day.

Is this the kind of photography you would take up as a hobby?

Who should embrace it?

Just like other photographers, ‘the decisive moment’ is what sports photographers are after. To capture the right gesture, the facial expression etc. Yet the difference is that sports photographers capture these moments with a greater focus on the athletes themselves rather than the composition and exposure. The ‘news value’ is more important than the ‘aesthetic value’ in this genre, in my opinion.

This makes me believe that sports photography is great for someone who shares a passion for photography as much as in the sports he or she photographs. The joy of capturing the favourite player in action, a great movement or a decisive moment in a game is no less exciting for a sports fan comparing to the street photographer who got a shot that is both expressive and visually pleasing.

This extends to anyone who enjoys any type of speculative activities ranging from bird watching to wildlife, from fashion shows to concerts. If this sounds like who you are, do invest into a good quality large aperture telephoto lens with good stabilisation features. When the time comes you will thank yourself for making the extra investment.

Who should think twice (before taking the plunge)?

There is nothing wrong with at least one telephoto lens for the occasional concerts or sports games you go to. A good example is a Sigma 70mm to 30mm lens which is dirt cheap but provides sharp enough photos for the price. I would advise against heavily invest into telephoto lenses if you are not either very affluent or a lens collector. The chances are that anything beyond 200mm is not going to reach out for in a day to day shooting situation. If the same amount of money is spent upgrading your ‘core’ focal length, i.e. from 24mm to 100mm, in my opinion, it is much more likely that you will end up enjoying more of the equipment and actually taking better photos.

Also think twice before investing into telephotography whether you are willing to invest equally in storage and processing capabilities (disk spaces, post-processing software, photo management software, etc). Using the two Canon sports photographers I met as an example, they will have 10,000 photos to go through to ensure they did not miss the biggest event in recent tennis history. Do you have the time, energy, software and hardware for the laborious post-processing? If not, either decide that you will settle for whatever photo you have taken or upgrade the related gear to go with your new hobby.

Digital cameras and other gear you need

Weight should not be of your concern as a telephoto sports photographer, pick the best camera you get buy with a good burst rate and disregard the weight. At the time of writing mirrorless cameras still cannot compare to SLRs in terms of bursting rate. Personally, I also find it a bit funny to match a massive 300mm lens with a tiny body. So upsize, go big. To match the overall weight of the gear you will need a bulletproof tripod that can stand the test. The best advice I have heard is to bring your camera and a biggest / heaviest lens of yours to try out the tripod before you hand over the credit card details.

The 35mm lens approach: sports documentary

An interest alternative to telephoto sports photography I’d like to suggest here is ‘sports documentary’ using a 35mm lens approach. To differentiate your photos from those taken by ‘burst mode’ beasts, bring a small handheld camera and blend into the crowd. You can take photos of the entire stadium, the reaction of fans and spectators (I especially love the creative face paintings), the usually unnoticed security guards and off-duty players. If you can get into the change room or close to the players, some footage of them before and after a game would be priceless. I would take photos both inside the stadium and out, the fan-occupied bus, the fireworks or decorations, these are important elements of an awesome game day that inspires sports fans.

A small discreet camera (mirrorless or compact) works perfect among the fans. In a few occasions they don’t even mind posing for me showing-off their custom made outfit and face painting when they see me holding up a small camera at them. The key is to be friendly and smile.

Conclusion

Digital sports photography is great if you are crystal clear about your passion in both photography and sports. Before investing into large, expensive telephoto lenses, one should pay attention to the heavy camera and accessories he is expected to carry.  If ‘missing a shot’ is your worst fear, chances are that you will be using ‘burst mode’ a lot which puts pressure on you spending time doing selection and post-processing. As an alternative, why not take the 35mm approach and go lite. Take a different perspective and take on sports documentary? Hope this article inspires your photography journey. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment below.

Until another time, keep photographing.

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