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sports photography tips


My Sports Photography Tips to Improve Your Shots!

by Adam Young


Tip 1. Check the light.

The first thing to do before taking any photo is to think about the lighting situation. Unless you are taking a silhouette you normally want your subject well lit – especially the face. The human eye and brain are superb at resolving light and shade – you might clearly see an athlete's shaded face under a bike helmet but your camera won’t see things nearly so clearly. Find a spot where the athletes are front or side lit as you shoot them.

Good lighting:

good lighting

Bad lighting:

bad lighting

Tip 2. Think about your background.

This is a great tip that can really transform your shots! Finding nice backgrounds is so important I can’t tell you, it’s probably the biggest difference between pro photographers and happy snappers. It's particularly a challenge with sports photography because your subject is normally moving across a background.

When taking event shots of competitors, my plan A is to find a simple, organic background that makes the athlete stand out. Trees, hedges, sky and sea look great. An out of focus crowd can too.

nice background

Manmade objects like cones, traffic signs and fluorescent jackets are normally distracting from the subject – avoid them if you can:

marshalls should be heard but not seen!

This isn’t always easy because a background changes as you track an athlete, so try and predict their path, review the results you are getting and move about to get a great background for your shot.

Signs, traffic cones and lights are everywhere on a modern triathlon course and can look pretty awful in the background of most shots - particularly traffic cones, arrggh! I try not to despair and if I'm stuck work on the angles to make a feature of them. Try and get them nicely balanced in your shot with the athlete and keep them separate with clean space around them if you can:

making distractions work for you

Delly Carr took a great shot at Hawaii using a buoy as part of his composition.

If the background is relevant and interesting then make it part of the shot:

interesting background

Tip 3. Three dimensions are better than two.

A great way to bring your shots to life is to include things that show perspective in the shot. A classic method is a line such as a curb, road paint or railing running from the foreground to the background. Another method is to use a trail or composition of athletes.

3 dimensions

3 dimensions

Tip 4. The rule of thirds.

This is a classic composition tip in photography, less discussed for sports photography but still very relevant. Generally placing the subject(s) on one of the ‘thirds’ of the shot will increase the power of the image. Try it instead of centering the athlete, the results can be great.

rule of thirds

rule of thirds

With a moving subject it’s hard to be precise so try cropping images on your computer to perfect the composition.

Tip 5. Focusing.

Sorry, this is tip involves a bit of technical jargon. :-S

If you are lucky enough to own a high end compact camera or an SLR then you are likely to have a tracking-focus mode to play with. Canon call this mode "AI Servo" and Nikon call it "Continuous Servo AF".

Tracking focus tends to work best when you are using a telephoto lens of 200mm+ and the athlete is coming straight towards you. The advantage of a tracking focus mode is it lets you get accurate focus despite a shallow depth of field from a wide aperture. A fast shutter is necessary with a long lens to avoid shake and the corresponding fast aperture gives you a nice blurred (non-distracting) background. So try your tracking focus mode and use it with fixed aperture mode – setting the lens to the widest aperture it has (lowest F number):

tracking focus, wide aperture

If you don’t have a high-end camera then your camera is unlikely to have an autofocus system capable of handling sport, so don’t use it! Instead, 'pre-focus' the camera at a fixed distance away and then release the shutter when the athlete gets to that point. This shot was taken manually focused on the spot where Clinton (in yellow) is:

fixed focus shot

Compact cameras normally focus when you press the button lightly – sometimes they show you where they’ve focused with red squares. This can be a bit random so keep re-focusing until it gets a point at the right distance then hold the button lightly until your athlete arrives, gets to the right spot and then press the button right down to take the picture. I sometimes use a manhole cover or mark in the tarmac to pre-focus on.

SLRs have manual focus modes – a more elegant solution to pre-focusing. You can then take several shots in a row as several athletes come streaming past your pre-focus point.

Even if you do have tracking focus on your camera it rarely works well enough at shorter focal lengths in sport (say 75mm and below). You’re very often trying to pan at that sort of focal length and the camera has a low chance of focusing on your target. So at shorter focal lengths I tend to pre-focus and use a smaller aperture (say F10 and above) to get a decent depth of field. Then you can just worry about framing the shot on the fast moving object(s):

more fixed focus

Tip 6. Don’t look at your subject, look at your border.

This is such an important tip to improve your sports photography. The tendency when shooting is to focus your attention on the athlete, particularly their face. I use to worry so much about how the subject was looking, I would lose the composition completely. The classic mistake being to chop off someone’s feet because you're watching their face:

chopped feet

So instead of studying the athlete in your viewfinder, take them as a given and look at the borders of the shot instead. Not only will you get the athlete accurately placed in the frame but you might also be able to remove distractions from the borders of the frame:

clear borders

Tip 7. If you go wide, think up-down as well as left-right.

The normal reason for using a wide angle lens is you’ve got a wide subject to get in. All good but be aware that a 'wide' lens is 'tall' too. The classic wide angle shot occurs when there’s interest or composition in the top and bottom of the shot too. Up there could be an interesting sky accentuated by the lines of perspective from a wide angle. Down could be footprints in the sand on the beach leading towards the main subject. Without this vertical interest in a wide angle shot, the results will look very plain.

To create some vertical interest, try this with a wide lens: use the pre-focus method (tip 5), hold the camera as high as you can above your head and point it slightly down on the subject ahead:

using vertical height too

You’ll get great perspective on the ground ahead of you which will draw the viewer into the image.

Tip 8. Take a lot of shots.

If 25% of your shots are worth keeping then you’re doing well. A professional photographer with all their skill and experience might shoot all day and only have a dozen images of
commercial value. Digital cameras have made shooting free so take loads of shots. Take twice as many photos and you’ll end up with twice as many great images.

Tip 9. Tweak your shots before judging them.

I’m sometimes mildly disappointed with my shots coming off the camera but a 60 second tweak with Photoshop can make a huge difference.

Tweak the levels (particularly on the dark end), tweak white balance, lightly sharpen if necessary and crop to perfect composition. Then you can smile again!

In relation to this, if your camera has a raw mode, always use it. A raw file has more 'colour depth' than a jpeg meaning you can adjust the brightness or colours further before losing image quality.

Tip 10. If you can see what a pro's done, then you can do it

Never be intimidated by great photos from professional photographers in magazines. With practice you can approach or equal our work. If you’ve been at a large sporting event attended by some pros then compare your shots with theirs at photo agencies like – their sites are updated very quickly, often during the event itself. is also well worth a browse for inspiration and ideas.


Good luck, enjoy your photography and see you at the races!


This advice is appropriate for Nikon, Canon, Minolta and all digital cameras, whether they have a sports mode or not. You can create your own digital artwork with this advice.

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