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Sports photography is definitely one of the most fascinating niches to be in. You are the same ground level with all the action, you get close to the world’s sports superstars and no day at the job is ever the same.
It can be a fantastic career to have , but make sure you check these seven steps to have a good chance at it.
1. Love sports
It might not be the first piece of advice you’d expect, but it’s the first rule of this game. You won’t ever stand a chance to have a successful career shooting sports if you’re not into it. You don’t have to practice sports ( although, between us, you should), but you should have a genuine interest in it. You’ll likely have one or two sports that you love most. Do your best and exceed as a photographer of basketball, football, motor sports, you name it. You will obviously have a lot of different assignments and some of them you might like that much, especially at the beginning. Bottom line, think about what you love and let your photography become a part of it.
Photo credit : PA
2. Find a mentor
In most other photography genres, the best way to learn is by being someone’s assistant. In sports photography, the education to look for comes from a mentor. What’s the difference? Instead of helping with lights and dealing with moody models, you study another photographer’s work methods, their reactions to certain plays, their speed etc. Sports photographers usually know each other as they often spend time together on the side of a field or arena. It’s often a good network to make new friendships and find someone to teach you the insights of the craft. A lot of the things you will learn from another pro will come by studying their habits, from the time they get to the stadium to the final shots at the press conference. It is often a silent agreement between a seasoned vet and a newcomer. However, tread lightly as it is a pretty tight bunch, especially in smaller communities.
3. Gear up
Unfortunately , it is one of the most expensive fields in photography. Top of the line equipment is a must. An average sports shooter’s set is usually made of 2 pro bodies, capable of shooting 9fps or more, one standard zoom lens for close action and press conferences, one wide-angle lens for remote use or corner views, one pro telephoto zoom for short-medium range action, and, of course the big prime lens, which can be a 300mm,400mm,500mm...you get the idea. Teleconverters are also frequently used.
You’ll want to make sure you never run out of power, so extra batteries are not to be ignored. Given the high frame rate of these pro cameras, your memory cards should have a decent writing speed. Lexar and Sandisk are among the top memory card producers, but there are other options as well.
News agencies ,news papers, sports magazines all demand live coverage from sporting events, from writers and photographers alike. That means you have to send the photos you take as soon as possible. A laptop with a mobile internet connection and a fast card reader are crucial. Getting a great shot of a touchdown or a goal is pretty much useless unless you can get it published on time. There is some good news though. Some publications have their own gear that they give to staff photographers for covering events.
4. Start shooting smaller events
After you acquire the tools of the trade, you have to learn how to use them. I’m not talking about basics here, like how to adjust exposure and other beginner stuff. I’m talking about focus tracking, anticipating, controlling your trigger finger ( when you have a 11fps camera it’s easy to get carried away), and so on. You might think it’s easy since you don’t really come in contact with your subject. You just point the camera and shoot, right? Wrong. I did some work for a local newspaper when I first started going pro. They sent me to a football match to cover the home team’s attack. I had a pretty decent kit and thought to myself “this shouldn’t be a problem”. I kept firing away, abusing the shutter release to make sure I wasn’t missing any of the action. That sounds about fail safe , but it’s not. I didn’t get ANY good shots at that game. A good shot, my editor at the time said, is one with the actual ball in the frame, not just the players. Shooting at 9fps didn’t help me that much after all. This little fail story goes to show how much more there is to it than just gear.
Go to your son’s ball games or practices, get a good seat at an official game and shoot from there. If there is one thing a sports photographer has in common with an athlete, it’s the constant need for practice to ensure improvement.
5. Print a portfolio
After you’ve developed some skill and have put together a collection of good images, go to a quality printing center and print a portfolio. This will be your main tool in the search for paid work ,so do not treat it lightly. An online portfolio is also necessary , but do not go to a meeting with an editor or a staff member of any publication without a printed portfolio. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.
6. Employed or freelance?
Although it’s a very interesting niche to work in, it’s highly competitive. There are basically two options for living a pro life shooting sports. You either become staff photographer for a certain publication or news agency and work as a regular employee, or, you go alone and become a freelancer. The work you do has to be bought by media and news agencies in order for you to put food on the table. It’s up to you weigh both options and make the right decision. It depends very much on the level of activity in your local area.
7. Be ambitious and don’t give up
Expect to give a lot more than you will receive in the beginning. Getting to the top in this business means covering Olympics, World Series, World Championships etc. You will be given opportunities most people would never dream of. Some high end sports shooters get to meet and enjoy the respect of the stars they photograph. None of this will be easy and it will take significant tolls from personal life and family time. However, the joy you stand to find in this profession is not likely to be found in any other. Check out this amazing story about a retired, successful businessman who got into pro sport photography. One might say he makes a good example.