So, you’ve been taking photos at your kids sporting events for a while now and the results have been okay but you’re not expecting any job offers from Sports Illustrated either. Sure, you’d like to invest in a better camera and maybe even some awesome zoom lenses but the expense is hard to justify. What if I told you there’s a very good chance you can see immediate improvements in your photos without spending a dime on new equipment? How’s that possible? One word: composition.
Composition is really just a fancy term for how you frame a photo. Most people tend to just point their camera at the main subject, position it (them) in the middle and snap the shot. Sometimes that can work but when shooting sports action shots, it can often lead to photos that are a bit dull and lifeless. Not to worry, though. We have some simple recommendations that will improve your photos with just a little extra effort.
TELL A STORY
Take a look at the two pictures above. They’re both pictures of the same player running. The photo on the left is a perfectly good action shot caught in mid-stride. There’s nothing wrong with the shot but it doesn’t really tell you anything beyond “Here’s a baseball player running the bases.” Now let’s take a look at the photo on the right. It’s the same player but rather than being isolated, he’s rounding third base at full speed with his coach and teammates in the background losing their minds as he’s running by them. There’s energy, emotion and drama all in the context of a great action shot. Now, some photography purists would say there’s too much going on and the background is overly distracting. Sorry but I’m calling BS on that kind of thinking. This photo tells a compelling story. Period. If you want your photos to come to life, look for opportunities like this that tell a story about the unique people, place and circumstances you’re shooting. And don’t worry if it’s technically perfect. It’s about the journey, not the results.
LEAD THE EYE
Sports is all about movement. But how do you communicate action in a static image? One of the best ways is to suggest movement with creative framing. For example, the photo above was intentionally shot with the player framed on the right side leaving open space on the left for him to “run into”. No, it’s not always possible to frame fast-moving action this perfectly but if you add extra space around your subject when shooting, you can always re-frame it using software. (More on this later.)
The other way to lead your viewer’s eye is to use items in your composition that literally point to the main subject. The photo above is a perfect example. The red lines illustrate how the photographer used the shape of the bleacher and the horizon line to lead viewer's eye straight to the kneeling player. This technique obviously works much better for more stationary photos rather than action shots but with a little bit of preplanning it's possible to use in a variety of ways.
PLAY THE ANGLES
One of the quickest and simplest ways to make your pictures more powerful is to shoot from unusual angles. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme (No one is suggesting you suspend yourself from the rafters of a gym, Mission Impossible style). Just something that provides a viewpoint different than what people are used to seeing. Low angles can often add a touch of drama to almost any sports photo—especially when photographing small children—and high angles can offer a range of wide and closeup photographic options. Some sports and venues make it more difficult to shoot from unusual angles but don’t be afraid to experiment with as many options as you can find, even if it’s just ancillary shots taken away from the action. You never know when you might stumble on something truly unique.
GIVE YOURSELF SOME BREATHING ROOM
Having a long zoom lens can be helpful for shooting most sports but just because you can zoom in super tight on your subject, doesn’t mean you always should, especially when it comes to action shots. Allowing a bit of breathing room when you frame your shots will provide you with the option of reframing a shot for a more pleasing or dynamic look when making adjustments in the photo editor of your choice. In the photo above for example, I have the option of keeping the original composition or I could crop in tighter as shown by the red line or I could even change the orientation by using a vertical crop as illustrated by the blue line. The bottom line is that I have options, which is always a good thing.
Few things will make a photo seem off balance as a skewed horizon. Although horizon lines aren’t often present in sports photos, background elements such as a fence or bleachers will often provide a sense of whether the image is level. The good news is that most photo editing software apps offer simple and intuitive tools to properly align photos quickly and easily.
Overall, one of the biggest keys to framing your sports action shots is to plan the types of photos you want to capture in advance so you can scout out the ideal locations once you’re onsite. Of course, the more you understand the sport you’ll be photographing, the better you can plan. At the same time, it’s also important to be alert for unexpected framing opportunities as well. The unpredictability is what makes sports photography so challenging. Like any other photography skill, framing simply takes practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment with framing and play around with unusual angles. The worst thing that could happen is a few wasted pixels. Besides, you’ll have a whole new set of framing options by cropping in a photo editing app afterwards but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post.