(Re)acting on impulse

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Shooting sports is something that is best learned through experience. Figuring out how fast a running back actually moves is quickly learned from the sidelines when you’re trying to keep up. Knowing when to shoot and when to get out of the way is figured out after you become part of the play (or in my experience, replay on ESPN, of which my dad just happened to be recording). Following a long shotgun pass isn’t something anyone could possibly be good at with a long lens on first try. All of it comes with time.

Coming at you fast is a blog of how to make those regular sports pictures better and keep them from blending in with the rest. In no way does this photographer claim to be a great, or even good, sports photographer. If you’re looking for that, see Bill Frakes’ page, or track down photos by Jonathan Newton at the Washington Post, or Vincent Loforet at the Times. What I am claiming is to have a few simple ideas. Some of these methods you would only use for maybe 5 minutes in a game to get a different shot or two, but others you need to always keep in mind.
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The first thing anyone who attempts football will notice is how much running you, the photographer, must do. Dave LaBelle says the amateurs run along the sidelines trying to keep up with the action, while the professionals sit and wait for the action come to them. He brings out a fine point. If you look in the endzone you’ll see all the photographers with those huge, long lenses sitting, kneeling and waiting. They’ve found the place they believe will give them the cleanest picture possible (by clean I mostly mean least distracting background). But for those of us who don’t have a 400 2.8 in the closet, we still have to try and stay reasonably close to the action. The lesson to take from Dave’s advice is think ahead. Don’t be caught at the wrong end of a hail-Mary pass that sends the game into overtime. Be ahead of the action.
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Even if a play seems to be over, keep shooting. This is a fumble that came from a tackle. I almost thought the play had ended but kept shooting through the whole thing to catch the ball bouncing around between the players and catch this bit of confusion. Even if you see the play has ended, keep your camera locked and loaded until it’s clear all action, and emotion, is off the field. This will help you not only to get the action, but the reaction.


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As important as it is to get the action, sometimes the best pictures can come from what happens after a play. In this case, Alfonso Smith scored a touchdown and the picture of the touchdown isn’t nearly as interesting as the celebration. Never drop your camera after a play, but most importantly, pay attention to the victor in the play. Watch who made the tackle for those high fives, chest bumps and dances. It’s almost a guarantee for a celebration after a touchdown, but by watching for it after each play you will be more likely to pull the unexpected.

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Sometimes I find myself shooting loose, thinking, “Well I have to catch all the action, so if I’m not zoomed in so tight then I’ll have it all and crop it later.” I’m not totally shutting down this thought, because it’s what allowed me to catch the ball in this frame. Instead of shooting vertical to catch the players I shot a loose horizontal (way looser than it looks). But, in my opinion, if you shoot tight you’ll get two outcomes.

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This picture has been cropped, but only slightly to get as tight as possible. The first outcome I got by shooting tight was a cleaner background. With a tighter picture you have less distraction. My only problem with this is something I can’t help, and that’s the section 107 right by the football. I think if I had gotten on my knees to shoot this picture it might have fixed that part, but the green field seems cleaner than the spotted crowd.

My second outcome I get from shooting tighter is more information in my pictures. If you shoot a picture really, really loose and crop in then you’re throwing away all that quality that you spent thousands of dollars for in the camera. If you shoot it right the first time, you can skip that step. It’s really easy to pull that zoom out when players run at you and takes time to get used to staying tight. I’ve gone so far as to taping my zoom on 200 just to keep myself from zooming out and shooting loose.

Keith Smiley often shoots football with a 400 f2.8 with an extender that knocks him up to 560 (correct me if I’m wrong). When the players move toward him on the field and get too tight, he says he re-frames his picture. He composes his picture tighter and tighter until he can’t make a picture out of it anymore, and then and only then, he switches to his 70-200. Through shooting tight I have made myself a better sports action photographer, and I believe it’s very important to learn from the start.

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Now for the fun and interesting way to spice up your sports pictures. If you have ever talked to Elliott Hess about, well anything you must have heard about panning. Panning, represented poorly with the photo above and below, is when you use a slower shutter and follow your subject creating a blurred background and sharp foreground (or at least subject). During the last few minutes of the football game I tried to do this for practice, and while I didn’t really get anything out of it, I got two that are good enough examples for this blog post. I wouldn’t recommend shooting more than a few minutes of panning, and only at times when you think crucial plays aren’t going to happen. For example, only when UK put in the 3rd string quarter back did I decide to drop my shutter speed from 1/1000 to 1/40.

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Once again, in no way do I claim to know much about sports photography, or be good at it, but I think those are helpful tips to anyone who hasn’t shot much sports. The best way is to just go out and learn it though. Shoot high school, middle school, t-ball, pee wee football, whatever. Just go out and shoot. Then, let me know what you’ve learned. I would love to get some good feedback from people (even including their own photos) with lessons they think are important or maybe questions. If I can’t answer them I’ll ask someone who can. So take this opportunity and lets learn from each other.

Email me at bradluttrell@gmail.com with your comments and photos (this means all of you! Even those who I see all the time)

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2 Responses to “(Re)acting on impulse”

  1. Wow, these photos are amazing.

  2. Fab pictures my friend. By the bye, I like the new subhead.

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