Action photography: tips from a pro
Find out about action sports photography from this mentor session with a mountain biking master.
Over his 40-year career, Dave Rogers (Getty photographer) has taken some of the most iconic shots in rugby history. He's stood pitchside at every Rugby World Cup since the first in 1987, and in Japan this year he'll be spending every day with the England team. Whatever your sport, here are Dave's top 10 tips and techniques for getting better sports photos.
Dave's interest in photography developed as a teenager in the early 1970s when watching English football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. He remembers being interested not only in the game but equally in what was going on behind the scenes – especially the photographers on the sidelines.
Since getting his first break working on a local newspaper – through a mixture of skill, determination and a little bit of good fortune, he says – Dave has earned his place in sports photography's hall of fame. He captured New Zealand's Jonah Lomu barrelling England's Mike Catt in their 1995 Rugby World Cup clash; Nelson Mandela presenting the 1995 trophy to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar, unifying South Africa after a long history of apartheid; Jonny Wilkinson's dramatic drop goal in extra time that won England the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and more.
Dave's most memorable image came from the 2003 Rugby World Cup. In it, then England captain Martin Johnson towers above the photographer, mightily holding the trophy aloft moments after the team's tournament victory. You can almost hear him roar with delight as his teammates behind him and fans in the stadium celebrate their win. In the rugby player's enormous hands, the trophy looks almost toylike, and glints delightfully in the floodlights that beam down on the scene.
When we caught up with Dave, he was beginning to prepare for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, where he will be based with the England team. To prepare, he was organising his itinerary and photographic kit, getting licenses to be able to use remote camera triggers at the stadiums. As well as three professional camera bodies, lenses, tripods and monopods, he told us he would be packing plenty of wet weather gear to cope with the wet season.
In addition, he was already thinking about the shots he hopes to capture. Among the thousands of photos he predicts he'll take over the course of the tournament, he's hoping for one in particular: "My dream shot would be England lifting the Webb Ellis trophy again; the World Cup!"
Here he shares his expert advice for improving your sports photography, whatever the sport you're shooting.
"The biggest challenge is knowing the sport," says Dave. "Learn the rules of the game, so you know what players are trying to do." Without being able to anticipate a player's next move, you might struggle to keep up.
Every sport is different. Compared to rugby, "football is a quicker game to play, and to photograph," he says. But on the other hand, while rugby has more players and people who can block your line of sight and get in the way of a good shot, in football "there are fewer players on the pitch, so you have a clearer view."
When Dave started out, he had landed a spot on the British National Council for the Training of Journalists course despite not owning a camera. He had to buy what he could afford at the time: an old 35mm film camera. If you're starting out now, he recommends considering "ease of use, reliability and value for money" as the key factors. "Just buy the best you can get," he says, and be wary of false economy.
If a full DSLR kit is too daunting or out of reach, aim for a compact or bridge camera with features that are up to the demands of sports photography. The Canon PowerShot SX70 HS, the top of Canon's bridge range, has 65x optical zoom, can shoot at 10 frames per second, and has fast, accurate autofocus (AF) with a continuous AF option to help you capture the action.
To take full advantage of the great selection of Canon lenses, though, investing in a DSLR camera such as the Canon EOS 80D is a great choice for sports photography.
"The standard lens in sports photography is the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM [and the even lighter and newer version of this lens, the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM], which is superb, and I use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM a lot as well. They are reliable and take a lot of knocks. When you do sports, you're putting the cameras down at speed and running around – they have to be pretty robust to withstand that.
"If you're just starting out, the 70-200mm is more useful. Not many people use a 400mm lens until they become specialists."
To achieve similar results on a tighter budget, you might consider the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM or the Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM. Both incorporate Canon's renowned Image Stabilizer (IS) technology that helps tackle the problem of blurred images from camera shake. If your hands shake at all, then an element inside the lens shakes too, to counteract it. This means that, even when shooting handheld rather than on a tripod, your photos should be beautifully sharp.
"Go for a high shutter speed and a wide aperture [smaller f-number], because backgrounds can be very messy and distracting with advertising boards and so on. Remember, the wider the aperture, the less that will be in focus. Just blur out the busy backgrounds and try to use the lens for as long as you can at its maximum focal length. Choose an ISO setting that's really low, so you have to use a high shutter speed with a low aperture."
One trick Dave recommends for removing the background altogether is "to go up a bit higher in the stand, so you're looking down on the pitch. If you can take the shot from the top looking down, you'll get a clean green background."
The best conditions to shoot in are "cloudy-bright", according to Dave, because the light will be more even across the whole pitch so you won't have to readjust your exposure settings as frequently. But if you're shooting on a sunny day with a stark contrast between shaded areas and sunny areas, "choose to sit in the sunny side and work into the shaded side," he says. That way you'll be working backlit. "If you're sitting in the shade and working to the sun, it can be difficult. Quite often you just get a silhouette of a player against the bright background. So always sit in the sunny side. You'll get nicer colours that way too."
This is easiest to do at small local sports events where spectators are free to stand and walk around the park or area – there, you can look around until you find the perfect spot. At seated, ticketed events, you may be able to choose where in the venue you'd like to sit. Find out which way the venue is positioned, and what time of day the event is happening, to select a seat that will be in the sun at that time. You can even download a sun-tracking app for photographers to help.
Sometimes, though, you'll want to achieve a silhouette effect. To do this, lower the ISO, raise shutter speed and close down the aperture (use a higher f-number). "You'll need a light background," Dave advises. "Underexpose the whole thing. A silhouette can be effective if you don't do it too often. It becomes cliché if you do."
Once you've captured a good selection of core shots, it's time to get creative. Some novice sports photographers get obsessed with freezing the action, but Dave recommends embracing blur to emphasise speed. To do this, try setting your shutter speed to 1/15 sec. He points out, however, "you don't want so much blur that you can't tell what the sportspeople are doing. You still want their face as sharp as you can get."
Particularly in sports with predictable, linear movement such as horse racing, track athletics or motorsports, panning with the action (by moving your camera to follow a person or vehicle in motion) will help you to keep your subject relatively sharp and blur everything else, really conveying the impression of speed.
To add more drama, Dave suggests, "lower your angle. If you get down low when a player dives towards you, it looks as if they're flying through the air."
This was a strategy that Dave employed for his memorable image of then England captain Martin Johnson holding up the Rugby World Cup in 2003. By positioning himself lower than Martin, the perspective emphasised the already impressively-sized rugby player's height and strength.
"I take two cameras, or quite often three these days, just in case. If it's raining, I keep them as wrapped up as I can. A lot of people carry hard cases, but I just take a rucksack. I take a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, two camera bodies and two small zoom lenses. I also take three or four spare batteries, especially in the cold, as power goes far more rapidly. Take waterproofs and lens covers – it's always worth it. If you don't have them, wrap your kit in a plastic bag. It'll save a lot of money in repairs."
Dave uses the top-spec Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, but the more affordable Canon EOS 80D has a magnesium alloy chassis and is resistant to dust and moisture, which makes it reliable in any conditions. It also has a sophisticated 45-point autofocus system and a fast continuous shooting speed of 7 frames per second with subject tracking, making it ideal for fast action sports photography in particular.
On average, Dave takes around 2,000 photos per rugby match in order to get a few that he's really pleased with, so don't be discouraged if your initial shots aren't as exciting as you'd hoped. "The biggest bugbear is when people stand somewhere in front of you so can't see past them, or run through the shot so that they're blocking the view," he says. Dave has to discard many of these images but he keeps shooting, waiting for the moments to present themselves. "There's quite a lot of wastage of images, but now with digital cameras, you know what you're getting and you can see what you've got when you look on the back of the screen."
Once you see that winning shot on the back of your camera's screen, it will make your perseverance worthwhile. With patience, imagination and the right kit in your bag (the Canon EOS 80D DSLR with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM or Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens, or a Canon PowerShot SX70 HS bridge camera being our top recommendations) you can take sports photos worth showing off, too!
Written by Matthew Bowen
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