Sports photography is more than being at the right place and time. It’s a specialized genre, and mastering it requires precision, skill, and an artistic eye. If you want to improve your professional sports photography skills, this post has some expert tips ready for you—from fundamentals that will help you get that shot technically correct to soft skills that’ll let you connect with athletes to get that hero shot.

Choose the kit right for you

If there’s one photography niche where your kit matters, it’s sports. For a sharp shot of a football player in a poorly lit stadium, you’ll want a camera and lens that can handle a shutter speed that’s fast enough. Or if you’re shooting key moments of a gymnast’s routine, your camera needs to keep up with a burst of shots filling your memory card in seconds.

But before investing in expensive equipment, consider that different sports shoots require different types of equipment. Once you know what you photograph and how close you want to get to your subjects, you’ll know better what to pack in your kit.

Indoor sports events: Wide-angle lenses

If you cover indoor events, such as powerlifting meets, martial arts tournaments, indoor climbing, roller derby matches, dance competitions, or CrossFit events, you’ll have more freedom to get closer to the action.

Experienced health and fitness photographer and videographer Simon Yau from Simon Yau Media uses two camera bodies with wide-angle lenses for events: 24mm and 15mm prime lenses. However, you can also opt for zoom lenses if you can shoot wide.

“When I’m photographing CrossFit events, I have the advantage of being able to move freely on the competition floor, allowing me to get close to the athletes,” he says. “I carry both cameras holstered on my hips. While this might seem like a luxury, this setup allows me to capture the distinctive shots I’m known for.”

Photo by Simon Yau

Are you worried about only using wide-angle lenses? Swap one for an affordable, longer lens, such as a 50mm. This way, you can isolate emotion on an athlete’s face and shoot wide. Simon notes, “It’s about being prepared for different types of shots and having the tools to bring your vision to life.”

The goal is to create dynamic, immersive shots that capture the intensity of the sports. Using wide-angle lenses lets you capture dramatic images by getting up close, shooting from low angles, and trying different perspectives. You’ll undoubtedly create unique shots—just don’t be afraid to experiment.

Stadium and outdoor sports: Telephoto zoom lens

A telephoto lens is your best bet to capture action shots in stadiums, large halls, or outdoors. For events where you can’t get physically close to athletes, you’ll need a lens that covers that distance, such as a 70-200mm zoom lens. If your budget allows it, adding a prime telephoto lens, such as a 400mm lens, to your kit can also help you get more reach, but it won’t offer the same flexibility as a zoom.

But did you know a telephoto lens can also be an artistic choice? “When you zoom in with a telephoto lens, you achieve a compression effect between the athlete and the background,” Simon explains. “This technique allows you to isolate subjects in busy environments, creating a narrower field of vision.”

Posed athlete photos and portraits: Prime, zoom, or telephoto lenses

When building your professional photography kit, capturing individual portraits and team group photos will set you back less. You can focus on more affordable equipment options since you’re not dealing with fast-paced action or challenging low-light conditions.

With greater control over the scene, consider investing in portable studio lights and some versatile lenses. Then you can control the light and create high-quality images without breaking the bank.

“For a gym workout session, I’d probably opt for something wider or a standard lens, like a 35mm or 50mm,” Simon says. “This could be a zoom or a prime lens. However, if I’m shooting sports team headshots for a large gym chain, I’d likely stick with a telephoto lens to capture tight, shoulders-up portraits.”

Ultimately, the specific shoot requirements will inform you which lens combination is best suited, whether you’re capturing an athlete in their environment, a team-wide group photo, or professional headshots.

Master your camera settings

Don’t be intimidated by ditching auto mode on your camera. Learning to control your camera settings—shutter speed, aperture, and ISO—is key for capturing a consistent, strong sports photography portfolio. You probably already know that ongoing practice will help you improve, but here are a few essential sports photography tips to get you started on the right foot.

Use the right camera settings

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when choosing your shooting mode for sports photography. Different situations naturally lend themselves to different modes. Here are a few scenarios where each shooting mode can work well:

  • Full manual control: Ideal for venues with consistent lighting. You have complete control over your shots by adjusting your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO manually. You can confidently shoot, knowing exactly how each photograph will turn out without unexpected camera compensations.
  • Aperture priority: This mode is particularly useful when shooting sports events with varying lighting conditions. Maintaining a constant aperture ensures consistent depth of field and styling across your photos. The camera automatically adjusts shutter speed to compensate for changing light levels. Enable Auto ISO for added flexibility to maintain suitable shutter speeds for action shots even in challenging light.
  • Shutter priority: When you need a specific shutter speed to either freeze a moment or create intentional motion blur (such as when panning), shutter priority mode ensures you get the desired effect. The camera adjusts the aperture and ISO to maintain proper exposure.

Set the right shutter speed

There’s a common assumption regarding shutter speed in sports photography that you always need to freeze the action. That’s because sports involve fast movements, and you generally need a high shutter speed to capture sharp images of those split-second moments.

In Simon’s experience with functional fitness competitions, he rarely goes slower than 1/500th of a second. This speed can capture even the quickest movements in most CrossFit exercises. But as with most things in photography, there are exceptions.

“Sometimes, I’ve intentionally slowed my shutter speed dramatically, even as low as 1/10th or 1/15th of a second. This isn’t to freeze the action, but to create different artistic effects,” Simon explains.

One such effect is called ‘shutter drag.’ Simon uses a slow shutter speed to blur motion in the background while he pans with the athlete. He’ll then use an on-camera flash at the end of the exposure to freeze the athlete in the frame, creating a sharp subject against a blurred background.

Photo by Simon Yau

“This effect wouldn’t be possible with a fast shutter speed. Instead, you’re relying on your panning technique to keep the subject focused long enough to create a crisp image against the motion-blurred background.”

Choose the right f-stop

Choosing the correct aperture (f-stop) in sports photography can significantly impact your images. Consider how much of the image needs to be in focus and what elements you want to include or exclude from the image.

For instance, in football, you might want more of the field in focus to show the player’s position relative to others. In tennis or basketball, you might want to isolate the player while keeping enough depth to show the context of their action.

Here are some scenarios to consider:

  • Wide aperture (low f-number): Ideal for isolating athletes from busy backgrounds in action shots and individual athlete portraits. It creates a shallow depth of field, making the subject stand out.
  • Narrow aperture (high f-number): Best for team or group shots where you need everyone in focus. It provides a larger depth of field to keep multiple subjects sharp, especially if athletes stand behind each other.
  • Balanced aperture: For fast-paced sports, find a middle ground that allows enough light for fast shutter speeds while maintaining adequate depth of field, such as f/4 to f/5.6.

Shoot in continuous shooting mode

Do you have to capture a fast-paced game? You’ll want to use continuous shooting mode, also known as burst. You can shoot numerous frames per second as you press the shutter, perfect for those intense moments that can change the course of the game.

Your camera’s model will determine how many shots it can shoot in a burst before it needs to buffer. Each camera has a model-specific buffer size, which determines how many shots you can take before it needs to process them. In addition, make sure you invest in fast memory cards to speed up the buffering time.

Most camera models offer a choice of high and low burst modes, measured in frames per second (fps). However, older models may only have a single continuous shooting speed. Lower fps has an upside—you’ll have a smoother workflow with fewer images to cull after the event!

Use continuous focus

For fast-moving subjects in sports, continuous focus (also known as AI Servo for Canon and AF-C for Nikon), makes it easier to keep athletes in focus as they change position. Here’s why it’s important for sports and how to use it effectively:

  • How it works: Continuous focus mode constantly adjusts the focus as long as you half-press the shutter button, tracking moving objects to keep them sharp. Consider using a group of focus points instead of a single point for subjects that move erratically.
  • When to use it: Ideal for any sport with moving subjects, from runners and cyclists to team sports like ice hockey or basketball.
  • Add burst mode: Pairing it with burst mode increases your chance of capturing the perfect moment in sharp focus.

Prepare and develop essential soft skills

In addition to technical know-how, preparing for the shoot and improving your soft skills can help you get better shots. Here are a few ways to easily improve your sports photography before you even turn on your camera.

Scout the location

The easiest way to give yourself a head start on any sports event is to arrive at your shoot location early and spend time scouting it, identifying any blind spots that are difficult to shoot, checking out the lighting, and taking test shots. This works particularly well if you can capture athletes warming up before the event starts.

Learn more about the sport

Understanding the sport you’re photographing is crucial for capturing those perfect moments. While you don’t need to memorize the rulebook, having a good grasp of how the game flows and where the action peaks can dramatically improve your shots.

Simon says he’s been a member of a CrossFit gym for about four years, so he knows the movements inside out. “I understand what equipment will be used, how athletes move, which parts of the movements are slow or fast, and when the peak moments occur. This knowledge allows me to time my shots effectively, resulting in more consistent hero images,” he explains.

Photo by Simon Yau

Build rapport with your subjects

For one-to-one photoshoots, like portraits, a genuine connection with the person in front of your camera will increase the quality of your work. It takes patience and empathy, especially when most people don’t enjoy being photographed.

“Anyone can turn up with a decent camera and shoot good images, but to get the best out of the person you’re photographing to serve their needs as a business or to get the best in emotion from them, you’ve got to break down those barriers that are stopping them from getting there,” says Simon.

What does that mean in practice? Figuring out posing cues and ways to interact with the person to make them forget about the camera. For Simon, the worst thing you can do is turn up to a photo session and stay in silence.

“It’s not about the equipment, it’s not about the setup or the technical aspects, it’s about having conversation human to human,” he says. “When you’ve got a good dialogue going, people loosen up. That’s where sports photographers can get the best out of your subjects.”

Enhance sports images with post-processing

Captured a great shot and can’t wait to share it with the athlete? Don’t forget to enhance it by editing it first. With just a few simple steps, you can transform an average photo into an impressive showcase of athletic skill. All you need is a photo editing software and a simple workflow.

Edit colors for realism and impact

When editing sports images for professional or personal use, aim for natural-looking colors unless you have a specific creative brief. Adjust the white balance and ensure athletes’ skin tones appear realistic, especially for online or print publication. Color correction, especially in venues with varying lighting, will instantly improve the image.

For gym photos where clients request a gritty, dramatic look, focus on enhancing contrast and texture. Deepen shadows and brighten highlights to accentuate muscle definition and create a more intense atmosphere.

Retouch imperfections

Sports photography, like fashion or product photography, can require some retouching to address common imperfections. Here are some areas to focus on:

  • Skin blemishes: For close-ups of athletes, consider removing temporary blemishes or bruises, but be careful not to over-edit and ensure you maintain the athlete’s natural appearance.
  • Distracting elements: Remove or minimize background distractions, such as stray objects or people that draw attention from the main subject, as long as they’re not integral to the game or event.
  • Sweat and shine: For some portraits, consider reducing excessive sweat or reflection on the skin.
  • Uniform issues: Correct minor apparel imperfections, such as wrinkles or small stains, particularly for team photos, official portraits, and commercial images.
  • Lens dust: Don’t leave any spots caused by dust on your camera’s sensor. These can be particularly noticeable in shots with clear skies or simple backgrounds.

Remember, the goal is to enhance the image without making it look artificially edited. The focus of the photo should be on the action, the athlete’s emotions, or the raw intensity of the sport. Subtle retouching should complement these elements, not overshadow them.

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Improve your sports photos today

Sports photography is exciting for both amateurs and professionals. Whether on the sidelines or in the game, capturing intense moments is thrilling. While it requires some technical skill, these photography tips can help you get started.

Remember, great sports photos aren’t just about sharp images—they’re about capturing the emotion and energy of the game. And if you need help taking your photos to the next level, our expert team of editors can help you get them publish-ready.

Want to know how much it costs to send your photo edits our way? Get instant pricing now.

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Anete is a freelance B2B content writer with journalism experience and a passionate photographer. Merging her experience in tech and creative industries, she helps software brands increase their user base with engaging content. In her spare time, Anete works on personal projects and learns about coding basics.

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