The Art of Sports Photography

As I’m thinking about photography and Art, I always come back to sports photography – and wonder, “Is this really art?” I mean, it seems so mechanical to me when it’s a job. Maybe that’s what wedding photographers feel, or any photographer feels when they do photography for a job, a repetitive, non-artistic feeling, job.

Just like any profession, photography can be work. But, like Mark Twain said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life” (probably based on a similar Confucius quote). I do love what I do, but it still doesn’t seem like art – just standing on the sidelines capturing images, hundreds of images…

But then, when I get home, and am able to consume the vast number of images – when I’m scrolling through them in Lightroom, setting flags on the ones I think are good enough, that’s when I think art comes into the picture. That’s when I feel like more of an artist.

My workflow is slightly different depending upon whom I’m working for. What I mean is, if I’m shooting for a newspaper I’m getting what I need, and trying to meet a deadline – so that might mean rushing a bit to get 10 images cleaned up, captioned, tagged properly, and submitted online. If I’m just doing it for a school or someone else, I have more time to weed through my images and find good ones. I like the later workflow better, mainly because I hate having deadlines (see, I am a real artist).

So, I tend to have field work (actual taking of the photos) and studio work. The second part of my workflow, actually sifting through the images, choosing the ones I’m going to pay attention to, and hiding the rest, this is the part that, I guess, includes some artistic elements. Even though this second part, the studio part, can be very time consuming, it’s actually very fun for me.

Before we get into the art of sports photography – let me explain that there are a few different parts to sports photography that I absolutely love. First, I love being on the field, or on the court, as close to the action as I can be. I love getting photos from an angle that normal spectators don’t see – and being close enough to get images of the action that you can’t see from the stands. It’s exciting when you’re close to the action – for sports like football or soccer. I love shooting in the daytime so I can avoid using a higher than desirable ISO. I love it when I get shots that are close enough to require little or no cropping. I love talking to other photographers – some are pretty quiet, and some are too talkative – but then you meet some that are friendly, but respect your space. But I like meeting them all, and just being around others that like what I like. It’s fun. Now, as I’m writing this, I am realizing there are artistic elements to the photo taking. Maybe they’re just things I’ve learned to do over years and years – and I just assume that it’s normal. It’s good to look at the photos that other photographers take – you can get ideas from looking at other people’s photos.

Here’s something else I like about sports photography. Covering a game is like capturing a unique moment in time. You’re documenting the event. It’s very cool to document things, but sports is something special – an event that others want to re-live over and over again (especially if their team wins). The sports photographer becomes a part of that event – with their name etched, for all posterity, under each photo! And here’s something else to remember, there’s a lot more going on at a game than just the game. Always keep an eye out for off the action shots. Things happen after a play – when I have the tendency to stop looking – that could make very interesting photos.

There are some sports photographers that are just doing a job. That was never me, although I was a bit overwhelmed, and anxious about my job when I started. What if I don’t get a good shot? Back in the film days this was a much larger worry. Today it’s more like, “What if my battery dies?”, or,  “What if I forget the one lens I need when I go to do a job?” I think, because of my age, and because I’m all digital today, there’s less anxiety about those kinds of things. Actually, thinking back of the manual focus days, I find it hard to believe I ever got a good shot… but I did. It was just different, and you learn to work with the tools you have.

I’m an artist – or at least that’s what I’d like to believe. When I get back to my darkroom (that’s what I call my computer with Lightroom and Photoshop installed) and start looking through all my images, I look for specific things. I start to look for images that stand out artistically. Naturally, the scientific side of my brain looks for sharp focus, non-distracting backgrounds, and good white balance, all things I can try to enhance with Lightroom. The other side of my brain looks for something that has good composition, has good colors, and is pleasant to look at, all things I can’t do too much about in Lightroom.

So, artistically, what makes a good sports photo? That’s hard to say, but I’ll take a stab, and say composition and high technical quality, focus on a subject, action that tells a story. Those are a few of the things. I think a good sports photo, like any photo, draws the viewer in – so they want to see more, or that makes them almost feel like they are there. It’s a photo that would stand out if you put it with a bunch of my photos. I think most of mine are mediocre at best – but I’m trying. I won’t ever give up trying to be better.

If you want to take a look at some good sport photos, here’s a link to Sports Illustrated coverage of the Preakness Stakes. There’s a handful of photos on the page – all interesting, of good technical quality, with good composition, and provide a sense of the emotion of the day. I like the one of the horses from below – looking up at the horses running. It’s interesting because it’s an angle we don’t usually see. It has good composition – and you can see the jockey’s faces, as well as the crowd. Very nice. It just looks good. I also like the photos of non-horses – like the people in the mud. Cool way to show just how bad the weather was.

Let me know what you think makes a good sports photo, and if sports photos are art. I’d love to read your comments – and hear if you have any favorite sports photos.