Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Shooting sports: don't stop when the whistle blows

People love sports photographs. There's something magical about freezing a key moment during a game or match, at the peak of action. Still photographs are a different way to experience sports. It's a completely different encounter from reading a sports story, or even watching television replays of unforgettable moments. Athletes are captured, forever, in the midst of sometimes incredible feats. Photographs allow us to examine every detail, every bead of sweat, rippling muscles, the grace, the power, sometimes even the humor.

Sports photography is frustrating for many. To get us close to the action, you need expensive telephoto lenses. You need expensive cameras capable of making a rapid burst of frames, not to mention the capability to freeze action in sometimes poor lighting conditions. Sometimes it takes years to learn the skills and gain knowledge of a particular sport so you can anticipate what the important actions are.

So what can you do if you don't own pro gear or you're just starting out? Here's something that all the best sports photographers know -- don't stop shooting when a play is over and there is a break in the action.

While some pictures of peak action are amazing and show us key moments in a competition, many (most?) are routine and cliche. Many actions in sports are repetitive, such as throwing a football, shooting a basketball, making a golf swing ... they don't necessarily tell us much about the significance of the action. Each individual sporting event has its own story to tell, and frequently those story-telling moments happen after the play ends. Re-action is what you should be looking for. A football player celebrating a sack speaks more to the magnitude of the play than the sack itself. Players get tackled hundreds of times during a game. A shot of a player shooting a basketball doesn't tell us if he made it -- could have been an airball. But a shot of the player reacting and the bench exploding tells you right away without having to read anything.

 Look to the sidelines and in the stands, as well. The reaction of a coach or the looks on fans' faces can sometimes tell you more about the game story than an action shot.

 There's a term coined by pro sports photographers. It's called "chimping," and it describes the act of habitually checking your pictures on your digital camera's LCD screen immediately after making a series of exposures. At first, it was a derogatory term, used to demean photographers who are either insecure in their ability to create correct exposures, or infatuated with their ability to immediately see the results of their effort.

On one hand, chimping is perfectly acceptable. It takes advantage of the ability digital cameras have to give us immediate feedback. It's a great thing to shoot test frames and check for proper exposure and color balance. In the film days, you might have your settings incorrect, and you wouldn't know until the film was developed -- too late, in other words. And I use the capability to mark my best images as I go, so I can edit faster once the event is over.

However, if you're constantly reviewing your images after every play, you're probably missing some of the best shots.

So if you don't have 20 grand or so to outfit yourself like the pros, don't be a "chimp," and don't stop shooting when the whistle blows.

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