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Choosing a shooting location

for the best sports shots.


A telephoto lens from the right location allows you to fill the frame just where the action is, while shooting from a position of personal safety.
A telephoto lens from the right location allows you to fill the frame just where the action is, while shooting from a position of personal safety.

Most sporting activities occur in fixed locations - a track, course, field or arena - that have photographic “hot spots,” where the action is more intense or the odds are better for capturing a telling moment in the play. Familiarity with both the sport and the particular location can lead you to the best picture-taking spots.

LIGHT, SPECTATORS & BACKGROUND

When selecting an outdoors location from which to shoot the sport, keep in mind the time of day. You want the sun to be in the best position for illuminating your subject. If the sun is in your face, you will need to open your lens wider for proper exposure, otherwise your subjects could all be silhouettes (unless you are able to use flash). There is also greater risk of lens flare. If the event is indoors or taking place at night, ensure there will be adequate illumination over the subject area for you to shoot without flash.


Consider the spectators also, and whether they will be crowded in front of you when the game begins. The best shooting spots are often also the best viewing locations for the audience.

Finally, ask yourself what the background is like. Is it so busy and cluttered that you will have to use a super-wide aperture to place it out of focus? This is not always bad, however you must be sure you have sufficient depth of field for your subject to be sharply rendered. A crowd of spectators in the background can add to the drama and composition. If the scene is too busy or cluttered and your subject gets lost in the crowd, change position to select a plain background or use shallower depth of field to blur the background so your subjects stand out.

FOCAL LENGTH

The size of your lens is a big factor in the selection of a shooting location. You want to be as close to the action as possible in almost every case, but if your lens has a short focal length, you will need a location that puts you almost on top of the play. You will need an ice level seat at a hockey game, for example, and will only be able to properly capture action that takes place immediately in front of you. If you are fortunate enough to have a super-telephoto lens, then you will need a location that permits you to set up a tripod to support it. It can’t be a place where it is so crowded that someone might accidentally knock your camera over or bump into it at a critical moment. A fast, medium telephoto lens (150 mm to 300 mm) that you can hand-hold (or a fast zoom lens that has a telephoto setting) gives you much more leeway in location selection.

The wrong location has a cluttered background and foreground, and an uninteresting camera angle.
The wrong location has a cluttered background and foreground, and an uninteresting camera angle.

This picture is too busy and cluttered in both subject area and background, and the photographer is too far away.
This picture is too busy and cluttered in both subject area and background, and the photographer is too far away.

CAMERA ANGLE

Generally, a low camera angle is ideal for most sports. The majority of great sport pictures you’ll come across show an angle of view that is at or below subject eye level. There are exceptions, of course (raising the camera angle to eliminate a distracting background, for instance), but choosing a location that places you at the same level as the participants will usually result in good sports pictures. Your next camera angle consideration is based on the action. If it looks like most of your shots will be of the backs of the players’ heads, you’re in the wrong spot. A location that provides a three-quarter view of the players during peak moments is usually ideal.


IMMEDIATE SURROUNDINGS

Consider the area immediately around your picture-taking location.

  • Can you position yourself right in front of a tree or structure so people behind you aren’t disturbed when you stand to take pictures and there is less likelihood of your being jostled during the event?
  • Is the ground surface dry and dusty? When such an area begins to fill in with people, dust will be raised that might not only interfere with your view, but could also cover your equipment with grit, especially hazardous when changing film.
  • Is there a spot to safely place your camera bag so it doesn’t accidentally get trampled or stolen when you are concentrating on shooting?
  • Is there a place for you to sit during lulls in the activity?
  • What about shade? If your shooting location is out of the hot sun, both you and your film will remain cooler and you’ll be more comfortable.

Moving in close (either physically or with a telephoto lens) provides a much more interesting composition.
Moving in close (either physically or with a telephoto lens) provides a much more interesting composition.

Varying the camera angle to eliminate unnecessary background clutter concentrates the viewer's eye on the subject.
Varying the camera angle to eliminate unnecessary background clutter concentrates the viewer's eye on the subject.

MOVING AROUND

Many sports events are best covered by shooting from a number of different locations. If your equipment is light enough for you to “go mobile,” check in advance with the organizers or officials to see if you can move around. This is also a good time to ask if you can use flash, if there is any doubt about it. Ask if you can be on the sidelines, if there are restricted areas, if you can cross to the infield between races, approach team benches, shoot from behind the goal and so on. If there is reluctance, suggest three or four locations you have in mind, and then stick to them if permission is given. Offering to provide the association with copies of the best photographs may balance a decision in your favor. You may need to obtain a pass or permit, so be sure to investigate well in advance of a major event.


You may also be given a list of restrictions. For example, during a regatta, you will need to keep your camera boat a certain distance from the competing boats, limit your speed and ensure you don’t get too far in advance that your wake crosses the course. Be sure to strictly observe all guidelines.

SAFETY

Personal safety must be taken into account when considering a location. If the event is a motor race, for example, being close to the track near a curve may be inviting disaster. Shooting a ski event from atop an icy outcropping may be risky. Use your common sense.If there is a possibility that you can be endangered by your choice of a picture-taking spot, don’t take the risk. No picture is worth it.

The playing area in soccer is so large that action must often come to you unless you have a super-telephoto lens. Knowing which player in which position is likely to frequently get the ball can be a help.
The playing area in soccer is so large that action must often come to you unless you have a super-telephoto lens. Knowing which player in which position is likely to frequently get the ball can be a help.
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