Seven Tips for Taking Better Sports Action Photographs

Football has now officially begun!  On every sideline, you’ll now find individuals from Pop Warner Parents to High School Yearbook Staffers to Sports Illustrated photographers taking football action pictures.

When Pat is on the sidelines he’s often asked “I can’t seem to get pictures like yours – how do you do that?” Most of us don’t have the $20k to $30k for the equipment used by a typical NFL pro photographer. Neither do we! While that’s true, most everyone can get better action pictures by doing a few things. And, although we’re mostly talking about football here, most of these tips apply to most sports action.

So, to help you improve your sports action photography, following are seven basic tips to improve the action pictures that you take. We hope that these tips will prove helpful!

If you want to learn more – or if this is over your head – you may want to consider signing up for our class “How to Use Your Camera” we will be offering later this fall. If you are interested, email us at for more details.


Tip #1 – Stay Out of the Way!   Remember that the game is about the players on the field, not about you, not about your pictures. The hierarchy of courtesy has the players, officials, coaches, Administrators, other parents, and fans all above the photographer.

Stay out of the way, blend into the background, be respectful, and if you are told to do something by an official/administrator etc., do it immediately! If you disagree – do it immediately anyway – and then discuss it later.

Build cooperative relationships with those who have the authority and responsibility for conducting the game. Talk to the Administrators, Coaches, and Officials beforehand and learn the local rules for access. Get permission well in advance of the event. Unless you have specific permission from the Coaches, stay out of the bench areas. Don’t push the limits.

Lastly, if you have access to any areas beyond the stands, you are choosing not to be a fan! You must keep silent about all things on the field. You may be a parent and/or a fan, but you cannot speak to the players, officials, coaches, or administrators when on the sidelines.


Tip #2 – Be Early. There is more than one kind of early that applies:WHS vs Spoto 083013-44288

Be early in the season – Photograph games that are early in the season particularly with games that are played in the evening. In September, sunset is still occurs later than game time for evening games. As a result, you still have natural light available for your photographs. Natural light makes an enormous difference. Not only is light more plentiful – it’s beautiful warm sunset light! This is particularly important if you are using an economical camera. With many budget cameras, once the sun has set, so has your ability to get good shots. Shoot as much as you can early in the season!

Be early to the game – Great shots often happen well before the game starts! In fact, try to be there an hour or more before game time. Photograph warm ups. Often you can get great close up images of players, cheerleaders, coaches, band members, and the myriad of people involved before the game starts. Not only that, many times you can photograph scenes that are game-like.


Tip #3 – Use a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera to Capture the Critical Moment. WHS at Plant City 090613-44803We all, of course, have cameras in our pockets nearly all the time! While our iPhones and great for taking “selfies” and vacation pics, they are horrible for photographing action. Ever noticed the lag between when you push the button on your iPhone and the picture is taken? The term for that delay is “shutter lag”. Shutter lag means that the picture will happen a second or two after you pressed the button. While that’s not a problem with a selfie, it is a huge problem photographing the quarterback making a pass, the defender making the tackle, or the cheerleader doing a back tuck.

All camera phones experience shutter lag. So do point-and-shoot cameras. To avoid shutter lag, you must use a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera. These cameras are designed to capture the photograph the instant you press the button.


WHS vs Gaither 082313-43287Tip #4 – Get low. Shoot your photos from as low as possible. Photographing from a low angle makes the players appear larger than life – even the little guys! It adds size and power because you are looking up at the player. See the example below of a Pop Warner player – and the power and drama that comes from looking up. One note of caution – do not sit or lie down. Kneel instead. You see, if the play comes your direction, you’ll need to move fast to get out of the way. If you don’t, your equipment may be damaged or, worse, a player may get hurt from colliding with you.


Tip #5 – Anticipate the action and position yourself accordingly. WHS at Chamberlain 091412-5008Pay attention to the game and the players. What is the game situation? What type of play do you think the team will run? Knowledge of the game certainly helps.

The better you can anticipate the action, the better you can position yourself to photograph it. Often, a great spot is behind the end zone where the play will come straight at you. Other times, it may be just behind the line of scrimmage where you can get great photos of the quarterback – or the defense making a sack. Fifteen yards downfield you will sometimes have the running back coming straight at you or the receiver making a catch. Know that there isn’t a “perfect spot”. Sometimes, you’ll anticipate incorrectly – or the play will go to the other side of the field. Anticipating the action helps stack the deck in your favor.


Midgets vs Palm Harbor 101009-7876Tip #6 – Shoot as close as you can and in portrait orientation when possible. Hold the camera vertically if you can. If you are so far away that landscape will capture the full height of the players, use that. Shoot as close up as you can get. Shoot faces. You want to see the emotion, intensity, and expressions of the players. Expressions create drama and make for more interesting photographs. Don’t forget to photograph player expressions on the sidelines too!


Tip #7 – Better equipment helps at night – a couple of technical settings.  There’s no getting around the fact that the nighttime lighting at most stadiums is dim. With our naked eyes that may not seem to be true, however, our eyes are incredibly more powerful than even the best camera. Our eyes can see light in circumstances when a camera would be literally blind. So, what does this have to do with high school stadium lighting? A lot. When we watch a game, our amazing eyes can adapt to the dim light with no difficulty. Cameras, however, are pushed to – or beyond – their limits when photographing action at night.

Techie Alert!!! Now we’re going to get technical on you! Depending upon your camera’s capabilities, you may be in luck. Be aware that if you are not familiar with terms like f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO levels, this won’t help you much. You may want to consider enrolling in our upcoming class “How to Use Your Camera”. We will be offering that class at our studio later this fall. If you are interested in it, email us at for details.

Following are a few camera settings that will help you get the most possible from your camera for action at night:

a)     With high school football, to “freeze” the action, it is necessary to have your camera’s shutter speed at 1/640 or faster. That’s pretty quick in dim light. Your camera’s ISO setting will need to be very high to achieve that. Be aware that the higher the ISO level the noisier and grainier your pictures will be. At a certain point, it becomes unacceptable.

photob)    With many cameras, there are settings that help optimize your cameras setting in difficult situations (such as dim lighting). Check to see if your camera has a menu setting for “Auto ISO Sensitivity Control” or something similar. If your camera has that feature, turn on the feature. Within the feature, set the minimum shutter speed to 1/640 (for high school) or 1/500 (for younger players). Then set your maximum sensitivity as to the highest level your camera will support. A note of caution – if you use this feature, be sure to turn it off and lower your ISO after you finish. If you don’t, your next set of “regular” pictures will come out poorly!

c)     Also helpful are “Fast” camera lenses (ones with an aperture rating of f2.8 or lower). A recommended “fast” lens would be a 70-200mm, 200mm, 300mm, or higher telephoto zoom or prime lens that has an f2.8 aperture rating or lower. They are very expensive! You will be looking at spending at minimum $2,000 for these lenses.


We hope that these basic tips will give you better results! As you might imagine, these suggestions are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is much more to learn about taking great pictures. We’re glad to be a help to you. If you have questions we haven’t talked about add a comment below or email us anytime!

Happy shooting!

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