Stay with the play

In sports photography, it’s important to “stay with the play”, shooting all the way through, from the action to the emotion. This animated GIF illustrates this as a sequence of 35 consecutive shots in the same play.

The animated GIF file was created at


The power of a RAW file (and Lightroom)

Here’s a ‘before and after’ comparison of the same file. It was taken at a zoo, behind very thick glass (thank goodness). There was a bit of glare, very heavy fingerprint smudges, and I couldn’t shoot straight on. Do you get the idea that these were ‘less than ideal’ conditions?

Nonetheless, I wanted a photo of this lion, so I persevered. I sat down for a low angle, and I waited while he closed his eyes, opened them, nodded off again, and finally woke up and looked somewhere in my direction.

I didn’t realize how poor the shooting conditions and exposure were until I saw the original photo in Lightroom. But since I shot in RAW file format, it contains a TON of color, tone, and other data in the digital file, so I decided to see how far I could push the post-processing.

I was actually surprised that I was able to salvage an acceptable photo based on what I was working with. So to you new photographers out there, if you shoot in RAW, it’ll be alot more forgiving to you in post-processing, and you’ll be amazed at the results you can get!

Capture a frozen ball in baseball

There’s a “trick shot” in baseball photography called a Frozen Ball. The photo is shot from behind home plate as the pitcher throws the ball. The shot captures the baseball in perfect focus while blurring out all other composition.

Here’s how to do it

  • You can use any telephoto lens, although the deeper the focal length, the more pronounced it’ll be
  • Focus on a spot between the catcher and the pitcher, but closer to the catcher (i.e., look for a tuft of grass that stands out)
  • Adjust the aperture to keep the pitcher more/less blurred (f2.8 – 4 range)
  • Set your lens to manual focus to avoid AF changing this focus spot
  • Watch for the pitch and then shutter burst away!
  • It could take a few tries, but a successful capture will grab the baseball in focus as it passes through the focal plane you set earlier


Post-processing (optional)

To really make the baseball have separation, you can use a program like Adobe Lightroom to increase the clarity and/or sharpness to draw your eyes to the ball.


A&E – Action & emotion

One of my goals this year is to capture a better balance of what I call “A&E” – action & emotion. The action part is alot easier for me. I see it, I shoot it. The emotion takes more effort. But if you notice sports photos published by major outlets (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc.), there are probably just as many if not more emotion shots than action shots (these are my very unscientific findings).

Often, the emotion happens as a reaction to a play- teammates celebrating, coaches reacting with a referee, etc. Getting these shots means I need to shoot through the play and beyond. As a sports photographer, you’re taught to “shoot through the play”. This helps you get the whole play, from beginning to end. Capturing the emotion means you have to not only shoot through the play, but beyond, all the while looking around for the reaction to the play.

Take a basketball play for example. While the ball moves around the front court, you follow the action until the shot is taken. Once you’re done with this, you may immediately cut over to the team bench to capture the emotion of teammates celebrating a made 3-pointer. It can make your head feel like it’s on a swivel!

When shooting on a deadline for a publication or a wire service, I’m often tempted to check my shots right after the action so that I can tag the ones I want to consider to be used for publication. Doing this makes it easier to cull them after the event because I can narrow it down to just these tagged images. However, doing this means that I often miss the emotion because my face is in my camera chimping. Being patient and shooting through the play longer and searching the area for emotion takes more effort, but is definitely worth it. Rather than review & tag the photos right after the play, I try to keep my eyes open more for the emotion, and try to wait for a timeout to review them then.

Here are a few examples of my A&E from a recent basketball tournament.


Lens codes explained


Brand Lenses

Most major camera manufacturers offer their own line of lenses. Such lenses tend to follow the most stringent quality guidelines, and often come with a price premium.


UPDATE: Sony lens format abbreviations

Sony Lens Abbreviations


Off-Brand Lenses

Most off-brand lens manufacturers make lenses that fit many types of bodies, including Canon, Nikon, etc.

Descriptions by Lens Features

If you know what feature you’re looking for in a lens (cropped-frame designation ultrasonic motor, low-dispersion elements, image stabilization, etc.), and want to know what each of the brands call that feature, the following answers are organized by lens feature.

Lens Database

Comprehensive database of most major brands.


Code Replacement automation

Code Replacements can be VERY useful for software like Photo Mechanic to speed up the captioning process. Often, a code replacement text file contains a team roster, positions, etc. Shortcuts are then used as ‘codes’ which are replaced by the actual text. Unfortunately, creating these text files can be tedious if you type them out manually. This may involve lots of typing or even copying & pasting. Nonetheless, additional formatting is often needed to get them into a format to work with Photo Mechanic.

Thanks to Maxwell Kruger, he’s made this process MUCH easier! Using an MS Excel file he provides on his web site which contains custom formulas, it’s possible to copy & paste a team roster and have it automatically formatted for you.

Here’s a link to his web page outlining the process. It’s fairly straightforward, and Maxwell does a good job explaining how the formulas work in case you need to modify them (I had to do this based on my roster being in Lastname, Firstname or Firstname Lastname format)

Here’s a Quick Start Guide (PDF file) to get you going – Code Replacement Automation

Here are some sample MS Excel files (one for Lastname, Firstname and one for Firstname Lastname)
CR MASTER Lastname Firstname
CR MASTER Firstname Lastname


My growth as a sports photographer (so far)

This blog post chronicles my journey as a sports photographer, from Ground Zero to wherever I am now. I’m not an amateur, and I’m not a professional. I’m somewhere in-between. I shoot for a local newspaper, as well as MaxPreps and a national wire service. I cover Division 1 & 2 NCAA college sports and many high school sports.

I’ve learned alot but I’m far from done, and thank goodness for that. I’m always learning, and always trying to get better. But something happened recently that made me stop and reflect about where I am today. The other night, while I was shooting some D2 college basketball, 2 different people came to me at different times while I was on the court to ask about settings on their cameras. I guess they saw me sitting on the baseline and thought I looked like I knew what I was doing! So that got me thinking about how much I’ve learned so far in my growth as a sports photographer.

The fact that they approached me was very flattering, and I hope that I’ll always feel that way. I’m happy to help teach people who don’t know what I know learn so that they know (you know?!). When I was first starting out, I had a million questions, and was lucky enough to work with some folks who were patient enough to answer them and teach me.

Find a Good Mentor

Starting out, I literally didn’t know any sports photographers, locally or otherwise. So along with my friend Google, I starting researching and I made a list of sports photographers in my area. I sent as many emails as I could, contacting anyone and everyone. At first, I asked them if I could simply visit with them and ‘pick their brain’ about things I could do to get into this business. Like any bold canvassing campaign, most requests went unanswered, but not all of them, and the few that replied to me were invaluable. I met with them, asked them some of my million questions, and asked them to critique my sports photos. Up to this point, these photos were mostly of my kids high school and youth sports. The constructive criticism I got was amazing, and really gave me the motivation and desire to improve. I wanted to shoot the kinds of photos they shot, and I was willing to do what it took.

Be Willing to Work for Free

Can you see where this is going? These initial contacts I made were great, and with one fellow, I asked if I could tag along with him and shadow him as he shot sports. Fortunately, he was willing to help me, and I got some great experience shooting Division 2 college sports, which I’d never have had a chance to do on my own. I wasn’t shooting for a company, an agency, a wire service, or a publication- I was simply shooting for experience. This photographer agreed to let me tag along, and I agreed not to sell any of the photos I took (the NCAA has strict rules about how photos can be sold). Being able to shadow him and see what he did was awesome. I watched and learned as he explained where he shot from on the field and why, what he looked for in his photos, and thankfully, he was patient enough to answer my many questions. My photos got better, and my desire grew stronger.

I was hooked.

So what’s next? Well, learning like this is great, and it’s important to be willing to work for free, but I soon realized that the consumer-level gear I had was limiting, and so my next step was to find some opportunities to earn while I learned. Luckily, another one of those mass mailing emails came through, and I hooked up with a company that shot high school action sports. This gave me an amazing opportunity to earn some money to gradually upgrade my gear. It also gave me a chance to borrow their pro-level gear and see the differences between it and my gear. As I was able to afford better gear, it also opened up more opportunities for me to get assignments from them, because they could send me out on my own with my gear, and it wouldn’t tie up their gear. It worked out well for both of us.

[NOTE: this is the part of the story where some folks will say something like, “it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer”, which I don’t argue with. However, there are certain things that better gear simply do better. That’s all.

Know Your Gear

I love photography and I love sports. So it’s no wonder that I also love sports photography. But sports photography is very different from other kinds of photography. For example, there are often technical decisions you need to make with your camera as you shoot, and you need to do this very quickly. You see, sports photographers are allotted zero timeouts during a game! It’s important to be able to make adjustments on the fly with your camera with muscle memory, so that you don’t miss a beat. Some of these might be exposure settings, like changing a shutter speed from 1/320 sec to 1/1000 sec as you change from shooting a timeout and back to live action. Be sure that you know your gear as well as possible, so that it doesn’t slow you down when you need to make these kind of adjustments.

Raise Your Standards

One of the companies I shoot for is MaxPreps. For those of you who don’t know who they are, they’re owned by CBS Interactive, and they’re essentially the high school division of CBS Sports. They’re also know for their high quality photos. I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a MaxPreps Pro Photographer, which gives me the opportunity to cover just about any high school sports event. But being accepted isn’t easy. Most folks aren’t accepted, at least on their first try, mostly for photo quality reasons. Becoming a MaxPreps photographer has raised my game, because each gallery I shoot gets reviewed, and if the photos aren’t good enough, they’re rejected. Shooting to this standard has made me look at my photos much more critically. Many of my photos which I used to consider good, I now reject myself, because I hold myself to the same MaxPreps standard. This has just been a long-winded way of telling you to be very critical of your work. Be your own toughest critic. You’ll raise your own bar and become a better photographer.

Know the Game

Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t always get you a winning photo, but it helps. Knowing the sport you’re shooting will help you decide where to shoot from and what to look for. For example, if you’re shooting football, it’s important to know the rules of the game, and to understand the flow. It’s important to understand the tendencies of a quarterback to throw a long pass on 3rd down as he rolls out to his right. This will help you be in position to capture the shot you’re looking for. It doesn’t always happen, but you’ll be in a better position than folks who don’t know what you know. And whatever you do, be sure you’re never part of the game. Understand where it’s ok for you to shoot from and where it’s not. Be respectful and mindful of where photographers are allowed on fields, in arenas, or wherever. If I’m at a new location and unsure if it’s ok to shoot from a certain spot, I make sure to ask someone in charge ahead of time.

Shoot Low

Most sports photos look better when shot from a low perspective. Football, soccer, basketball, you name it. A low angle simply looks better. It can add drama. It can make the athlete look larger than life. So get low and shoot low. For example, I shoot football on my knees (some folks will even lie on their stomachs for a low perspective). For basketball, I usually sit on the baseline. The lower, the better.

Two Eyes and a Ball

A great piece of advice I got early on about shooting sports is that it’s important to capture two eyes and a ball. The eyes will often show you the emotion of the athlete- it could be a look of confidence, concentration, fear, surprise, you name it. But no matter what, the eyes show you the personal side of the athlete. The ball gives context to the photo. It puts you in the action with the athletes. This is such an important concept that I wrote an entire blog post about it. You can read that here.

So that’s alot. But it’s not all, and thank goodness for that. This is much of what I’ve learned so far, but I have a feeling that in a few more years, I might look back on this blog post and think, “Boy, I really didn’t know much at all back then!”. Hopefully, it’ll help you as an aspiring sports photographer, and help you learn more than you already knew.

Give Back

I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and I still have A LOT more to learn. But I’m starting to reach a level where my hard work is paying off. I appreciate the time that certain photographers took to help me learn and grow. I appreciate them letting me tag along and ask endless questions, and I appreciate the constructive criticism they gave me to help me understand what could make my photos better. So when you reach a certain level of achievement, give back. Give back to less experienced photographers and help them along, just as others may have helped you. And you’ll be surprised at not only how much you might have to share, but also how fulfilling it can be to help others.