We’ve tried quite diligently to keep this site and the podcast focused on helping people become better sports photographers. We don’t talk much about gear because making great pictures is largely independent of that, and we don’t talk about how to make money shooting sports because (among other reasons) the process of making great pictures is often bad for business in the short term. But as some of the readers/listeners who have incorporated our methods and philosophy improve to the point where they are good enough to get noticed, I do feel some responsibility to illuminate the next part of the path.
Sports photography is not a cheap endeavor. I guess you could shoot skateboarding with only a fisheye, but for everything else, it’s going to get expensive very quickly. Let’s say you’re new and you splurge on a prosumer DLSR and a 70-200 2.8. At minimum you’re $3,000 in already. There are lots of things you can shoot with that combination, and you can certainly improve your skills to the point where you’re a competent photographer. But you’re limited. Football and futbol, baseball and motorsports are going to be a problem because only so much action is going to happen close enough to you to consistently get quality high-impact pictures. You know from listening to us that given what you want to shoot, you need a longer lens and you need it quickly, either because you want to be able to make the pictures you’re missing or because clients are interested in hiring you based on the work you were able to do with shorter lenses, or both. And this is where the options get a bit scary and where the choices with the smaller price tag might end up being the more expensive ones long term.
This post is partially inspired by a discussion in our Flickr group. It’s a common mistake to think that the if 200 is not long enough, then 300 should do it. And given the price difference between 200-300-400, it seems like an easy choice. But what you don’t know is that 300 is no more of a field sports lens than 200, and you’ll end up selling it at a loss to buy a 400 anyway. So many people have made this mistake, including…Matt Cohen. It’s not fun. But take it from me, 400 is for field sports, and 300 is for tight spaces where you still want to shoot tight. Pros who shoot field sports mostly carry two bodies, one with a 70-200, and one with a 400. The question came up about buying a used 400, and that’s fine, but you should buy it from a retailer who has a used department and at least some incentive to make good if you get a lemon (KEH, B&H, Adorama), and not from a pro who is probably very rough with his gear. Still, a used 400 in good working condition is going to be expensive. And you have to decide if it’s worth it to you. Do you feel like you’re leaving money on the table that a 400 would help you get? Are you a rich guy who dabbles in sports photography? Are you gambling with your kid’s college tuition fund that you can make the money back before Jr is 18? Only you can answer this.
I however can dispel a few myths for you so at least you can make a somewhat informed decision. Photography doesn’t pay well. I imagine the income distribution in photography to be about the same as the world at large. You have a few at the top: celebrity fashion photographers aka the CEOs, high end wedding/commercial photographers and people lucky enough to have good staff photographer jobs aka the middle class, and then everyone else scraping by on crumbs. My first gigs in sports photography were shooting high school sports a few days per week for a small chain of local papers at $100 per game. While this is no way to make a living, it supplemented my income, got me real-world experience, and qualified me for membership in Nikon Professional Services. After a couple of seasons doing this, I had the opportunity to shoot pro and major college games for a sports picture wire service that fed to all of the big magazines and newspapers. They paid nothing up front and split the sales 50/50. Like everyone else at that point of the journey, I was really excited about shooting at a higher level, and wasn’t upset about the terms because I figured that the sales would more than make up for it.
Turns out I was late to that party, as the internet had already begun killing magazines & newspapers and the budgets for the ones that remained. The wire dropped prices and made deals that resulted in the pictures being almost given away. I stopped looking at statements after a while because there are only so many $1.50 sales split two ways that I could stomach. I moved away from this model as quickly as I could. The fact of the matter is that pictures are a commodity. There are far too many photographers at the average pro/college game for the pictures to have any scarcity at all. Whether you’re shooting for Getty for a few hundred dollars for 50 pictures per game or shooting on spec for next to nothing, you’re not going to finance a $7,000-$12,000 lens like that. Day rates for bigger magazines range from $750-$1,500 (in my experience) but these are tougher to come by to the point that it would still be very difficult to fund a 400.
The last stand for making significant money in the sports game is commercial photography. People who need pictures for advertisements, corporate websites, packaging, point of sale, etc will still generally pay for quality because they recognize that they are choosing a face for their product or service, and not just any face will do. Hook up with the right clients, and yes, you can fund a 400 with no problem. And this brings us thankfully back to the actual mission here, making great unique pictures. Since sports pictures are a commodity, the only way to break free of the commodity market is to make special pictures as a rule. Every time out, try to get something that no one else will think of so that eventually when editors come looking at your work, they see that there is no substitute for your eye and your brain, hence no substitute for your pictures. This is what gets you more gigs, and less dependent on sales that could be settled with coins.
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