Ryu: Know your sport, like really know it

To my dear wonderful listeners:

Some of you might be thinking “Why isn’t he writing about Japan?”.  Trust me, as a Japanese living abroad, I’d like to use this platform to vent my frustration of not being able to do a thing from abroad as well as the sadness that has engulfed myself and others alike.  It is obviously a tough time for the people of Japan, but I think the best thing and the only thing I can do is to try to get myself back into a semblance of a normal life.  Thus it does help me to write about sports photography today.   Trust me, it really does.

In our next podcast, we will be talking about a very specific technical aspect of sports photography (I guess this could be called a “tease”).   Meanwhile in this post, we’re going real basic: Know your sports that you are shooting.  End of post.

Seriously, it’s simple as that.  I have been told by other sports photographers that athletics (track & field) is by far the most difficult sporting event to shoot just because there are so many different sports within it.  Ranging from hammer throw to 100m dash, one must know a lot about the sports when shooting them. Mind you, “know your sport” doesn’t mean just “know the rules”.  That’s the absolute minimum.  Correct me if I’m wrong (and I could be very wrong), but if you are shooting pole vault, you need to know that each vaulters are only allowed 2 misses in the same height.  What if you didn’t know this rule and whilst shooting you decided not to shoot the 2nd vault because you thought instead he was allowed 3 misses at the same height?  I will guarantee you would have missed a reaction shot of him missing the 2nd one or being excited about clearing the height.

Case in point: I shot the rugby World Cup 2007 in France not knowing the rules completely.  Had I known that videos were involved in ambiguous tries, I would have not relaxed and thus not missed some celebration shots.  The moral of the story is to make sure you at least know the basic rules of the sports that you are covering so that you don’t look like me, the idiot.

The second part of this “know your sport” equation is slightly different from the first element, but more difficult to master: Know it well as if you’re playing it.  It is very important that you understand the “feel” of the sport that which you are shooting.  This includes tactics, theories, tendencies, and anticipation of the events which unfold during the course of the match.

For instance the guy on the right wing has the ball and is dribbling up the pitch at speed, ready to cross the ball into the box.  You now have two choices: follow the player on the wing until he crosses and try to get the action in the box or ignore the player on the wing and aim towards the box.  Unfortunately, there is no right answer here.  If you follow the player right up to the point he crosses the ball, unless you have ungodly hand-eye coordination, the likelihood of you getting that shot in the box is very small as you don’t have enough time to react to the ball.  This is especially true if you are using a 300mm f2.8 and longer.

On the other hand, if you give up the player crossing the ball, you have ample time to frame and get the shots in the box.  Now you’re wondering, “But what if he doesn’t cross?  What if he dribbles around 3 players and scores the goal that will be played in Sky sports for the next two weeks?”.  Well, that’s the risk you have to take.  After years of boo boos, I have realised that I don’t have Spidey reflexes.  Rather I have quite a normal one.  The only thing I can do to get the action shot I want is to learn how to calculate the risk involved in the shots I want.  Depending on how I “feel” I will either follow or not follow the player on the wing.  Some based on how defence reacts to him (is there one player defending him or are there more?) or a quick look into the box to see how many players on the same team are are ready for the cross.  But obviously knowing the tactic employed by the team (team who likes to cross into the box) and tendencies (player who likes to cross) of the crossing player help make this a more calculated decision.  In order to become a fortune teller of the pitch, this can only be achieved by studying the team as well as shooting the same players on multiple occasions.

Also to consider is the sequence of events during a match.  When do the players take to the field?  When does the coach come out of the tunnel? When do the annoying volunteer kids get out of your way? Etc…  Knowing when things happen in a given match helps you prepare for the shots you want.  This is also true for player tendencies in celebrating after a goal/win.  Some players go towards one specific corner whilst others rush towards the bench.  But I can also throw in a wrench and say that if a bench player is good friend of the player who scored and it’s the bench player’s birthday, the player who usually goes to the corner might go towards the bench.  At the end of the day, it’s a percentage game.  You are working with a formula that will never be perfect, but knowing all the facts that are readily available to you, you allow yourself to make a judgment with minimum risk attached.

One of the reason why sports photography is deemed difficult is exactly what I’ve said above: you just don’t know what’s going to happen.  But if you prepare yourself by first knowing and understanding the rules, studying the game and players, and ultimately having a “feel” for the game, you will be as prepared as you can possibly be to get the shots you want.

“What if I couldn’t get the shot I wanted even after all the preparations?”  you might ask.  I can only say that you shrug your shoulder and prepare for the next cross.


PS 頑張れ日本。

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4 thoughts on “Ryu: Know your sport, like really know it

    1. And also the linesman. If you know your sport, you’ll know to sit on the end and the side where the linesman don’t go!

  1. I wish I had an opportunity to shoot a ball sport for the contest, unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with that sport to know where to find the local games right now. Just finishing up hockey season, a sport that I feel I know because I’ve played it for ten years now as an adult. However, I do have to make one slight change. I’m used to playing a non-checking (not non-contact though) game where the high school, college and pro players I photograph all play the hitting game. That does require a little change in thinking on my part. But my participation does allow me to anticipate shots fairly well.

  2. John,

    There will be a non-ball competition in the future, so don’t worry about it. Your hockey shooting skills will be in demand. :) I think if you had played the sport that you’re shooting, that’s probably the best as you really know what goes on (most of the time) inside the players’ head.

    As for the non-checking part of it, that’s only one component to the game that you already know very well. You’re ways ahead of other people who had no experience playing the sport.


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