Ryu: Get low, don’t get dirty

Get low. No, we’re not preparing ourselves for an earthquake (yes, it’s too soon), rather it’s what you should do when you are shooting sports photography. Why? Because by shooting from a low angle, it makes your picture look hell of a lot better.

Case in point: NFL films. For those who have never seen them, NFL Films was a revolutionary documentary style production founded in 1962 by a guy called Ed Sabol. Wiki definitions aside, what I remember most from it was that they will always follow the players onto the field with the camera man (yes, video and not still) right behind them. He almost had the camera right on the field. It was that low. The effect was dramatic as from this angle, the players were enormous and the stadium grand. I have been enamoured by this effect and have since became an addict of this style.

Try this at home. Get your camera with a wide angle lens attached. Make sure you check your manual and find out what the crop factor of your camera as my definition of “wide” angle begins at 24mm equivalent on a 35mm format. Find a subject: your mother/boyfriend/wife/cat/friend/your non-threatening neighbour next door will do. Get down on the ground, belly down, aim at the subject, make sure head to toe is in the frame, focus and shoot. Then again from the same spot, now shoot the same subject eye-level. Lastly, get on the couch or a chair and shoot. Upload it onto your computer and have a look. You should have three distinct look from the same subject and the same distance, except if you were shooting a cat as everything is low level with them.

You’ll notice that the low angle shots made the legs of the subject big and the head small. The opposite is true of the high angle shot. You should also see that the low angle shot made the room bigger than the high angle shot and the eye-level shot. If you also felt as if you were closer to the subject form low angle, you’re beginning to understand what I’m trying to say here. Although this proves NOTHNG in terms of why you should shoot from a low angle in sports photography, at least you know what I’m talking about.

By doing this experiment you might now be super pumped to do this at the sporting event of your choice. If so, make sure you get a zoom wide angle lens. Why zoom? Because you’ll want to be able to change the focal length when shooting wide angle. From years of experimentation (no, not the ones in university), I have found that a prime wide angle is a bit too limited when you want to shoot low and wide. It’s one of those things I wish I can explain it more, but trust me, my 17-35mm F2.8 on the D3 gives me the flexibility I want. Remember that when shooting sports photography, you need to be as versatile as possible. You don’t have time to ask your assistant to change the lens for you on the pitch and having a zoom can make a world of difference.

Now, the simple stuff. You can either lay on the ground and try to look through the viewfinder whilst having breathing difficulties or you can get those silly electrical or optical attachment so that you can “see” how your shot is composed. Real sports photographers like you and me will not do that. We will set the camera on the ground, angle it, focus, compose, and shoot. We do this because we’re too cool to get our jackets dirty and we also like to move out of harms way if we are required to do so at moments notice. “Hey moron, how do you do it without looking through the viewfinder?”. Yes, because I am a moron and yes because from years of practice I know which direction my lens is pointed and I can compose without looking through the viewfinder. Ain’t I cool? I pre-focus to where I want the focus to be and I’ve got the LCD to check if I’m doing it right. If I’m shooting players coming onto the pitch, I take at least 10-20 test shots to see if everything is set up perfectly.

Then there is the “no”. You may have set everything up beautifully, but at the last minute you realised that the team you want to shoot is not on your side, but on the other side. Better yet, the fine gentlemen from the security company pushes you back by 2 meters and you just want to cry . What are you going to do? If I was a religious man, I’d pray. If you’re a true sports photographer, you regroup and find an alternative way to make it work. But usually, no matter how much regrouping you do, the end product after the last ditch adjustment is usually not that good. But when everything works according to your best laid plan and you get the shot, you are in cloud nine.

I’ve tried this in various sporting events and low and wide is my favourite combination. I do it whenever and wherever possible, but mostly before the game takes place. For some reason I love to shoot this way when the athletes enter the arena. It makes their entrance very special. Maybe I’m paying homage to NFL Films. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass.

So next time you are at your kid’s / mate’s football game, go out there and get low. If someone looks at you funny, tell them that I sent you. :)


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Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by supporting us on Patreon and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.

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