Matt: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

This isn’t advice I would run around posting in the comments of random pictures on Flickr, nor would I offer it unsolicited to people I know, but since you’re here to get better at sports photography: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone.

Ryu and I look at every picture that is posted in the BLFS group pool on Flickr, the monthly contest, and Training Ground, and what we are seeing is a lot of very well exposed, stop-action pictures that aren’t saying a whole lot. There is of course a plateau that all sports photographers reach where things like varying exposure, the fast action and the use of longer lenses stops being an issue. You can get usable pictures, and all of your non-photo friends will be blown away. And you’ll be mightily tempted to camp out on that plateau, caught in a feedback loop, making the same pictures and reaping the same praise from your friends and family. I know this because I was on that plateau, and I faced the same choice: fight for the next level or keep making the same pictures. If you want to make the same pictures, best of luck. But you really shouldn’t be here.

I’m not going to call anyone out or use your pictures to make my point, but some of you should really rethink your monthly contest pictures. Like I mentioned, I’ve been there. After shooting my first few sporting events (multi-stage bike race, indoor rodeo, and roller derby) I started shooting high school football. It was the first time that I had regular assignments shooting the same thing, and it didn’t take me long to get the kind of pictures my editors wanted. It was nice to see my pictures in print, cash the checks, and get positive feedback on Flickr and from friends. And if all I wanted was to shoot high school sports for a small paper, I could have continued to make those same pictures. But making great pictures was always my goal, and as I have learned in other parts of life, if you want a different result, you can’t just keep doing the same thing.

From 2008, my first high school football game, this picture is in focus, properly exposed, and totally boring.

What you do differently is up to you: stick with a long lens longer than you would normally, shoot wider, use slow shutter panning for motion blur, take advantage of a sunset to make a sports picture into a landscape, use directional lighting and manual settings to get away from 18% gray, shoot with a wide aperture prime to get even more blur in your backgrounds, lay on the ground, climb on top of the announcer’s booth, etc. The more of these you do, and the more often you do them, you will find your pictures getting more interesting, and you will pick up new techniques that will propel you to the next level. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll miss the easy pictures you aren’t going for, but these risks are really the only way to differentiate yourself in a world where everyone has a digital camera.

I skipped shooing all other pre-game pictures to reserve this position, waiting for more than 30 minutes, froze my ass off laying in nitrogen vapor, but made a picture that ran as a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated heading a piece on why college football is better than the pro game.

You don’t need to experiment for whole games at a time. Get the major players in the first quarter, and then change it up. Or try different techniques first, and then save time later to get conventional pictures. As you learn more and see the results, you can then incorporate shooting straight up with going for more interesting pictures at the same time, letting your judgement guide you from play to play. We’ll teach you all we know about making different looking pictures, but you still have to commit to leaving the safe, flat plateau and taking on the climb. Will you do it?


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5 thoughts on “Matt: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

  1. Now that’s great advice. I definitely noticed myself hitting a plateau this summer and I was trying to think of different ways to capture the same things. I think that’s where the real challenge is. Anyone can learn to use a camera to properly expose and learn how to capture peak action in one way or another, but it’s hard to get photos that really differentiate you from others shooting the same event. That’s where creativity comes in and I know it’s probably my biggest challenge. Definitely a lot of truth to me in your words.

  2. Matt – point well made to be sure…we have all seen the standard shots submitted in each sport, but it is the unique ones that always stand out. However, it is the unique shots that don’t happen by accident – they require forethought, planning and some times the ability to process what needs to be done to get the shot immediately – without thinking. Not unlike the prep work that athletes go through, correct?

    Great post, keep em’ coming!

  3. Yep. I know I’m guilty of this, although in the past several weeks I have made conscious efforts to break away from the routine football action shots on many more occasions. In my case, I think there was a comfort level that had to be achieved first before i could move on. I had to prove to myself that I could TAKE decent photos of the action that comes right at me before I was ready to MAKE the kind of photos that you are challenging us to create. There might not be a lot of proof of it in my photo stream yet, but your message is getting through. Keep pushing us through the blog and podcasts, the advice from you and Ryu is much appreciated.

    Thanks for a great post, Matt!

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