When you get to a certain point in your sports photography journey, you eventually realize that it’s a commodity game. If you’re shooting a major college football game, there will be 40-60 other photographers there, more than 100 if it’s a major bowl game. At the Rose Bowl in 2011, there were assigned positions in both end zones because there were so many people shooting. This is of course an extreme example, but even where teams/leagues are restricting access, you’re not going to be shooting all by yourself. And it follows that if dozens of people are in roughly the same place shooting the same play, there’s a limit to how much better the best photographer’s picture is going to be relative to everyone else’s. Sure, you can get an edge with better positioning, better timing, etc, but there’s very little you can do to really blow everyone else out of the water.
How do you get an edge? Shoot other things. As we say over and over again, you only need so many peak action pictures, two guys fighting over a ball is two guys fighting over a ball. Unless one of them loses his shorts in the process, the picture probably isn’t going to stand out much. But on the sidelines and in the stands, things are happening that other people aren’t shooting.
Some things I do:
1) Always get there early. I mean two hours before game time early. Shoot the players warming up because they’ll be loose and you’ll have a much better chance of getting closeups.
2) Walk up into the stands. Fans do crazy things whether it’s wearing costumes or body paint or holding clever signs. These kinds of pictures will add another dimension to your shoot, and will show that you’re not afraid to step away from the action and seek out pictures that will give your editor some flexibility if there’s extra space to fill.
3) Keep an eye out for emotion. Yes it can happen on the field after a big play, but it happens just as often on the sidelines if a player is injured or a coach is displeased with his team’s performance. Sports are played by real-life people, and if you don’t find a way to illustrate this on a regular basis, you have most certainly failed.
4) Use your surroundings. It’s not always possible to shoot in great light, but if you’re not shooting the action, you can move around and find pockets of light or backgrounds that work and compose a picture that’s out of the ordinary.
The more you shoot, the more you will come to appreciate the non-action pictures. Out of my own favorite pictures, i’d bet that seven out of every ten are not action pictures. Long after anyone has ceased caring who won or lost a specific game, it’s the human pictures that will endure. In the words of Hans and Franz, hear me now and believe me later.
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