How to Shoot Sports Photography: Lessons from Famous Super Bowl Photographers

February 01, 2019 4 min read

Movo - Sports Photography: Lesson from Neil Leifer & Walter Iooss

You’re all ready for the big Pats vs. Rams game this Sunday – 4th row seats, jerseys on, hot dog in hand, and camera at the ready. But are you prepared to capture the story of the epic game? Didn’t think so.

Let’s be real – sports photography is one of the more challenging forms of documentation, right up there with photographing apex predators and war zones. Okay, maybe slightly less deadly, but sports photography can be just as stressful, requiring extensive equipment, experience and endurance: between the lighting, the movement, the focus, the players, the unpredictability, the story and all of the other variables, that picture-perfect moment can be gone in the blink of an eye, especially at the Super Bowl. That’s why it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a lesson or two from the pros of sports photography.

Photo by Morry Gash

Sports photographers can unanimously agree that luck is always present at any sporting event. The deeper question is how to harness that luck and transfer it into instinct and intuition. Neil Leifer has harnessed that luck through countless major sports functions since the 1960’s including the World Cup, Olympic Games, Kentucky Derby, World Series, and, of course, the Super Bowl, and describes the process of photographing a game like that of a shape-shifting moving target:

You’re there to shoot the star of the game, in the play that won or lost the game, hopefully in a memorable picture…You don’t see [the big picture] as it’s happening. The picture that you shoot in the first quarter that seems so very significant, quickly becomes meaningless if the game goes another way in the second quarter”.

Leifer emphasizes his photography of such players as Alan Ameche, Yogi Berra, and Muhammad Ali as an encapsulation of more than just a moment in the game, but, when executed properly, a moment in history. Leifer knows a thing or two about historical photos -- he is responsible for the iconic shot of Ali standing over Sonny Liston, possibly the most recognizable photograph in sports history.

But when you’re in the thick of things, and when history is yet to be made, it’s hard to know where and when that precise moment will be. Leifer highlights the importance of placement, timing, knowledge of the sport, and of the athletes. You can read his in-depth interview here.

Photo by Neil Leifer

But in the world of sports photography, luck and intuition will only get you so far. You need to come prepared with the right tools for the job. Most sports, including football, involve rapid motion in enormous arenas, often with highly contrasted lighting, so focus, shutter speed and a good zoom lens is imperative.

Focus: Autofocus and subject tracking are excellent tools for any DSLR sport-shooter to utilize to ensure constant clarity, and if your camera supports it, face detection or 3D tracking can come in handy for certain events.

Shutter Speed: A shutter speed anywhere between 1/400 and 1/2000 seconds can capture that pivotal moment in quick succession with no motion blur (unless you’re going for a surreal blurred effect, in which case you could go as slow as 1 second).

Zoom Lens: Depending on the sport, the venue, and how good of a hustler-to-the-front-row you are, you are probably going to want to utilize a lens with a good focal length, anywhere between 70 and 200mm, to catch the athletes (and fans) up close and personally, as well as a solid 2.8 aperture to account for potentially low lighting scenarios.

Photo by Walter Iooss

The culture of sports is a powerful and passionate one, and a particular win or loss can produce an emotional ripple effect around the world. In order to illustrate both the logistics and the emotion of a game, the sports photographer must, like in any niche of photography, know their subject inside and out. Walter Iooss, Jr., another patron of sports photography with various exhibitions and the 2004 winner of theLUCIE Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports Photography, has carved out an illustrious career with the knack for photographing his players both on and off the field.

“When you spend that much time with a team, it’s like they don’t see you anymore… I need to be their friend… I said, ‘Lance [Armstrong], it’s not my job to get into this [controversy about Armstrong’s doping scandal]. I’m just here to take a picture of you.'”

Iooss is a prime example of how a virtuous sports photographer captures any and every salient moment of sports history, whether it’s following the catch of the century or the politics of the people. Agility and attention to detail of your surroundings is key in photographing everything from the players to the fans to the coaches to the venue, and everything in between. Some of the most poignant images in sports photography may not have a single athlete, ball or jersey in them. The ever-increasing number of photographers out there only emphasizes the need to think outside the box (and outside the boxing ring) and to experiment with how the story of the game is told with the most accurate portrayal of perseverance, team spirit, and emotion. You can read more about Iooss and his insights here.

So this Sunday, whether you’re stretched along the sidelines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, or admiring from afar at home, take notice of the sports photographers and the techniques they employ, the gear they’re using, and their interactions with the team. And ask yourself: how would you handle capturing the action around you to tell the truest story?