Success in sports photography depends for the most part on knowing ahead of time how the action will play out. It is very rarely an accident that the professional sports photographer has his or her camera pointing in the right direction when the money shot arrives. There are happy exceptions, but no serious photographer relies upon happenstance to pay their bills.
Now, this approach to capturing great sporting images seems to run counter to our notion that sporting events are entirely unpredictable. After all, great sums of money are lost at betting exchanges precisely because no one can consistently predict the outcome of a particular sporting event.
In reality, sports photographers take advantage of the complete predictability of a given athlete’s approach to their sporting event. Nobody reaches competition-level performance without repeating the same series of movements over and over again. Repetition and choreographed movement are the norm, not the exception. Even racing horses and hounds run in a straight line!
The best sports photography is arrived at through preparation, not through the careful selection of photographic equipment, nor by ensuring an unblemished attendance record at sporting events – these are mere prerequisites which even the most unremarkable sports photographer can match.
Louis Pasteur was not known for his photographic exploits, but when he said “Chance favors the prepared mind” he captured perfectly the sentiment required for sports photography success. Before you set foot on the sports field with camera in hand, or walk into an indoor arena and cast around for the perfect vantage point, you need to have done your research.
If you will be photographing a gymnastics event you should have purchased a beginners guide to the subject and learned everything you can about mandatory movements and the sequence in which they will be executed.
You should have studied hours of taped events and got to the point where you can anticipate the next move, as though it was you on that floor, beam, or set of bars, readying yourself for the signature move that will leave the crowd cheering.
Not until you understand the mindset of the athletes you are photographing, and got yourself to the point where it feels as though there is nothing they can do to surprise you, will you be ready to capture them, when the time comes, doing something completely unexpected.
In the instant when the unusual presents it, you will recognize the moment, and capture it, as if purely by instinct, though in fact it will be your hours of preparation that has triggered your response. When other photographers catch themselves thinking “Whoa.
If she does that again I’ll be ready for it” you’ll simply be nodding silently to yourself knowing that the moment has passed and will not be repeating itself, but that’s OK because you *were* ready and you did capture the moment.
Being prepared for the unexpected, and reaping the reward with a sports photograph that no-one else can claim is more than just a little exciting. When you look into your LCD screen and you see that you have captured an astonishing image, it is every bit as invigorating as if you had accidentally kicked up a gold coin from the sand while out walking on the beach one day. No matter how much you prepare for success beforehand, every great image comes as a complete surprise.
But while it may be satisfying and remarkable to get the money shot in the form of an unanticipated event captured for all eternity, it is not something you want to rely upon as a sports photographer.
In fact, the money shot, more often than not, is found in the ordinary rhythms of the sporting event itself. You simply need to recognize what they are and find the best vantage point from which to capture them.
Racing, in all its forms, has a very well-defined starting point. All athletes (or racing animals) are on an exactly equal footing when they burst free of the starting blocks (or stalls) and jockey for position.
This release of energy can make for explosive and timeless images of struggle. It is a moment when anything is possible and every competitor is still in the running for first place. Just five seconds later it might be a very different story.
But you will have to decide where you want to catch the action: at the starter’s blocks, or at the finish line. You will not be able to cover both angles of the event. On the other hand, it is always a good idea to take a look around and see what your competition is doing.
If every other photographer is battling for a position to cover the action on the field, then that’s probably not where you want to be. Maybe it is time to look at what the sports competitors are doing *between* events.
I once captured a top-lit female gymnast sitting on the men’s horse apparatus in the low light of the gymnasium while she watched the competition at the far end of the hall. It made for a serenely beautiful black and white sports photo.
Had I been focused on the action I never would have noticed her. Opportunities like this present themselves all the time, so if you find you are having difficulty getting near the action, take a breather and see what else is going on around you. Sometimes the money shot is right there on the sidelines.