How to become a sports photographer

Professional sports photography is a very exciting career option for someone who loves sport. It offers the opportunity to get about as entrenched in your favourite sport as it is possible to be without actually being on the field, and to meet many of the players. If you work fulltime for a large news agency, you can earn a comfortable salary as well.

Doing it professionally is very hard work. It can be both physically demanding and mentally challenging. Not only do you have to be relatively fit in order to keep up with the action, but you will also need to be alert to catch the best moments of the game. If you are working for a newspaper, you will also need to be fast in selecting and sending in your shots in time to go to print – sometimes you’ll have as little as an hour in which to submit your work. While you won’t be working 9 to 5, and may have days of not working at all, the times when you are working can be exhausting. However, if you love photography and sport, it will be a career worth pursuing.
How to get started
First things first: get a good-quality digital SLR camera and learn how to use it well. At the same time, start to build up your equipment. Because photographing action requires you to move fast and take shots in quick succession, you need to have very specialised equipment. It is expensive, so don’t try to buy it all at once – get one new item every few months and learn to use what you have in the meantime.

The equipment you will need will depend on the sport you specialise in, but there are some basics to consider. You’ll need a telephoto lens but depending on what kind of sport you are photographing, the length of the lens may vary. Your camera will need a continuous shutter function (8 frames per second is the industry standard) as well as a continuous-focus servomotor, so that you don’t have to keep refocusing as the athletes move up and down the field.

Take some time to build a portfolio of shots. Your portfolio is what will get you a job. While you might find workshops that specialise in sports photography to be very helpful, a photo editor will be less interested in your CV than in what you can actually do with your camera.

Start at low-level events that have easy access and where you can get a better vantage point, such as school and university sport. What matters is not the size of the events you shoot, but the quality of your photos.

Once you have a collection of good shots, contact a local newspaper and ask for an interview with the photo editor. If the editor likes your work, you may get an assignment to shoot a specific event. Be prepared to start small and realise that it will take time to get to the job you want. You may get a number of rejections at the beginning. In that case, ask the editor for some constructive feedback and then keep trying.
As you get more experience, make sure you keep your portfolio updated by taking out any older, sub-par photos when you add better ones. Once your portfolio is very good, you may be able to get an internship at a sports magazine or a news agency. You probably won’t get paid much, but you’ll learn a lot and meet people who will be able to help you work your way up.

How to be good
To be a good sports photographer, you need to be very familiar with the sport you plan to photograph. This way you can anticipate where the action is likely to be and know which angles are best to capture a particular play. Understanding the sport will also help you to better convey the emotion of a certain moment. It is also important to know which players are newsmakers.

Choose one or two sports to specialise in, preferably those you have some personal experience with and feel passionate about.
Try to get a different angle from the other photographers at an event. There might be a good reason why they’re all hovering at one end of the field, but try to get away from the cluster so that you can get a shot no one else will. Also try for the less obvious shot – perhaps an emotional reaction from a team member or a fan.
However, remember that your pictures need to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but marketable too. An artistic shot of a football whizzing down the field may look good, but if none of the players are recognisable, you won’t be able to sell it to a newspaper.
Study the work of others. Take time to look through sport magazines or newspapers, and look at the photographs.

Take note of what you like and don’t like. If your favourite sports photographer has a blog, keep checking for updates that may give you good tips. Be willing to keep learning and improving, and you could one day find yourself covering the World Cup or the Olympics.

To find out more about digital photography, consider the part-time University of Cape Town Digital Photography short course, which is presented online throughout South Africa. Contact Amy-Jane on 021 447 7565 or visit  for more information.

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