8 Sports Photographers on Their Most Dramatic Action Shots

Looking for inspiration to ace your next action shot? Try these tips on taking medal-worthy photos offered by 8 top sports photographers.

Athletes become legends because of the stories and images we pass down from one generation to the next. We know Willy Mays caught that ball in the 1954 World Series because photographer Frank Hurley immortalized the moment. We remember that in 1965 Muhammad Ali yelled at Sonny Liston to “get up and fight” because Neil Leifer captured it on film. We’re awed by Michael Jordan’s resilience every time we see that one photo where he’s leaning on teammate Scottie Pippen after playing with the flu in the 1997 NBA Finals—later nicknamed “The Flu Game.”

We asked eight master sports photographers to tell us about their iconic photos. Their sports range from swimming to soccer, stock car racing to surfing. They cover gymnastics, baseball, track and field. They’ve photographed historic matches, game-changing moments, and Olympic history in the making. Below, they share their tips for making that once-in-a-lifetime shot.

1.  “I would not survive in sports photography without back button focus.”

Petr Toman

8 Sports Photographers on Their Most Dramatic Action Shots — Speed

Gear:  Canon EOS-1D X Mark II camera, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4,0 L IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 350mm; exposure 1/1250 sec; f4; ISO 2500.

Tell us about your most intense action shot.

One of the amazing things about sports photography is capturing moments that you would otherwise miss because they happen so fast. The possibility of freezing the action results in incredible images.

The Rio Olympics was full of stories and possibilities for capturing sports you’ve never seen live. Artistic gymnastics was one of those for me. The speed of the girls was incredible, and you really have to be fast with your focus.  Seeing Simone Biles’s performance and watching her win the gold was breathtaking.

The main task at the Olympics is capturing the athletes with the Olympics logo or the circles. I love this picture, where Biles gives a kiss to the Rio logo upside down.

Pro Tip:

I would not survive in sports photography without back button focus. If anyone wants to try to shoot sports, this is one of the main things you should learn. From a gear perspective, sports is the most expensive kind of photography, but a 70-200 2.8 is a great lens to start with.

The most important lesson I learned is “Come early, leave late.” Sometimes photographers leave very early under the pressure of delivering images to agencies, and they miss a very interesting shot. Coming early means you can grab some prep images and some details and double check your settings.

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

Ever since I started to learn photography I’ve been deconstructing every interesting image I see. I find inspiration in the work of people who have been doing this job for many years and have some great sports pictures, like Scott Kelby and Dave Black. I also follow all the top events on Twitter.

2.  “I take numerous shots as I watch for conflict between players who are fighting for the ball…so I can capture the emotions of the moment.”

Keeton Gale

8 Sports Photographers on Their Most Dramatic Action Shots — Emotion

Gear: Canon EOS 60D camera, Canon EF Lens, 100-400 mm lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f10; ISO 200.

Tell us about your most intense action shot.

This photo was taken in San Diego at Petco Park, where I was shooting from the camera well beside the Padres dugout. It was an exciting day since my little brother (Rocky Gale) was playing for the Padres. It is a thrill to photograph major league baseball, especially when it involves my brother.

Pro Tip:

Usually, I am surrounded by other photographers from news outlets, so I find I have to be very persistent in my approach to photography. Especially when it comes to getting to an event early and finding a good position with my gear so that I can get the best shot. I take numerous shots as I watch for conflict between players who are fighting for the ball or sliding into home so I can capture the emotions of the moment.
8 Sports Photographers on Their Most Dramatic Action Shots — Persistence

Where do you find inspiration for your photography?

While attending a Seattle Mariners baseball game at the Kingdome with my dad at the age of three, I fell off a flight of stairs and I sustained a traumatic head injury. Because I was unable to participate in sports in my teens, photography gave me an outlet as I  grew up in a sports-minded family. I became the family photographer, as I documented each of my siblings’ sports activities. From there, I have been encouraged by other photographers in my community to pursue sports photography as more than a hobby.

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