Photographing Youth Sports, with Stephen Green

I have been photographing professional athletes for over 25 years at some of sports best venues, but my most cherished shots are the ones of my own children. When my kids started playing sports, I wanted to photograph them with as much professional polish but without the pressure of pro sports.
In many ways, photographing youth sports is a different task than pro sports. By using your access to position yourself, knowing your child’s team and focusing on the candid moments and fun, you will be able to get professional-quality shots no matter your child’s age.
General Advice (for any sport)
  1. Assess the lighting. The very first thing you should do at your child’s sports event is to check the lighting. The picture will be all about the light and how you control it.
    • First, what direction is the light coming from?
    • The first thing you should do at your child’s sports event is to check the lighting. Each position you choose, relative to the sunlight, will have a different effect on the subject and challenge for the photographer. For example: Backlight nicely 'pops' the subject from a distracting background, but you have to be careful not to let the child get too silhouetted or their face will be obscured in shadow (images © Stephen Green)

    • Second, is it a hard or soft light? In other words, how much contrast is the light producing?
    • Third, what is the most advantageous location to shoot from? This will be determined by what you want the photo to look like—and where then you will have to place yourself.
  2. Choose your settings. In order to take the best pictures, your goal should be to get off the automatic program settings and to consider the three exposure modes you can reliably use with your camera.
    • Manual: Here you control the shutter and aperture. This is the most preferred setting.
    • Av: Here you control the aperture. The camera decides the shutter speed.
    • Tv: You control the shutter speed. The camera determines the aperture. Generally, for sports, you want to use the fastest reasonable shutter speed that the light will allow.  1/1000th of a second or faster is ideal in sunlight;  and you don't want it to drop slower than 1/500th of a second unless you're in very dim light.

    Keep in mind that shutter speed is one of the most important settings with all action sports. Learning your manual settings will allow you to figure out the correct exposure for shots. This can be a bit easier indoors, where the light is consistent and predictable (but also low). Outdoors, the correct exposure might change based on weather conditions or your position. But the by working in manual mode you can avoid having your camera tricked into the wrong exposure by a dark or bright area in the background, or by a subject in a dark or light uniform.

  3. Learn how to shoot indoors. Photographing kids indoors can create a real challenge due to the low light available in gyms and indoor arenas. Here are some ways I make the most of the gear I have on hand:
    • Increase my ISO setting to the maximum level so that I can increase my shutter speed options. I try to take the ISO up as far as I can without allowing too much noise and compromising the file quality. With my Canon 50D, I can confidently increase my setting to ISO 2000 and know I can still get a good file.
    • Or find the lowest shutter speed that will allow me to stop the action. I have found that the slowest I want to go is to 1/250th of a second. (Remember that 1/500 would be a faster speed, and 1/100 would be slower.) Otherwise, I end up with too much motion blur. But by using this option, I need to think ahead of the action and figure out where my kid finds the "still point" at the peak of his or her movement: the top of a jump shot, the release of a free throw, the top of a hockey swing, or the peak elevation of a gymnast or dancer. It’s the one moment within action where it all looks right. Any time the light allows, I prefer to shoot at about 1/500th of a second (when outdoors in good light, faster speeds like 1/1000th of a second assure good, sharp pictures of moving subjects).
    • Indoor shooting has its own lighting challenges, but use of a Speedlte flash, raising your ISO, or using 'fast' lenses with wider apertures are all effective ways to deal with darker locations (image © Stephen Green)

    • Or use a wide-open aperture. With light at a premium in some gyms, I want my lens aperture to be at the very widest opening possible. Then, I can use the fastest shutter speed to get the correct exposure. This also gives me the added benefit of having the backgrounds drop out of focus so that they are less of a distraction. For those new to SLR photography, the widest lens opening is the one with the lowest "f-number" (such as f/5.6, f/4, or f/2.8).
    • Add a flash. When shooting basketball, floor hockey and volleyball at floor level, I add a Canon Speedlite to my camera both to help illuminate the subject and to freeze the action. With a Canon Speedlite attached, I can activate the hi-speed sync setting, which allows me to increase my shutter speed to over 1/250 seconds in manual mode — as long as I’m not too far away. Because the flash is faster than the shutter, it will stop the subject and isolate your kid from a nicely blurred background.
  4. Use Canon’s AI Servo focus. Since your kids will always be moving at sporting events, use Canon’s predictive autofocus system, called AI Servo AF. It will follow-focus your subject and greatly increase your chances of getting a sharp image.

  5. Know your sport. The more you understand the game and your child’s team, the better your chances will be of getting the shot you want. Remember that you are photographing your child, not the game. Consider the situation: Will a team be passing or running on third down? Will your child be taking the team’s corner kicks, and which direction will be the team be going in each half? Does your child play more on one side than the other?
  6. Look for meaningful non-action candid shots (as well as the action shots) to capture every part of the event and your child's experience (images © Stephen Green)

  7. Youth athletes are not pros. When I photograph professional athletes, I am guaranteed that the venue will be good and that the athletes will have nearly perfect form. Neither is likely with children, so you should focus on capturing the emotion and fun of the kids playing the sport. Some of the best youth sports shots are not action. They are candid, emotional moments on the field and the sidelines.
  8. Take advantage of your access. Professional sports photographers are limited to where they can shoot from during games. You will have much more access at your child’s games. Get behind the goal, up close to the sideline or near the benches. Your positioning—and anticipation—is crucial to getting great shots. Just be sure to be out of the way of coaches and officials, and likewise be sure you’re not in a position where you risk being hit by an athlete, or an errant ball or puck.
  9. Take candids instead of, or in addition to, the action shots. I try to focus on the non-action moments that are a part of sports at every level. But the camaraderie and emotion can come and go so quickly that you might have trouble controlling the lighting conditions. The auto-exposure system in Canon cameras is exceptional for these situations, and the shutter-priority (Tv) and aperture-priority (Av) settings are often great for sports. I often use my Canon Speedlite flash in tandem with the automatic settings to help capture these fleeting moments.
  10. Get the shot you want. I like my sports photographs to have the following characteristics:
    • Make the light work for me.
    • Have the backgrounds out of focus.
    • Stop the action by positioning myself so that the player is coming to me.
    • Frame the shot creatively.
  11. But if you don’t get the shot you want, get over it. Professional photographers miss shots, too. Forget about it so that you can be ready to capture the next shot.

Pay attention to your framing! Simple changes in zoom, or shooting position can make all the difference between a weak image and a strong image. For example, Angle 1 (above left) uses a wider focal length, with greater depth of field keeping more objects/people in the background visible and in-focus -- such as the 'RESPECT' sign. This all distracts from the main action. Angle 2 (above right) uses a slightly different angle showing a simpler background, and the lens is zoomed in a bit more, with the depth of field shallow enough to keep the background slightly out of focus -- all of which helps keep attention on the main action in the foreground (images © Stephen Green)

Check back tomorrow to find out how to photograph your child's specific sporting event.

February 2010