By Jim Colton

As the Photography Editor for Sports Illustrated for fifteen years, I had the honor of working with the best sports photographers in the world. But I also had the pleasure of working with young up-and-coming sports enthusiasts who often asked me the question: “What does it take to make a great sports image?”

So I’ve come up with six tips to help them capture that magic moment in sports. And I’ve also asked 15 of the best sports shooters in the world to talk about some of their greatest moments and to offer a tip of their own. (see links below)

Myth: Great sports photos are only made from credentialed positions. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s nice to be in the first or third base dugouts at a baseball game but some of the best pictures are actually made from the stands, or elevated positions. This is true for almost all sports, but especially outside the professional spectrum. More and more leagues are trying to control access and content so you will have better luck getting clearance on a collegiate, high school or even parochial level….and…you’ll probably make better pictures. There are many local sporting events that do not require a credential. Start there.

1: Do your homework. Look at the type of pictures that are being published in your local newspapers, national magazines and web sites. If you want to shoot for Sports Illustrated you better know what they run. If you’re just shooting to become a better sports photographer, know what kind of pictures work. We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. Research the greats; Walter Iooss Jr., Neil Leifer, Heinz Kluetmeier, Hy Peskin and others. Buy or browse their books….search the web, study their images. And understanding your subject matter is critical as well. You better know the rules of a football game before you try shooting one. Which brings us to…

2: Anticipation. If you think you know what’s going to happen next, the better your chances of getting the picture. If it’s third and long at a football game, there’s a great probability that there’s going to be a long pass to try to get that first down. Focus your attention on the wide receivers downfield or at the very least, the quarterback…who may get sacked. Man at first with less than two outs in baseball? Could be a double play ball…good time to focus on second base for the slide and throw. Know your sport. Anticipate the next play…and be ready.

3. Action or reaction? There is nothing better than a great peak moment captured in sports. But sometimes, the better image may be behind you…or after the play. The react photo will have the emotion that an action photo will not. Buzzer beater at a basketball game? Great to get the ball leaving the hand but don’t forget the bench behind you pouring out onto the court after the winning shot…or the dejection and sadness on the losing team’s bench. Be ready for the athlete screaming or punching the air after they crossed the finish line at a track event. Emotion is the great equalizer in sports photography.

4. Tight or loose? Don’t be afraid to use long glass. You’ll miss more pictures but the one you nail will be a belter. And it’s better to have it “in-camera,” than to crop into it later. Tight action brings you closer to your subject and makes the play more impactful….and less depth of field will diffuse the background for more “pop.” (See next tip) Shooting something loose will allow you to introduce elements such as composition and color and may produce a stunning image that is just pleasing to the eye….a sunset or magically colored sky at a stadium…patterns in the crowd with people all wearing the home team colors. Incorporate your surroundings…look for the scene setter…think wide as well as tight. In most sports, you will have “crunch,” and “grace.” Think tight for crunch. Think loose for grace.

5. Backgrounds, backgrounds, backgrounds! The cleaner your background, the better your image will be. At a rodeo? There is nothing worse than those awful metal bars and people in the stands getting in the way of your subject in the foreground. If you go up in the stands, and get an elevated position, your background will be dirt…and your foreground will pop….without any clutter. And shooting at a lower aperture (f2.8 as opposed to f16 for example) will create a depth of field that will diffuse your backgrounds for a cleaner look. Have the viewer’s eye go right to what you want featured and not wander into the background.

6. Angles and remotes. Be different! We experience life at eye level. So if you shoot at eye level, you bring nothing new to the table. Look for dynamic angles. Shooting low gives your subject a “heroic,” look. Shooting high may give you a better sense of place or that nice clean background. And always look to shoot from somewhere where no other photographer is present. This way you will always guarantee yourself an exclusive! Remotes are great tools. It allows us to see events from an angle that is not humanly possible to shoot….direct overheads…an ants-eye view of a steeplechase splash at a track event…or horses crashing over the bushes at an equestrian event. Study your venue and look for interesting angles and places for remotes.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to shoot heavily…you’ll need bursts during peak action. You may want to vary your exposures for that dramatic sunset or mixed light. Shoot raw files if you can. Try pan focusing at a slower shutter speed to bring a sense of movement. This is especially helpful at auto racing. Shoot too fast and the cars look like they are parked on the track! Experiment! The transition from analog to digital has allowed us these freedoms. Take advantage of them. 

Tips from the shooting pros


  James K. Colton recently left his position as the photography editor for Sports Illustrated. He began his career in 1972 as the color picture editor for the Associated Press. Five years later he joined Newsweek and became the director of photography in 1992. He is on the Board of Directors of the Eddie Adams Workshop, and is a mentor for J Camp, sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association. He received the “Golden Career Award” at FotoFusion 2004 by the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, was the Jury Chairman for the World Press Photo contest in 2005,  received an International Photography Awards “Lucie” for Picture Editor of the Year in 2007, was named Magazine Picture Editor of the Year in 2008 by the National Press Photographers Association, was the recipient of the “Focus” award for Lifetime Achievement by the Griffin Museum in 2010, and has been acknowledged as one of the 100 most important people in photography by American Photo.