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Interview With a Pro: Sports Photography Tips

Interview With a Pro: Sports Photography Tips

Photographer Ole Joern (38) has been successfully running his agency RED STAR PHOTO in Denmark for the last 5 years. He learned his trade working for one of the country’s largest newspapers and was sent to Germany in 2006 to capture all the excitement of the world cup on camera.

In this interview he reveals some useful tips for hobby photographers who want to take shots of the sporting highlights at Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine and the Olympics in London.

As a rule professional sports photography is expensive – equipment often comes with a five-figure price tag, what simple tips can you give to budding photographers trying to catch athletes in action?

As a professional photographer I have the best equipment and the advantage of being directly on the edge of the field. I’m at eye-level with the action and see things from the same angle as the TV cameras. Every now and then at the world cup in 2006 I had the chance to take photos from the stands, this perspective, i.e. that of the spectator opened up new possibilities. Of course you need a decent telephoto lens (at least 300 mm, but preferably 500 or 800mm) to take close-ups of athletes. In my opinion though, the place that offers the best way of working graphically, is in the stands. That extra bit of distance gives you a better idea of how the players are organized, their formation on the field, like in hockey of soccer for example. The most important thing is to make the most of where you are: try focusing a little less on what’s happening on the field and more on spectators’ reactions. I would also strongly recommend taking photographs in RAW because it’s the best format to use in the editing process. The key skill in sport photography is being able to “read” the sport, and being ready to press that button as soon as something interesting happens.

Photo of a Brazilian training session by Ole Joern

Some sports events this summer will be taking place during the day and others will be floodlit. What should a photographer pay attention for at different times of day and what kind of differences are there between taking photos in a stadium and on a regular field?

I love floodlights! Floodlights remain superbly constant, whereas the natural light you get on a sunny day doesn’t, which means that there aren’t any hard shadows or backlighting in a floodlit stadium. Since the light remains constant it’s a good idea to set the white balance at the start of the game, then you can use it for the duration without having to play around with any settings. So you want to manually adjust the white balance, use a high ISO (especially for telephoto shots – to minimize shaking – or when you want to keep movement to a minimum) so anything that’s captured is “frozen” still. A higher ISO means a shorter exposure time, this can, however, affect the quality of photos, digital photos in particular (especially cameras with a small image sensor). This sometimes creates a degree of “digital pixel dust”, which makes the picture looks grainy, like an old photo – it doesn’t look very good. Essentially it’s up to the photographer to decide depending on the circumstances. Otherwise, long exposure times (1/15 seconds for example) and maybe a tripod, stable surface or good atmosphere can provide very different photos. Photographs capture emotions and feelings; hobby photographers don’t need to worry about taking photos that the editor will like.

Sport is fast paced. What tips have you got for capturing quick movements on camera?

Of course nowadays when I take sports photos I use a telephoto lens, a short exposure time (1/800 or even faster) and multiple cameras (one with a 300 or 400 mm telephoto lens, one between 80 and 200 and one that is between 24 and 70 mm). Sports photography is about capturing moments the eye would miss. Anything makes it unclear what a photo’s focus is should be kept out, a really sharp background that removes the focus from the intended subject matter for example. That’s exactly what a telephoto lens can do. In sports, photographs should always focus on the key moment, it doesn’t matter if this is done in the post-production stage or at the time when the photo is taken. That said, sometimes the most interesting things happen off the field. Take photos of the spectators and their reactions. Try to capture the moments that newspapers miss, and look out in the next day’s media coverage for photos shot with telephotos lenses.

Ole Joern thinks that the fans are also really interesting subject matter - here, for example at the world cup in 2006

Have you got a favorite sports photo that you took – what is it about this photo that you like so much?

Oh – of course! But I like lots of photos taken by other photographers though too. During the world cup in 2006 I took loads of photos. When I saw them in the newspaper the next day it was almost like they were someone else’s. That’s why I decided to take more photos of the crowd rather than the players (an idea that my editor didn’t quite like as much as I did). But still today I find photos that capture the emotions and reactions of people in the crowd to be more representative of the sport than shots of frustrated players who skulk away from the field after a defeat.

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