Introduction: College Sports Photography - Where You Can Go, Settings, and Tips
If you're a student in college and are interested in photography at all, I highly recommend you try your hand at sports photography. It's fast-paced, entertaining, and something to brag about. With minimal time commitment you can try out a variety of sports whether you're shooting for your school's photo club or the athletic department itself.
I've been taking pictures at college sports for more than 3 years. I started out shooting with the photography club my freshman year and then got a job as a student photographer for Clemson's athletic department sophomore year. Next year I plan on working with a local newspaper. I have taken pictures at countless events including football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, track and field, rowing, volleyball, ultimate frisbee, dancing, end of year banquets, and many more. I hope that I can explain what I've learned in a manner that future photographers can quickly learn from.
This guide will go over the rules for photographers at various sports events. When I started out taking pictures I couldn't find any cohesive guide about where I could or couldn't go at each event, so I just asked staff members at each game and went places until I got yelled at. (The old "Ask for forgiveness, not permission" method) I made diagrams for each of the Clemson sports venues, but I'm sure that at other schools the rules are similar. Each page also gives some recommended settings and tips for that sport. Enjoy!
All of the Clemson-specific tutorials can be found on my website here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/blog/category/Sports-Photography-Tutorial
Step 1: Getting Involved
To shoot most college sports you need to be a student at the college or university and have a media pass for that sport.
I got involved with sports photography by joining Clemson's Student Photography Club. Most schools will have a photography club, so look it up and join it. Our club has worked with athletics to get media passes for all of the sports here - football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, etc. We get the passes by emailing the person in charge of each sport's media and asking for passes each year. Depending on the sport and the year we might only get 1 or 2 passes on a per-game basis, or we might get a set of 3 or 4 season passes that we just pass around the club as-needed.
Another way to get involved is to look for jobs as a Student Photographer. There are some local newspapers that employ photographers and photographers, the athletic department employs a few, and there is a group called "University Relations" that sends a photographer to various games. Ask around for these at your school and you should be able to find something.
Step 2: Football
Clemson-specific tutorial here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2017/09/08/Shooting-a-Clemson-Football-Game-My-schedule.
As per usual, where you're allowed to go will vary from stadium to stadium, but they should be similar across the board.
As you can see in the picture you're allowed to be on the sidelines near the endzones and at the back of both endzones. Most photographers stay on the endzone and only use the sidelines to walk from one side to the other. Depending on the gear you have (if you have a 200mm lens and not a 600mm lens) you might need to try the sideline to get closer to the action.
Football is similar to all outdoor sports in that the settings you need will vary based on the weather and the time of day. As a general guideline you should use the following settings:
Shutter speed: 1/800s or faster. If it's a sunny day you can go up to 1/4000s or faster. With the stadium lights on 1/800s might be pushing your gear, or maybe even 1/400s.
Aperture: f/2.8-f/4 is ideal for the best Bokeh and making the crowd a smooth out-of-focus mass instead of a distracting background.
ISO - whatever works for the lighting conditions. I often leave mine on Auto if it's bright out, but if the lighting really isn't changing much then set it manually. During daylight try to keep it below 800, but for night games you might need 6400 or more.
White balance: Auto or set for the conditions (Sunny/Cloudy/Kelvin(4300 ish for stadium lights)
Step 3: Soccer
Clemson-specific tutorial here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2019/01/29/Shooting-Clemson-Soccer-Games
Once again, ask people at your school's soccer field about the rules for that specific field. At Clemson we're allowed to be on either of the long side lines but not in front of the player benches, and we can cross behind the goal whenever the ball is out of play or on the opposite end of the field. Make sure you stay 2-3 feet back from the sideline so that the side referee doesn't run you over.
Your camera settings for soccer should be similar to football or any other outdoor sport - 1/800s or faster shutter speed, f/2.8-f/4 aperture is ideal, and ISO whatever works for the lighting conditions.
If the conditions are fairly static (thick layer of clouds, no clouds at all, night lights) then I recommend using full manual mode (and manual white balance). However, if there are patchy clouds making it brighter or darker periodically or there is a shadow on half the field (@Clemson ugh) then you might want to just use auto ISO so you don't overexpose half your pictures.
The soccer field is bigger than you think. Unless you have a lens longer than 300mm, don't take pictures when the ball is on the opposite half of the field than you. They might look decent in your camera, but a picture that you have to crop 100% won't look as good as the picture where you zoomed in as much as necessary with the lens.
Step 4: Baseball
Clemson-specific tutorial here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2019/01/29/Shooting-Clemson-Baseball-Games
Baseball is a very long game to shoot if you are required to be there for the entire game, but the upside is that you have lots of time to try different angles around the field. The image above shows where photographers can/can't go at Clemson's stadium but I imagine it's similar everywhere else.
Note: You can also take pictures from any empty seats in the stands! Your camera might have trouble focusing on players through the net though. Anyways, the colors explained:
Green - the green box on the left is the designated photographer area that they want us to use. It works best if you have a decent zoom lens on you, at lest 200mm. It's also a great spot to take pictures of players running to first base and especially results in nice shots if they slide.
Yellow - Depending on your venue, you may be able to sit on either side of the foul ball netting. It's a great spot to take pictures of players batting and the pitcher. You're also protected from balls because of said net
Red - At Clemson's stadium the first 3 rows of seats directly behind the batter are reserved for people with expensive tickets and they don't even want photographers going there. Usually we can take pictures in those seats fro 1-5 minutes before they kick us out. Great spot, we just aren't allowed their, but YMMV.
Okay so there are two parts to a typical baseball game: Before sunset, and after sunset.
Before sunset the pictures will come out great!! It should be plenty bright, the lighting is usually at an angle thanks to games starting at 5pm or 6pm, and it's just all around a good time. For daylight I recommend
Shutter speed: 1/1000 or faster
Aperture: Depends on lens. f/2.8 is great
ISO: 400 ish
White balance: Auto or Sunny
After sunset the stadium lights come on and things get tricky. The lights might seem bright, but they really aren't. Your success after dark will really depend on your gear. Play around with the shutter speed and ISO (keep aperture as wide as possible or close to it). Typically your action shots will mostly be blurry at any shutter speed slower than 1/400s, but your pictures might be too grainy if you go faster than that (and higher ISO than 3200).
-Some sort of telephoto (200mm+) for action shots and close-ups
-A wide angle for stadium shots and team shots
•The faster the shutter speed the better
-1/4000s minimum if you want to freeze the ball
•Use fastest frames-per-second setting to have a better chance of catching the ball in-frame
•At night, find moments instead of action
-Smiles, celebrating, crowd shots
•Look for variety
-Get elevated, go down to ground level, wide angle shots
•Unless wide angle, crop tightly!
Step 5: Basketball
Clemson-specific tutorial here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2019/01/28/Shooting-Clemson-Basketball-Games
Ahh basketball, a consistently-lit indoor sport, what a nice change. The lighting in your basketball court will really make or break your pictures. Clemson recently gutted and renovated their court and put nice bright LED lights in it and it's perfect for pictures, so I've been pretty lucky in this regard. However I remember older students complaining about how awful the lighting was when they took basketball pictures.
Photographers are typically allowed to be a few feet back from the baseline on either end of the court. The yellow boxes in the diagram above show this, but only on half of it - the other half of the baseline is reserved for cheerleaders and dancers. Maybe at your court you're allowed to be on either.
In college basketball the teams always start going the same direction - they start on offence on the opposite side of the court of your bench the first half and then switch directions at half time. You'll want to set up under the goal that your team is attacking.
Whatever you do: Don't step on the main part of the basketball court during the game. Not even during time outs. They get angry and yell at you. Walk around the edges at all times, like where normal people walk to/from their seats (not the orange areas on the court wherever possible)
You can step on the court before the game if you want to get good pictures of fire and pregame stuff.
These settings might be very different for you depending on your equipment and the venue's lighting. No matter what I prefer to underexpose the pictures by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop. The camera sees the dark stands and thinks the picture needs to be brighter but that makes the players blown out. So you underexpose by a bit and the pics come out great. No matter what, figure out the Kelvin white balance setting to use and leave it there so that your pictures won't swing between too cool (blue-tinted) and too warm (yellow-tinted)
White Balance: Kelvin @ 4100
Aperture: depends on lens, I have to use f/5.6 so it's the same no matter where I zoom
- Mobility is limited, might not always have the optimal spot
- Women’s basketball is a great way to get basketball experience - It's not as fast-paced as men’s, less crowded on the ends of court
- The ref will always find a way to block your shot
- Don’t feel bad if you missed a good shot, there will always be more opportunities
- Learn to follow the ball, take lots of burst shots
Step 6: Volleyball
Clemson-specific tutorial here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2017/08/29/Tips-for-shooting-indoor-Volleyball-games
Your success at volleyball will largely depend on the venue - how well lit is the court, where are you allowed to go, what does the background+ceiling look like, etc. Clemson's facility is rough - there are some lights that are pink and some that are yellow, the vents on the ceiling are blackened and could use some cleaning, and there's a bright LED sign directly across from the photographers area that will mess with your exposure if you don't have manual everything. Anyways!
At Clemson's court, photographers are allowed to be in the green strip on the right. Basically it's the first row of seats opposite the stats/team/media section. It's a tripping hazard if we're on the floor and it's a hazard to the game if we're on the purple area so basically we just plop our butt in open seats on the bench. The yellow arrow in the picture is where we go to put down our bags
You can also take pictures from anywhere in the stands. It's always fun to get some wide angle shots from the corner and the center of the stands.
All of this might be different at your court, so just ask the officials there about where you are and aren't allowed to go.
As per usual, these settings will be different based on your venue. Here is what I use:
Shutter Speed: 1/640 or faster
Aperture: As wide as possible, f/2.8 if you can (I have to use f/5.6 because of my lens)
White balance: 4300
- Take lots of pictures and delete lots of pictures. It's easy to track the ball, but it's difficult to perfectly time the picture at the moment the player hits it. They might have an awkward face or your camera won't focus right or something, so just take a lot of pictures and liberally delete the bad ones.
- Don't forget the fans! Volleyball fans (at least the students) are often very animated, so turn the camera around and take pictures of them from time to time
- Getting hit by a volleyball hurts less than getting hit by a basketball or baseball or football, so don't be too afraid.
- Vary how much you zoom - try to get some pictures where you can see multiple players going for the ball, some where you can see the other team going up to block, some pictures zoomed in to just a single player hitting the ball, and maybe some style shots of just one player's face/shoes or the ball.
- Celebrations - take pictures of the team huddle immediately after they score a point, and pictures of the players on the bench celebrating.
Step 7: Tennis
Clemson-specific tutorial here: https://www.jacobathompson.com/single-post/2019/01/29/Shooting-Clemson-Tennis-Matches
Tennis is another great sport to start learning sports photography on, especially if it's outdoor. There's fast movement but in a predictable way and close to your camera. The only downsides are the restrictions on where you're allowed to go.
Tennis is possibly the most restrictive sport for photographers. You'll probably get yelled at by someone or asked not to do something - just be humble and do what they say, if it doesn't make sense then ask for clarification. At women's tennis matches there's one crabby old lady referee that will make you move if you're anywhere within 5 feet of her (also she makes really bad calls 1-2 times a day). Anyways!
You can't move around very often during tennis. While a match is going on on either side of you don't move anywhere in the red areas in the diagram. So if you need to go from court 2 to court 3, you basically have to wait for the game on court 2 to end (players go to benches to get water) and then walk across the court. If you want to leave to change lenses or go to the bathroom or whatever you need to wait until all the matches between you and the door are done. Typically I'll leapfrog my way across the courts whenever a game finishes. The picture with the curved green arrow illustrates the leapfrogging.
The settings you need for indoor vs outdoor tennis are wildly different. Obviously these settings will differ based on the lighting in your school's tennis facility or the conditions outside, but as a general guideline here's what I use
White Balance: 4100K (Use the Kelvin setting. 4200K if you want them to be a little warmer)
Shutter Speed: 1/800s
Aperture: f/2.8 (or whatever your lens can do - when I was using my 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens I did f/5.6 and my shutter speed had to be 1/400 for ISO 4000 ish)
The settings you'll use for outdoor tennis will vary slightly based on the weather, but here's a guideline:
White Balance: Sunny or Cloudy or Shady (set this manually instead of Auto so that you get a consistent look across all your pictures)
Shutter Speed: 1/1000s or faster
ISO: 400 ish
Aperture: f/4 (or whatever your lens can do)
- Try to get the net in the pictures. Sure it's obvious that they're playing tennis when you have a racquet and a ball in the frame, but the net is another important part of the game and can give you depth or leading lines
- Take lots of pictures - you'll have ones with awkward faces or arm positions or out of focus
- You can't get good pictures of some people. Some people just make awful faces when they hit the ball. It's not your fault, just do your best
- Celebrations!! It's easy to get into the habbit of putting down your camera when a point ends - don't! Take a picture of the players celebrating, especially in doubles. Also look towards the fans.