How to get into sports photography: 15 pro tips for making the leap from hobby to career

A skier flies into the air off the edge of a mountain. Photo by Martin Bissig.
Sports photographer Martin Bissig has travelled the world capturing dramatic shots, such as this one of a skier flying through the air after launching off the side of a mountain. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 1/1300 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Martin Bissig

"A great sports photo is one that makes you gasp," says sports photographer Eddie Keogh. "It has to have drama – an incredible moment that also looks outstanding. It's a rare thing, as it probably should be."

Capturing those moments and being able to make a living out of it would be a dream come true for many sports fans, but that's just what Canon Ambassadors Eddie Keogh, Martin Bissig and Richard Walch have done. Here they share their tips on how to get into professional sports photography.

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British photographer Eddie Keogh learned his craft under the tutelage of Fleet Street photographer Monte Fresco. He currently shoots for the Reuters news agency and is the official photographer for the England football team, as well as England rugby team official photographer for O2.

Swiss action photographer Martin Bissig has managed to combine his three great passions in his work: mountain biking, travelling and photography. A keen cyclist, he has ridden alongside athletes in Israel, Oman and South Africa, and he covers other outdoor action from trail running to skiing.

Richard Walch is a German action sports photographer and filmmaker who began his career covering snowboarding and now specialises in extreme sports and sailing. He shoots editorially and commercially, with a client base that includes Audi, BMW and Nike.

So what advice do they have for others who want to make it as a professional sports photographer?

A snowboarder upside-down in the air with a helicopter in the background. Photo by Richard Walch.
Richard Walch kickstarted his sports photography career after immersing himself in the snowboarding scene. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. © Richard Walch
A surfer with back to the camera on the crest of a wave. Photo by Richard Walch.
Richard now specialises in dramatic action shots of snow and water sports. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. © Richard Walch

1. Dive into a sports scene – Richard Walch

"Choose a sport that you find really fascinating. For me, that was snowboarding. You need to become part of that scene or culture, and then you can start shooting from the inside. To break it down, find a sport you like, become as good at it as you can, and make friends. Then you can get access to athletes and to events and, because you understand the community, you photograph the sport better."

2. Be prepared to move quickly – Eddie Keogh

"Things happen quickly in sport. If there's a bad tackle, there's a chance the player might get sent off, so you have to be ready in case the referee pulls out a red card. I have a camera around my neck with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens [now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM], which usually covers the goal, and a second camera, with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens [now succeeded by the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens], for midfield action. The quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is now so good that you're getting pictures from the far end of the field, because you can crop in so much. You tend to need fast shutter speeds for sport, such as 1/2000 sec for football. If you want to get a bit arty, you can drop it down."

The sun breaks through the early morning fog during a football game. Photo by Eddie Keogh.
The sun breaks through the early morning fog during a football game between Yacht Tavern and CDA in Southampton, December 2016. Eddie Keogh recommends experimenting with different angles to capture unique sports shots. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now replaced by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 1/3200 sec, f/4.0 and ISO200. © Eddie Keogh

3. Go mirrorless – Martin Bissig

"I'm shooting with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the mirrorless Canon EOS R. As soon as the full range of native RF lenses comes out, I will switch completely to mirrorless. I carry almost all my equipment in a backpack, so the smaller and lighter it is, the better. The EOS R's image quality is comparable to the EOS 5D Mark IV, but it has a smaller body. The field of the autofocus also allows me to put the subject right at the edge of the frame, so that’s a big advantage. For me, switching to mirrorless is definitely the way to go."

4. Team up with young athletes – Richard Walch

"It's helpful if you can work with athletes who are about the same age as you, so you can grow with them. They might have a small sponsor at the beginning, but in a couple of years, they get bigger sponsors and you can build your career with them. When they're young, they also need photos and will be willing to spend time with you. If they want to use your images for their autograph card or website, then you're helping each other for free. If their sponsors want to use the images, it becomes business. If you're friends with the athletes, they let you get close, so it's not a problem if you don't have the fanciest equipment."

Youth footballers playing in front of a tower block in London. Photo by Eddie Keogh.
Youth football on Wanstead Flats in London. Eddie Keogh says that photographing local sport is an excellent way to hone your skills. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO800. © Eddie Keogh

5. Learn the ropes with local sport – Eddie Keogh

"A lot of people just want to get to big league football matches as quickly as they can, but you can learn so much more by photographing football, rugby, hockey or tennis at your local park. Get out in all weather – not just when it's sunny, because rain can make pictures more atmospheric – and practise, practise, practise. I started photographing my brother's team in the local park, and in the past couple of years I've done personal projects on Sunday morning football. I probably enjoy that more than going shoot a big team like Chelsea because it's so different. It's lovely to bring the skills I've learnt over the years back to the park, because there are so many great pictures literally just around the corner. If you have an eye for photography, you'll see it – you don't need to go to big stadiums to learn your craft."

6. Don’t discount non-pro lenses – Martin Bissig

"Amateur photographers always compensate for their lack of knowledge or skills with pro gear. They're quite surprised to be told that it's not the lens that takes a shot – you need to be there to capture the action at the right time. The new 10x zoom lens for the Canon EOS R, the Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM, is not a 'pro' lens but it's everything I've been looking for. When I'm photographing mountain biking expeditions, such as up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, I need my equipment to be compact and lightweight. It's more important for me to be able to cover a huge zoom range, and not need to switch lenses at high altitude and -20°C, than to have a super-expensive prime lens. If it came to it, I’d rather compromise slightly on quality, but be able to tell the story by not missing a shot."

Two men with their bikes on their shoulders following two men in Arab-style dress and a camel across the desert. Photo by Martin Bissig.
The vast, golden desert landscape is as much the focus as the two mountain bikers in this striking shot – photographer Martin Bissig recommends shooting details around the main action. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Martin Bissig
Climber Imogen Horrocks hangs from a climbing wall by one hand. Photo by Julian Finney.

Young Photographer: learning sports photography

Two photographers collaborate to photograph the passion and grit of grassroots sport.

7. Become multi-skilled: shoot video – Richard Walch

"You have to be able to do everything today – photography, video and editing – because you never know where a job will come from and it's hard to make a living. Start with video right away. That's the beauty of today, you can buy a camera that can do everything. With Canon, all the lenses can be put on every video camera, from top level to consumer models. You have a universal system that you should make use of.

"If you're young and want a camera to get started, the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is a good place to start. The newer cameras are better in low light, but the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is fast, and if it's sunny and you're on the snow, the water or a soccer pitch, it's the perfect camera to get started with. It includes Full HD video with slow-motion capture.

"I shoot on the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and it’s so fast and solid, it never lets you down. That's what you need, especially when you start taking your camera to remote locations and working in harsh weather. It's weather-sealed, it's got the toughest body and it’s the fastest – it's in its golden age."

8. Know the story of the day – Eddie Keogh

"You have to know the story of the day to get the right pictures. If a player is going back to a former club, they might get more abuse from the fans. If a manager has lost four games on the trot, there will be speculation he's going to lose his job, so you need to watch for a reaction if he loses again. If he puts his head in his hands, that's the kind of picture that gets a lot of play."

9. Use unusual focal lengths – Martin Bissig

"I often use a wide angle lens, such as a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, or a longer zoom, such as a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens [now replaced by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM]. What I do is actually landscape photography with athletes in it, so for me it's quite important to have a wide angle so I can tell a story in one shot. If I'm too close to the athletes, you can't tell if the picture has been shot in the Himalayas or in Switzerland. I don't use mid-range a lot, which is the standard view in sports photography – it's not what I’m looking for in a shot. I'd rather go to the extremes, shooting at 12mm or 200mm, than the standard 50mm view, or anything in between."

A man on a mountain bike performing a stunt on a huge statue of a hand. Photo by Martin Bissig.
Careful study of your sport will help you to understand how people move and what looks good. This sculpture against an azure sky makes a dramatic backdrop for the mountain biker's stunts. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Martin Bissig

10. Capture the emotion – Richard Walch

"When a football team wins a big championship, it's not the images of the game that stand out, it's the shots of the team celebrating, standing on a bus surrounded by thousands of people. You have to shoot around the sport: the emotions, the politics, the celebrations and the disappointments. If you shoot a marathon, you don't shoot the start, you shoot the finish, because that’s where the emotion is. Look for peak action and peak emotion. If you can combine those in one image, you've got it."

11. Play with different angles – Eddie Keogh

"In the past, newspapers were my bread and butter, but now people want content for social media. It's about keeping it fresh and mixing up the angles. Get yourself to an event and think about what you want to get out of it. At Wimbledon, there are photographers' seats in different locations so you can go high, low or to the side. At football, I almost always have a camera set up behind the goal with a remote trigger. With 22 players on the pitch, it's 50-50 whether you even see the player scoring a goal."

12. Understand what the sport should look like – Martin Bissig

"Detailed knowledge of your sport is vital, because you need to know how people move and what looks good. If I were to take pictures of skateboarders, I might think they look good, but if I showed them to skateboarding fans, or to pros, they might say, 'The hand doesn’t have the right angle'. I don't know, because I'm not a skateboarder, but I know exactly how mountain biking is meant to look. Also, you can have the best possible location and the nicest bike on the planet, but if you have someone sitting on it like a sack of potatoes, it doesn’t look good. It's quite important to be able to give athletes instructions."

A man sits next to his tent on rocks by a waterfall. Photo by Martin Bissig.
Action shots are important, but this image of a mountain biker setting up camp in the wilds of Tibet helps to set the scene. "People want to see the side shots, because that's what makes the story interesting," says Martin Bissig. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 1/8 sec, f/4.0 and ISO4000. © Martin Bissig
Two mountain bikers sit with their backs to the camera in an archway in front of a mosque. Photo by Martin Bissig.
It's useful to have shots that sum up the whole story, such as this pair of cyclists taking a break on a tour of Iran. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Martin Bissig

13. Have a niche to help sales – Richard Walch

"The more commercial the sport, the easier it is to sell images. I was really lucky because, when I started, snowboarding took off, as did demand for images. I quickly became one of an elite few shooting the sport globally. If you want to shoot soccer, or track and field, there will be 50 other photographers with you, and it's a big challenge to better them."

14. Photograph the details around the action – Martin Bissig

"How many pictures of a mountain biker on a bike can a magazine print? Someone sitting by a fire and drying their shoes, that's the kind of thing people want to see. Focus on the athlete, but what's going on behind your back is as important as what's going on in front of your lens. People want to see the side shots, because that's what makes the story interesting."

15. Choose lenses according to your sport – Richard Walch

"Snowboarding can be super-close, so the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM is a common lens, or you could shoot with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM, which is the perfect all-round sports lens. If you're shooting sports where there are restrictions, such as motorsports, you need long lenses, and they cannot be long enough – 400mm is your standard focal length. I just got the new Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM and it's incredible because it's so light, it feels like a much smaller lens in your hand. The f/2.8 aperture really makes a difference – the athlete pops out against the background. If you shoot mountain biking or your friends playing sport, then you can go as close as you want, which makes it easier on the equipment because you can use standard lenses between 16mm and 200mm."

• Canon is an official sponsor of the Rugby World Cup 2019™, taking place in Japan from 20 September to 2 November. Eddie Keogh will be an official photographer at the event.

Yazar Lucy Fulford

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