ARTICLE

10 ways to improve your sports photography, from a pro

A female athlete soars over the high jump, her braided hair swirling around her head.
Competing for Belgium, Nafi Thiam clears the bar in the high jump before winning the women's heptathlon on 5 August 2017. Photographer Tom Jenkins says: "I often shoot with a large aperture: f/2.8 or f/4. It throws the background completely out of focus, so my image is concentrating on what I want to show: the action." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/4.0 and ISO400. © Tom Jenkins

Tom Jenkins is a multi-award-winning sports photographer for The Guardian newspaper, and a Canon Ambassador. Over the past 30 years, he covered major sporting events – including six football World Cups and five summer Olympic Games, five Rugby World Cups, 20 Wimbledon tennis championships and numerous others. Here, he shares his top tips – including the best functions to increase your hit rate – and reveals how he captured some of the most breathtaking sporting moments.

"You know, photography that your put in an art gallery, that people have to take time to stand and digest … I was never into that, really. I wanted to take pictures that people could relate to immediately," says Tom. Photographing for The Guardian, his images have to catch readers' attention instantly but his winning shots often happen by accident.

A prime example is the photo that earned him first prize in the sports singles category of the 2017 World Press Photo contest. It captures jockey Nina Carberry in mid-air as her horse and others fall at a fence at the Grand National steeplechase. When Tom captured this iconic picture, he was too busy manning five cameras – a mixture of Canon EOS-1D X and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV bodies with different lenses – to realise that he had just caught a winning shot. In the fast-paced sports photography arena, Tom lives by a few rules to make sure he gets the best shot, even if it is by chance.

Eight female athletes compete in the hurdles event, one woman has fallen at the first fence lying on her front as the others leap over the other fences.
Deborah John of Trinidad and Tobago crashes in heat five of the women's 100m hurdles on 11 August 2017. "The way to anticipate hot moments is to take your knowledge of that sport and apply it," says Tom. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/5.0 and ISO320. © Tom Jenkins

1. Know your sport…

"This sounds simple but it's incredibly important," Tom says. "I'm a complete sports nerd. I remember, as a teenager, reading a book about the rules of sport – that might sound dull, but I found it fascinating. Even now I sometimes cover sports I'm unfamiliar with, such as Greco-Roman wrestling, so I do my research beforehand.

"You need to understand what people are trying to achieve, when they win, when they lose – and from a news angle, it's also important to know the characters. At first sight, wrestling looks like two people having a cuddle for a couple of minutes and then someone is thrown on the floor, but there might be little things that make really good pictures, like hands trying to get a specific hold on someone's body. If you know what someone's trying to do, you can be ready."

A pack of six jockeys and their horses gallop through snow towards the camera, kicking up snow.
Horses and riders racing on the frozen St Moritz lake, Switzerland, on 12 February 2006. "The new autofocus technology has given me a far higher hit rate," says Tom. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 1/1600 sec, f/5.6 and ISO200. © Tom Jenkins

2. Be ready for the action

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"Every sport has its hot moments and hot spots: those times and places where the action peaks. Scoring a goal or crossing the finishing line are obvious ones, but there are plenty of others – and the way to anticipate them is to take your knowledge of that sport and apply it. There might be a player who celebrates scoring a goal in a particular way, for example. Sport is unpredictable, so it might not happen in exactly the way you think, but if you're prepared then you can get yourself to the right spot in good time and you won't miss it if it does," Tom says.

Key to capturing decisive moments is having the right kit, set up and ready to go. "It's all over in a flash, so I try to widen my point of view and extend my chances of getting a picture. So I have remote cameras set up at two different angles, and then I'm at a third angle, triggering all the cameras with a remote trigger...

"The new autofocus technology has given me a far higher hit rate, too," Tom says. The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV that he typically shoots with both boast 61 selectable autofocus points and the advanced EOS iTR tracking system, which makes it easier to track moving subjects and achieve sharp and precise autofocus. "If there's a racing car going at 200 miles an hour, I'll get everything in focus, and I just couldn't do that before. Now it's almost like, if one image is out of focus, I'm thinking, 'Blimey, that's incredible. What's happened there?'"

An athlete looks straight at the camera with striking blue-grey cat's eye contact lenses in, shotput in one hand as he prepares to throw it, and missing his other arm.
Michael Kacer competing for the USA in the men's shotput IF1 final on 11 September 2014. "If you have the freedom to, then get closer [to sports subject]," advises Tom. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO500. © Tom Jenkins

3. It's not all about huge lenses...

"People think sports photographers just shoot on massive lenses. There are so many sports events that you don't need a pass to attend, such as marathons and cycling events. You can get really close to the action, so you don't need a long lens. I have to use long lenses because I'm often corralled into press areas and positions in the stadium that are far from the subjects I need to photograph, such as the managers on the other side of the pitch. But if you have the freedom to, then get closer. In a cycling race you can practically touch the riders, so you can use a wide-angle lens."

4. Rule your equipment

"Photography kit is fantastic these days, and you can apply it in so many ways, but you need to be in control... Don't let your equipment rule you – you rule the equipment. My main action camera is a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. The autofocus is amazing – it can focus at 14 frames per second. I always have it in AI Servo mode so the focus moves with the subject. That enormously improves my hit rate. And the fact that the sensor is so sensitive to light means that I can work in dark conditions and get perfectly good images."

A group of several runners move along an athletics track so quickly that they are blurred. The lights from a big screen merge with them, creating an exciting effect.
Runners during the men's 5,000m heats on 9 August 2017. "There might be times when I want some movement or blur in my picture," says Tom. "Sports photography isn't just about freezing action, it's about illustrating action." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/8 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Tom Jenkins

5. Experiment with shutter speed

"It's a misconception that sports photographers always put the camera on a really fast shutter speed. At a football match I don't go below 1/1600 sec, but there might be times when I want some movement or blur in my picture. Think about the image you want to take. If that's an instant capture of a moment at the peak of the action – such as two players colliding with the ball – then fine, go fast, but sports photography isn't just about freezing action, it's about illustrating action. Experiment. Modern cameras have screens on the back so that you can see your picture instantly. If you like it, great; if not, delete it and you've lost nothing."

6. Go as wide as possible

"I often shoot with a large aperture: f/2.8 or f/4. It throws the background completely out of focus, so my image is concentrating on what I want to show: the action. Lots of sporting arenas now have bright, garish advertising all around them. I'm not there to photograph the ads, I'm there to photograph the sport. A large aperture with a small depth of field also gives me greater latitude to have a very fast shutter speed. My camera can go up to 1/8000 sec – it's really useful when you're trying to get the exposure right on a bright sunny day."

An infrared image casts the sky dark and trees and grass tennis court light grey as officials and fans watching a match.
Sports photography can be creative too, says Tom, who was inspired by landscape photographers to use an infrared camera to capture tennis in surreal style. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D at 1/1000 sec, f/9 and ISO400. © Tom Jenkins

7. Vary your angles

A female gymnast holding a ball at arm's length appearing headless.

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"Don't always shoot at eye level. When people are leaping – two football players going for a header, say – shooting low emphasises how high they're jumping. Or in basketball the players might be looking up at the basket. If you're up on a balcony, you can get them looking right towards you, with a nice clean court background. Don't just let the action happen in front of you.

"Ask yourself, 'What's the point of the picture I want to get out of this match, race or event, and how can I go about achieving that?' There isn't one definition of a great sports picture – you need an open mind. I was covering the World Athletics Championships when Usain Bolt collapsed on the track in his final race – that's a big news angle. But other times I just want a pretty picture that illustrates speed, agility or beauty."

8. Borrow from other genres

To stay ahead of the competition and get the shots that stand out, Tom continues to reinvent himself and get an unusual perspective on well-known sporting events. At the 2017 Wimbledon tennis tournament, he came up with the idea of photographing the famous grass lawns in infrared. "I'd seen how landscape photographers had used infrared imagery to render colours very differently," he explains. "Now, Wimbledon is green everywhere – the grass is green, the backdrops are green, the front of the clubhouse is covered in ivy. I thought it'd be very interesting to see how it would react to infrared, and how it would look at different times of the day, with the cameras recording heat."

Tom contacted Canon and borrowed an infrared camera. He was lucky to get two very hot days, where the images looked distinctly different from when it was colder. The whole series looked surreal and captivating, and was shared by hundreds of readers online. "The whole world knows what Wimbledon is like, so you can play on that familiarity in your viewer, by suddenly presenting them with something that's totally different. It's that sort of thing that I try, and maybe it'll keep me refreshed at events that I go to a lot," he says.

The shadow of a broad, winter-bare tree casts a shadow over a huge portion of a rugby field, as fans cheer on players.
Tom points out that there are many sporting events, such as this local rugby match, that you can photograph without a press pass. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/6400 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Tom Jenkins

9. Be prepared for bad weather

"Sometimes the best pictures are taken in the worst conditions. A rugby match where it's pouring with rain and the players are covered in mud is great – you can get lovely pictures of someone doing a diving tackle into a big puddle. But you have to plan for that and make sure you protect your camera, and yourself. I have Gore-Tex covers for my camera but they're quite expensive so I also bring lots of chamois leathers and cloths you can buy at garages. You can use them to wipe, dry or put over the camera so they absorb the wetness. I also have a decent waterproof coat, waterproof trousers, waterproof shoes and various gloves. You don't want to miss out because you have wet feet and can't concentrate."

10. Push your camera... and yourself

"You might be at a rugby match on a horrible winter's day with no floodlights, thinking, 'I can't photograph anything', but you can always try. Modern cameras have incredible sensors. They can sense better than you can see, so don't let dark conditions put you off. Knowing your camera and what it can and can't do is so important," Tom says. The full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark IV has an ISO range of 100-32000 and accurate AF even in low light, while the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II has an ISO range of 100-51200.

"At sports events I don't want to think about my camera, I want to focus on the action. If you're thinking about shutter speed or what different buttons do, you're not in the match or event. I'll change settings during a match but so quickly, it's instinctive. Take your camera everywhere and shoot all the time. Only then will you understand what it's capable of."

Yazar Rachel Segal Hamilton & Kathrine Anker


Tom Jenkins' kitbag

The key kit for pro sports photography

Photographer Tom Jenkins stands by the side of a football pitch with three Canon cameras fitted with telephoto lenses.

Cameras

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Class-leading performance with its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture. Tom says: "The fact that the sensor is so sensitive to light means that I can work in dark conditions and get perfectly good images."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage. "The new autofocus technology has given me a far higher hit rate," says Tom.

Lenses

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