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Tutorial: Envisioning the shot

For sports photographers, after you’ve mastered getting a sharp image, the next challenge is composing your shot. After deciding what you want your subject to be doing you’ll need to get yourself into a position where you can get the shot with a clean background. Picture editors and publications don’t want cluttered backgrounds so you’ll need to find a position that will get you that outcome. Here’s an example from Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open. It’s Kim Clijsters getting ready to return serve.

The background is so clean it looks like a studio shot or one that was photoshopped in post. Well, it wasn’t and it was shot as-is and simply cropped afterwards. Here’s the uncropped image:

As you can see the entry tunnel to the court provides the background and the opportunity to shoot Kim with a clean background. Because Kim was in bright sunlight there’s about a 4 f-stop difference between Kim and the tunnel. So correctly exposing Kim will give a clean black background. This photo was shot with a 400mm lens so there are some pixels to crop out. If you wanted to get more pixels then you’ll need to shoot a 600mm, but you’d be in the same location. There’s only one position on the photographer’s bench that will give you this angle so you need to pick your seat carefully. It’s the second seat on Riser 2 – #47 if you’re wondering. If you’re seated somewhere else, you’re out of luck for using this angle and position for this shot.
Here are two more photos shot from the same location with Kim hitting a forehand and Agnieszka Radwanska preparing to serve. You can get a lot of great shots from this position, you just have to be patient.

So, next time you look at a sports photo, try and deconstruct it and figure out how the shot was composed, where the photographer was positioned and how the clean background was obtained.