Finding Order in Chaos
Sports are incredibly chaotic and unpredictable to the average person. The reason we go see a sporting event is that no one knows who’s going to win, or when the game-winning touchdown or decisive turnover is going to be. That’s what makes it exciting.
As a sports photographer, though, you need to break sports down in very formulaic ways, and know what all the options are. What can happen? You have to dissect every single sporting event you photograph very methodically, whether it’s a batter’s swing in baseball or a serve in tennis.
Tennis is an especially good example, because it’s a sport that is maddening to shoot with a fixed lens. The players move around the court like crazy. But you learn to study the athletes and see that they have a very characteristic serve, or forehand, or backhand. And you need to figure out the best position and what the best lens is for these shots.
When photographing tennis players, you know they’re always going to serve on that line on the right side of the court. There’s not going to be much variation there, and you find the perfect angle. And you can shoot the entire game just trying to follow the action.
You can refine your choices by deciding that you’re not going to spend much time on a forehand shot if this guy’s known for a great backhand. You’re not going to spend much time on her serving if she’s not known for her power in serving. You’ll spend more time waiting near the net if you know that these two athletes like to come in very close, as was often the case with John McEnroe and Björn Borg.
You have to study the sport and know it. What makes a great photographer of tennis is someone who gets great images of the initial serve as well as the backhand and forehand within five minutes of the competition, and who can sit back for the rest of the match and wait for the special moments that are unpredictable.