The stories behind five brilliant sports shots

Want to take your sports photography to the next level? Five sports pros share the staging, kit and settings they used to capture these five standout images, plus tips and advice for recreating the effects yourself.
A grey figure's head and shoulders shrouded in dust particles and set against a black background.

The pressure of shooting fast-paced action can sometimes distract sports photographers from capturing that one moment of brilliance – a standout image that really grabs the attention. The examples here, though, demonstrate that with the right settings, kit that can perform in high-pressure situations, and some creative flair, it's possible to capture striking and unusual shots.

We spoke to five professionals who specialise in shooting a range of sports to find out what inspired them to take these images, the gear and settings they used, and what tips and advice they would give to aspiring photographers who want to have a go at replicating these effects.

James Musselwhite

Wrestling lends itself to dramatic portraits, but photographer James Musselwhite really wanted to push the boundaries with his surreal image (pictured top) of British professional wrestler Cassius. "He's very flamboyant and we wanted to represent that energy in a more traditional aesthetic – as if he was breaking out of rock," he explains.

James paired his Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens, and shot the image at 155mm, 1/8000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400, controlling his camera via the Canon Camera Connect app on his smartphone. The challenge was to achieve the effect he wanted without any post-production work. "We painted the wrestler's body, then kept throwing bags of flour at him until we got the shot. I set up the EOS R6 on a tripod so I could shoot from my phone and tethered the camera to a screen, which enabled us to really concentrate on light and framing," he adds.

Headshot of a person in a black top in front of a white brick background.

Rugby and amateur wrestling

"Showing you know how the industry works will impress a promoter, but they don't want fans backstage or in and around the business side of things. Use your knowledge to get into a circle that trusts you, but don't make too much of a deal about being a fan."

Try it yourself

"You have to know exactly how the materials you are using will behave," says James. "Experiment with elements that aren't conventional to portraiture. You could start off with water and sparklers, or try light painting with the flashlight on your phone."

James also suggests trying out different shutter speeds to see what actually works on camera. "Seeing how different elements can be frozen in motion is vital to getting a shot like this right," he adds.

Jean-baptiste Liautard

A black silhouette of a person on a bike surrounded by blue light trails

The light trails in Canon Ambassador Jean-baptiste Liautard's night-time image were created with a blue LED bar, which help to give the static image a sense of motion. "I needed a wide lens for this dynamic effect and I wanted the light trails to look bigger on the edges of the image for a 3D feel," he explains. "I like the colour blue, and the cold look it gives to the image." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 16mm, 20 sec, f/6.3 and ISO100. © Jean-baptiste Liautard

An old screensaver was the inspiration for the blue light trails in John-baptiste's striking shot of mountain biker Peter Kaiser. To create the light trails, John-baptiste walked around Peter making windscreen wiper movements with the light, stopping the movement while walking behind him and then repeating the action on the way back to create the symmetrical effect. "I knew I wanted my subject to be central in the image and have the light creating a dynamic pattern from one side of the image to the other," he explains.

The challenge was knowing whether he was starting and finishing the light painting in the right place. "I had to check my mistakes and approximate how to correct them. Peter had to stay totally still, and I had to walk smoothly so the trail looked natural," he adds. "The 20-second exposure allowed me to move around the athlete with the LED bar and the aperture of f/6.3 helped to give me a more extensive depth of field so everything would be in focus, even the light trails.

Monochrome headshot of a person in light clothing against a black background.

Extreme sports

"Knowing the sport that you are shooting is essential, because it allows you to anticipate what's going to happen. I'm often shooting fast action in a forest or other low-light environments, so if I really want to freeze the action then wide aperture lenses and a good sensor are a must."

Try it yourself

"These kinds of photos take time," Jean-baptiste explains. "You need a perfectly steady camera, so you have to use a tripod. You also need a long exposure and a really dark environment."

If you're trying this yourself, get a friend to pose as a subject – or use an object, and then experiment moving a light around them in a range of motions. The slower you move your light source, the brighter your light painting will be, as the camera sensor has more time to absorb the light. Be sure to wear dark clothing with no reflective surfaces to avoid being seen in your images.

Morgan Harlow

The head and shoulders of a netball player, holding their arms bent above their head, as they jump for a ball out of shot.

Sports photographer Morgan Harlow took this photo of Ugandan netball player Mary Cholhok while Covid-19 pandemic measures were still in place, which limited her ability to move around the arena. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Morgan Harlow

The restrictions on Morgan's movement during this netball competition forced her to slow down and focus on finding that one killer shot. "Mary creates beautiful shapes when she jumps for the ball, so I kept my attention on her, cropping in tight and making her eyes the main focus," Morgan explains.

She says this is a classic example of the isolation techniques a sports photographer needs. "I placed myself behind the goal net to get side-on. There were LED boards all around the court, so I had to kneel down behind them to keep them out of frame, while isolating Mary from the other players."

Close-up of a person looking into a camera against a black background. Copyright: Ben Lumley.

Sports action with a focus on netball and swimming

"Researching what other photographers have created and how they work is a good way to improve your skills."

Try it yourself

Morgan says you need to wait for the right moment with photos like this and she also advises considering your backdrop. "A distracting colour or object can ruin your photo," she says. If something in the distance is drawing unwanted attention, choose a wider aperture (by selecting a lower f-number). This will blur the background, while your subject remains sharp and in focus.

To create drama and intrigue in your images, focus on the faces of your subjects, particularly their eyes. When shooting sports, also think about interesting framing – the way Morgan has captured the face between the bent elbow draws our attention to the athlete and their determination, at a crucial time in the match.

Plus, if photographing a team sport, make sure you're in the right position. Morgan placed herself near the goal net, so she was able to be in the right place ready to capture the action.

Samo Vidic

A figure in orange and black rides a mountain bike with the forest blurred around them.

The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens sports photographer Samo Vidic used for this shot gave him the width he wanted and the subject separation from the background he needed to create the illusion of fast movement. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm, 1/8 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Samo Vidic

Canon Ambassador Samo Vidic is a prolific worldwide sports photographer for Red Bull. This shot is of his friend, Nino, who was paralysed from the neck down after an accident. Samo had the idea to create a special image of Nino to give the illusion he was racing downhill at speed.

"I bought some small side wheels for Nino, mounted the camera on the bike forks and changed the seat and handlebars to support him," he explains. "Then we pushed him a little, to about 5km/h."

Using two Speedlites triggered remotely, a wide-angle lens and a slow shutter speed, Samo was able to isolate Nino and create the blurred chaos of a downhill race. "Nino was crying at the end – he was so happy to even do that small amount of movement," says Samo.

Headshot of a person dressed in red wearing headphones at the window of a small aircraft.

Sport, commercial and adventure

If you're not familiar with the sport that you're shooting, Samo suggests asking one of the participants what to look out for. "I was shooting some climbers, and I don't know much about climbing, so they explained to me which moves were impressive, how their hands are supposed to grip certain parts of the rock – that sort of thing."

Try it yourself

If you want to land a shot like this, you need to master your technique in a more low-key, controlled environment, advises Samo. "Start small and build your experience. Use a slow shutter and experiment with both eye-tracking autofocus and Manual Focus to see what you prefer. Ask a friend to practise with you, so you can try panning at different speeds, as the speed of the subject will affect the result. First experiment with just the flash on the camera, then maybe try attaching a Speedlite to a tree or at different heights – all of this will affect the shadows and the shot."

Ella Ling

A person in a wheelchair reaches up to hit a tennis ball, with their shadow extending to the left against a blue background.

Australian tennis player Dylan Alcott reaches for the ball during the final of a quad wheelchair event in this atmospheric shot by sports photographer Ella Ling. Ella says the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's 20.1MP full-frame CMOS sensor enabled her to get real clarity out of her EF zoom lens. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III 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) at 155mm, 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Ella Ling

This shot required clever positioning and patience. "I went up to the walkway above the court to get something unique," says Ella. "There is a small window where the light exposes the player, but the roof casts a shadow over the court. That's how you get the stunning black background. I clicked the shutter as near as I could to getting the ball on the racket and made sure the player wasn't overexposed."

Close-up of a person wearing sunglasses, smiling

Professional tennis

Ella says dedication and commitment have been key to her success – as well as not being afraid to approach established photographers for support and guidance. "I introduced myself to the director of photography at Wimbledon, who challenged me to go out and shoot around the grounds," she recalls. "The head photographer took me under his wing and I joined his agency as a freelancer."

Try it yourself

"Get comfortable adjusting your exposure settings and try to find a position up high so that you are able to shoot down on to a subject below," advises Ella. "The sun needs to be low in the sky to create the long shadows. This will work with any sport or any subject, it doesn't need to be moving."

To achieve dramatic shadows, look for opportunities at sunrise and sunset when the sun is at its lowest point. Alternatively, you could use a Speedlite or artificial light source to create a similar effect. Composition is important when working with shadows; the rule of thirds is employed here, with the athlete fixed in the right third of the image. Colour is a huge component, as well – see how the bright yellow tennis ball pops. Always take a step back from the action to consider artful elements.

Hopefully these striking images, tips and advice from the pros have inspired you to have a go at creating your own standout sports shots. When you start experimenting with different techniques, the creative possibilities are endless.

Written by Jack Fittes

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