Karen Hickey, started her photography journey in high school and college. At that point, she wasn’t serious about the craft but had a natural eye for photo composition because of her fine arts background.
Then, like many parents, when their kids started playing sports, she was on the sidelines carrying a camera, ready to capture her kids’ victories. She said she was surprised how well her photos turned out, decided to upgrade her equipment, take a sports photography class and challenge herself to learn new techniques including how to tell an effective story with pictures.
She’s now a professional photographer and recently had a photo published by National Geographic showing the Paly football team on the field during the National Anthem under a colorful sky. For Hickey, the power of photography lies in telling stories like these.
“I look to tell a story because if a publication is going to use a photo, then my photo needs to illustrate that story and emotion. A single photo can show a viewer the beauty within the sport – all the hard work, the raw emotion and all the details in the movement that you can’t see in real life or sometimes even in a video.”
It is not just a coincidence that humans are drawn to action. Our brains have evolved to be intrigued by it, according to photography teacher Margo Wixsom.
“Consider how old sports are,” Wixsom said. “Since the beginning of civilization almost every culture has created some form of sport that is an expression of community identity, value and engagement. There are several great videos on brain science that postulate that the human attention to movement that goes back to our evolutionary development as predator and prey. So I believe that we are hard-wired for movement and action, and sports photography capitalizes on that innate quality of human vision and cultural interest.”
Therefore, whether the photographer snaps the winning goal or a player’s reaction after a loss, these authentic moments can be alluring and captivating to all.
However, taking the perfect action shot requires much more than just clicking a button. It takes an extensive amount of skill and practice. According to Wixsom, one might take 100 pictures, but only end up with one or two usable ones. Sports are action packed with little to no down time, meaning that for photographers, every second counts.
“Being in the right spot at the right time is the most challenging for me. I’m always worried that I won’t get that one great play, and sometimes I don’t,” Hickey said. “I might miss it entirely, or the [referee] or a player is in the way. I can’t guess what action will happen and where, so I have to always be ready.”
Even though missing an important play is disappointing, there is always something exciting they can capture.
“What I’ve learned is that if I miss the shot, there’s so much more happening that some of those photos can be just as good – the celebration, the crowd reaction or the coach patting the player on the back,” Hickey said.
Another way sports photographers ensure they get the right shot is through senses such as hearing. One may hear things like a secondary reaction from the crowd or a cheer.
One way junior yearbook photographer Grace Thayer has maximized the amount of photos she is able to get during a game is through knowledge of the sport being played.
“When taking sports photos first and foremost you have to understand the sport. You need to know where the ball is headed and where the game is going.”
Junior Grace Thayer
According to Thayer, even with most understanding and experience of the game, it is almost impossible to get action shots without the right equipment. Equipment can make or break a photo. Sports photos in particular require special lenses that allow for quick auto focus and a high shutter speed to match up with the immense amount of movement during a single play.
“For more professional sports photography, a good quality DSLR [digital single-lens reflex] with a 55-300mm lenses allows you to compose great sports images,” Wixsom said. “Most sports photographers use burst mode that automatically takes multiple frames in a single second.”
However, professional cameras aren’t the only way to take quality sports photos. Cameras on smartphones have been improving with every launch, and have developed impressive cameras.
“You can do some simple techniques like panning with your cell phone and get good results,” Wixsom said. “Panning is when you move the camera to follow the action and press the shutter — it blurs the background and focuses on one art of the moving subject creating a very interesting depth of field. Blurred background in a photo composition connects with our own visual experience seeing movement in which you can only track one thing and the surrounding background, middle ground and foreground are out of focus.”
With the right cameras and equipment, photographers can obtain the flexibility they need to get different angles and visuals. This allows photographers to use their own strategies and techniques, making each picture unique to the photographer’s style. Switching up the angles and viewpoints are just some of the ways to create different visuals.
“I look for a variety of angles and try to find something unique if it’s something I do often — get behind the action, get high, get low, shoot tight,” Hickey said. “I try for peak action — when they are hitting, catching, running. I try to catch faces and the ball all in the same shot – then the viewer knows exactly what is happening.”
Others, such as senior Viking Magazine photographer Jason Shorin, shoot from as low as they can, making athletes appear more powerful. They also position themselves in front of the play so that they can capture details such as facial expressions.
Details like these create intriguing photos that local publications or nation wide magazines like Sports Illustrated use.
Through the spontaneous and unplanned moments, sports photos reveal a snapshot of a story line or play, making the photo feel original and individual, according to Shorin.
“I actually enjoy taking pictures of nature sporadically along with sports photography because I feel like the pictures I take are more real and genuine. Taking portrait-like photos feels uncomfortable to me because I feel like I’m taking pictures of fake moments.”
Senior Jason Shorin
Whether sports photographers take pictures for a living or as a hobby, they all have one thing in common: their love for photography.
“A great sports photographer has to really enjoy what they do to surmount the challenges and they do it because they love it,” Wixom said. “That is one thing that I wish Paly students could better understand — learning or doing something because it brings you deep personal satisfaction and joy.”
Sports photography not only brings joy and happiness to the photographer, but also to the players working hard on the field.
“Sports photography is important because you are catching some of the most raw emotions, and honestly every athlete wants their winning game shot captured,” Thayer said. “You have to just pick and choose who to take a photo of in that moment, and sometimes you pick wrong, but when you get that one picture, it’s worth it.”