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Why Sports Photography is Really About Predicting the Future

by Justin Katz
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Sports photography tips from the master, Al Bello.

Professional sports photography requires something that most styles of photography don’t. Of course you need to know composition, lighting, and the ideal camera settings, but the harsh reality of sports photography is that you also need to be able to predict the future.

In his Photo Week 2016 class, Sports Photography: Making the Shot, professional sports photographer, Al Bello goes into amazingly deep detail about what it takes to capture stellar sports action images.

High profile sports events will often have hundreds of photographers on the sidelines, all taking pictures of the same event. Yet somehow Al manages time and again to capture stunning and memorable images that are different from all the rest. Check out his portfolio to see what we mean. He is able to capture those moments, those snapshots in time that define why we love sports to begin with.

How is he able to do this? After watching his class, what is apparent is that he has developed skills to anticipate those moments before they happen. Here are some of his top tips form his class for how he does it:

Know the sport

A sports photographer should have a deep and intimate knowledge of the sport that he is covering. This enables you to understand the high tension moments, and where to look for the action.

For example, knowing that the touchdown pass is being thrown that will potentially win the game, will enable you to frame your shot towards the end-zone, ready to capture that moment should it arrive.

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Know the athletes

It’s also very helpful to know the history and details of a particular athlete that you may be trying to capture. Everyone is different, and athletes all have their own tendencies, habits, and facial expressions. Knowing these things in advance will allow you to be ready to capture those moments by anticipating when they may happen.

“The key to great moments is about not just shooting with your fingers. A lot of photographers can get by just by using the camera, not really thinking about what’s going on inside their head.”

Think about the player’s personalities: think about what they’ve done in the past, and the emotions that the tend to express when they win or they lose. For example, knowing that a specific tennis player throws their racquet on the ground if they lose a point.

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Scout your position ahead of time

Especially with high profile events, the locations where you will be able to position yourself are extremely limited, and are often dictated by the officials. For the olympics for example, Al will arrive up to three hours early, to find his position, and make sure that he is where he thinks those high profile action moments will be.

It takes a lot of work to train your brain this way, but you have to try and think about what may happen. In hockey for example, it helps to study who was favored, and think through the the shot you want to get and then place the camera above the goalie net to capture that moment. You can do this by placing your camera where you can’t get to, and then fire the shutter with a remote.

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Watch for patterns

This applies to everything discussed already, but the key to anticipating these high profile moments, is being able to recognize patterns and repetition. For example, knowing that when a skier crests over that one hill they tend to get a lot of air, will enable you to anticipate and be prepared to capture that moment the next time. Timing is everything, and you have to know what to expect in order to be there at that moment.

Al Bello's Amazing Class During Photo Week 2016 on Sports Photography

Stay alert

Sports photography is a fast action business, those golden moments in sports happen instantaneously, and often with very little or no warning – and then they are over. In order to capture these moments, you have to always be paying attention. If you blink, if you’re tired, if you’re distracted, you can miss these moments very easily, because you never know when these amazing moments are going to happen (unless of course you are able to predict the future).


If you are remotely interested in getting started in, or advancing your understanding of professional sports photography, then I highly recommend checking out Al Bello’s amazing and insightful Photo Week 2016 class, Sports Photography: Making the Shot

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Justin Katz

Content Marketer at CreativeLive, and outdoor and landscape photographer. I work with great people to create awesome photography content and education.