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Be an Olympic shooter! Pros share 5 tips for becoming a sports photographer

Canon sports
Kona Ettel, Hirschgarten Skate Park, Munich, by Canon Ambassador Richard Walch on the EOS 1D-X Mark III (15mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6, ISO400) (Image credit: Richard Walch)

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are now well underway, with the exploits of sporting heroes from around the world inspiring a new generation of athletes and prospective Olympians. 

On the sidelines, though, professional photographers are also inspiring a new generation of creatives to pursue a career as pro sports shooters. 

As such, Canon Ambassadors and professional sideline shooters Molly Darlington, Eddie Keogh, Martin Bissig and Richard Walch have offered their best advice for aspiring young sports photographers. 

Here are their top five tips to launch a career in the industry…

1) Use youth and inexperience to your advantage

As a young photographer, just getting started you should lean on the community of photographers around you to help develop your skills. Canon Ambassador Molly Darlington found that contacting people within the industry for help and feedback helped her to improve her work.

“There are a lot of photographers out there to advise you. When you start out it can be daunting, but people are willing to guide you. Put together a portfolio and build a network of contacts," she says. 

"Most sports photographers will reply if you ask for help – it might not be straight away, as we're not the best at communicating, but they will reply eventually and give good advice. Even if you just want someone to look at your photos, know there are plenty who will."

Award-winning action photographer and filmmaker Richard Walch also advises teaming up with young athletes of a similar age, so that you can grow together.

"They might have a small sponsor at the beginning, but in a couple of years, they get bigger sponsors and you can build your career with them. When they're young, they also need photos and will be willing to spend time with you," advises Walch.

"If they want to use your images for their autograph card or website, then you're helping each other for free. If their sponsors want to use the images, it becomes business. If you're friends with the athletes, they let you get close, so it's not a problem if you don't have the fanciest equipment."

2) Put in the hours practicing at local clubs or parks 

Photo by Canon Ambassador Eddie Keogh on the Canon EOS 1D-X Mark III + Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM (35mm, 1/500 sec, f/3.2, ISO2000) (Image credit: Eddie Keogh)

It's easy to assume that young photographers are born with a natural talent, but the reality is that they have likely already put in years of hard work. For instance, Molly Darlington began photographing her local club at the age of 16. 

"I saw an advertisement for my local non-league football [soccer] club, 1874 Northwich FC, asking if anyone wanted to be a photographer, just for experience," she explains. "I did that for nearly four years, following them at home and away. I loved it. So that's what I carried on doing. I was rubbish when I started. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I often messed up, but I kept practicing my settings."

Veteran sports photojournalist Eddie Keogh mirrors Molly’s advice to young photographers, saying. 

"A lot of people just want to get to big league football matches as quickly as they can, but you can learn so much more by photographing football, rugby, hockey or tennis at your local park," he says. 

"Get out in all weather – not just when it's sunny, because rain can make pictures more atmospheric – and practice, practice, practice."

3) Create emotion, even where there is none

"When a football team wins a big championship, it's not the images of the game that stand out, it's the shots of the team celebrating, standing on a bus surrounded by thousands of people," says Richard Walch. 

"You have to shoot around the sport: the emotions, the politics, the celebrations and the disappointments. If you shoot a marathon, you don't shoot the start, you shoot the finish, because that's where the emotion is. Look for peak action and peak emotion. If you can combine those in one image, you've got it."

Eddie Keogh recommends knowing the story of the day, whether that’s a player going back to a former club or a manager who has lost four games on the trot and may be fired. 

"You have to tell the story of each game. Sometimes that's hard, especially midseason. If a team is going to get promoted or relegated or is going for the playoffs, there's way more emotion than in a game with nothing resting on it. You have to create emotion there because people can relate to that – fans can think, 'That is how it feels during games.'"

4) Know the sport you are shooting

Photo by Canon Ambassador Martin Bissig on the Canon EOS R5 + Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM (35mm, 1/1250 sec, f/14, ISO200) (Image credit: Martin Bissig)

A crucial factor for success as a sports photographer is knowing the sport you're shooting. Martin Bissig, Swiss outdoor action photographer, and Molly Darlington agree that having in-depth knowledge of the sport you are capturing, gives you an edge.

"Detailed knowledge of your sport is vital, because you need to know how people move and what looks good," says Martin. "If I were to take pictures of skateboarders, I might think they look good, but if I showed them to skateboarding fans, or to pros, they might say, 'The hand doesn’t have the right angle.' I don't know, because I'm not a skateboarder, but I know exactly how mountain biking is meant to look."

Knowing the sport is the only reliable way to capture those game-changing, split-second moments, claims Molly.

"I'm a football [soccer] fan. My dad's a football fan. My brother's a football fan," she explains. "Because I've always watched football, I know how the game works. If a player runs down the wing you have to think, 'Will they cross it this way, pass it that way?' You have to be aware of what's happening, know the game and be able to judge what will happen next."

5) Forge your own career path

The pros agree that it’s important to charter your own course in sports photography – whether that’s in your training or finding your own niche.

For Molly Darlington, she went through higher education but still believes you can succeed as a sports photographer by choosing a different path. "A lot of university courses aren't geared towards sports photography," she explains. "In the end, mine was fine with me doing it. They tailored my degree and my modules as they knew I was working a lot outside of the course.

"But remember, there are other routes – a lot of it is about who you know and learn from. It will seem quite scary going it alone, but it's not actually that bad. When I was 16, I thought the industry was petrifying. Now I'd tell you it's absolutely fine." 

It’s also important not to feel like you need to shoot what everyone else is. Finding your niche is key to success and will help you to stand out against other photographers, says Richard Walch.

"The more commercial the sport, the easier it is to sell images. I was really lucky because, when I started, snowboarding took off, as did demand for images. I quickly became one of an elite few shooting the sport globally. If you want to shoot soccer, or track and field, there will be 50 other photographers with you, and it's a big challenge to better them."

Read more: 

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III review
Canon EOS R5 review
Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM review

James Artaius

The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a magazine and web journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients as diverse as Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photographic and lighting tutorials, as well as industry analysis, news and rumors for publications such as Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon MagazineN-PhotoDigital Photographer and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and demonstrations at The Photography Show. An Olympus (Micro Four Thirds) and Canon (full frame) shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a particular fondness for vintage lenses and film cameras.