Tips From a Pro: Damian Strohmeyer On Shooting Better Sports Photos

Bring your photo A-game to the big game

Freeze Action
To stop the action, Strohmeyer recommends setting a shutter speed of about 1/1000 second—“particularly with the supertelephoto lenses, where movement is exaggerated,” he says. For certain shots, you might get away with 1/800 sec or 1/640 sec, but that’s a different type of action, because it’s not as magnified by the telephoto lens. Here, Boston Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez goes airborne in 2007; Canon EOS-1D Mark II N with 400mm f/2.8 Canon EF USM lens, 1/800 at f/2.8, ISO 1600.Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated
Get Down
The old photography adage is true, Strohmeyer says: “If you’re not making a picture, bend your knees.” For sports like soccer and hockey, it’s just common sense—the ground is where the ball, and therefore the action, is. It’s also the way to put players in larger-than-life proportion. By angling up, he says, “you put them on a pedestal. They call it the hero pose because everything’s looking up,” he says. “In football, in particular, it gets you more into their eyes.” Here the University of Dayton Flyers guard Vee Sanford drives to the basket in 2014. Captured with a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and 16–35 f/2.8 IS Canon EF lens, 1/640 sec at f/2.8, ISO 2500.Damian Strohmeyer for 160 over 90
Stay Past the End
To capture the thrill of victory (or the agony of defeat), stick around. “There are a lot of things to think about once the game is over,” the photographer says. This is your opportunity to pull together all the elements of a great sports photo: expressive faces, checking the stadium’s horizon line, angled shots, varying the light. “The post-game shot can really sum up the story of the whole game,” Strohmeyer insists. Here Georgia Tech’s Austin Barrick celebrates on the field in 2009. Shot using a Canon EOS-1D Mark III with 16–35 f/2.8 IS Canon EF lens, 1/1250 sec at f/4.5, ISO 400Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated
Choose Your Focus
“The biggest mistake most photographers make, even at the professional level, is not choosing backgrounds carefully enough,” he says. The second most common mistake, he says, is shooting with the sun over your shoulder. Instead, try backlit. “When your backlit exposure is very similar to your background exposure, you get detail in the faces because there are no shadows. The background is going to be a little blown out, but if you use a telephoto effect enough, make the bokeh enough, then you can eliminate that issue,” he says. Here The Yankees' Phil Hughes delivers a pitch in 2007. Shot with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II with a 400mm f/2.8 Canon EF IS USM lens; 1/640 sec at f/4, ISO 1000.Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated
Go Up
An aerial view creates an unusual perspective and a neutral background; eliminates visual obstacles like nets, poles, and other people; and gives photos the kind of clean open space art directors like to use in layouts. If you don’t have coveted access to set up overhead remotes, you could always brave the catwalk: “I personally do not have an interest in doing that. It’s dangerous enough setting up cameras hours before,” Strohmeyer says. Seeking a safer option? Some stands are high and steep enough to get a good shot from, and for casual events such as volleyball, a ladder will often do the trick. Finland’s women’s hockey team gathers around its goaltender at the 2010 Olympics. Shot with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II with 70–200mm f/2.8L Canon EF IS lens, 1/1000 sec at f/5, ISO 1000.Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated
Capture the Fans
“The fans are part of the game, just like the coaches on the sidelines and the officials are part of the game,” Strohmeyer says. You want to isolate faces whenever possible, and when the crowd is at a distance that means telephoto. If you can get close to the crowd, like he does in the photo above, shoot with a wide-angle lens. “That gives you a different perspective because it’s like you’re right in 
their face,” he says. Here, students from Phillips Academy Andover cheer on the girls’ volleyball team in their annual rivalry match against Phillips Exeter Academy in 2013. Shot with a Canon EOS-1D X with a 16–35mm f/2.8L Canon IS lens, 1/400 sec at f/2.8, ISO 1600.Damian Strohmeyer for Phillips Exeter Academy

Over a career spanning nearly three decades, Damian Strohmeyer has scored 70 Sports Illustrated covers. Five of his images appear in SI’s 100 Greatest Sports Photos of All Time. He’s shot World Series, Super Bowls (27 of them), NCAA basketball, and the Olympics. His other clients run equally top-shelf: Canon, Nike, Major League Baseball, the US Golf Association, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. Strohmeyer says his success comes down to a few simple rules. Among them: Be prepared, be courteous, and be knowledgeable. And of course, take excellent pictures. Here he shares his secrets for making gold medal worthy sports photos.

Be Prepared

“I don’t mind being out-photographed,” Strohmeyer says. “I really mind being out-thought.” Shooting sports is no more unpredictable than any other assignment. Which is to say, it is always unpredictable. While some photographers enjoy the thrill of working without a net, Strohmeyer has always preferred a more Boy Scout–like approach. “You want to be flexible, and you want to be able to handle unusual requests or last-minute requests, but to do that it helps a lot to be prepared,” he says.

“The day before the job is when I put all the thought processes in order,” Strohmeyer says. “What equipment am I going to need? What’s the client looking for? Checking the weather if it’s an outdoor event, checking the lighting if it’s indoors.” He plans his shots based on the venue’s sightlines, any remotes he plans to set up, and, depending on the game, according to individual players’ tendencies. “The more little things you can get out of the way before the shoot, the more time you’re going to have to concentrate on the actual photographs,” he says.

When traveling, Strohmeyer advises, always carry backup: batteries, flashes, and lenses. “Obviously you don’t travel with two 400mm f/2.8s,” he says. “It’s not really practical. But if it’s a big enough job, I’m going to have two 70–200mms in case something breaks down.”

And backup isn’t limited to gear. It’s also the network of people you can call on to bail you out if FedEx delivers a case to the wrong place, you leave your monopod at home, or worse, something breaks. “If my 400mm f/2.8 were damaged before a football game, there’s somebody I can call who can get me through that job,” he says.

Tell A Story

Whether it’s a shoot for editorial clients or commercial ones, your pictures will need to communicate. A lot of that communication depends on your ability to express yourself creatively, Strohmeyer says. But even the most interesting subject will lose impact against a background that’s lousy.

So what makes a background work? “You want the background not to subtract from the picture,” Strohmeyer says. If it enhances the image, that’s even better. Shooting golf? Use the course’s sand traps, green grass, and trees. The golden glow of a basketball court can work when the players’ uniforms have a lot of contrast; 
a brightly shaded key area (under the basket) can be even better. 
If you can find them, wide swaths of pure color will often add to 
the photograph.

Alas, those kinds of backgrounds aren’t made to order, and you’ll need to do what you can to compensate. “I [shot a game] at a horrible location recently. The background, you almost couldn’t have made it worse. It was like putting a football stadium in a strip mall,” Strohmeyer says. “In cases like that, you shoot everything wide open and try to fill the frame up the best you can.”

Know Where the Action Is

If there’s one thing that’s more deeply embedded in Strohmeyer’s photographer DNA than being prepared, it’s knowing your beat. “People say to me often, ‘You know quite a bit about sports.’ I never thought of myself like that, but I guess it’s true,” he says.

After years immersed in sports, first as a student basketball player and then as a passionate, observant sports journalist, there just aren’t too many surprises. “Hockey I don’t profess to know quite as much about, but in basketball, I know how the players align, what side the action’s going to go to, where the isolation is, just because I know the game,” he says.

In a practical sense, this knowledge is your friend. “If a pitcher has a 95 or a 98 mile an hour fastball and there’s a right-handed hitter, he’s much more apt to push the ball to the right side of the infield. Who does a particular quarterback look for in critical situations? At a high school football game, how do you know where the ball is going to go? Find the biggest guy on the team—they’re going to run all their plays over to that guy. In high school and college basketball, most players are right-handed and still favor that side of the court. That helps you. All those little things help you figure out where to be and how to anticipate shots.”

And if you do miss something, all you need to do is wait, Strohmeyer advises. “My boss in my first job in Topeka, Kansas, would say, ‘If somebody does something once and you miss it, don’t worry about it too much, because chances are they’re going to do it again.’ I call this the rule of repeating action.”

Try A Different Perspective

Many iconic sports images show action on the field. But some of this shooter’s favorite shots are of moments off the field. Such opportunities make pictures that give a 360-degree view of the story.

“There are a lot of nuances in baseball, and you want to kind of have one eye open all the time,” Strohmeyer says. “[Former Boston Red Sox pitcher] Pedro Martinez was always kind of a joker, and as a starting pitcher, he was in the dugout all the time. At one game I remember looking over, and all of a sudden the other players were taping him to a post in the dugout with athletic tape. It was a hilarious picture, but you had to be paying attention.”

In the arena, remote set-ups can literally give another dimension to your shots. “I like basket-level pictures, because that’s the level the players play at. It gives you a different perspective,” Strohmeyer says. Shooting from directly above can give a photo a clean, high-contrast background and show the geometry of the game. “When the goalie bends over backwards to make a save, and he’s looking straight up in the air, that’s a great picture,” he says.

Remotes have to be approved by officials, and the rules vary by sport, league, and venue. “Most of the time it’s not a big deal, because it’s done fairly frequently, particularly in the NBA. Colleges, maybe not so much,” says Strohmeyer. “It’s a communication thing. There are a lot of considerations, the biggest of which is not interfering with play, but the main thing is to be above board with people and bring them into your concept. Get the people in the building to embrace the idea.”

Remember, You’re Shooting People

Under the padding, helmets, and face masks, athletes are humans, and that’s what fans want to see. How do you get behind the face mask? “Great athletes, great pictures” is one rule of thumb. “Some players just stand out. [Wide receiver] Randy Moss was always face-forward, and he made athletic plays,” Strohmeyer says. “He jumped high. He extended out.”

Also look for athletes—as well as fans, coaches, and officials—who face forward, with wide-open eyes and expressive faces. Part of that is the individuals; another factor is light. Even in auto racing, Strohmeyer says, “there are tracks where at certain times of day the light gets low enough you can actually see into the cockpit of the car.” Light shifts throughout the course of an event, and so should you: Shoot front-lit for a while, then backlit; if you’ve shot a lot of horizontals from the side, change it up by going deeper and longer. “There are all these evaluations you make about the types of photographs you want to take that go on constantly,” he says.

In the end, Strohmeyer says, “you’re trying to sum up the drama and the emotion of the sport. You want those pictures to have memory. And if you can do that, you’re going to be pretty successful, whether you’re shooting an ad campaign for Gatorade or a game for the local high school paper. If you can tell the stories in that manner, you’re going to 
be successful.”

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