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With the US Open having wrapped up in New York yesterday, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned in my 16 years of shooting this game. If you’re interested in pro-sports photography, you can put these tips to use—just about everyone in the U.S. lives near a pro tournament, and tennis is arguably the most accessible sport for a ticket holder to photograph. Additionally, these tips apply to shooting players of all levels, so bring the camera to your area club or public court, too.
While you’re out there, here are five things to watch out for. If you can avoid these mistakes, you’ll be on track to make some great tennis photos.
Timing tennis action photos is not as straightforward as the uninitiated might imagine. The ball is traveling so fast, that if you wait to see it in your viewfinder, you’ve already missed the photo.
Instead, try using a timing technique to help you anticipate when to fire the shutter. One of my favorites is to watch for the player’s muscles to move as he or she is about to swing. That will tell you that the player sees the ball coming, so you’ll know it’s coming, too. Then fire the shutter—fast!
Also, use your camera’s LCD to play back and see how your timing is. If you’re exposing your image too early or too late, you can adjust during the next point. You’ll soon be getting the ball in almost every shot.
Unless it’s for a great creative reason, you hardly ever want the player’s back to the camera. When it comes to action photos, that means you generally want to shoot forehands from the player’s forehand side, and backhands from the backhand side.
There’s an easy way to remember this: Keep the ball between you and the player. Then he or she will always be looking at least somewhat toward you when hitting. And that will usually make for a more dynamic photograph.
Sports is about more than who wins, and sports photography is about more than shooting the action. When the point is over, keep your camera focused on the player.
Especially after long or important points, you can make excellent photos of the athletes reacting. They laugh, they yell, they smash racquets, they pump their fists. Sometimes the joy and frustration they exhibit can show more about a match than a hundred photos of great backhands and volleys.
Many photographers are so focused on getting the ball in the frame, that they forget that nice photo opportunities also exist at other moments of the action. A perfect example is the follow-through.
When a tennis player hits the ball, the stroke is not over. Continuing to swing after contact is an important part of sound mechanics, right to the point of holding the racquet over the shoulder. It also provides a nice moment for the photographer—the player poised between bursts of action, the racquet neatly resting behind the head, eyes focused on the ball and opponent outside the frame. If hair or clothes are flying, even better.
So just like a good tennis player, remember the follow-through.
One of the first lessons a developing photographer learns is to pay attention to the background. But even pros can forget that lesson when shooting sports. You concentrate so much on following and capturing the action that it can be easy to neglect how the background looks.
And in tennis, it can look pretty bad. Busy crowds donned in light clothing, bleacher railings, stray racquet bags, towels, water bottles, ballkids—all of these can muck up the backgrounds of your tennis photos.
For the best result, find an angle that allows you to aim toward the backscreen. The even background will look nicer in your photos than most of the other backdrops you can find at a tennis venue.
Chris Nicholson is the author of Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches & Fans.