Some sports media analysts believe photojournalism—more specifically sports photography—is a dying art form. With high definition video and dozens of 24/7 sports channels readily available to fans, doubters suggest that still images are quaint, bordering on the verge of extinction. But it’s a false prediction. Photojournalism remains prominent in sports media, used to enhance the news stories and columns fans read in magazines, newspapers and, most prominently, online.
Photojournalists create, edit and present images that help writers tell stories. Anyone can take a picture to share on Facebook or Instagram; sports photography combines the art of photography with the ethics and standards of journalism. Work with a sports editor and collaborate with a journalist to capture images that will wrap around an article—a piece on world surf champion Kelly Slater might include imagery of surfers at high tide and Slater himself walking the beach with his board. The best sports photographers are able to connect with their subject, building a relationship that makes the subject, most typically an athlete, feel at ease. The perfect picture is snapped in that precise moment of comfort. Photographic technique—use of camera angle, contrast, lighting, texture, tone, subject placement—gives a photographer the tools to do their job well. And post-production ability—with software like Photoshop, Lightroom, iPhoto, Aperture—adds the final touches before a picture is used on a website or in printed publications.
Sports photography is truly art meets science. The artistry needed to select the perfect image and timing necessary to bottle it cannot be lost even while the scientific tools used to capture it grow more powerful. Camera equipment is more complex than ever before; professional digital SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras closely reflect reality while post-production software enhances images, removing blur and sharpening details. Use a perfect combination of art and science to photograph athletes in their natural state on the fields of play or during an interview session away from the game. Become a frequent traveler, build relationships with athletes and capture raw moments that place fans in the midst of the action.
To become a sports photography—a real working professional in the business—you’ll have to make your own way. Unlike a doctor or lawyer, there is no wood-framed degree to prove your worth. Talent, hustle, self-promotion and a bit of luck will help you succeed in this shrewd business. A few digital photography classes and some basic journalism coursework will provide you the basic knowledge needed to hone your raw talent. Once you have the tools in hand—a quality camera, basic lighting equipment, photo editing software—it’s time to build your portfolio. Use Squarespace, Vibr, Tumblr, PhotoShelter, 500px or another website to highlight your best work for prospective employers. Brilliant pictures speak louder to sports editors than a wordy resume ever can. Make your portfolio pop; vibrant images should connect the viewer to the imagery. And just because your goal is sports photography, your portfolio shouldn’t be singularly focused—show them your range. Hiring on as staff photographer for a major newspaper, magazine or digital media site is a dream for most sports photographers. But it rarely starts that way.
Freelance photography is one path to your dream. Hire yourself out—many people start in youth sports—and don’t be picky. Take pictures at hockey games, soccer matches, baseball fields and rugby pitches to become well-rounded; learn to handle different speeds, lighting and angles. Look for open freelance positions while marketing yourself to sports photography editors by sending a sampling of your work. Another path is to find a staff photographer position at a smaller media outlet. Cover high school games or college teams to start and, once your talent shines through, move to a larger market or take on a more prominent role within your company. Either way, it’s ultimately about the images you present and the stories you tell. Make some breaks for yourself by outworking the competition and taking on jobs that others won’t touch. Professionalism, travel and some long hours will help you land a job doing what you love.
The photography business is thrilling and creative, presenting new challenges and more excitement as your career flourishes. But the starting pay isn’t on par with corporate America or the health care industry. It takes patience—building a clientele list takes time—to generate an income that rivals the joy of the career itself.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for photographers in 2012 was nearly $30,000. While that number isn’t overwhelming, realize that it includes part-timers and freelancers. Establish strong customer relationships to grow your career. Network with sports industry professionals that will help you get the best jobs available. Actions like this will make a difference in the checks you deposit as well as the enjoyment of your day-to-day duties as a sports photographer.