The other day I was engaged in a bit of “friendly” repartee with a user on a large online photographic forum. The user in question was insisting that access to higher level sporting events would help boost their portfolio and generate more experience. It’s not a concept that’s altogether alien, but at the same time not one that I subscribe to.
As long as the sport that you’ve photographing is of a decent standard (say, University level for example), then you can generally get as good pictures shooting at that level as shooting at the very highest level. That is to say, as long as the physique is decent – sadly rules out Sunday League! – and the technique is sound, there’s no reason you cannot get as nice an image as you would photographing professional athletes.
Indeed, frequently the reverse is true and the opportunity for excellent sports photographs is actually better at lower level events.
Take as an example, football. Games in the lower leagues such as the English Championship, League One and League Two, are frequently more frenetic than in the Premier League. Players are generally more committed and physical, diving into tackles, and more frequently committing themselves to 50-50 challenges. All that gives you ample opportunity to take good sports photographs.
Compare that, say, to a Cristiano Ronaldo stepover or Spain stringing together 20 passes in the World Cup Final. You would maybe get a picture of Ronaldo or a picture of one of the world champions, yes. But you wouldn’t get an eye catching sports photograph.
Furthermore, even if you are given access to a big sporting event, for example as a member of the press corps, access at major sporting events is often very restrictive. At grassroots level sporting events you frequently have much more freedom to go where you want, explore different angles, try different things. You simple can’t do that at high level events.
I have pictures of Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Michael Phelps, Jonny Wilkinson and co. in action. Yet, my best golf picture is not of Tiger Woods, my best tennis picture is not of Messrs. Federer or Nadal, my best swimming picture is not of Michael Phelps, and my best rugby picture is not of Jonny Wilkinson – despite having been the photographer for the Newcastle Falcons for ten years.
You don’t need to photograph big sporting events to learn and develop a good sports photography portfolio. What you lose if you haven’t got access to the big events, is name checking. The opportunity to say to someone, “look at me, I’m good (because) I have have pictures of X, Y or Z.”
Anyone who says shooting bigger events will boost their portfolio is hoping that the person viewing that portfolio will be bowled over by the names in their book, rather than the standard of their photography.