With tennis season in full swing, now’s the perfect time for sports fans and action shooters to put their camera skills to the test.
Tennis is both challenging and dramatic to photograph, full of fast movement and high emotion. Timing, technique and the right gear and settings are all you need to capture it, whether you’re watching the world’s best compete at the Australian Open, or just cheering on the kids at your local club.
Though this guide’s focus is tennis, you’ll find much of it helpful for shooting other sports as well.
Here are CameraPro’s tips on how to score some winning tennis shots.
For best results you’ll need a camera that gives you manual control over key settings (see below), and fast autofocus and burst/drive speeds. Most DSLRs or mirrorless cameras will do the trick, but many bridge cameras will also.
Telephoto Lens (*see note)
Telephoto lenses such as a 70-200mm zoom or 300mm/400mm prime (full frame equivalent) are ideal lenses or tennis photography. More entry-level options like a 55-200mm or 70-300mm lens would also suffice. Lenses like these will give you enough zoom to get closer to the action on court, as well as help to blur the background and make your subject stand out more.
The wider your lens’ maximum aperture (i.e. the lower its f-stop value), the better. This makes a lens ‘brighter’ (as it lets more light in), which also makes it ‘faster’ (as it can be used with higher shutter speeds).
Wide Angle to Midrange Lens (Optional)
While telephoto lenses are required to capture the action, wider angle lenses give you more scope to capture the atmosphere – the crowd, the arena, both or all the players in action… This will add more variety and visual interest to your shoot. Something in the 28-50mm (full frame equivalent) range is handy.
Shooting any sport well requires a responsive memory card with lots of storage. Opt for the fastest read/write speed possible with your camera (generally 95MB/s minimum for recent cameras) and, ideally, at least a couple of high-capacity (i.e. minimum 32GB if you shoot in RAW) memory cards in case one malfunctions. Don’t forget to clear and format your card/s in advance.
Ensure your batteries are fully charged and keep a spare or two handy. Better safe than sorry!
Tripod or Monopod (*see note)
A sturdy tripod or monopod will make it easier to track your subject, as well as take the weight of heavy lenses.
Sun Protection & Water!
Because you don’t want to get home looking and feeling like the court surface at Roland-Garros.
*Note: Certain items (e.g. lenses exceeding 200mm, tripods and monopods) aren’t allowed at the Australian Open. Please check any restrictions with the venue or tournament you’re planning to visit.
Tennis is a fast-moving game, so to freeze action you’ll need to shoot at 1/1000 second or faster – more likely 1/2000-1/8000 second.
f/4 is a good starting point; it should provide decent brightness levels (so you can up your shutter speed), depth of field (to increase your chances of getting your subject in focus), and background compression. From there, try opening up to f/3.5 or f/2.8 (if your lens allows) then assessing and adjusting if needed.
The ISO required for your chosen shutter speed and aperture will depend on your shooting conditions. Up to ISO 400 is likely if you’re shooting outdoors during the day.
The faster your camera can continuously shoot, the higher your chances of nailing that perfect, in-focus shot. Professional tennis photographers shoot at around 14 fps (frames per second) but 7-8 fps should get decent results.
When shooting any moving subject it’s best to use continuous focus. If you or your camera’s autofocus (AF) system is finding it hard to keep up, try focus locking (using either manual focus or AF lock) at one point and shooting when the action gets to it.
White clothes and shadows from the outdoor sun can make it easy to over- or under-expose tennis photos. We recommend spot metering for each player’s face (available in manual mode or by using AE (Auto Exposure) Lock).
Before the match starts (preferably early on), try to work out the best position to shoot from. This will give you more time to secure a good spot and prepare yourself and your gear. More importantly, moving during play is distracting to the players—and prohibited at most tournaments. If you have the option to move later, you can do so during service changeovers.
Pay attention to the time of day and where the sun is. Ideally, shoot with the sun behind you so your subject’s face will be nicely lit and not cast in shadow.
Always keep the ball between you and your subject; that way, you’ll be able to see the player’s face.
For greater impact aim to photograph against your subject a plain background, avoiding distracting crowds or clutter.
Consider different vantage points. Side-on makes for good action shots while behind the baseline offers a front-on view of the opposite player.
Observe each player’s style: their serve, forehand and backhand. Do they play up near the net or towards the baseline? How do they move across the court? This will help you to get in the right position for the shots you want to take.
While high-speed burst shooting can be a big advantage when photographing tennis, getting that perfect shot is more a matter of your timing than your camera’s. You need to observe and anticipate.
Don’t wait for the ball
Getting the ball in the shot usually produces a more vibrant image. But you can’t wait for it to enter the frame before you start shooting; it travels so fast that you’ll miss it. Listen to the rhythm of the volley and watch the players to time each shot. When you see one player begin to move to take a shot, that’s usually your cue to press the shutter.
Don’t just shoot the ball
Don’t be so focused on the ball and the volley that you miss other, potentially higher impact, moments. The follow-through (when a player completes a stroke after hitting the ball) can look even more dynamic than the actual hitting of the ball, and players’ reactions after a ball has been played can make the most powerful of all images.
PERSPECTIVE, FRAMING & COMPOSITION
Get creative with your perspective, framing and composition. Mix things up and you’ll produce more interesting, memorable results and avoid ending up with hundreds of shots that look similar to each other, and to other photographers’.
Try squatting or kneeling for a dynamic low perspective
Shoot a variety of vertical and horizontal frames
Shoot everything from wide to close and ultra-close
Explore unusual vantage points (e.g. overlooking the court from above)
Compose using the Rule of Thirds, rather than centring your subject
When photographing a player in motion, leave some 'nose room' for the player within the frame – e.g. if they're running to the right, position them to the left of the frame to give them room to move ‘into’
Experiment with scale, proportion and depth (e.g. enlarge or dwarf your subject against its environment/other elements; shoot through objects; or include out-of-focus foreground elements)
Last but by no means least, remember to have fun! It’s all too easy to lose yourself behind the lens. Allow yourself to be a spectator and take in the game while you capture it.
Want more tips on tennis or other sports photography?