4 lessons from doing sports photography

#1 Find a job you love, which also loves you back

I think I’ve written about this before, but the joy of making good images during a game and then wanting to go home and immediately check it out - that is unparalleled. The last time I’ve ever felt that was back in the day when I identified myself more as a documentary photographer, when Mel & co would bring me to places like the cemetery, to a gang headman funeral, when petty fights happen, or even nice, quiet moments with nice light and a good composition, and I remember being excited about image making. 

Then many things happened - my dad’s passing, me zoning out on life, focusing on teaching, trying to recalibrate as a human being - before I finally decided to do photography again, but sports this time. 

It was quite a random decision to one day get advice from Yong Teck and then plunge into shooting SPL in 2022. I went in for experience initially, shot for myself and just tried to get a sense of how this whole gig was gonna work. I remember after my first match, I told Teck that this sports thing is SO difficult and different from documentary work. The ball moves so fast, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to keep tracking it to make images. What do I focus on? Am I using the right gear? Did I get good moments? But I just kept at it, until I started getting calls from FA, LCS and Geylang to cover their matches on days they needed an extra hand. Wow, from just trying it out for fun to suddenly getting paid for it in 2 - 3 months. 

Fast forward to July 2023, I pledged my services on a monthly retainer for Geylang. It’s been 7 months following a club and I can’t be more grateful that it is with *this* club that I’m with. No crazy budgets, big fanfare, fireworks, 5* treatment, just me doing things I genuinely think is right and want to do. Bundle this with a bunch of friendly players I’m happy to be around and a group of coaching staff who teases me to no end (but this must be love, right?), I think I’ve scored a fairly sweet first gig. I have the autonomy to decide what content I create and put out, and the creative freedom to express for a decent amount of audience. I’m grateful. This also brings me to the second point.

#2 Be sensitive

When I first started out shooting football, I was most interested in what happens ‘behind the scenes’, i.e. off the field. What team talks were like, what training was like, what did the players talk about, how are they like as people. Coming from a non-football background made all these things more novel for me. I’m just your average everyday Singaporean, who doesn’t have much of a clue about this football scene, but it is also my very own position and biography which gives me the leverage to create content interesting to me (and others), and in turn humanising for the players!

When it comes to my work for Geylang, because I’ve so much freedom, there’s also this constant reminder nudging me at the back of my head to be responsible, to be empathetic and sensitive. Apart from photos for the club, I’ve been creating video content. You don’t know the amount of videos I’ve made, but still sit in my archive, maybe never to be seen by the wider audience ever. Putting out content has to be well timed. It also depends on the type of content. If it’s something more fun and light-hearted, it can’t be put out on the back of defeats. It’d get slammed as the team being frivolous, not serious and then *insert tons of nasty comments*. This includes team talks, us at bonding sessions, random tiktok inspired challenges. This is probably where my documentary background translates well with what I do now - it has taught me to read situations and act accordingly.

#3 Lens is important, but otherwise find a way out

More recently, I was very fortunate to have been able to loan a 400m f2.8, amongst others, from Sony. This beast of a lens is approximately 17k, weighs a ton, but produces sweet images *chef kiss* Because I’ve only switched camera systems over to Sony end of last year, it’s gonna take me awhile to build my entire set up. I have been considering adding this in my arsenal, so I’m glad to have be able to try it. And well, I love it!!!

My current set up includes a 100 - 400mm, f4.5-5.6, which allows me to take decent photos across the field when the lighting is okay. When it gets darker/less light, I’d have to bump up my ISO and sacrifice my shutter speed, but it doesn’t work so well in sports where you need fast shutter. When I shoot the COE (age group) games, you don’t always get 100% floodlights on. In this darker environment and with the freedom to walk around (you’re fixed to a spot in the SPL games), I shoot with a 70-200mm f2.8. No 400mm, but got legs right? So I’ll walk to good spots and make those images happen. We make do with what we have, or we can just keep complaining about what we don’t :P

#4 “My mother also can take one” 

Research. Last year, I got thrown into the deep end when I covered the Asean Uni Games because I had to shoot sports I’ve never done before, like swimming, basketball, archery etc. 

True to my nerdy self, I did research prior to the games. Looked up how other photographers have done this work, and what kind of shots I should aim for. This is what I tell my students too. Don’t just make shots that “my mother also can take one”, there are plenty of that on the internet (and even more on our mother’s handphones hurhur). How do you compose your shots differently? From angles, to lighting/shadows, to moments. It’s a tall order to expect everything to align all at once, but have these considerations in mind. This year I’m headed to the World Uni Games in China. I can’t tell you how excited I am with this opportunity. God has been very kind to me. With a camera gear loan deal from Sony and this chance to shoot many sports and some top athletes, it is imperative for me to make the most of this and hopefully set the path for future gigs. On my desktop, there’s a folder called ‘future’ with sports photos I really like. These are images I’ve been conscientiously collating over the last 1-2 months. It’s an exercise I do to train my eyes and my mind, so that I can “take photos my mother cannot do”. 

I’ve been feeling this urgency to pen some thoughts down because it’s all been floating around in my head. I hope these 4 lessons I shared are useful for you. For now, I’ll hold my head down and keep grinding. This learning journey never ends. And it never should.

Using Format