Sports Photography - Tennis

If you are just beginning your adventures in sports photography, tennis is a good place to start. That’s partly because you will only be covering two players unless, of course, you are shooting a doubles match. Another reason is the general way in which tennis is played. You know from which location the player is going to serve the ball and where the receiving player is standing. You also know the general areas in which the players will move due to the court size.

Tennis is a good sport for training your eye to follow the player’s pursuit of the ball as he/she volleys to his/her opponent during the match. Because the basic area of play is relatively small compared to other outdoor sporting events, the area in which the players will often be positioned is somewhat predictable. As a result, you can easily track an individual player as he/she moves around the court in his/her attempts to hit the ball back to the opposing player. Players have different styles of play. Some are aggressive and attack the net, whereas others play back from the net and try to win the point with volley play. Although you might not know the players’ style of play initially, you should become aware of how they play as the match goes on. These individual movements are unique and present the challenge in capturing good tennis images.

At most professional tennis matches, photographers are positioned together at center court opposite the players’ bench, or along the ends of the courts behind one of the players looking toward the net. Generally, the best position to capture both players is at the center court position. Regardless of which player you want to concentrate on, he/she is often right in front of your lens during the match. From here, you can focus on one player as he/she serves, reacts to his/her opponent’s return, and then roves to the ball and hits his/her subsequent shot. This also allows you to shoot with the same camera lens in both directions. You can photograph a player as he/she ranges back and forth or up and back around the court. 

Many players display great emotion as they try to range to the ball. This is also a good location to obtain bench shots, because the players are directly opposite of you. The resting periods within the match are good opportunities to get some isolated shots as the player prepares for the remainder of the match. As you are focusing on these types of images, watch for a player’s body language. He/she might be upset at his/her performance and talk to himself/herself, or he/she might pump himself/herself up to get going. Or perhaps he’s/she’s noticeably exhausted. 

Whatever the situation might be, getting an image of this kind of moment can define how you portray the final outcome of victory or defeat. You can photograph many other nuances of individual styles. Often, the player who is getting ready to receive a serve practically dances on his tiptoes or moves with his/her feet to prepare for the serve location. Similarly, you might find players holding their rackets a certain way as they set up. In addition, the player who is making the serve often takes a final look at his/her opponent’s defensive position before launching the ball. These individual styles can provide various looks for you as a photographer. 

Photographing from behind the net provides a completely different perspective. In this position, the player on the far side of the net faces you directly, and you can shoot some great action showing both players. If you are shooting horizontal images with a zoom lens such as a 70–200 mm, both players are often in your viewfinder, and you can capture some great shots that show the positioning and angles that occur. You can also shoot with a long lens and wait for a player to attack the net. Hopefully you can capture a great “kill” shot or a nice return shot. For bigger events, you might even consider an overhead location. If the stands surrounding the courts give you this option, by all means use it to your advantage.

You can try many different lenses from this vantage point. Take a few shots with a wide-angle lens to show the overall surroundings, which a corporation might like to have for a brochure. Alternatively, you can shoot isolated images from here with a long lens, albeit from a different angle. You can even use a tripod and attempt some long exposures for a different approach. In a nutshell, the more images you have from various vantage points, the more choices and strength your images have. This is true regardless of the sport you are shooting. Try moving around from all the locations to get several different vantage points as you cover each player. You will find yourself with several different looks that might be appealing to a client for the player you are photographing.

Lighting and Exposures
Generally, professional tennis is played outdoors during ideal weather situations, so lighting shouldn’t be a problem. If the lighting is such that one player is frontlit and the other is backlit, you obviously need to compensate your exposures accordingly. If you are shooting manual exposures and find it difficult to adjust, you can always shoot one player while he is on one side, and then wait until the players change sides to get the other player in the same light. Usually, this isn’t a hindrance. At night or indoors, you will probably find yourself shooting at extremely high ISO settings, such as ISO 1250 or ISO 1600. 

Remember that the new digital cameras allow you to accurately set ISO settings in smaller 1/3 increments, so take advantage of using the lowest ISO that will get the job done and still allow for a high enough shutter speed to stop the action. Because you will be shooting available light, you won’t have control over the lighting except for what your camera can provide. In these cases, like other sports, choose a high enough ISO and shutter speed to stop the action sufficiently. Although these settings might be different depending on what level you are shooting, shoot with the highest shutter speed allowable to freeze the action. 

In tennis, the ball is the object travelling with the most speed, so don’t worry so much about freezing it in flight. However, you should at least minimize the blur effect on the players. For amateur levels, you might try to use a minimum of 1/250 of a second with an f/2.8 opening, but experiment with the speed of the players you are covering. Learning the different aspects of available lighting is a helpful, although sometimes painful, element in sports photography. These types of experiences are wonderful for learning and will assist you in dealing with similar situations at other events down the road.

Public Courts
Of course, it is much easier to photograph tennis at schools or public courts, where access is typically unlimited, and you have free rein to move around as you want. In these situations, use your access to your advantage, and capture everything that you can. However, inform the players of your intentions. Most players at the amateur level are not accustomed to having their photographs taken, and some might feel uncomfortable. Others might love the attention and play harder, even showing more emotion than under normal circumstances. Regardless, most people love to get coverage, and it could lead to some sales and good experience for you. This is a great time to experiment with different shutter speeds, apertures, and ISO settings that will increase your knowledge as you progress to higher and faster levels of play.

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