Sports Photographer Career

Sports photographers are specialists hired to shoot pictures of sporting events and athletes. They work for newspapers, magazines, and photo stock agencies to bring photos of events of all sizes (from a Little League game to the Olympics) to the pages of periodicals, the Internet, or other publications. Their pictures should clearly capture the movements, skill, and emotions of athletes.

History of Sports Photographer Career

Sports Photographer CareerThe Olympic Games are generally credited as being the first organized sports. However, popular support for organized sports developed slowly. Prior to the 19th century, most sports were not officially organized; there were no official rules, competitions, or standards of play. During the 19th century, however, many sports underwent a transition from invented pastime to official sport. Rules governing play, the field of play, and competitions were agreed upon. The first modern track-and-field meet, for example, was held in England in 1825. Meanwhile, in the United States the English game of rugby evolved into American football. The first game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869.

As organized sports grew in popularity, governing bodies and organizations were created to oversee the fair play of each sport. With this organization came public interest in the games. Gradually, coverage of sporting events on radio and in newspapers began to grow until sports quite literally became the national pastime for Americans. Newspapers assigned specialized reporters to capture sporting events to ensure complete and thorough coverage. Trained photographers were also sent to local and national events to capture pictures that evoked the achievements of the sporting world’s greatest athletes. With our current love affair with sports, photographers are now hired to take pictures of neighborhood tee-ball games to the World Series—and every pitch in between.

The Job of Sports Photographers

Sports photographers are hired to shoot quality photos of sporting events, athletes, and crowds cheering on their home teams. Their work is published in newspapers, magazines (such as Sports Illustrated), Web pages, books, and other sources.

They are usually trained as photographers but also must have thorough knowledge of the sports they are assigned to shoot. Many sports photographers specialize in shooting one or two sports, such as soccer and hockey—both fast-moving, unpredictable sporting events to capture on film.

To be able to capture quick movements and subtle details on the athletes’ faces, sports photographers must have good equipment. They need cameras with fast shutter- speed abilities, tripods to hold cameras steady, and lenses of varying lengths to achieve appropriate depth of field for the intended image.

Sports photographers also need to be at the right place at the right time to get the best shots. Location is key when shooting sporting events. If photographers are too close to the action, they might get injured or, at the very least, interrupt play. If they are too far from the action, they will inevitably miss shots. They need to know where to position themselves to be able to capture the best moments of the game, such as a winning goal or a perfect header in soccer.

In addition to taking pictures, most sports photographers also spend some time developing film and printing photos. However, many now use digital cameras, which eliminate the need for separate developing and printing time. These photographers shoot a sporting event and then head back to their office to download the pictures onto a computer for printing or manipulation.

Sports Photographer Career Requirements

High School

While in high school, take photography classes and any other art classes that are offered. While studying painting, for example, you will learn about composition and balance, which are both important when shooting pictures. Physical education classes will introduce you to the rules of various sports, which will also come in handy when trying to capture images.

Postsecondary Training

While not required, most sports photographers seek out college or art school degrees in photography to increase their skills and knowledge, build a portfolio, and make themselves stand out more to employers.

However, in this line of work, experience is more important than formal training. Only the well-practiced photographer is skilled enough to capture a soccer header or two athletes in mid-air fighting for a rebound. These shots require a lot of trial and error before getting the timing down, not to mention the right shutter speed, film, and aperture setting.

Other Requirements

In addition to knowing the ins and outs of photography, sports photographers need to know their game and photo subjects in order to be successful. For example, a football player who is known for a post-touchdown victory dance would make a good subject for a posttouchdown photo. Other players might be known for facial expressions, special moves, or other qualities that would be good to get on film. If possible, photographers should study individual athletes or teams for possible photo opportunities.

Because even the smallest detail could wreck or make a photo, sports photographers need to be thorough and patient when shooting pictures. A roll of 36 pictures might yield only one good photo—if the photographer is lucky—so in addition to having plenty of film, the photographer needs plenty of patience.

Exploring Sports Photographer Career

You may want to join a school or club sports team to learn a sport well and to build your skills. This will later help your career when you are sitting on the sidelines trying to position yourself to capture the best images.

Photography clubs provide good practice for shooting and developing film and to meet other students with similar interests. Joining the school newspaper or yearbook staff is also a great way to gain experience in shooting sporting events. Most yearbooks and newspapers cover their team sports in detail, and photos are what make the stories stand out.


Sports photographers work for newspapers, sports magazines, Web sites, sports card companies, photo stock agencies, and wire services. Like many other types of photographers, sports photographers are often selfemployed and sell their photos to various sources for use in print and online publications.

Starting Out

Beginning a career in photography can be an uphill battle. The equipment and materials are expensive, there are a lot of risk and competition involved in getting the right photo, and the pay may not be enough to support the photographer’s craft. For this reason, many photographers hold other jobs in related fields, such as journalism or editing, and shoot pictures on the side.

Starting out, the photographer’s main responsibilities should be to build a portfolio and make contacts in the area in which he or she would like to publish work. College internships with newspapers or magazines are a great way to accomplish both these tasks. An internship with a newspaper or sports magazine will introduce you to potential employers and allow you to build your body of work.


Sports photographers advance by selling their work to highly respected publications (such as Sports Illustrated) and commanding more pay for their work. Some photographers become so well known for their work that they are requested by news organizations to shoot international or national sports events, such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl, year after year.


The earning potential for any photographer will vary depending on the shoot and where he or she is published. Typically, for sports photographers, the more important the sporting event, the higher the pay. Photographers shooting a college football game will earn less than those hired to shoot the Super Bowl. reports that the earnings of sports photographers hired as staff generally start out in the $20,000 range. After some years with a publication, photographers can earn more, from $35,000 to $40,000, plus they may be given an allowance for equipment expenses.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that photographers in general earned a median salary of $26,100 in 2005. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned $15,240 or less, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned $53,900 or more. During the same year, photographers working for newspapers, books, and other publishers earned an average of $37,230 annually.

Work Environment

Sports photographers work in an exciting environment that is constantly changing depending on their assignments. One day they may be working up in the bleachers of a hockey game, and the next day they may be roaming the sidelines of a soccer match in the driving rain. One thing to note about sports photographers’ work environment is the risk of injury. Because of their close proximity to the playing field, sports photographers have to be extremely careful when trying to get close enough for the best shots. While they may be concentrating deeply on capturing a great moment of a football game, they also must be able to quickly get themselves and their expensive equipment out of the way if a 275-pound linebacker is suddenly heading their way.

In addition to shooting on location, sports photographers also spend time in darkrooms developing and printing film or at computers downloading pictures to instantly send to their employers.

Sports Photographer Career Outlook

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment of all photographers will grow about as fast as the average through 2014. Because competition for getting photos in top-selling newspapers and magazines can be tough, sports photographers who have a varied portfolio and are experienced with the latest digital camera equipment will find the most job opportunities.

For More Information:

National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)