The sports & fitness specialty within photography has a broad definition that covers a lot of ground. For Wonderful Machine, the definition of the specialty “includes anything relating to sports, games, athletes, fitness, or exercise [and] can be candid (action) or controlled.”
As a result, two photographers could work in sports and fitness and have completely different portfolios, client lists, and ambitions — totally separate careers, really, similar in name only. When you look at the paths taken by a handful of those who specialize in sports and fitness photography, there are overlaps, to be sure. Still, each person has clearly charted their own course, which can even begin as early as childhood.
You might think anyone who wants to get into sports and fitness photography needs to have been a terrific athlete in their youth, or even someone who lives and breathes sport. While a few of our interviewees — namely Matt Odom and Chris Cumming (the latter of Motofish Studios) — did play sports growing up, still do now, and are better equipped to take action shots as a result, that progression isn’t a requirement to succeed in this field.
Matt Odom: I grew up playing soccer and now coach it. Having the experience of reading the field of play was one of the biggest things that helped me shoot action sports.
Chris Cumming: I was a swimmer from 11 through college, so I have that background. Greg, my business partner at Motofish, was a soccer player. Both of us still do outdoor sports, like biking, skiing, and surfing.
Funny enough, as much as that background informs one’s approach to action shoots, all that knowledge and experience can actually hinder advertising work. Neither Jon Enoch nor Blair Bunting was much of an athlete growing up, but that hasn’t stopped them from establishing impressive careers. Like we discussed, sports and fitness photography doesn’t just mean going to a game and capturing live action; it also includes portraiture work for brands and publications, Jon and Blair’s bread and butter.
Jon Enoch: I think some naivety can help you see things with fresh eyes. I follow a wide range of sports, but I’m no expert. There’s also something to be said for not having too many heroes. Treating talent — from whatever discipline — like normal people is the best policy, and that’s hard to do if you’ve been obsessing about them.
Blair Bunting: Knowing sports helps very little, and in some cases, hurts an advertising photographer. While a sideline photographer at a game will get shots by knowing everything happening on the field, this is not the case in the studio.
Not only are there plenty of ways to be labeled a sports and fitness photographer, but there are also tons of options when it comes to getting started in the field. Jon, who has photographed a plethora of famous athletes, started on an incredibly strong note as he transitioned from Times of London photojournalist to commercial photographer. This award-winning work led to more commissions, not only from that same publication but also from other clients.
JE: The first well-known athlete portrait shoot that sticks in my mind was with English soccer player Paul Gascoigne for Sport Magazine. He was one of the most gifted players of his generation and extremely popular when I was at school, but he’s subsequently been plagued by alcoholism.
JE: The image was pretty raw, shot long after he had stopped playing. Sport dropped all the cover lines on the magazine; it was a pretty hard-hitting image. For many, it was a bit of a shock to see the ravages that alcohol had taken on Gazza [his nickname]. The magazine won many awards for that cover. Over the years, I ended up shooting dozens of covers for them, which led to other sports-related work.
In truth, most people aren’t going to start their sports and fitness career with such a great get. For example, Blair, Matt, and Kat Schleicher started more modestly by working with universities and going from there. Blair began his stellar career while still in school.
BB: The first athletic series I photographed was an Arizona State football ad campaign while I was in college. It was intimidating to do the shoot as a teenager, but it got me comfortable with the pressure of being on set at a very early age.
Matt, who cut his teeth by photographing practices and games at nearby high schools on his own time (and recommends young photogs do the same), also got started in earnest at his former university; almost right away, this led to more high profile assignments.
MO: My first big assignment was for my alma mater, Mercer. I had already prepped by doing test shoots with friends who played football, so it was all down to me basically implementing what I wanted to do style-wise. My biggest job after shooting for Mercer was with ESPN’s The Undefeated.
And Kat began at Marquette University in Wisconsin as a staff photographer. While Blair and Matt went on to land shoots centered around athletes and teams, Kat’s next step within sports and fitness was quite different, helping to illustrate just how broad this photographic specialty can get.
I covered many different sports and did promotional photography for Marquette’s exercise science program. Fast forward ten years into my freelance career, and I started doing shoots with Johnson Health Tech, which makes exercise equipment. They had seen some of my healthcare work and were interested in my style. That really allowed me to work with even more gyms and sports fitness programs.
When you put together a nice portfolio with smaller commissions and personal work, you can pitch it to well-known clients. And if you earn an assignment from one notable client, other big-name publications and brands take notice. But none of that happens without you first investing time and money into your own work. Albert Law — who humbly self-started, wore many hats on small shoots, and picked up more work because of it — can explain further.
Albert Law: I started with shooting content for local gyms. Those were very small productions with limited budgets, so I decided to plan the entirety of my own shoots to show art directors what I can do. Because of this, I have a much better understanding of what I need in terms of equipment, location, and crew. Most of my work comes through referrals, so after seeing other fitness work in my portfolio, clients know my capabilities, making it a lot easier to get hired.
Albert says that while you don’t need to be a sporting expert, per se, you need to have a good grasp of what proper movement looks like, especially with more niche activities. So, the Canadian draws on his yoga experience.
AL: The key to shooting movements — and anything in general — is having a good understanding of the subject matter so that you know what looks natural, and you can coach movements if needed. The few years I spent in the yoga studio definitely helped on these shoots.
Coaching movements is one way to help create ideal imagery, but so is collaboration. Jon considers it vital to bounce ideas off the athletes and work with them instead of ordering them around. Not that athletes scoff at taking orders — quite the contrary, in fact.
JE: For me, the key is to involve the athlete very early on in the shoot when we’re going over the movements. Use them as the choreographer because they know what’s best and most natural. Quite often, we will work on that movement together to get the balance right. It has to be a collaboration. And athletes have spent the best part of their lives taking direction from a coach or trainer, so they tend to be very good at following instructions.
Improving as a sports and fitness photographer, like anything else, comes with consistent repetitions over time. But what’s interesting about getting better at this discipline is that it has as much to do with everything adjacent to taking pictures as it does with the photography itself. As Blair notes, he’s basically had the same “timing” when it comes to taking photographs his whole career — he’s just far more advanced when it comes to everything else nowadays.
BB: I think that photographing athletes has gotten easier for me as it is more about planning the lighting; practice in that area over the years has made it more fluid for me. While I don’t know if my timing for a shot has changed much, I know that my direction of the athlete for a shot has significantly improved.
And it’s probably not in your best interest to change things up stylistically, anyway; as Chris explains, once you find your voice, look, and brand, you have to stick with it. Buttressing that point — and further showing that sports knowledge does not always equate to being in demand — Kat mentions that she gets hired because of her aesthetic, not her trivia chops.
CC: When you look at photographers with long careers, their work doesn’t shift a ton. The way you shoot is your brand, so you don’t want to be all over the map. People need to know you for something.
KS: The more you know about the sport, the more you know the key moments you need to capture. Still, I’m more likely to get hired for my overall style than how much I know the sports. That’s why I try to ask the right questions of clients upfront.
When it comes to subjects, there are athletes, and there are models. Knowing the difference will help you understand what movements and poses are authentic and what standard tropes are actually very cringe-worthy. And shoots with athletes as opposed to models feature far fewer hoops to jump through, anyway.
CC: Knowing form is important, but so is casting. The more intriguing moments are the in-between ones, like blowing a snot rocket off the bike. The opposite of that is a shot of someone holding their bike over their shoulder, a compendium of what not to do, how these people look while running also depends on the subject. If you’re shooting an athlete with a story, it’s different than a catalog assignment. If a world champ runs with a chicken wing, who cares? A model, however, needs perfect form.
A world champ’s running form aside, that person — like most top athletes — is either going to have an incredibly busy schedule, be recovering from some kind of injury, or both. Ironically, an athlete has more free time while injured, but said setback might make it more difficult for the photographer to do their best work.
JE: The biggest hindrance is injury, more often than you might think! Most athletes are nursing some sort of niggle; also, players are so busy that if they’re off training through injury, they will pick up their commercial commitments during that spare time.
And what do you do if something else goes wrong, such as a miscommunication between the client and subject? Here’s how Matt dealt with a client who couldn’t get on the same page with Deion Sanders:
MO: The client had not gone over the specifics with Deion, and when he arrived, Deion didn’t want to do what the client requested. So, I asked if we could take a series of poses and ended up with the shot we got — Deion was thrilled.
Underwhelming clients aside, athletes can be aloof, apathetic, or just straight-up divas, but those cases are few and far between. In fact, most sports and fitness shoots tend to be a blast, especially if you work with the right kind of athlete.
BB: Fighters, football players, and hockey players are always the easiest and most fun. The reason is that their sports are so brutal that being in front of a camera is easy by comparison.
JE: Athletes certainly can be divas! However, the vast majority are wonderful. I love working with soccer players who are on their way up when it’s still a bit of a novelty to be doing a shoot. Some of them might have read a publication such as FourFourTwo (a soccer magazine) all their lives, and now they’re being photographed for the cover. It’s fun to see their joy and to be part of that journey.
MO: There hasn’t been an athlete who doesn’t like being on camera, contrary to what most people think. Once you open them up, their personality really begins to show, and that’s when the fun begins.