Expression is often the key element to great photos

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/1250
Key elements of the sports photo often include the ball and the competition. Here you can see the valiant effort of the receiver catching the ball and the expression of the player as well. He is fully extended and running full speed and keeping his eyes on the ball. Also you can see the defensive player seeing the catch and the concentration as well he has on the ball.
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
Here you can see the runner extending for all he can and also see a defensive player’s look of concern that he is still moving ahead.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 5000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

The key to almost all good to great photos of people is EXPRESSION. In sports it can be the one thing that helps tell you more of the game.

The closer crop of the top photo shows how intense the defensive player is playing.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

In this photo on the left and right you can see the defensive players reacting to the quarterback starting to pass the ball.

Sometimes the tendency of sports photographers is to crop tight to be sure that is what you need to see. However sometimes by pulling back and including more of the action it helps to communicate more about the play. For example you miss the fact that two players faces are reacting and you miss how close the sack of the quarterback is on the play by being a little looser on the play.

Sports enthusiasts like to see the game being played whereas those who are just a photographer will tend to crop tight for impact.

I can tell you as one who played sports that we like to see more of the play. Seeing the player’s feet during basketball is how players decide which way to drive for example. It is why the crossover is such a big deal.

While this cropped version helps you see the player’s faces it is the looser shot that gives you the perspective of the play developing.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/400

When you have very little space to use a photo it is better to go tight, but this is why so many sports enthusiast loved getting Sports Illustrated. Those photos that filled two pages didn’t need to be tight as they photo in the sports section of the newspaper. They had the space which helped those who play sports get a better understanding of the play.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 4000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

In a high school game the quarterback is more concentrated on the execution and it shows in the face. In the pros they are moving so much quicker that it must be instinct that kicks in for the quarterback to make the handoff.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 7200, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

Expression is more than just in the face. Here you see the bodies all twisting to adjust to the play that just went by them. You also are seeing that the ball carrier is looking more down field and missing the defensive player to his left.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 6400, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

This is the split second later where his forward advance is stopped.

Which photo here is the best photo? You will see photo editors really studying a photo for the nuances of the expression of the bodies in motion.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 6400, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

 This first one looks like the defensive player is just about to give up.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 6400, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

 In the second photo the defensive player looks like he is matching his stride and you wonder if he will catch him.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 6400, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

In the last photo you can see the offensive player is pulling away and the defensive player is giving his last diving effort to stop the touchdown.

Which photo is best? Well which one not only tells the outcome of the play, but it often needs to be the moment that communicates the game. Most media outlets do not have unlimited space and must choose the moments they use to communicate.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 5000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

You really have to pick the right moment to capture the intensity of the play.

Going back to the photo above, compare it to the split second before.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/400

See how the defensive player’s head is down and you don’t see the eyes?

Now look at the photo again from the split second later of the same play.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S, Sigma TC-2001 2x, ISO 12800, ƒ/5.6, 1/400

The largest difference between the two photos is being able to see the expression.

Order of importance:

  1. Expression
  2. Composition
  3. Exposure
Now the difference between the truly great photos and the rest is all three are well executed. But the sign of the technician photographer is often those who concentrate more on the last two elements of composition and exposure and not enough on expression.
Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 280, ƒ/7.1, 1/200
Expression can also be in the form of light which helps to create a mood.
Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 200, ƒ/7.1, 1/100