6 ways I improved my sports photography: Marc Aspland

England and New Zealand rugby players in a ruck, photographed by Marc Aspland.
A great sports photograph sums up a sporting event, like this shot by Marc Aspland of a rugby match between England and New Zealand. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/1328 sec, f/2.8 and ISO2000. © Marc Aspland / Times Newspapers Ltd

The thing Marc Aspland likes most about sports photography is that he has absolutely no control over the events unfolding in front of him. "I cannot ask Jonny Wilkinson to re-drop that goal for England in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final because someone ran in front of my lens," says the Canon Ambassador. "That's part of the challenge of doing this work."

Marc has been rising to that challenge for the past 30 years as a sports photographer. He has been the Chief Sports Photographer at The Times newspaper in the UK since 1993. During that time he has photographed major sporting events around the world, including six summer Olympic Games and four FIFA World Cup Finals. He has won the Sports Photographer of the Year award four times.

Regularly shooting everything from football, tennis and swimming to horse racing, Marc also likes photographing sports that push him out of his comfort zone. For example, winter sports such as speed skating, curling and snowboarding challenge him to think afresh about what he does and how he wants to capture it. However, his enthusiasm for sports photography hasn't been fuelled just by the unpredictability of what he's photographing or capturing the moments that hit the headlines.

Here, Marc looks back at his work and offers the top techniques and approaches that have helped improve his sports photography the most.

As a golfer squats to line up a putt, a row of five others cast long shadows on the green.
A unique viewpoint, resulting in an unusual composition, can make a photo stand out from all the other shots of the same event, says Marc. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/6.3 and ISO640. © Marc Aspland
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1. Find the story

"My editor absolutely expects me to take a shot of the winning goal at a match, that's a given," Marc says. "But more than that, he wants me to take a picture that sums up an entire sports event in a unique way.

"It might be something completely different from the winning goal. It's about the way I interpret, say, the whole 90 minutes of a football match. It could be a sideways or quirky view, like a smile or a look on a player's face that sums up the match. My job is to sum up the 1,000 words written about the same event by a sports journalist. And that's on a daily basis. Doing that, I suppose, really comes back to that photojournalistic ability to see things a bit differently."

Part of being able to see things differently involves Marc using innovative techniques or unusual viewpoints to capture the image that's in his mind's eye. But ultimately it comes down to his whole approach to his work. "You try different techniques as you go along, but they all go hand in hand with experience and your evolution as a photographer," he says. "It's all about reacting to the story that's happening around you and being creative."

A horse race photographed from high in the grandstand; the track, spectators and horses' legs are blurred.
Marc uses shutter speed creatively to convey the impression of action. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/16 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © Marc Aspland

2. Use shutter speeds creatively

One way Marc has given his images an eye-catching look is to use either ultra-slow or ultra-fast shutter speeds. A very fast shutter speed, such as 1/4000 sec, will freeze everything and show things the human eye can't see: the wall of water sprayed up by a water-skier, or a cloud of dust kicked up by a tennis player on a clay court. Alternatively, a very slow shutter speed such as 1/15 sec can make the same action shot an abstract blur of colour and movement.

"If a horse is whizzing over the last fence in a major race, there could be 20 photographers lined up and taking exactly the same picture," Marc says. "But there might only be one taking their picture at 1/15 sec and panning with the action. I'll prefer those pictures all day long, because they're different and show that the photographer has seen a picture before the horses have even got out of the starting gate."

A horse race photographed from track level at sunset, with the colourful sky dominating the image.
In this completely contrasting wide shot, the horse race itself is almost incidental. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1250. © Marc Aspland

3. Shoot wide, shoot long

Marc has captured his own perspective on sporting events by varying his kit according to the story he wants to tell. Sometimes he uses a long telephoto lens such as the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM. This lens, with its built-in 1.4x extender, reaches a focal length of 560mm. Long lenses like this have enabled Marc to close in on key details that other photographers often don't see.

"Things are going on all around me and I'm looking at a small part of the scene through the narrow tunnel of a telephoto lens," Marc says. "I might be focusing on the tattoos of a football player who's had a great game, his undone bootlaces or the face of someone in the crowd. Other photographers next to me can hear my camera clicking away and they wonder what I'm seeing. But it's already gone by then.

"Alternatively, I aim to capture the wider picture, even if the main player in a football match is just a small part of the frame. For example, I might use a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM for shooting a wide view of Centre Court at Wimbledon or the whole of Wembley Stadium when the winning team is clapping the fans after a match."

Two rowing eights on the River Ouse, sparkling in the sunshine, with Ely Cathedral in the background.
Marc's striking image of Cambridge University Boat Club practice on the River Great Ouse, with Ely Cathedral in the background. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © Marc Aspland / Times Newspapers Ltd
Jockey Nina Carberry flies off her horse as it falls at a fence in the Grand National.

Tom Jenkins: a prize-winner's story

Sports photographer Tom Jenkins talks about his World Press Photo-winning image, taken at the Grand National.

4. Find unusual viewpoints

Another way that Marc has created images that give a unique slant on an event is to use a remote camera in an unusual location. This can mean anything from positioning a camera behind a goal with a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens to placing the camera with a telephoto lens directly above a swimmer about to dive into a pool to start a race.

"I tend to use remote cameras more and more now," says Marc. "One recent example is the time I photographed the first and second Cambridge crews training for the Boat Race on the River Ouse in Cambridgeshire. I wanted to get both crews in the frame, but I also knew from a certain viewpoint I could include Ely Cathedral, which is a stunning building.

"So I put my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II on an enormous monopod which I held while sitting in a boat following the crews. I waited for the right moment, pointed the lens downwards and used my remote trigger just as Ely Cathedral came on the horizon. It was all about seeing that picture in my mind's eye, then working out how I could make it happen with the equipment I had with me."

A multiple-exposure image of sprinter Darren Campbell from starting position to running in a natural landscape.
Marc experimented with multiple exposures to capture this image of "the incredible journey of Darren Campbell". Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/10 and ISO400. © Marc Aspland

5. Experiment with multiple exposures

Striking sports images can be made by shooting a rapid burst of exposures, such as the 14fps possible on Marc's Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, and combining them into one image in post-processing. It's not a technique Marc has used often because it becomes over-familiar, but it can create unique images that record multiple moments in time in just one frame.

Marc recalls: "I recently photographed the former Olympic sprinter Darren Campbell, who was recovering from a bleed on the brain, at Celtic Manor golf course in Wales. I wanted to sum up his life story in one picture – he had started as a kid from a rough area of Manchester – and had an idea for doing that.

"We went onto the 12th green on the course and I lay down on the grass. I asked him to do the starting blocks position and then run through my frame. I shot a multiple exposure and we put one picture over another in post-production. Again, in this situation I had to put on my photojournalist's head and think, 'what way can I best sum up this story?'"

A huge crowd of spectators behind a golf course green; in the foreground, ripples spread in a still pool of water.
The deciding moment of the Ryder Cup captured from a completely unexpected viewpoint. Sometimes great sports photography is a matter of being in the right place at the right time… but it takes patience and understanding of the sport concerned to know what that place and time might turn out to be. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/1328 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Marc Aspland / Times Newspapers Ltd

6. Be patient

As well as having a range of techniques in your armoury, Marc says he's learned the importance of taking your time to put those techniques into action. Photographers' lives are made easier by the technical sophistication of the latest generation of digital cameras, which allows greater opportunity for creativity, but Marc believes you have to allow yourself the "thinking time" to make the best of that technology.

"Digital cameras have made capturing the moment so easy and so immediate – sports photographers know the autofocus is unbelievably good and they're going to get a fantastic frame-rate," Marc says. "Cameras are so good now that it's easy to take the same pictures as everyone else, so you have to work harder as a creative photographer to set yourself apart.

"Today's technology should make you step back, look carefully at your subject matter and refine that moment you're looking for. You need to think: 'I'm going to move now because the light's changed,' or 'I'm going to put on a different lens or change the exposure because this isn't what I want to see.' For me, sports photography is about having that ability to find your own pictures and be true to yourself and your own photographic style. It's about being individual and being unique."

Written by David Clark

Marc Aspland's kitbag

Key kit for sports photography

Sports photographer Marc Aspland holds a Canon camera and telephoto lens.


Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

With its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 4K video capture, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II delivers class-leading performance. "It's quite easily the best pro camera I've had in my career," says Marc.


Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Ultra-high-performance L-series super-telephoto lens, featuring a 4-stop Image Stabilizer with 3 modes. Marc says: "This is my go-to lens for sports photography. It's so sharp and offers me so much opportunity to capture the pictures that are in my mind's eye."

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. "This lens is a new addition to my kitbag and offers me a different perspective," says Marc. "It's so good, I wish I'd had it a few years ago."

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