Sports photojournalism: taking tips from 36-year veteran Bruce Bennett

Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin tries to get a shot off in mid air during an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center on October 19, 2010. (Photo By Clyde Caplan)

With fierce action unraveling at breakneck speeds, shooting sports can be one of the most challenging areas for photojournalists to cover. It takes years of experience to get it right, so who better to talk to than 36-year National Hockey League photographer Bruce Bennett.

In photojournalism class our instructor warned us right off the bat the most difficult assignment will be shooting sports. Quality sports photos are somewhat rare, but when the timing is just right the image can burn into the viewer’s brain forever. It may be the shot of Bobby Orr flying through the air after scoring “The Goal” or Michael Jordan slam dunking from the foul line, almost every sports lover has a favorite photo. Capturing great sports moments in a single frame is all about timing, reacting and execution. It also takes serious commitment, as you will need at least entry-level professional gear and many hours of practice to hone your skill and instincts.

However, to launch yourself faster into the world of sports photography, it’s helpful to consult some experts in the field for advice. The Internet is full of great material such as’s extensive article that’s chalked full of technical advice and a unique list of tips for covering individual sports from soccer to volleyball. Also, I stumbled upon a great how-to video for amateurs with limited equipment that was just released earlier this month. But for a more personal approach, I interviewed Bruce Bennett, a sports photographer for more than 36 years covering thousands of NHL and international hockey games.

Tips from Bruce Bennett: one million sports photos and counting

Veteran NHL photographer Bruce Bennett braces for the shot during an NHL game in November, 2000. (Screen grab from YouTube)

With more than one million sports photos under his belt, veteran photographer Bruce Bennett knows what it takes to capture a good sports photo. Bennett began his career as a fan taking pictures of National Hockey League games from the stands at Madison Square Gardens in New York City. He sent some photos, which he describes as being “absolute garbage”, to the Hockey News in Montreal who in turn offered him $3 a shot. Bennett jumped on the offer, but more for the press pass and to gain shooting experience than the paltry pay.

Bennett says at first “I had no idea what I was shooting” and it took the first few years to learn how to consistently take captivating sports photos. In order to capture the fast pace action of sports such as an NHL hockey game, Bennett says it takes a combination of three things:

  • Experience
  • Anticipation
  • Instinct

For Bennett experience is key. He finds a cardinal mistake rookie photographers often make is the players are too small in the frame. Even with digital technology, making major crops to a photo also decreases the quality of the images.

Bennett suggests to gain more experience to relentlessly shoot as much as you can at first. “Don’t just sit around and hope someone’s going to call you to shoot something,” says Bennett who suggests scanning local newspapers for listings of college or high school sports games to shoot.

“I would shoot anything and everything that I could either sneak into or buy a ticket to.”

Photojournalists that are starting out can attend amateur sports games or look for skate parks to hone their sports photography skills.

To better anticipate the unfolding action at sports games, Bennett says it helps to know the sport you’re covering:

  • Research the rules and technical aspects of the game
  • Check beforehand the big personalities/ who stands out in the sport
  • Check to see if any players are on the verge of reaching a milestone or certain career goals
  • Know the players and their backgrounds on each team (this helps with writing cutlines)

Instinct also develops with experience and knowing the sport helps capturing the peak action, Bennett says. In order to tell the story of a game (in his case hockey) you should look for players who are hot and having great games such as goalies recording shutouts. You need celebration shots, dejection shots and moments of pure athleticism such as big hits. Bennett says wire services and photo agencies usually look for 20 good photos with these scenarios and it often takes shooting up to 600-700 photos to achieve these results.

Capturing peak action can require much practice. It took me more than 200 shots to get this photo which was used for The Voice, a newspaper produced by journalism students at Langara College in Vancouver.

A side note Bennett added that’s also important for people trying to brake into sports photojournalism is their business approach. Bennett is well established today and mainly works for Getty Images. He sold his company, Bruce Bennett Studios, to Getty in 2004. But before he reached success, Bennett says it was key to dress presentable and take a professional attitude to the arena. He says many of his fellow photographers “dressed like slobs”, but because he took this approach he made many connections with writers for magazines and other publications who would come to him and ask for photos.

For more information on Bruce Bennett’s career check out this interview with Swedish sports station Canal:


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