Creature from the Blog Lagoon 27: Confessions of a Rookie Tennis Photographer

There probably aren’t many people that know less about tennis than I do. I don’t know who the players are, how to keep score, or how to properly hold the putter thing. Thankfully my friends at ZUMA Press didn’t know that, because I was asked to photograph the San Diego Open tennis tournament. (I’d actually photographed tennis before, about 32 years ago. I hadn’t even shot sports of any kind for about 24 years.) Figuring the border with Mexico is only about 15 minutes south of the stadium I could make a quick disappearing act if I royally screwed things up. But that didn’t happen. The tennis gods (Williams/Williams, Federer, Graf - who I photographed 32 years ago - Laver… you know, the usual suspects) were smiling upon my endeavor and granted me a handful of usable photos. Over the course of six days (the tournament proper was seven days but I couldn’t make day six, so day seven was day six - make sense?) I learned a lot about photographing tennis, or at least what works best for me. Here’s what I determined.

Shooting locations

I don’t know if the general layout of tennis stadiums is fairly standard, but there were bleachers on all four sides of the court. Those at the ends of the court were all up high, above the back fence or whatever you’d call it. For this tournament we couldn’t sit on the edge of the court, we had to be behind the low fence around the court if we sat court-side. It didn’t take long for me to realize the shooting angles were a bit limited, in part by the chair umpire’s… wait for it… chair, in part because the scoreboards made for cluttered pictures*, and in part because the low bleachers made for cluttered pictures. The general court-side strategy I came up with placed me on the same side as the closest scoreboard so I’d be closer to action on that side and it would be less likely to get in the way. Ultimately, I was only able to effectively and reliably cover half the court from any court-side position. The yellow areas in this diagram show what were the best areas, in my opinion.

*There were a couple of times through serendipity that the scoreboard in the photo actually added to the shot - the player in the photo and his name on the scoreboard were both in the shot.

Lens selection

I shot everything with three lenses. Court-side I used a 300mm and sometimes - rarely - a 180, although a 200 or 210 would likely have been a little better. For shooting the far end of the court from the opposite end of the stadium I used a 500, although a 400 might have been slightly better. I was shooting with Nikon D850s which are something like 46 megapixels, which allowed me to crop at will without losing any usable resolution. Since I’m not a seasoned sports shooter and couldn’t reliably shoot tight, that extra bit of resolution came in handy.

Focus pattern

I tried various focusing patterns and finally settled on the 3D pattern with, of course, continuous autofocus. I really don’t know what 3D means in this case, but when I picked a spot to focus on the system did a pretty good job of staying locked to that spot, even if it moved away from the center of the frame. I don’t know if Canon, Sony, Fuji or any of the others have a similar feature.

Exposure metering pattern

Matrix metering (I think that’s what it’s called) seemed to work best in most situations. It’s a bit of a center-weighted metering system but also analyzes what’s outside the central area. It didn’t handle everything well, but I found that a test shot now and then and an adjustment to the exposure compensation - usually darker by up to two stops at times - gave me good results.


Don’t chew them, they get stuck in your teeth.


First, I noticed that it took about a full game or so in a match for the players to really get warmed up. Before that time it was “thwack” (serve) and then nothing - the ball was out, it hit the net, the opposing player was in the middle of high tea, things like that. It took me awhile to warm up too, especially in the first match of the day, so the boring parts of a match synced up nicely with my lack of skill.

I realized pretty quickly that the best thing would be to get the basic shots early in a match, “best shots” being “get the player’s face, putter and baseball in the same frame, composed halfway decently, and in focus.” Once those basic shots were out of the way I could concentrate on the more dramatic action - stretching to hit the ball, plays at the net (difficult for me to capture from my position) and reactions to particularly good or bad plays, keeping an eye out for those great things even while shooting the routine stuff.

Opportunities for great photos do NOT end when the ball stops.

Opportunities for great photos do NOT end when the ball stops.

Opportunities for great photos do NOT end when the ball stops.

In other words, watch the player you’ve chosen to cover for that serve, even after the play ends. There may be a great reaction for you to catch. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Be a bit selective on what you shoot as you’re shooting it. If what you’re seeing in a play looks a bit boring don’t start banging away on the shutter - you don’t want to have your camera’s buffer filled, preventing you from shooting, right when a great shot comes into view.

I intentionally made what I assume is a cardinal sin of sports photography - editing in the field, in the camera. Between games in a match, I’d go through all the photos on the memory cards in my cameras and start deleting the obvious garbage. I locked photos that looked particularly good to keep them from being accidentally erased. So why did I do this rather than wait until I got home? A few reasons… fewer card changes while you’re shooting (a minor consideration - it only takes a few seconds to swap out cards); full cards are easier to lose but cards still in the camera are nice and cozy; a faster ingest of photos into your hard drives back home or at the office; and finally, faster editing later on.

Lastly, don’t beat yourself up over missed shots. Nobody but you will know, and you’ll only have to live the rest of your life knowing you missed the greatest sports photos of your career.


Here are a few photos from my days at the tournament. I like reaction photos better than I do action photos as you can tell by my selection. You can see more complete coverage in the San Diego Open gallery to the left.

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