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Shooting Roland Garros

Print | posted on Thursday, June 20, 2013 9:36 AM

After recently posting a bunch of “picks” from our recent trip to Roland Garros on Facebook and Flickr I have been inundated with questions and comments regarding how I achieved these results.

These have come both from close friends and acquaintances along with random SharePoint people, it seems photography is much more interesting than SharePoint (duh! obviously). Incredibly even other tennis photographers have shown interest, sadly at this point no pro player reps have been in touch (go figure!). Folks have said, “you should blog that stuff”.

So here are the details for those interested, my tips and tricks for shooting at Roland Garros. For the English and American readers that’s the “French Open”, a professional tennis tournament which takes place in late May early June each year on the outskirts of Paris.

It’s somewhat interesting how little information is out there about shooting tennis. There are lots of general shooting sports tutorials and the like, including for beginners an excellent, very recent video class over at kelbytraining.com. However most of these will focus very much on American sports, and mostly team sports at that. Whilst the vast majority of what they talk about remains relevant, there are some additional specific considerations for tennis which I will touch on as I go through my experiences. Also I will cover some of the more practical aspects which are certainly as important as camera settings and the like.

I’m splitting this into a couple of parts as it’s reasonably long. This part will talk about preparation and equipment. The 2nd part will talk about logistics, the grounds and stadia, making shots and post production. It’s a bit rough and ready, I certainly haven’t spent as much time or asked anyone else to test/review as I would do with my SharePoint posts. :)


Practice and Preparation

I’m a trained photographer, I studied it at college as I was in visual arts all the way through school. Fundamentals of good shots such as how to hold the camera properly, settings and “technique” I have down cold. But none of that really matters if you don’t practice and prepare.

I am not saying you don’t need to learn these things, certainly shooting pro tennis you are ideally in manual mode and certainly at least in shutter priority mode. If you have a DSLR and shoot in auto or program mode, you likely won’t make many decent images at an event like this except for a few based entirely on luck. If you don’t know how to hold your camera properly, it doesn’t matter which settings you use you will likely be disappointed with the results.

However preparation for the event will make a world of difference to your results. Having an idea of what shots you are looking for, and what to avoid are key. How you will approach shooting the action is something you can practice in front of the television. Just like Moose says, you can learn to shoot wildlife in your backyard so that when you are on safari you are not learning those things and just concentrating on getting great shots. Same here, shooting a small event or even your friends playing will help enormously. You definitely don’t want to be fiddling with your camera settings when the best players on the planet are in action. You need to have that stuff down before the main event.

I didn’t shoot a local event (there are none) or shoot my friends playing. But I have shot tennis before and I did practice camera control with televised tennis so that these things became muscle memory for the most part.

Think about how much you’ve invested in equipment. If you can’t spend a few hours practicing because you are “too busy” or “don’t have enough time” then again, you will be disappointed with the results. No-one is too busy or doesn’t have enough time. It’s your choice when and what you spend your time on. We all wish there were more hours in the day, but if you manage your time badly it doesn’t matter if there are 48 hours in a day, there still won’t be enough.

As I mentioned in the intro there is a general dearth of good advice for shooting tennis. In many respects tennis is the worst thing to shoot as it effectively presents all of the main challenges to good shots all in combination. You need a fast shutter speed, subject isolation, to avoid distracting environmental elements (advertising hoardings, spectators), to avoid distracting elements (line judges, ball kids) and are often at the wrong angle to the action. Add to that restrictions on gear you can take with you and things like the weather then you are all set for a disappointing week (and missing some great tennis as a regular spectator) if you aren’t ready for business.

However there is some great stuff out there. Specifically over on youtube is a two hour long lecture by commercial sports snapper Chris Nicholson who talks thru his experiences shooting the US Open. This is one of the excellent B&H Photo events. Furthermore Chris has a great book called Photographing Tennis. These are both exceptional resources, highly recommended.

Along with this, check out the sheer mountain of tennis action shots from the newspapers and magazines, all of which are one click away in Bing or Google image search, or any of the wire service’s or stock library’s web sites. Checking out others work is a fundamental way to get ideas and into a mind-set of what you want to shoot.

Perhaps rather obviously then the key tip here, is just like in any other endeavour, preparation is paramount.



No modern article on photography would be complete without a section dedicated to equipment! It’s just the way it is. Photographers seem to be intrinsically addicted to gear and this has certainly increased during my lifetime as the move from film to digital is effectively complete. Even the most right brained photographer can talk your ear off on the subject. Tip: unless you are really interested, never ask a photographer what equipment they use and why. :)

The good news is you can take great shots as a spectator at an outdoor tennis event with what would be generally considered consumer grade equipment. With the exception of my camera body, pretty much all of my shots were taken with that stuff. If you know how to use them well, consumer grade bodies and lenses are perfect for the event. This is especially important because aside from the obvious cost consideration, fundamental logistics such as carrying your gear and getting the gear inside the event effectively rule out “pro spec” for the spectator.

A good shooter can take great shots with the crappiest equipment. Give Rafael Nadal a wooden racquet and he will still kick your ass. The fundamental fact is that the better equipment makes it *easier*, *faster* and more convenient to take a greater percentage of keepers. As for lenses, the better the glass the more likelihood of the results you are looking for. But a great lens in the hands of a bad photographer doesn’t make a good shot. Thus don’t get too hung up on gear, it’s likely what you have will be fine, or you can invest a little to fill a gap. No big spend necessary. Spending time (above) and good technique are the best investments you can make.

Camera Body

In almost all cases, you will be taking the camera you have. Unless you are rich you don’t have the luxury of choosing the body to take to the event. The good news is pretty much any recent DSLR body will do the job. They will if used correctly all deliver stunning results. You can’t really buy a “bad” DSLR these days. Again the “better” all depends on your level and other factors such as ergonomics.

The only thing here is really that it’s a DSLR. Point and shoots or anything that doesn’t have a viewfinder in my opinion is a bad candidate. It likely doesn’t have the focal length needed. Sure a Nikon 1 series with the uber lens may work, but really a DSLR is what you need for this sort of thing. In five years it might be different.

I shot the whole time with a Nikon D800. (Wait, what a D800? – I can hear the fotoistas chuckling already). Why? Simple, because this is the only DSLR camera I own. It’s not for sports. Its sweet spot is portraits and landscapes where the resolution is important and the burst rate is not, it’s a camera used often on a tripod. It’s almost the anti-sports camera. All over photoista forums you will read this camera being slagged off as terrible for sports. Take a look at my shots and judge for yourself if you think you can’t make good tennis images with a D800.

If you are thinking of a new body and wish to shoot sports, there are a couple of characteristics you need to consider.


This is key for any photography, but especially important for sports. Does it feel good in your hands? Are you comfortable with it? Can you access key functions easily and quickly? Does it have or can you customise it so you can use a back focus button? Does it have or can you add a battery grip for portrait shooting and/or increased frame rate?

Frame Rate (aka burst speed, aka frames per second)

This actually isn’t that important, but something that most would consider a pre-requisite. This all depends on how you shoot. For example the Nikon D800 has a “poor” max FPS of 4 in full frame mode. The most it can do is 6 FPS with a battery grip and in DX mode. A top end Nikon can do 11 FPS, a top end Canon can do 14 FPS. That’s what the pros use. But the pros don’t have to worry about scaring the spectator next to them that you have an automatic weapon (that’s what 14 FPS sounds like). And besides pros don’t actually pay for their own cameras or if they do it’s like us SharePoint people writing off their 32Gb laptop as a business expense.

So 4 FPS is slow, actually 6 FPS is good enough. Would I be better off with a D300S which can do 8? Sure. But it’s not that big of a deal. Here’s the real deal. Shooting in burst mode is one approach, some call it “spray and prey”, the idea being that you just shoot a ton of images in the hope that you get some good ones. This works, but it also means you are spending a lot more time in front of your computer after the shoot sorting the wheat from the chaff. And unless you are going for a specific effect it becomes more about luck than skill. Remember photography is an art and a science. I’m not saying I never use burst mode, but 80% of my images from Roland Garros are from single clicks.

That’s why poor FPS is not a deal breaker. I’ll talk more about other factors that allow you to make single click images later. If you still think that you need high FPS to make decent tennis images, ask yourself how come those pictures of Ivan Lendl or Martina Navratilova are so sharp, or for that matter what about the shots of Borg and Conners, or Billie Jean King. I think you see my point, with 14 FPS that roll of film is done pretty quick. Oldtimers didn’t have high FPS and oldtimers would call 5 FPS fast anyway. BTW if you are shooting tennis on film, all the best but you should probably go somewhere else for tips. :)

What is more important in this regard is buffer speed and shutter lag. As the camera takes shots it has to write them to the memory card. If you do use spray and prey mode, this can become an issue. You need fast memory cards, and also consider if you are shooting in RAW or JPG, or both. If you have a high FPS camera but put a cheapo card in it, you won’t get decent FPS! Shutter lag can also be a problem as there is a delay from you pressing the shutter button and when the shutter is raised. Shorter is better, but it doesn’t really matter what it is (e.g. a D70 has a 124ms lag, a D800 is 42ms) but you need to be used to it, so your timing is in line, in order to make the best shots.

Autofocus speed

Better cameras tend to have faster autofocus. This of course is actually a combination of camera and lens, but a slow autofocusing camera such as D70 or similar will be very frustrating. This is another area where the D800 is excellent.


Full frame or crop sensor (APS-C)? Does it matter? Well yes and no. I used the D800 which is a full frame camera. Full frame cameras have the advantage of usually being better at High ISO and this is still important even when shooting outdoors during the day (I’ll cover that later). However as a spectator having a crop sensor is actually an advantage. It’s likely you don’t have the expensive top end lens so getting closer to the action is easier. Sensor size technically alters field of view not focal length, but in this context it can be of great use. For example on a DX camera (Nikon speak for APS-C) a 300mm focal length becomes effectively 450mm. You can get closer to the action without having to spring for the real expensive glass.

The good news here is if you have a full frame camera, it likely has a crop mode. The D800 can shoot in DX mode, and this is what I used often (more details later). Crop mode images are also smaller so write to the card faster and download to your computer faster.

So that’s about it. You don’t need top end, you don’t need mega FPS. You can get good results with pretty much any modern DSLR. The real thing is knowing your camera and its controls well. I’ll talk more about settings later but there is one more thing that’s important about your camera as a spectator at such an event.

Paris, late spring, what could possibly go wrong? Yup you guessed it, the weather.

When it’s nice it’s stunningly beautiful. When it’s raining and you aren’t in the city taking shots of the street life it’s awful! We were there for three days and one day of that it was raining. And sometimes when it comes down, it really comes down. Now obviously when it’s chucking it down you aren’t shooting and your gear is away in its bag. But they play in light drizzle. Having a well weather sealed camera is an advantage. So is one that is well made. You don’t want to be covering up your camera as soon as it’s starts spitting especially if the action is still happening. Minor knocks and bangs you also want to be confident won’t hurt or break your camera. Having a D800 is a benefit here, as it’s built like a brick house, similarly a D300S would be good. The lesser bodies in this regard will be OK, but you have to be that bit more careful both in the wet, but also around the grounds.

Incidentally when the rain comes, usually so does the dark. Many say that when shooting outdoors you don’t need good high ISO performance. Not true if you live in north west Europe :). Remember for tennis we need fast shutter speed. If using consumer grade lenses, that means we need good ISO performance at least up to ISO 2000, another area where the D800 excels. These pro tennis guys play often in murky conditions a lot better than a thousand dollar camera can.


This will be the area that causes the most procrastination. Of course it depends on what you want to shoot, let’s cover the players in action first.

Our objective here is to get as close to the action as possible and fill the frame.

If you want a full body shot of a tennis pro with their arms, legs and racquet extended, from the stands at a pro event, that means 300mm. 450mm would be even better. You probably also want to be able to zoom. Depending upon your position in the stands and also the angle of view, zoom for a spectator is common - you will be zooming as the player moves whilst retaining focus (or trying to).


Roger Federer. 1/1250s at f/5.6 ISO 320 300mm Full Frame using a Nikkor 28-300. No post production crop. This is why we need 300mm. This image will be used again as we cover other shooting aspects later in the article.

So that means 300mm, or a zoom that can go to 300mm. That’s a problem, because we also want a fast shutter speed, which means you need a wide aperture. A Nikon 300mm f/2.8 costs $6,000. It weighs 2.9kg. It’s expensive, it’s heavy, and not a lens you own. But here’s the thing, none of that matters, because you won’t be able to get it into the event anyway.

So what can we do? Well we have to suck it up and use a “consumer” zoom. Nikon has two – a 70-300 f4.5-5.6 and a 28-300 f3.5-5.6. Both of these are full frame so will work both on full frame cameras and a crop sensor camera, on the crop sensor (or in crop mode) they are effectively 450mm at f5.6. Canon has equivalents to these. They are smaller, lighter and cheaper. I’ve used both the Nikons above for tennis, but choose the 28-300 for this trip as I wanted to be able to go wider for other shots and also have one lens for walking around the city if we chose to do that. The downside of course is the slow aperture, this means you have to raise your ISO and can’t blur backgrounds as well. This is the compromise we have to accept if we want to shoot without a credential and at a reasonable cost.

For DX shooters, there are other options which are all zooms that reach 300mm and are smaller, lighter and less expensive. Whichever one you get it does 300mm at f5.6. You are good to go.

What about the 70-200 with or without a tele-convertor I hear you ask. Well that’s $3,000. And not kit I owned at the time. Will I try that in the future? Sure. But the reality is 70-200 is a big heavy professional lens. And it still doesn’t go to 450mm without losing stops.

Another compromise is auto focus speed. I agonised over the 70-300 versus 28-300 knowing that neither are anywhere close to a 70-200. In the end it wasn’t an issue, other technique more than makes up for it, and the 28-300 is very good regardless. One key thing that can slow down auto focus speed, or rather the ability to grab focus is VR (IS in Canon speak). Shooting at the shutter speed necessary for tennis, you don’t care about VR so it’s turned off. Not an issue. Forget about VR for shooting tennis action shots.

I also had with me a wide angle lens (a 16-35 f4 VR) these are useful for shooting the environment (the stadia, the grounds, people etc). I didn’t use it as much as I would have liked mainly due to the poor weather, but make sure you have something like this or a zoom that can go reasonably wide. Remember you can always use your feet, so a fixed 35mm often will be all you need for these shots.

I also had a 24-120 f4. I used this quite a bit on the outside courts and when the weather got poor. The extra stop of light certainly helped on the outside courts – in DX mode this is a 180mm f4. And we can always crop in post-production, although that should be an exception rather than a rule (more on that later).

Some of my shots were with a 24-70 f2.8. Great for environmental or full court action, worthy of consideration in place of the wide zoom. For action will require extreme cropping. I won’t be taking this lens to a pro tennis event again unless I skip the wide angle. I was really just experimenting with this one late in the day as the light faded and I had already made most of my good shots.

Bear in mind that each day I only took three lenses, on the second day (when most of the tennis took place) I made do with two. You won’t be changing often (pros don’t ever change - they have more than one body). The reality is 80% of the time and 80% of the shots I made were with the 28-300. The fewer lenses you have the better.

Teleconvertors? Forget about it unless you own pro glass. A Nikon teleconvertor doesn’t fit on a 70-300 or a 28-300 anyway, you can’t physically attach one. A 3rd party teleconvertor may do, but even if it does you are losing stops again, so you may be able to reach 420mm (630 in DX) but now you are at f8 so your shutter speed is too slow. FORGET about teleconvertors unless you own pro glass.

Hoods and filters. You might be tempted to use a hood to protect against glare and the front element. You can, but be aware that the hood may annoy the spectator next to you, that’s not cool. They paid for their ticket just the same as you. If they can’t see the tennis because of your lens hood, remove it. The zoom will be bad enough as it is. When you sit down as a photographer and the guy in front of you is tall that pisses you off. Guess what, when the person who wants to watch the tennis sits down next to a guy with big glass they have exactly the same reaction.

As for filters, if you use a UV or NC filter to protect your front element that’s your call. I won’t get into the debate here, it won’t make any difference one way or another as far as shooting tennis is concerned.

Circular Polarizers may be useful if the sun is real strong to prevent the court washing out. But for clay courts this won’t be an issue, and the shadows on the clay actually are a cool part of the image. CPs are really only useful on a hard court like at the Australian or US Opens. CPs will be of use around the grounds, but for this trip I never used one once due to the weather.

Other stuff you need.

Memory cards. Simple you need large, high speed ones. Don’t skimp on cards. It’s easy – Lexar 1000 Compact Flash or Lexar or SanDisk 95x SD Cards. I used 32gb – smaller is no problem but make sure you have plenty, formatted ready to go. Many people will tell you to shoot in JPEG to increase your burst/buffer rate. I shot in RAW plus JPG Fine the whole time for reasons I’ll get into later. It wasn’t a problem at any time. Just keep your eye on the frames remaining on the camera, and change when you can do during a changeover or other break. Don’t let the camera get to zero before changing! Cameras lie about how many shots you have left on the card!

Batteries, make sure you have a backup, charged battery for your camera. If it’s cold put the battery in your jeans pocket or otherwise close to your body so it doesn’t lose its charge. You don’t want to be the sucker who ran out of battery. How do you avoid that?

Use a battery grip. I shot virtually the whole time with a battery grip attached to the camera. I set the camera to use the battery grip first, then the camera battery. This is good for other reasons. With the grip you can shoot in portrait mode (vertically) much better as you have additional focus and shutter controls. Plus on a D800 and other Nikon bodies (although not the D600) it increases your FPS in DX mode (to 6 in my case). This is another reason to buy a “better” body, i.e. does it have an optional battery grip. Other benefits of the grip are more support if you can shoot with your left eye to the viewfinder (the body rests in the nook of your shoulder and chest).

With the grip filled up with Lithium AA batteries I shot three days of tennis and thousands of images without ever going to the camera battery itself. I did shoot some without the grip and I did charge camera batteries overnight but the charging was for safety. However have enough AA spares if you use a grip!! I had one set in the grip and another set of spares. They are now both done. If it hadn’t rained for almost a day I’d have been eating into the battery in the camera and losing FPS.

If you do care about FPS remember to keep your eye on the battery indicator, as soon as the AAs are done, you will be back at the camera native FPS. Plan to change the batteries during a changeover or between matches. Nikons have an excellent info screen on the back which shows battery and FPS mode. So do Canons. Use it!

Lithium are what you need. There are fancy rechargeable ones especially for flash and battery grips but they are expensive if you are not a pro photographer. Just get lithium. No tree huggers here. Remember also to make sure to tell the camera you are using lithium in the grip otherwise it will report charge incorrectly and also not up the FPS.

And don’t forget the best way to avoid running out of battery – shoot less! :)

Strap – you need one, but forget about the rapid strap type thing, you need a regular neck strap. You won’t be walking around needing a sling shot. Out and about in downtown Paris, sure – at Roland Garros – no, just don’t do it!

Most of the time you will be sat in the stands with the camera strap around your neck. It’s all you need. Don’t use the crap one that comes with your camera. Its crap, it’s uncomfortable, has “steal me” or “I’m a douchebag showing off my camera is great” written in large yellow or red letters on it. Get a $40 replacement. You need the strap for when you might have to stand briefly, either to stretch your legs at the changeover, or to let another spectator pass.

When you are walking around a pro tennis event, your camera should be in your bag. Don’t be a muppet! There are 30 thousand people each day at the first week of Roland Garros, they’ve all come to enjoy the tennis, you do not want to be the guy bumping into folks with your gear, and you want your gear to be safe. Unless you are shooting your camera should be in your bag.

Monopod – forget it. You can’t use one, and you don’t need one. Pros use them because a $6000 lens is very heavy. You are not a pro. Forget monopods.

But you do need a bag. A good one. One that allows you to get your gear in and out quickly, can accommodate your gear, and preferably is not too large. I used the excellent think tank retrospective 7. Other brands have similar bags, but this is definitely the one I recommend. Perfect. It doesn’t look much like a camera bag, is roomy and is quick to access. It’s also comfortable with quite some weight in it after a long day. It’s not too large to be bothersome to you or other spectators. It fits neatly under your seat. The only downside is again the weather. Be prepared. Your bag should have a rain cover. Also make sure you have something to place on the wet concrete beneath the seat or around you. A poncho or a large food freezer bag does the trick.

And finally (at last) the single best accessory you can have at an event like this is the superb Hoodman Loupe. This is a loupe for your LCD which allows you to see that thing in bright sunlight (yes, despite the rain a lot of the time it was beautiful weather). It also magnifies a little bit, which makes it very easy to check if you are getting sharp images.

I have my camera set so that when I hit the centre button on the multi selector it will zoom the display to 100% on the focus point. I can also scroll around and zoom out a little. This with the loupe allows me to check focus very fast, if my shots are blurred I can make the necessary adjustments. It’s also useful to let others see your shots. Camera LCDs are a great innovation, but in bright sunlight they are worthless! Also at 3” across, everything looks sharp even when it’s not.

Get the Hoodman Loupe! It’s easily the best $100 you can spend. I rate this as the single best investment I’ve made in photo gear in the last two years. I also use their replacement eyepiece (at $30) which better fits your eye and blocks stray light. The loupe you can use with any camera, the eyepieces only work with cameras that allow you to change them.

Phew, that’s a lot of gear talk, but basically all you need is a camera, one lens, to take care of the basics (card, battery and strap), a bag, and if you are a “pro” :) a lcd loupe.

Coming in part two will be coverage of logistics, the grounds and stadia, making shots and post production.