I know you are going to think I am making this up but golf is one of the toughest sports I have ever photographed. There I said it! I can hear you now. “How can photographing a sport where people stroll around on a golf course be any challenge at all?” The challenges are not what you would expect. It is not so much that the pace is so quick that you have a hard time following the action, the challenges lie more in when you shoot, where you stand and how far you can push the envelope without drawing the ire of the golfer and all those watching. In many ways photographing golf has the same challenges as photographing a track and field event. You need to be heads up, perceptive and cautious.
The first thing I want to cover is how to maneuver on the golf course. Professionals have difficult decisions when deciding which lenses they want to bring out to the course. In your case, you are most likely photographing your son or daughter and you might not have the luxury of deciding whether or not you want to bring your huge 400mm lens. However, what you haul around with you all day does take some thought. Remember, once you start following the action, you are in for the long haul. Don’t weigh yourself down so heavily that by the 3rd hole you are ready to fall on your face. Travel light and travel smart. No huge jackets that end up tied around your waist. Best to bring a lightweight backpack where you can put an extra lens, batteries, water and a few energy bars. If you are following the action, you are in for a long day of walking.
The next thing you want to do it put on your invisibility cloak. Haha. No joke. As a golf photographer your challenge is how to capture the action without anyone really noticing you are even there. This is not an easy thing to do. Once golfers and caddies see you on the periphery, the assumption is that you are going to break their concentration, so you are under the microscope for the first few holes. Keep a low profile. Move when the players move only, find your angle and stay still. You do not want to be shuffling around as the golfer is eyeing their shot. Also, very important, do not get in the line of sight of the golfer. For instance, when the golfer is lining up their putt, you do not want to be on the other side of the pin fumbling through your camera bag. You need to slide to the side so you are not a distraction. Always err to the side of safety. It is very common for an official, golfer or caddy to complain that you are a distraction in which case you will not only be singled out and embarrassed, but you might be asked to leave the course. You think your teenage daughter is embarrassed by their parents now, just wait until her Dad is escorted off the course. You will never hear the end of it.
If you remember only one thing from this article, retain this…do not click your shutter until after the golfer makes contact with the ball. It is a big no-no to take a photo on the backswing. Once the player makes contact, then you are free to fire. Occasionally you will see photos of a golfer’s backswing but those were most likely taken by professionals with super long lenses standing a great distance away and using a top level camera that has the ability to fire with a silent shutter. Be safe. Wait until contact.
Now that we have those ground rules in place, let’s talk about actually shooting the sport. Ideally you want to photograph the athlete with the sun either hitting them directly from the front or even better, fully backlit. See my article about Backlighting for some technical tips. Because the golfers are most likely wearing a hat, backlighting helps to even out the tones and doesn’t throw that ugly black shadow across their face. Also be aware of the background. Try to isolate them against a neutral background so that you can make the subject pop and not get lost in the clutter of a busy backdrop. Sand traps are a classic shot as well. Line up on the front side of the golfer but not in their direct line of focus. The sand will normally add some nice bounce light and the spraying sand lends itself to a dramatic photo. Last but not least, stay focused on the golfer after the swing. Photos of them watching the ball after the swing can be dramatic and should they be happy with their shot, you will be rewarded with a great reaction photo. Stay locked until they drop their club.
Got it? Good. Have a blast!