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Putting Forth Your Best Work: Sports Photography Culling & Editing Tips

Being a good photographer isn’t just about what you shoot, but also what you decide to show. Choosing the best images to use is another crucial part of the post-processing workflow and can even affect a photographer’s reputation! Sports photographer and Getty Images photo editor Yong Teck Lim (IG: @yongtecklim)  shares some key things you should pay attention when culling and curating your shots. (Reported by Yong Teck Lim with photos shot for Getty Images)


Why is it important to cull your shots?

In this age of digital photography and higher memory media capacities, we can now afford to shoot first and think later. But while this does increase the chances of capturing a great moment, it also means that you end up with hundreds or even thousands of images from the same event. It's neither efficient nor effective to post-edit and use so many photos. Not to mention, showing many less-than-impressive images can leave a negative impression of a photographer’s skill.

Culling images is, therefore, an essential part of the post-processing workflow, where a photographer decides which shots are the best to deliver.

The hard part comes after you have deleted all the images with obvious issues—off-focus shots, shots with unintentional blur, and so on. How do you separate the decent shots from the great, and ensure that you show only the best images? Here are some tips based on my own experience as a professional photographer and a photo editor.


1. Determine peak action

There are lots of types of images that can tell a story in sports photography, from still, emotional moments to snaps of celebrations and everything in between. But nothing says “this is sports” more than the peak action shot which encapsulates the game in one image.

To capture peak action shots requires knowledge of the sport, the subject, as well as good timing. But in the post-shoot workflow, especially if you are just starting, it can be unexpectedly challenging to determine which shots are “peak action” and which are not. Here are two examples to demonstrate.

Not peak action

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images

In this shot, LeBron James, one of the world’s top basketballers, is looking for a pass against an opponent. It is a decent composition with a clean background that makes him stand out in the frame but those in the sport would not consider this moment peak action.

Peak action

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM @155mm, f/2.8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 2500

It is different for this frame of basketballers competing for possession of the ball, which expresses the intensity of the game where neither player is willing to give in to the other. The situation captured, the tension and suspense in the interaction, and the emotions on their faces come together to capture a compelling peak action shot.


Pro tip: What to look out for in a peak action shot?

First and foremost, researching and understanding the sport you are covering, down to athlete performance, is vital. One benchmark I use to determine a successful peak action shot would be facial expressions, as I always aim to capture the competitiveness and struggle of athletes.

Another thing I look out for, personally, is whether the elements of the sport are in frame. For example, for balls sports such as basketball or soccer, I prefer to have the ball in frame, whereas the ideal peak action shot for track athletics is a full-bodied shot of the athlete.

Setting these benchmarks for my ideal peak action shot makes me more decisive not only about what to cull and what to deliver, but also how I approach action during the shoot.

Also see:
Sports Photography: How to Emphasize Speed by Contrasting Stillness with Motion


2. Watch your backgrounds

Clean backgrounds are the default in sports photography, as they help isolate your subject to make the resulting frame stand out better. On top of that, you also want to make sure that the subject and the background don’t interact in an undesirable way.

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images

In this shot I took way back in 2016, I made the mistake of not considering backgrounds and framing. In this frame here of Singapore’s Landis Su in a discus event, the throwing cage looks like it was impaling Su. Also, it was taken during pre-throw, which is not peak action. This is definitely a frame that I would never use today!


Pro tip: “Fish” for shots when your position is restricted

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM + Extender EF14x III@245mm, f/4, 1/2000 sec, ISO 4000

For sports with restricted photo positions, I tend to find a spot in the background that works for me and wait for the action to happen in that area. That conscious effort, along with some luck, usually tend to produce favorable results.

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images

Though often, there are times where other distracting elements appear, and in these cases, it’s hard to work around it, especially if you’re the only photographer present. In this frame, Elina Svitolina is celebrating match point but the broadcast crew form distracting elements in the background. This becomes a picture that I would rather scrap, especially if you’re working in a team and have multiple angles covered!

Also see:
Why Is a Super Telephoto Lens Necessary for Sports Photography?
3 Steps for Capturing Impressive Close-ups of Athletes in Action


3. Crop wisely

Don’t crop at awkward places

As a general rule, try to avoid cropping people’s limbs at awkward parts of the body. Excluding body parts such as fingers or toes make it seem like you shot the frame too tight. When I cull my shots, such images are usually the ones that I delete right away.

My default cropping regions are around the neck, chest, elbows, waist and knees.

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM @ 200mm, f/4, 1/2000 sec, ISO 160

A good example of a frame I would use is this of Gaby Lopez playing her tee shot, which adheres to default cropping parameters.

Awkward crop

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images

In this frame, the golfer’s ankles are cropped off, making it an awkward looking shot. This is a frame I would never use today.

Pro tip: Leave some breathing space

Whether I am trying to frame the image right in camera or doing a crop in post, I make it a point to give my frames breathing space at the corners. This provides some allowance for editorial clients to work with, especially when they are considering them for pagination and publication.


A tighter crop can enhance impact

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM @175mm, f/3.5, 1/1600 sec, ISO 5000

Before cropping

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images

Even when a frame looks good as it is, cropping it tighter in post-production could increase the shot’s overall impact. For example, while I could have left this frame of a header by Ola Kamara of the Los Angeles Galaxy as it is, I opted to go for a tighter crop to draw more attention to the header. This is also in line with my preference for tighter action shots.

Pro tip: Build your own sense of what works

As with all art forms, good photography can be subjective, and styles differ with every photographer. The same applies for crops. It may be tough to determine what works sometimes, so looking at images from photographers and editors you admire helps.


Experiment with unconventional crops

At times, unconventional crops can make a regular frame appear much more interesting, though this takes some experimenting. Sometimes things work out nicely, and sometimes they don’t. Don’t be afraid to try, or else you would never know!

The traditional service shot

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark III/ EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 5000

The traditional service shot in tennis has the player’s head or body, service arm and ball in frame.

“Watching the ball”: An unconventional variation

©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark III/ EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 4000

Here, I opted to go in tight, drawing attention to the player’s eye following the ball.

Also see:
How to Make the Best of an Extreme Sports Shoot


Tips for an efficient workflow

For most editorial work today, you are often competing with the photographers from the other agencies, so speed is of essence. You want to get your images out there before the others do!

1. Make good use of breaks to review images

To save time while on assignment, I take advantage of breaks to look through my images. I use the Lock (Protect images) function on the camera when I see images that I want to prioritise.

Warning: Don’t get too absorbed in this—make sure you are ready to shoot when action restarts!

2. Identify the best images and get them out first

Most image ingestion software allow you to prioritise tagged images when importing them into your computer, which speeds up the post-processing workflow. When time is sensitive, I post-process and deliver those images first, then go back and have a second look at the full take when I have time, making sure I don’t miss anything.

3. Keep edits minimal

When I process my images, I do extremely minimal edits within what’s permissible under editorial guidelines. Acceptable corrections include adjusting the exposure and correcting colour balance.


©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images
EOS-1D X Mark II/ EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ f/3.2, 1/1600 sec, ISO 2500


©Yong Teck Lim/ Getty Images

Know this: Editorial integrity in photojournalism

Saving time isn’t the only reason for minimal edits. If you’re on assignment for editorial agencies and publications, manipulating images and digitally removing distracting elements in post-processing is a strict no-no, as that goes against editorial integrity and can cause you to lose your job.


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Yong Teck Lim

Yong Teck Lim

A photographer and editor specialising in sports, Yong Teck’s journey in sports photography began in college, where he covered school sports for a local sporting news site. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, he worked as a multimedia producer with Reuters before venturing into freelance sports photography, where his work has been used in major global publications such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. He is currently a photo editor with Getty Images.