How-to: Golf Photography

by Derek on June 13, 2011

in Random Golf Stuff

Stuart Cink Bunker

We’re now well into the swing of the golf season.  Around this time of year I often see posts on both Golf and Photography message boards around the internet from people wanting to take their camera out to a PGA Tour event.

So with the US Open being played at Congressional this week, I thought I would write a guide to photographing golf tournaments (I’m specifically talking about PGA Tour events here, but most of this is transferable to almost any golf event).  Now I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have been involved in photography for almost 15 years and have had the opportunity to photograph several PGA Tour events from inside the ropes.

I know that I’ve enjoyed my time photographing PGA Tour pros, and I’ve learned quite a lot from knowledgeable people that were willing to take the time to help me out.  So hopefully I can pay a bit of that forward to others.

Getting in the gate

First things first, unless you have media credentials, you can only bring a camera with you to practice rounds.  That means as a member of the general public, you can bring a camera with you Mon-Wed.  To photograph Thurs-Sun, you need to have photography credentials.

I’m not going to write about how to get credentials – the short version is that if you need them, the organization you’re shooting for should be able to get them for you.


Let’s talk a bit about what type of equipment you should be using to photograph golf.  First off, since you’re not media, you’re not going to be allowed to bring a bag into the tournament with you.  So everything you bring will need to be carried in your hands/pockets.  This is an area where having one of those nerdy looking photography vests comes in handy.  It’s pretty easy to fit a wide variety of lenses, memory cards, etc in all of those pockets.

I recommend using a DSLR.  Canon and Nikon will have the best selection of bodies and lenses.  I’m sure you can find point and shoots or micro 4/3 cameras that would work well, but I don’t know enough about them to comment.  I shoot Canon gear currently, but in the past I’ve shot Nikon gear.  Both will work really well for golf.  I’ll also add that I think in this case a “crop sensor” camera is an advantage.  I’ll talk about why in a minute.

Interestingly enough, in my opinion you don’t need the latest high end sports camera bodies to shoot golf well.  A big part of what you get with high end bodies is fast autofocus and other features that you won’t need on the golf course.  Virtually any DSLR on the market today has plenty of megapixels to make really big enlargements.

Being able to shoot at a high fps (8 fps+) is a bonus, but even entry level DSLR are shooting a 5′ish fps these days, which is fast enough.

Professional Golf Photographer

Here you can see a pro photographer using a 400/2.8 on a monpod with a 70-200 on a second body.

Professional photographers use a lens approach that might be overkill for most amateurs.  You’ll typically see them carrying a big fast lens, typically either a 400/2.8 or a 500/4, on a monopod with a camera body attached.  They’ll often then have a second body slung on their shoulder with a shorter lens, often something like a 24-105 or a 70-200.  This gives them a wide variety of coverage and minimizes the chance that they’ll miss a shot.

In my opinion, with a crop sensor camera, you don’t need a huge lens to take great golf pictures.  A 70-200 will work really well – especially on the teebox or when the golfer is on your side of the fairway.  With a 1.6x crop camera, you’re getting the focal length equivalent of 105-320mm. Not bad at all.

I personally also really like the Canon 100-400.  It’s about the size of a 70-200 but with a crop sensor camera it gives you coverage from 160-640.  Very nice!

If you don’t own one of these lenses, they can be rented easily either online from an outfit like (I’ve had great experiences with them) or from your local camera shop.  It’s probably worth looking into renting from a local camera shop because they’ll let you rent for 1 day, while requires at least a 4 day rental. Either way it will probably cost you around $30 per day.  Compared to $4 hot dogs and $3 sodas, I think $30-40 to rent a lens for the day is pretty darn reasonable.

Worst comes to worst though, I think you could probably still take some great pictures with a 24-105 or equivalent lens as long as you’re selective about where you shoot from (more on that later).

Don’t bring a tripod.  I’m not sure if they’d even let you in with it, but you’d be miserable lugging it around.  I do recommend using a monopod.  Even though these lenses aren’t too heavy, you may have a different opinion after you’ve been outside walking around a golf course for 5 hours.

Also make sure you’ve got extra memory cards and batteries.  You’ll be surprised how many pictures you can take at a PGA Tour event.

OK – I showed up to a practice round with my camera.  Now what?

To start with, stay outside the yellow ropes.  You’re there as a spectator.  Frankly for most PGA Tour events, the practice rounds are very lightly attended so this won’t keep you from getting good pictures.  This isn’t necessarily true for majors or marquee players like Tiger and Phil, so you may need to camp out at a tee box in a good position ahead of time if you want pictures of them.

Also, stay alert.  Especially if you’re there during a pro-am event, you have to remember that most of the guys on the course are amateurs.  They’re not very good and that’s putting it nicely.  The net of it is that they will hit the ball in all kinds of places that you’d never imagine, so stay sharp or you could end up getting your equipment or your noggin smashed by a golf ball traveling 130 mph.

But above all, don’t be a distraction to the players.  Which brings us to…

The first rule of golf photography

Don’t take pictures until after the ball has been struck! Just don’t do it.

Unless you want to get yelled at by a caddie or even a player himself, don’t take pictures from the time the player starts his pre-shot routine to the time that the ball is struck.

Also, if a player or caddie asks you to move, do so quickly and politely.

OK, so how do I take good pictures?

First off, spend a little bit of time with your favorite golf magazine or website and see some of the different angles/perspectives that crop up over and over.  That will give you a good idea where to start.

Every course is going to be different, so it will take a bit of observation to identify the bunkers that players tend to hit into, or the spots where they tend to hit their drives on various holes.  However, the tee boxes will always provide you with some interesting shots.

You’ll often see the typical “post-tee shot close-up”.

Eric Axley

I like this image because you can see his eyes clearly tracking his shot and the tension in his lower lip as his hopes the ball lands where it should.

The nice thing about golf is that it doesn’t move very quickly.  You can get set up in a position, pre-set your focus, get the exposure right and then wait for the player to get ready to hit.  And then once the ball is struck, fire away.  And keep the camera on the player after the shot is struck. You’ll often get some great reaction shots.

Which image below is more interesting?  The one with the ball or the one without?

Rich Beem at the Valero Texas OpenRich Beem at the Valero Texas Open

In my opinion, some of the most exciting photos will capture the ball in the image.  I think that both of the images above are interesting, but the one with the ball is what captures my attention.

It takes some timing and practice to capture a ball in the image.  You also have to be positioned correctly.  These balls move fast, so if you’re shooting from a 90* angle to the player, you have no chance of getting the ball in the photo.

You’ll also find that it’s easier to get the ball in the photo when the player is hitting from a greenside bunker.  You’ll also get some nice sand up in the air which makes for a very dynamic looking photo.  The real trick for bunkers is figuring out which ones players are hitting into (it will change based on pin position, wind, etc) and getting in the right spot to capture an interesting angle.

Personally, I like seeing the players face in my shots, but that’s not a hard and fast rule.  Also, I personally tend to find putting boring.  Partly because you usually can’t see their face, but also because there’s not much action.  The best shots on putting greens are reaction shots as player make a long put or lip out a short one.

Adam Scott Long PutterAdam Scott Putting Green

I personally find the photo of Adam Scott putting to be pretty boring.  I don’t think the second image is great, but I like it better than the first because you can see his reaction walking off the green.

I’ll also just throw out there that the short game practice areas can be a great place to get some images of your favorite player working on his game.  They tend to stay in one place for a while and it gives you some opportunities to shoot from different angles and try new things.

But what setting should I use on my camera?

Generally, I like to keep the aperture wide, which gives a nice soft blurry background.  That’s one thing you’ll have to watch out for.  A great golf image can be ruined by a distracting background.  This is an area where having a fast f2.8 lens comes in handy.  You can certainly shoot at f5.6 but you’ll have to be a bit more mindful of the background.

I personally prefer using aperture priority mode on my camera so that I can control depth of field.  I set the aperture I want and just check to make sure my shutter speed is sufficiently fast.  If it isn’t, I’ll dial up the ISO.  Generally though, light isn’t a problem when shooting on a golf course outdoors.

You’ll have to experiment with shutter speeds, but I find that I can generally freeze most swings at around 1/1600 and at 1/2000 or so I can more or less freeze the ball.  I actually prefer for the ball to be just a tiny bit blurry in my images because I think it helps convey speed.

As for auto-focus, you could probably manually focus at a golf tournament just fine, so just use whatever mode you’re comfortable with.  I personally shoot with my auto-focus assigned to a different button than my shutter.  I’ve shot like that for years for several reasons, but on the golf course the big advantage is that you won’t ever accidentally trigger the shutter during somebody’s pre-shot routine when you just meant to focus the lens.

In Conclusion…

Hopefully you guys have found this guide helpful.  I’m not a professional golf photographer, but this should give you a good starting point to go out and figure things out for yourself.

Just always keep in mind that you’re there for your own enjoyment, so don’t be afraid to think a little outside the box and try to create some unique images.  You never know when trying something out of the ordinary will result in something amazing.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgan June 13, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Not being too much into photography I didn’t understand a lot of this. Nevertheless it is a great great article. Lots of useful tips. And I never would have thought about worrying abou the background!


Morgan June 13, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Oh yeah… way cool on the topic subscription check box. Thanks for adding it!


Derek June 14, 2011 at 8:18 am

My readers ask and they shall receive :-)


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