Capturing the intensity: tips for photographing the action at the Rugby World Cup

The Rugby World Cup is one of the most prestigious and closely followed sporting events in the world. Held in Paris from 8 September to 28 October, the 2023 Rugby World Cup represents an exciting challenge for photographers who want to capture rugby’s most intense and exciting moments. To make the most of the excitement of the World Cup, and get the most out of it as a photographer, here are some specific tips for capturing memorable images.

Know the game

Before venturing onto the pitch, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the rules of the game.
Rugby is a particularly fast-paced sport, with different phases: tries, scrums, tackles, jumps to catch the ball in touch, etc. All these actions are high points in the game.

All these actions are highlights of the game that the photographer must learn to anticipate. Understanding the action on the pitch enables the photographer to anticipate the players’ movements and therefore to position himself in the right place to capture these key moments. The more the photographer is able to anticipate how the game will unfold, the more time he will have to fine-tune his camera settings and the angle of his shot.

In this sense, understanding the sport and anticipation are real assets for improving the quality of your shots. Of course, like rugby, sports photography requires practice. Attending several matches is therefore the best way to perfect your skills.

© Thomas Serer

Using the right equipment

Sports photography generally requires specific equipment to capture sharp, dynamic images, especially when it comes to team sports such as rugby. As far as the camera is concerned, the most important thing is to opt for a camera with a fast shutter speed to capture action in motion. Digital SLR (DSLR) or mirrorless cameras offer excellent image quality, fast autofocus speeds and the ability to use a variety of interchangeable lenses. These qualities make these cameras ideal candidates for rugby photography.

In terms of lenses, a zoom lens with a long focal length can be useful for capturing the action from a distance, while a wide-angle lens can be effective for close-up shots. Investing in these two types of lens gives you the versatility to deal with all the different situations you might encounter during a match.

Choosing the right location

© James Coleman

Positioning is everything in sports photography. The best advice we can give, whether you’re an accredited professional photographer or just an amateur, is to arrive early enough to find the places you want to photograph. This allows you to familiarise yourself with the terrain and the angles available.

It’s important to find a strategic spot close to the pitch where you have an unobstructed view of the action. Areas behind the goalposts or along the touchline are generally good choices. The main spectator stands are also a good option, but access may be limited. However, don’t just photograph from the stands. Throughout the match, you need to know how to move around the pitch, while using a lens and appropriate settings according to your position.

These changes of position allow you to obtain more varied angles of view and unique perspectives. The aim is not just to capture the intensity of the action. Stoppages, player celebrations and the overall atmosphere of the match are just as important.
Finally, don’t forget to look back from time to time, as the expressions of passionate fans are an integral part of the Rugby World Cup experience.

Understanding camera settings

In rugby, as in most team sports, the players are scattered all over the pitch. The action in the various phases of the game is fast-paced, and the players’ movements unpredictable to say the least. To be sure of capturing the most emblematic moments of the match, the photographer can’t afford to hesitate in his settings, because he won’t get a second chance. Knowing the different settings on your camera is therefore essential.

First and foremost, it is advisable to use a manual exposure mode so as to have total control over all the parameters. When it comes to capturing the fast-paced game, the two decisive criteria are shutter speed and aperture. Using a fast shutter speed (1/1000 sec or faster) allows you to freeze the action. Using a wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider) will create a background blur (bokeh), isolating the players from the background.

To maximise your chances even further, you can also use the continuous shooting mode (burst), which allows you to capture a series of successive images. Finally, when faced with poor lighting conditions, you may also need to increase the ISO sensitivity, to maintain a fast shutter speed in dark conditions.

Composing wisely

Composition plays a decisive role in photography. When it comes to sports photography, and even more so when applied to the more specific case of rugby, paying attention to composition becomes a real challenge. The photographer’s aim is to capture the emotion, expressions and gestures of the players to convey the intensity and passion of the game. To do this, you have to look for facial expressions, gestures and physical contact that tell the story of the match and reflect the emotion of the moment.

Using the rule of thirds is a great help in this compositional exercise.
The rule of thirds in photography involves placing the main subjects of the action on the imaginary horizontal and vertical lines of thirds that divide the image. It helps to emphasise the subject of the photograph by placing it at the centre of attention.

In the same vein, working on tight framing is also a good way of seeking out natural guidelines that will highlight the intensity of the players’ faces. Finally, it’s also worth paying particular attention to the background. A clean, uncluttered background will enhance the action. So make sure you minimise disruptive elements in the frame so that they don’t distract attention from the main action.

© Stefan Lehner

Don’t neglect post-processing

After the matches, taking the time to sort through and edit the hundreds of photos taken in burst mode may seem a tedious exercise for some. However, careful post-processing allows you to adjust exposure, colour and sharpness if necessary. So don’t neglect the use of image processing software and photo retouching techniques.
When it comes to the quantity of photos taken during fast-moving events, for example, you need to be able to identify the best shots by applying organisation and prioritisation techniques. Choose the best images to tell a coherent story about the event.

The Rugby World Cup offers many opportunities to capture unforgettable moments, whether on the pitch or in the stands. Key moments in the action can sometimes be rare, so you need to be patient, keep taking photos and be ready to capture the decisive moment, to capture the essence of this global sporting event.

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