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A Guide To Photographing Football

Five tips for finding success when shooting sports action

As the weather cools across North America, baseball’s boys of summer have given way to the gridiron gang of fall. Football is back! And if photographers want to shoot the game, it takes a little bit of equipment and a little more know-how. Photographing high school and small college football provides considerably more access than high-profile college and pro games, but the principles are all the same. Get in the right place with the right light and the right equipment with appropriate camera settings and you’re on your way to success. So here are five tips for photographing football, whether the players are famous or friends and family.

Camera And Lens Needs

When photographing football, there’s a place for every focal length in your bag. You can shoot the whole field and then some with a 16-35mm zoom or you can get up close to the action with a long telephoto—400mm or more is ideal. Such long lenses are really the central equipment for most sports photography, and football is no different.

If you don’t have a 400mm lens, consider using a telextender positioned between body and lens. This will have the effect of multiplying the focal length by 1.5x or 2x, with the side effect of losing a stop or more of light. If you’re using a crop sensor (smaller than full frame) camera, you’re achieving a similar effect without the loss of light. Because on a smaller than full-frame camera you’ll multiply the lens’s focal length by about 1.5x, so a 400mm actually turns into a 600mm—plenty long for anything on a football field. If instead of a crop sensor you have a full frame camera, fear not: you simply produce a frame that can be more readily cropped in post. So ultimately full frame or smaller sensor cameras both work well.

What you do want, however, is a camera capable of shooting at least 10 frames per second (fps). This way, as fast action unfolds, you’ll increase the likelihood of capturing the peak moments. If your camera isn’t capable of fast frame rates, all is not lost. You’ll simply have to be more diligent with your anticipation of the action to come. You can also improve your chances of success by photographing moments away from peak action to help tell the story of the game, which can easily be done a single slow frame at a time.

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Exposure Settings For Photographing Football

Obviously, for capturing fast-moving action, a fast shutter speed is essential. Is there such a thing as too fast? Not really. But bear in mind that the higher the shutter speed, the wider the aperture and higher the ISO will need to be. High ISOs add noise to digital image files, and a wide open aperture makes tack-sharp focus even more challenging. Consequently, you’ll want to find a sweet spot for balancing a sufficient shutter speed with an ideal aperture and ISO. With an ƒ/2 lens, a photographer may find that shooting at ƒ/4 is close to ideal: wide enough for shallow depth of field (to deliver simplified backgrounds) but slightly sharper than wide open and with a little more wiggle room should you miss focus.

As for shutter speed, 1/1000th of a second is a good maximum, with 1/2000th providing even more assurance of stopping motion and eliminating blur. If you’re shooting outdoors in direct sunlight, you’ll have no problem keeping ISO low, but in low light or for a night game, the ISO must increase. One approach is to set your camera to Auto ISO such that it will adjust accordingly based on the lighting. Paired with a manual shutter speed and aperture of, say, 1/2000th at ƒ/4, you’ll keep your ISO as low as possible as the light allows. In an ideal world, you’d be able to keep it to ISO 400 or less, and this won’t be an issue outside during the day. But don’t fret if you need to increase the ISO to 1000 or more as you can always shoot RAW and use post-processing noise reduction to minimize ISO induced noise.

The Ideal Light

Using flash for photographing football isn’t typically an option, so wherever you go you’ll be reliant on whatever light is available. If you’re shooting at night under stadium lighting, there’s not much to be done regarding the quality of the light. Similarly, photographing at midday under an overcast sky won’t offer much drama either—though the latter would at least provide for lower ISOs and more consistently attractive illumination. But for real drama and photographic interest, you’ll hope to have late afternoon light or some sunlight and shadow to work with.

Photographing football

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You see, while contrast from direct sunlight is challenging to work with, it’s the old “no risk, no reward” scenario. If you can manage to use the contrast to your advantage, you might be able to come away with a really remarkable frame. For instance, try to position yourself on the field where a dark, shadowed area provides a simple background against which a brightly illuminated player will really pop. Bright areas advance in an image, and dark tones recede, so if you can manage to use this contrast to your advantage, you can make a really great sports image.

Failing that, try to think about using the sun as an edge light. Instead of shooting with the sun at your back, move to the other side of the field so that you’re shooting toward the sun. You’ll need to open up your exposure since you’re seeing the shadow side of the players, but now you’ll have a prominent rim light from the sun creating real drama and edge light separating the subject from the background. And if there are grandstands, light poles or other elements around the field casting interesting shadow patterns onto the playing surface, try using these to your advantage and including them in your compositions. If you focus on the edges of the light, in the transitions between highlight and shadow, you can make some really special photographs with more visual drama than your average sports shot.

When Photographing Football, Faces Are Important

You’re not shooting portraits, but still, it’s incredibly helpful if you can see the faces of the players you’re photographing—or at least if they’re facing toward you and your camera. That makes positioning yourself to see the play unfold becomes more important. For instance, knowing that a quarterback in his throwing stance will face one side of the field rather than the other will help you choose your shooting location. Knowing that that same quarterback will face the opposite direction his team is driving when he’s making a handoff will help you not only see his face on the play but give you an option for something to target with an unobstructed view if you find yourself on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage.

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This is partially why it’s so important to understand how the sport works. If you’re not super familiar, watch some games first and do your homework! You’ll also start to figure it out, no doubt, once you choose a vantage point and soon discover why you might be in the wrong spot. Generally speaking, if you’re hoping to photograph offensive players on Team A, make sure you’re positioned behind the defensive players from Team B so that those offensive players are running toward your camera. And if your focus is the defenders of Team B, position yourself behind the line of scrimmage so you can see those players facing you during the play.  

Add Interest With Unique Perspectives

Sometimes simply catching a decisive moment of peak action is all it takes to make a good photograph. But more often than not, the photographs that are truly great require multiple elements to come together at once: great light, the peak moment and a clear view of the player’s face. This is a tall order, of course, and so you’ve got to also find ways to make interesting pictures even without all of these elements working in your favor.

To that end, consider changing your vantage point to make things more interesting. You could try to go high up in the stands for a birds-eye view of the field; that certainly is an interesting angle. Or you could get down low—not just onto the playing surface but maybe even flat on your belly with your camera in the grass. (An articulating LCD on your camera makes this even easier and keeps you off the ground.) With a worm’s-eye view from grass level, players look even more like imposing figures, larger than life, so an otherwise plain picture will become more interesting.

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Another benefit of choosing a particularly high or low vantage point is its ability to simplify backgrounds. Professional games have backgrounds of stands filled with cheering fans, but local games might have parking lots, gas stations or sparse grandstands in the background. These can compete for attention with the action in the foreground, so eliminating them—with a high or low vantage point—goes a long way to better pictures. From a low enough angle, the sky becomes the background, and from a high enough angle, the background can be uninterrupted turf. Either way, the picture becomes simpler, clearer and often a much more compelling photograph simply because of the uncommon vantage point.

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