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How To Photograph Football

Fall is here, and for a lot of us, fall means football. If you’d like to try your hand at photographing football—whether it’s a Pee Wee league, high school or the NFL—here are five great tips from professional photographer Dilip Vishwanat who covers football for clients like Sports Illustrated, Getty Images and USA Today.

1. Equipment and Settings
For action shots of fast-paced plays, the right equipment—and knowing how to control camera settings to make the most of it—are paramount. The challenge is multiplied for photographers who don’t have cameras capable of rattling off 10 frames per second, like Canon’s 1Dx or Nikon’s D4. In that case, Vishwanat suggests seeking out other images that help tell the story of the game.

“I shoot with Canon,” he says, “and my football kit consists of the following: 400mm ƒ/2.8 IS, 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 IS, 16-35 ƒ/2.8, EOS 1Dx, EOS 5D Mark III and a 1D Mark IV. With the quality of the files being produced now, I prefer to shoot a bit loose and crop in if I need. I don’t go beyond a 400mm, but sometimes I’ll use a 1.4x converter. That would be rare and only outside. The main factor in using the teleconverter is the distance between me and the line of scrimmage. If I’m sitting in the back of the end zone and the line is at the 50 yard line, then I am likely to use the converter. Also, I am usually trying to isolate images of a certain player when using the converter. I like to be a bit looser when shooing game action just in case guys are jumping or diving.

“If you don’t have a fast camera or fast autofocus,” he continues, “I would recommend looking for feature-type pictures instead of action pictures. Shooting player-with-player or coach-with-player interactions, fans, players lining up before the ball is snapped, etcetera. I look for that stuff even with the fast lenses and cameras. It’s all part of covering the game.

“As for settings,” Vishwanat says, “I let the shutter speed dictate everything. I don’t like to shoot action with a shutter speed slower than 1/1600th of a second, but 1250th or a 1000th will work as well, depending on the speed of the game (NFL versus high school). I don’t like my aperture open past ƒ/5.6. That gives me a little depth of field, but too much can make for messy backgrounds. With the new cameras, I have no problem cranking the ISO up to 4000 for an indoor game or 800 for an outdoor game.”

2. Positioning
One of the unique aspects of photographing football is that as the action progresses up and down the field, photographers can typically move with the game—with a few restrictions. Vishwanat says that sometimes, dumb luck keeps you from missing a shot. But luck also favors the prepared, so consider where the action is moving and position yourself accordingly.

“Shooting football can be such a crapshoot,” he says. “I could go into a game just as prepared as any of the players or coaches, but if the play happens on the opposite side of the field or I get blocked by officials, TV cameramen, other players or coaches, then I’m screwed. Shooting in a dome, the elements are never a factor, so I position myself where my intuition takes me. If the team is driving toward me and they are inside the 35- or 40-yard line, I tend to go to the back corner of the end zone. This keeps my backgrounds cleaner and puts me in a good position to get a shot of a touchdown, should one happen. For plays from the 40-yard line to the 50-yard line, I will usually position myself around the 30-yard line. If the team is driving away from me and playing from the end zone to the 40-yard line, sometimes I will shoot from the back of the end zone—especially if the defense on the field is prone to making plays in the backfield.

“Every one of us covering an NFL game wants to walk away with something different,” Vishwanat says, “but that can prove to be very difficult. Although we have the freedom to follow the game up and down the field, teams tend to be very restrictive, only allowing us access from the back of the end zone to the 30-yard line on both ends. Shooting from the 50 is out. We are also not allowed to shoot from behind the benches. This means instead of relying on a unique angle, I have to look for unique moments on the field. This requires me to pay attention to not only the plays that are unfolding before me, but also paying attention to what happens in between the plays.”

3. Lighting
You may not be able to dictate the lighting at a football game, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless when it comes to how you make use of it. Particularly when shooting in daylight, you can position yourself so that the same light produces vastly different effects. Front lighting might make it easier to see the players’ faces, while shooting into the sun might set off the players with a rim light and enhance the illusion of depth. To change the look, instead of moving the light, you simply move yourself in relation to it.

“Shooting outdoors,” Vishwanat says, “I usually let the light influence my position. Do I want to be backlit, sidelit or frontlit? If there is a nice sliver of sun streaking across the 45-yard line, then I might wait for something to happen there. I tend to prefer frontlit since it allows me to see the players’ faces. Backlit and sidelit are nice sometime, as well, especially if I want to get more artsy like silhouettes or playing with lens flare.”

4. Weather
Since practically the only football games played indoors are in the NFL, weather is a real factor for photographing in the fall and winter. The best-case scenario may be a chilly day, while the worst can include freezing rain or driving snow. If you’re not prepared to protect yourself and your equipment from foul weather, you’ll have a hard time concentrating on making great pictures.

“When shooting outside,” Vishwanat says, “you have to factor in rain, snow and wind. Personally, I don’t want to be shooting into a driving rain—that is going to mess up the front element of my lens—so I would have my back to the wind. I love shooting football in the elements, so I try to book late-season games in northern cities hoping to get some snow or rain. Football was meant to be played outside no matter what the conditions are. To me, some of the most impactful football images are ones shot in tough weather conditions. I hate seeing pristine uniforms. That said, it can be really tough shooting in crappy conditions. Snow will throw the autofocus off, rain will get the front elements of the lens wet, brutal cold will drain batteries faster. Working under such conditions can be difficult, but if you have the right outerwear and protection for the cameras, the results are pretty unique and I think speak volumes about the game.”

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