If you’re photographing a kindergartener’s soccer game, you’ll likely have the advantage of a smaller field, but once those kids hit middle school, the field starts to get pretty large. On the world stage, the pitch can be as wide as an American football field is long—and that’s a lot of ground to cover. So you’ll need to get as much telephoto reach as possible.
Assuming that a $12,000 600mm prime lens is out of your budget, you’ll need to use your wits to gain telephoto reach when photographing soccer. More compact and affordable superzooms like the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sigma Sports lens bring extreme telephoto reach to the masses. You’ll likely want to use a monopod to help steady such a long lens, not only for sharp pictures but also for ease of composition. Tracking a running athlete at super-telephoto focal lengths is no easy feat.
In addition to affordable long-focal-length zooms, you can increase your effective focal length with accessories such as teleconverters that cut light but add 1.4x or even 2x the focal length (making a 200mm act like a 280mm or 400mm, for instance). Another great option when photographing soccer is to use an APS-C camera, where the smaller sensor’s crop factor also amplifies the effective focal length. This approach does perform better than simply shooting wide with a full-frame sensor and cropping in post because filling the frame with an athlete helps the camera’s autofocus to function more accurately.
Know the Sport
The aforementioned size of a soccer field makes the sport inherently difficult to photograph. When the action is literally 100 yards away, even a 600mm prime lens is sadly lacking. Instead, it’s imperative to learn the ins and outs of the game and position yourself and your camera accordingly.
For instance, when photographing soccer from behind the end line, the action is largely moving toward you or away, which proves much easier than photographing athletes moving laterally across your frame.
If you’re focused on one team in particular, be sure to position yourself at the end they’re advancing toward or else you’ll be stuck photographing their backsides as they defend their goal. The corners make for an ideal vantage point as you’ll be able to cover more of the field, including action directly in front of the net. If you’re closer to the goal, the net will block half the field.
Lastly, learn where players tend to position themselves and how they behave. A winger may regularly hold the ball near the sideline before passing toward the goal, offering a good option for portrait style pictures or even wider views as they run close to your position in the corner. A forward may regularly position herself right in front of the goal, offering opportunities for photos of jumps and headers.
Speed is Key When Photographing Soccer
Those kindergarteners may not set the world on fire as they bunch around the ball, but older kids and pros certainly move quickly and cover a lot of ground. That makes speed essential for a photographer, too.
First is the speed of a lens, which enables speed in other areas such as autofocus and shutter speed. I feel safest using a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second when photographing soccer, though at times you might be able to get away with 1/500th, but I wouldn’t count on it with regularity. Boost your ISO as needed to stay fast and above 1/1000th. If you’re in bright sun or with a lens that’s fast enough to allow it, don’t hesitate to shoot at 1/2000th or faster in order to stop even the fastest action.
A fast lens has a wide maximum aperture—ideally something like ƒ/2.8 for a telephoto lens. This enables lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds, as well as benefitting autofocus speeds. Slower lenses can drag down these aspects and lead to missed shots.
Autofocus speed is critical, as is choosing the correct autofocus mode. Single-shot AF, for instance, may lead to missed shots in situations where continuous AF keeps a running athlete tack sharp. The ability of the camera to autofocus quickly is also essential, and even a great lens can’t make up for a camera with slow autofocus.
I’ve had great luck with the hybrid AF of the Sony A6000, and those with deeper pockets (like pro sports shooters) certainly benefit from the autofocus capabilities of the Canon 1DX Mark II and Nikon D5. These pro DSLRs and mirrorless cameras also offer another speed advantage: fast frame rates. The ability to rattle off 12, 16 or even 20 frames per second is a sports photographer’s dream.
Learn to Maximize Light
Creating sharp images of peak action is a great start, but to really make a show-stopping image, you’ll need to add another piece to the puzzle: great light. If you can avoid shooting high-noon games that will help, as warmer, low-angle light of late afternoons and evening really offer opportunities for something special.
With a setting sun at your back, the field will glow with warm, direct light. This is a great way to ensure maximum illumination and take advantage of all the late light you can while benefitting from the low angle and golden warmth of a setting sun.
But this is just the baseline, it turns out. By moving to a position where the sun is creating sidelight, you’ll find opportunities to position a brightly illuminated subject against a darker, shaded background. This could be created by shade trees or shadows from spectator seating or any number of other structures. The contrast between bright subject and dark background makes for shots that pop.
The pro-level lighting approach, in fact, requires breaking the rules even further: shooting directly into the light. If you position yourself at the east end of the field for an afternoon game, you’ll find yourself shooting directly into a setting sun—and this offers the opportunity to create edge lighting.
Open up from the indicated meter reading to ensure you expose correctly for the shadow side of the subject, and sure enough, you’ll see your soccer players outlined by a rim light from the sun behind them. The later in the day, the more dramatic this effect will become, and it will introduce more opportunities for halation, desaturation and sharpness-sapping lens flare. But if you’re forced to work close to midday, this is an especially ideal approach to make interesting illumination out of a difficult lighting situation.