Shooting Football: a Two-Pronged Attack

By , August 22, 2014 5:40 pm
Shooting football with a wide angle lens requires patience and perseverance, but can provide a sense of intimacy with the action that a telephoto doesn't.

Shooting football with a wide angle lens requires patience and perseverance, but can provide a sense of intimacy with the action that a telephoto doesn’t.

Shot at one of our lesser-lit fields, this image was made at ISO 6400. Despite this, the shutter speed I got at maximum aperture was still long enough that the player on the left is blurry.

Shot at one of our lesser-lit fields, this image was made at ISO 6400. Despite this, the shutter speed I got at maximum aperture was still long enough that the player on the left is blurry.

A friend of mine requested a “how to” specifically on shooting football.

My newspaper’s coverage area has a very exciting sports scene. Seasons seldom go by without one or more of our teams playing deep into playoffs. The Ada Cougars, for example, have 19 football state championships.

Like much of my news photography (and like many other photographers), I aim for a two-pronged attack: one camera with a wide angle, the other with a big-bore telephoto zoom. I use the big zoom for action, but tend to gravitate to the wide angle for features, since it gives me a fundamentally different look, adding to the dynamics of my product.

Filling up the frame with the "moment of conflict" is key to shooting any sport.

Filling up the frame with the “moment of conflict” is key to shooting any sport.

How do we shoot football?

Sports action photos without faces are what we derisively refer to as "body art," and aren't as powerful. The quarterback's face in this image tells an entire story in a single moment.

Sports action photos without faces are what we derisively refer to as “body art,” and aren’t as powerful. The quarterback’s face in this image tells an entire story in a single moment.

  • We need Some Reach. You can’t go onto the field and you can’t control where the players go. With a 24mm x 15mm image sensor (the so-called APS-C size, the most common), a 70-200mm zoom is enough if you use it aggressively. You might be able to sneak by with an 85mm, but you have to be close to the action, and it has to come toward you.
  • We need f/2.8. Years ago I talked about the value of this large maximum aperture, though I sometimes think this falls on deaf ears. In addition to being necessary to let enough light strike the sensor, f/2.8, particularly at focal lengths approaching 200mm, creates the shallow depth of field that helps isolate the action against sometimes busy backgrounds.
  • We need High ISO. Most levels of organized football have limited budgets, and they bought all the lights they could, but almost all the time, it’s on the margins. Some tiny high schools have lights that are scarcely brighter than car headlights. Even so, think high, high ISO rather than flash. Nothing takes the depth and spirit out of an action shot like the bland, deer-in-the-headlights look of direct flash.
  • We Need to Avoid Getting Hurt. You need to be careful and keep your eyes open. 20 years ago in Durant, Oklahoma, a friend of mine and I were shooting a college football game. When the play started coming toward us, I retreated from the sideline, but she stayed put, and got clobbered by two players who totaled about five times her weight. She recovered, but later needed two surgeries on her jaw because of the crash. No image is worth that.

    Football is an intense and passionate sport, best expressed in the eyes and faces of the participants.

    Football is an intense and passionate sport, best expressed in the eyes and faces of the participants.

  • We Need to Remember the Audience. It’s easy to impress yourself but bore your audience with super-sharp pictures of players running alone in the open field. It’s better to have a slightly soft image that shows moments of conflict and competition. You might be pleased with yourself for getting a shot of a touchdown, but if it’s some kid running away from the camera in the open, you don’t have the shot.
  • We Need to Keep Our Head in the Game. Don’t worry about finessing focus by moving those sensors around in the viewfinder. The game and the fans move too fast for that. Select the center sensor and put it on your target, and crop later. Also, if at all possible, shoot RAW files and worry about white balance – often whacky under the Friday night lights – later.
  • We Need to Remember that the Eyes Still Have It. Like all our imaging, it’s not about uniforms or formations, but about the people – their eyes and faces – that matter the most when we are telling their stories.
The lights themselves are one of the characters in the story of nighttime football, as in this image made with a 12-24mm lens.

The lights themselves are one of the characters in the story of nighttime football, as in this image made with a 12-24mm lens.

Made with a 300mm lens, this image brings the viewer deep into an intense moment of conflict. Either of these players alone doing the same thing makes for a much less exciting image, re-emphasizing and reaffirming the need to push hard to find the moment and capture it.

Made with a 300mm lens, this image brings the viewer deep into an intense moment of conflict. Either of these players alone doing the same thing makes for a much less exciting image, re-emphasizing and reaffirming the need to push hard to find the moment and capture it.

9 Responses to “Shooting Football: a Two-Pronged Attack”

  1. Dan Marsh says:

    Got it. Would a monopod be useful at all?

  2. With big glass like a 300/2.8 or larger, you need one, but I find that with the two-camera attack I use, a monopod just gets in the way, especially when you are rapidly switching between cameras.

  3. Wil C. Fry says:

    Just to second Richard’s answer here: if you’re bringing more than one camera/lens, the monopod will just get in the way.

    For me, it was only ever useful for holding the weight of a heavy lens during an hours-long game. (I was the writer as well as the photographer, so I almost always stayed for the duration even if I had the photos I needed.)

    Also, bear in mind that some stadiums/officials won’t allow it, though most will (in my experience).

  4. Wil C. Fry says:

    As usual, Richard, I think you’ve covered it superbly — and concisely.

    The six h.s. football teams I covered ranged from Maud (nearly completely blacked out) to Seminole (nearly college-quality lights), with varying degrees of space on the sidelines and end zones.

    I found that much of my freedom of movement was governed by (1) the game officials — each had a different idea of what was allowed, (2) size of the team — giant rosters like Seminole’s left little room on the sidelines, (3) facilities — OU’s stadium left a lot to be desired regarding room on the sidelines, for example.

  5. Dan Marsh says:

    I only have one camera, so what I thought I’d do is shoot with the 18-200mm lens until about mid-second quarter, or until I really start losing light, then switch to the f/1.8 55mm. Undecided about bringing the monopod but I might try it. What about shutter speed? Should I shoot entirely in manual, or is aperture mode sufficient? I shot the International Rotary Tiller Races in manual mode at 1/30th of a second and got some really nice action shots.

    I actually think the SAU and Magnolia stadiums will be pretty well-lighted, so I’m hopeful.

  6. Wil C. Fry says:

    Dan: (If Richard’s response is different than mine, go with his)

    I wouldn’t bring a monopod for those lenses; they’re very, very light, unless you’re going for some motion-blur pan-effect shots.

    As for 1/30th; I’d never attempt that for football action photos. The *slowest* I allowed myself was 1/250th but I aimed for 1/400 or faster — when the lights/ISO/aperture allowed it. (I didn’t start off with the really fast lenses.)

    Manual vs. Aperture priority: In *general*, I’d suggest manual; it’s the only way you have complete control of the exposure. I’ve used Av on occasion, sometimes with decent results.

    Av helps when: the light isn’t consistent. Sometimes it’s really dark by the end zones and really bright in the middle of the field.

    Av hurts when: the jerseys are very dark/light. A dark jersey will trick your camera into a really slow shutter speed = image bright and blurry. A white jersey can trick the camera into too fast of a shutter speed = image too dark.

  7. Manual vs. Aperture priority: I shoot about 95% of my sports in A = Aperture Priority. Canon calls this Av = Aperture Value. The reason I do this is to maximize my shutter speed by opening the lens to its largest aperture, thus letting in the most light, and letting the camera pick the fastest possible shutter speed. Wil is right that Aperture Priority can be fooled, but this is less of a factor if you aggressively fill up the frame with the action.

    The 18-200mm, or any super zoom, is a poor choice for football except in the middle of the day, because at 200mm it’s maximum aperture is f/5.6, which, even with some lingering evening light, isn’t going to let enough light into the sensor to support those fact shutter speeds. A 50mm isn’t going to work for action because it won’t fill up the frame with the players, although it is a nice choice for sideline and fan features.

    The magic shutter speed, the one that stops pretty much any action, is 1/1000th of a second, which is one millisecond. Human beings, even the fast ones, don’t move much is that amount of time. 1/250th, which is four times longer than 1/1000th, is pretty much the longest shutter speed suitable for football action. 1/30th is eight times longer than that, and in terms of sports action is only good as a special effect.

  8. Dan Marsh says:

    Typo in my post: 50mm lens, not 55mm. All have is either that or the 18-200, so one or both will have to suffice. Wil: I’ve ruled out the monopod. Thanks for the pointers.

  9. Wil C. Fry says:

    “…this is less of a factor if you aggressively fill up the frame with the action.”

    Definitely. One of my weak points, to be sure.

    “…is a poor choice for football except … isn’t going to work for action because…”

    This is all true as well. I didn’t specifically point out the flaws in the lens choices since I remember working with only the lenses I had with no other choices. I perfectly understand those limitations.

    (I saved for 8 months just to buy the Rebel XT with kit lens. It was another six months or so before I was able to get the 85mm f/1.8. And a couple of years before I could afford a fast tele-zoom like the 70-200mm f/2.8. I shot a lot of football and basketball with slow lenses because: no other choice.)

    Though I don’t recommend it (and Richard suggested not doing it), I did use flash occasionally in football and other night/indoor sports. Limited by max ISO of 1600, and with no fast lenses to speak of, I was still required to come back to the office with photos. :-/

    (Note to self: Next time, work for a newspaper that supplies the gear and has requirements matched by the gear. Sometimes the camera does matter…)

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