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.
How do we shoot football?
- 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.
- 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.