How to Photograph Football

A seasoned pro explains the 5 Ps of good sports shooting -- Planning, Practice, Patience, Position and Persistence.

How-to-Photograph-Football
How-to-Photograph-Football

It's fall, and if you're American or Canadian your thoughts typically turn to pigskins, marching bands and tailgating. All of the action on and off the field can be visually exciting to photographers and with a little planning and practice, can pay huge dividends to your game day shooting results.

Regardless if you shoot the pee-wee game or a Super Bowl, the basics of photographing football are the same. Following the 5 "P's" of good sports shooting -- Planning, Practice, Patience, Position and Persistence -- will make your final images successful.

Planning is critical to successful football images. Go into the event knowing what results you want and how to reach that goal. This means that you know the general rules and positions for offense and defense, where the sun will be, the positions that are best to shoot from, the people you'd like to target during the event and the equipment that will work best for your shooting situation. In football, lenses that are between 200mm and 600mm are desirable for on-field action and can dictate your shooting head-on from the end zone or on the sidelines. Still, shooting with wide-angle and normal zoom lenses from the end zone can be successful -- particularly for "red zone" and goal line drives.

Practice is also vital to good sports photography and will hone your timing skills and teach you to think proactively, anticipating the coming action. If you don't have a mid-week game that you can use for practice, go to a playground with your kids and shoot them in action -- running and moving will teach you to track, focus and time your shots for peak action. The bonus here is that you'll also get some great images of your kids as well! Like anything else, shooting this type of action becomes easier and more predictable with practice.

Patience is also vital when shooting football action. Many photographers blindly shoot using a "spray and pray" mentality of more is "better." In the long run, you generally do a lot more post-game editing with little to show for it. Look for shots that have the ball in them and don't feel that every play has to have an image recorded. If you're shooting more than 300-400 images per game, you're overshooting. If this amount is equated to film, this would be a full 10-12 rolls of 36 exposure film!

Position is another important consideration that adds to your success. In football, shooting 10-15 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage or 5 yards behind will give you the right angles for photographing receivers and linemen from the sideline while head-on from the end zone will give more interesting quarterback and running-back shots. By using a more open aperture, you isolate your subject with less depth-of-field and give them greater emphasis in your image -- not to mention shooting at higher, action freezing shutter speeds. Remember that shooting with a very tight crop is vital in good football images. When you're composing your images, ask yourself what's absolutely necessary and crop everything else out. It doesn't matter if your subject is a cheerleader or quarterback, your viewer should be able to look at the image and immediately know what's going on. By having people who are not directly attached to the action, it causes confusion to the viewers and the image will lose impact.

Persistence is as important as anything else you'll do in shooting football. Chances are that the first few games will yield only a few shots that you're happy with. Shoot more, practice, and pretty soon, you'll have a large selection of images that you'll be proud to show. The bottom line is don't give up after one or two games.

When choosing what to shoot at a football game, think of your shooting in a narrative way. Tell the story about what happens at the game and do this by starting "wide" with an establishing shot and narrowing your focus as time goes on. Look for those highly-charged emotional moments and isolate the individual(s). This can be reaction after a touchdown or the disappointment of an incomplete pass or the loss of the game. In sports photography and photojournalism, emotion trumps all and will give your viewers the full story behind the game in a visually narrative way.

In many shooting situations, you'll be able to make images with strong sunlight and will easily shoot at 1/500th of a second or faster, even with a slow maximum aperture lens. This is the "magic" shutter speed for football and is generally agreed on by pros as the minimum speed needed to freeze fast moving sports action. Set your shutter speeds to manual, and meter the green portion of the grass in the working light conditions. In most cases, green grass is ideal because it is similar to a gray-card and will give you a very good reading. Adjust your ISO and shutter speeds until you reach that minimum 1/500th of a second exposure. If the conditions are such that you can't reach 1/500th of a second, raise the ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed. Typically though, in good daylight conditions you should be able expose at 1/1000th of a second at f/8 using an ISO of 400.

Do Your Research!Most local papers fervently cover the local HS teams and do a good job of describing their style of play. Things to consider going in: are they a ground team, and air team, or both? Read the paper before the big game to give you an idea of what to expect. And if it's PeeWee and you follow the team, you'll learn their stock plays after a couple of games.

But what happens if you're shooting a night game with horrible lighting? This is often the situation when shooting high school football, and under these conditions, a fast lens and higher than normal ISO speeds are mandatory. If you have a short, fast telephoto lens -- 80-200mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, or a digital-only 50-150mm f/2.8, for example -- you have enough focal length and aperture to shoot with excellent results. If you're allowed, set your shoe-mounted flash to 1/16th power and use a flash synch speed of 1/250th of a second. (Check your camera manual for your maximum sync speed. Most modern DSLRs are between 1/200 and 1/500 second. You'll need a minimum of 1/250th of a second to avoid ghosting in your images.) If your camera and flash have a rear-curtain synch option, use it and any ghosting that appears will look more natural. Ghosting is an issue with night time football because of the lower shutter speed. The flash will provide some additional sharpness and fill in the player's face as well.

To set your ISO for night time football, meter on a patch of green grass on the playing field under working lighting conditions and adjust the ISO until you have an exposure of 1/250th of a second at the maximum aperture for the lens. Again, an f/2.8 lens is the most desirable in this type of shooting situation, but an f/4 lens can work if the field is bright. In most instances, you'll be shooting 1/250th of a second at f/2.8 with an ISO of about 1600. In digital imaging, most cameras will have a significant amount of noise introduced into the photo at such high ISOs, so a noise reduction software such as Noise Ninja will work well to reduce the overall noise in the image while keeping the detail sharp. There are other noise reduction products available as well and free downloadable noiseware products from the Internet.

If you still shoot with film, there are a host of high ISO films that will fit your needs nicely. Fuji's Neopan 1600 is an excellent black and white film for shooting nighttime football and if you don't like the idea of pushing films, it's an excellent choice. Many photographers "push" their films in this type of lighting and action situation. Depending on what you want as an end result, this may or may not be the way for you to go. Pushing is intentionally underexposing your film and then compensating by overdeveloping it. In most cases, black and white and slide film push better than color negative film and if you're not processing the film yourself, you'll need customized processing from your lab. Be sure to tell them that the film has been pushed before processing; otherwise it will be underdeveloped and unprintable. If you'd rather "push" a slower film, Kodak's good old stand-by, Tri-X, pushes very well and has excellent grain structure if processed correctly. Pushing film will always add grain and contrast and shooting in less than ideal conditions will also degrade the image even more, so if you are shooting nighttime football, understand that the pros grapple with image quality issues in this type of environment as well and it will never look as good as images shot under ideal conditions. Remember to make sure you've got a lab that can push your film before you shoot the game!

If you're using a lens that's over 200mm long, you may also want to consider the use of a monopod, particularly in cloudy afternoon and night games. Shake is magnified with higher focal length lenses and a good monopod will help in reducing this effect in your images. The other reason to use a monopod is that standing on the sideline for a couple of hours, holding a camera the entire time will wear your arms out and if the lens is heavy enough and can cause muscle quiver, which will also reduce the sharpness in your images.

By using the 5 P's, making smart lens and shutter setting choices, thinking narratively and being in the right place at the right time, you'll have an excellent football experience and a lot of fun. Just remember that to shoot truly good football takes a good deal of practice and that even those guys who shoot for Sports Illustrated had to cut their teeth, just like the rest of us.

Reading the offense: It's not as hard as it might seem and generally, if you follow one team for a season, you'll get a feel for the plays that are called. If the ball isn't handed off to a running back almost immediately it means one of two things -- the quarterback will keep the ball or he's going to pass. Watch the direction he's looking and figure out who he's going to throw to. Unless he's being threatened by defensive players, he will always look down field toward the received, so follow his eyes.

Third and long means what? Generally, it will depend on the offensive team's field position and just how far they need to go to reach a "First Down." If it's 3rd down and 20 yards to go, you can expect a pass in most cases.

2nd and short probably means what? That the quarterback will either hand the ball off, for short yardage, keep the ball if it's "2nd and inches," or throw a short screen pass. These are all fast moving plays and you have to be ready at the beginning of the play. Keep your camera on the quarterback until he throws, runs or gives the ball away and then follow the ball.

Reading the offensive lineup -- three wideouts means what? In most instances, if the running backs are positioned on the far portions of the field, there's going to be a pass. If you're in the end zone, watch the quarterback and be ready to train your camera on the back he throws to. From the sideline, it's more difficult to do this because you have to look in two different directions, but it can be done with practice and quick reflexes.

Twin Tailbacks means what? That there's more than likely going to be a running play. Look for the backs and be ready for a hand-off from the quarterback or a short screen pass, generally toward the far sidelines from the ball position.

4th down and a punter -- what to do? Use a 200-300mm lens and focus on the holder. Place the holder toward the left or right side of the frame, depending on which direction they are moving the ball, and allow room for the defense to rush in and attempt a block. If the defensive player jumps into the air to block the kick, it can be a very dramatic image. Same thing goes for field goals and PATs.

Kickoffs? Where to focus? You should focus on the receiver, who is usually around the 20 yard line on the opposite side of the field from the kickoff. Follow him through the play, since he will almost always be running the ball.

Back in the old film days, the Associated Press was known for doing things with film processing that were considered amazing. One of their best kept secrets was an amazing way of pushing film that was quick and worked very, very well. This "formula" came from the Associated Press office in Miami and works well with Tri-X film:

"Rate" Tri-X at 1600 ISO

• Mix Acufine developer 1:1 from stock solution and heat to 85 degrees, Presoak the film with normal water at 85 degrees. Pour developer, tap and invert tank one time per second for a total of five seconds. Agitate the tank for five seconds every 45 seconds. Develop the film for a total of 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

• Use tap water heated to 85 degrees and rinse film after development.

• Pour rapid fixer heated to 85 degrees and fix film for twice the time it takes to clear at that temperature (usually, about 1.5 minutes).

• Wash film at 85 degrees and Photo-flo film at 85 degrees and dry.

"Rate" Tri-X at 3200 ISO

• Heat the developer and all chemicals to 95 degrees and process the film in Acufine 1:1 from stock solution for 1.5 minutes using the steps outlined above, but all at 95 degrees rather than 85 degrees.

• It's important to remember that pushing film to such extremes must be done with consistent processing temperatures. Big variations in processing temperatures will cause reticulation, which looks like very large, clumpy grain. Even processing temperatures and attention to details will yield great results.

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