Fourteen Friday Football Photography Tips
(for first year shooters)
Here are fourteen tips that should help you make your Friday night high school football photography more rewarding and enjoyable for you and your audience. These are directed toward the novice through avid amateur photographer who is familiar with DSLR fundamentals but is relatively new to photographing football. High School football is great fun and there is simultaneous action in several places. Finding the peak action and attempting to capture it with darkness approaching is a worthy challenge for any photographer. The better your knowledge of the game, the more you will be able to anticipate where the action will be.
Tip #1. The Prime Directive--Remember that the game is about the student athletes on the field, not about you, not about your pictures. The hierarchy of courtesy has the student athletes, AD, coaches, officials, parents, and fans all above the photographer. Stay out of the way, blend into the background, be respectful, and if you are told to do something by an official/administrator etc., do it. If you disagree, discuss it later. Build cooperative relationships with those who have authority/responsibility for conducting the game. Talk to the AD ahead of time and learn the local rules for access. Get permission well in advance of the event. Most fields have dashed lines indicating how far you will need to stay back from the field. Don’t push the limits. Did I mention building cooperative relationships with those who have authority/responsibility for conducting the game?
Tip #2. Shoot Early, Early, Early. OK, it’s three tips.
Shoot Early [In the season]--Games early in the season have far more light than those late in the year. At the beginning of September, sunset is about 8 p.m. in my home town of Wichita, Kansas. At the end of October, the sun is down at 6:30. This difference is huge for the typical high school football game that starts at 7. Shoot the heck out of those early season games. Ambient light images are more compelling than flashed ones and you can use your fps capability. Make life easier for yourself.
Shoot Early [In the game]--Teams in this area will take the field for warm ups at about 5:30. Be ready ahead of time. This is a great opportunity to get individual shots of players up close and personal, and get images of the coaches interacting with players and refs in pre game. You will be able to shoot ambient at lower ISO for the first part of the game. The late afternoon light gives a warm golden glow to skin tones and colors look great too. Keep the sun at your back.
Image 2. Opening kickoff of the last game of the season. 10/31, 7:04pm flash. Huge light difference from early season. Compare light to images 5 and 8.
All images Canon 1D Mark III with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS or Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 IS. Image 1A is the 300mm + 1.4TC.
Shoot Early [the pre game]-- Some photogs shoot strictly game action. That is fine. At the high school level, many shooters want to capture the whole event for the yearbook, scrapbooks, etc. There is always a group of people who come early. This includes the booster club folks, the barbeque crew, tailgaters, concession stand workers, announcer, the AD, and color guard. These folks make the game an event and they enjoy pictures of themselves too. Often, they start working between by 5pm. BTW, those who can make your life easy or difficult (AD, coaches) are here now.
Image 3. Activity off the field. An integral part of the event or a waste of time? That will depend on your audience/customer and you.
Tip #3. Shoot from behind the end zone if/when you have the reach (long enough lens). Ball carriers will eventually head toward the end zone so you will have the opportunity to see their faces. Shooting from behind the goal post area will allow you to shoot both sides of the field. If you have a shorter length lens, you might want to position yourself near the corner of the end zone. That may mean that you are out of position for some plays but if you anticipate correctly, you might get a terrific shot of a player, end zone, and side line. Include a pylon in the image if you can. Remember this shot from the Super Bowl?
This is a situation where knowing the team and its tendencies may allow you to anticipate the play and position yourself accordingly.
Shoot through the action and get the “Jube” after a big play! If the defense has the offense backed up against its goal line, this is a great opportunity to shoot defensive players attacking. Can you get the eyes of the middle linebacker?
Having open space behind the subject will minimize background distractions and this is often possible when shooting from behind the end zone.
Tip #4. Shoot portrait orientation predominately unless you are so far away that landscape will still capture the full height of the players. Shoot faces. Capture the ball carrier making a cut. Capture the hit. Shoot Tight. Crop away players not involved in the action. Sharp focus of the main subject is essential. Have that subject fill the image as much as you can. Use long focal lengths to get ‘close.’
“If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.”
Image 4. Behind the end zone. Portrait orientation. 300mm, subject fills the frame.
Tip #5. Shooting from the side line? Try 2 yards behind or 15 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. Two yards behind the line and runners heading wide will run right at you for a good face shot and an official won’t be in your field of view. Good shots of the QB and linemen from here too. Fifteen yards downfield is a good place to capture runners breaking free and receivers catching the ball.
Tip #6. Get low. Shoot from a kneeling position to give the shot added drama. Got a punter backed up to the end line? Lay down on the ground beyond the end line (know how far back you must be) and shoot up. Great power and intensity in that image. It’s a wonderful opportunity to shoot the faces of the players attempting to block that punt.
Image 5. Low (kneeling), 15 yards + downfield, Landscape capturing full height of players. Sept. 19, 7:38pm, f/3.2, 300mm, ISO 1600, 1/2000.
Tip #7 The technical stuff:
Tip #7.1 Use Av (aperture priority) when the light is changing. That is usually the case up till the point when it is dark and you are shooting flash with manual exposure. If you have experience and the light is stable, you can shoot manual. Initially, keep it simple. Most of the time, I shoot Av with + 1/3 Exposure Compensation to compensate for the shadows inside helmets. People like to see faces.
Tip #7.2 Shoot jpeg, servo focus (your subjects are moving), back button focus, center focus point (because it is the most sensitive) and auto white balance. Large apertures, like f/2.8, give faster SS (shutter speed) and blur backgrounds. At night with flash, I’ll stop down to f/3.5 or f/4.0 to get more DOF (depth of field) since the backgrounds are black and therefore I don’t need to blur them. I'm shooting Manual at the maximum sync speed (often 1/250 sec) for flash.
Tip #7.3 Know your minimum shutter speed (SS) and maximum ISO you will use. My minimum acceptable SS (i.e. slowest SS) is 1/640. Any slower and I know it is time for me to boost ISO to get a quicker SS. Some will shoot as slow as 1/400 second but there will be a bit of ‘softness’ or ‘ghosting’ in action images. Do you know how far you can push the ISO in your camera before the image deteriorates to an unacceptable level for you? Find out. Friday night high school football photography is about managing the transition from sunlight to dark.
Tip #7.4 Night Flash Technique-- Brackets/Monopod Mounts--ETTL vs Manual--Flash above or below the camera--High Speed Sync? (hint: don’t)----That’s for another day. Sorry, that’s a big topic. Here is some advice from a pro.
Built in ‘pop-up’ flashes don’t have enough power to be helpful. Something similar to the Canon 580 EX II is needed.
Tip #7.5 The 400mm f/2.8 lens is the supreme field sport lens because of the long reach, sharp images, and large aperture to blur backgrounds and stop action. The 70-200 f/2.8 is commonly seen because of its versatility and lower cost in an f/2.8 lens. The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM Lens is also popular. Pros will often use a big lens on a monopod (300mm and longer) and a shorter lens (often the 70-200) on a second camera body, strapped over a shoulder. Not many amateur shooters can afford the 400 f/2.8 so do the best you can with what you have. Have something with f/2.8 if at all possible. Changing from an f/2.8 lens to an f/4.0 lens reduces light by half and that means slower shutter speeds, more difficulty in low light focusing, and the backgrounds will be more distracting due to less bokeh (background blur). All are undesirable changes for football photography.
Image stabilization (IS) is not as important at the fast shutter speeds used in sports. At least one of your lenses should be 200mm or longer.
BONUS TIP--BONUS TIP--BONUS TIP For you shooters with high ISO cameras!
The new generation of high ISO cameras ( ISO 6400; 12,800; 25,600) are wonderful but are not the total answer to night football. Flash photography is still required at most high school venues. Before you try shooting in extremely low light at these high ISOs, you must consider the quality of the light at your stadium.
In the middle of the field, it is possible to get good high ISO football action shots without flash at some high school football fields. At my home field, the light poles (two on each side) are at the 12 yard line (extended). Between the 20s, I will try shooting some shots without flash at ISO 6400. Because the players are getting light from all sides, the light will be relatively even, resulting in pleasing images.
Closer to the end zone, uneven lighting creates shadows that make images unacceptable, even with high ISOs. Image 6B is not good enough. Look at the leg of #87 and compare that to photo 6A. This is near the goal line. There is no light coming from the end zone side of the players. This shot (6B) needed flash.
6A. Midfield: ISO 6400 image between the light poles. 1/800 sec. 300mm . . 6B. Goal Line, heavy shadows, unacceptable. 1/640 sec, 105mm
Tip #8 Moving from one end of the field to the other? [Remember the team benches are between the 25s] Capture some sideline shots along the way. Get pics of coaches coaching or players with intense expressions. Look for emotion on the sideline.
Image 7. Moving past the bench area. These photos were taken 9 seconds apart. August 29, 7:35pm, f2.8, 300mm, ISO 1600, 1/2500. The parents loved these.
Tip #9. Photograph the linemen. Every play has action in the line. Most people have no idea how violent/intense/aggressive the play can be. Capture the pushing, holding, grabbing, choking. It will be a revelation for many and appreciated by the families of these players. It can be tough to get faces but it can be done. Don’t limit yourself to just shooting the ball.
Tip #10. Special teams often create big plays. You might shoot 10 punts that yield nothing and then you capture the block that changes the game. Shoot first, ask questions later. If you wait until you see someone block the punt, you are too late. Another idea: ask the coach or a player, “Who are are big hitters on kickoffs and punt coverage?” Track them heading downfield. This can be an opportunity to capture a crushing block in an area of open field or a big hit on a running back. Anticipate the action.
Image 8. Shoot first, ask questions later. Sept 5, 7:35pm, 200mm, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 1/2500. How will you keep your camera from focusing on #53?
Tip #11 Stay Late. Get the last player walking off the field. Capture the Mom hugging her 6’4” 260 lb. son. Preserve the image of the happy/dejected coach talking to his players.
Tip #12. Support the Program. Ask the Coach: Is there anyone of whom you would like to have a picture? Do you need some prints? Any seniors who haven’t gotten recognition who I should shoot? What about a picture slide show for the awards banquet? How can I help? Be viewed as an asset to the program. This will help your photographer colleagues when we follow you and want access or cooperation. Every year, field access issues get more complicated. Building a reservoir of good will and professionalism helps you and all of us.
The Last Tip: Have a plan. During my first year of shooting football, I would develop a plan for each game. This was condensed to a few points listed on a 3 x 5 card kept in my pocket. Keep it simple. Example:
Pre game--New coach, lots of shots of him--Color guard = wounded Iraq vet/grad
Visitors #17, all state--Coach wants Offensive line pics--Parents of 7,23, 88, 89 want pics
Hitters: #33 punt team, #56 KO, #66 KO return
Flash: M, 1/250, ETTL + 1 1/3, ISO 800, f/3.5, 580 EX II
That’s enough for now. There wasn’t much talk about gear, flash, or post processing. Those are big topics in themselves. Nonetheless, I hope you’ve gotten several useful bits of information. Have fun and support the athletes.
Incidentally, after you master the ‘rules’ there will come a time to break the rules (except #1!). There will be situations where you will want to change the focus point, try an unusual (creative) angle, shoot Manual rather than Av, or RAW rather than jpeg. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try new things, evaluate the results, and learn from your efforts. Have a mentor(s). Many experienced photographers are very kind in helping with advice. Internet forums, advanced photographer friends/acquaintances, and local newspaper photo journalists are sources for guidance.