As the temperatures get cooler, it’s time for high school football to take over Friday nights! Below, I’ve compiled some tips to help your football photography go from pee-wee football to Sports Illustrated!
As with any sporting event, you are going to want a good mixture of wide-angle and zoom images. A good lens that can offer that range is a 70-200mm f/2.8. Fast lenses (lenses with a wider aperture) are important once the sun goes down since most high school sports don’t allow flash photography (you don’t want to blast a player with a full flash and possibly change the outcome of the game). Since flash photography is not going to be an option, you will likely need a monopod for keeping your camera steady, especially at slower shutter speeds after sunset. Make sure you also have a plan for when it starts raining. Into every photographer’s career, it will rain (unless you work strictly in a studio). Be prepared for it by purchasing something along the lines of the OP/TECH USA Rainsleeve or the Think Tank Hydrophobia.
The teams take the field to warm up one to two hours before game time. This will allow you some of the best opportunities for quality shots. Not only is the lighting better because the sun hasn’t set, but players tend to move a little more slowly in warm-ups than in the actual game. You’ll have an easier time capturing motion and more of an opportunity to isolate individual players. In some cases, you may even be able to walk out onto the field to shoot and not be restricted to the sidelines. However, if you do walk out onto the field, be careful! The players and coaches will not be paying attention to you; their job is to play football, not give you a good photo.
Even though you may have your eye focused on your viewfinder, make sure you also focus on where you are and what is going on around you. A referee or player can easily bowl you over at a moment’s notice. Also, make sure you know where to focus your camera. It’s an action sport and you’ll want action photos. Even though you would normally focus on the eyes for a portrait, the players are wearing helmets and you’re not going to have that option once the game starts. Try locking your focus on their uniform numbers or the ball once players start moving.
Learn The Game
Learning about the game of football can come in handy. Knowing where the referee, coaches, players, etc. are positioned can help frame your image. Knowing this information will give you an understanding of where you’ll need to position yourself on the field in order to prevent getting blocked by the officials. Another consideration when thinking about position is your location in relation to the line of scrimmage (the imaginary line separating the teams at the beginning of a play). In kid’s leagues and high school football, 10 yards ahead of the ball or 5 yards behind the ball is a good starting point. In college and pro, a good basic position is 15 yards ahead of the play and 10 yards behind, if you’re shooting from the sideline. However, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always wind up with some shots that are completely blocked by an official. It is their job to make sure the game is played fairly and safely, and all you can do is hope that you can make your shots around them.
The faster your shutter speed is, the better your chances of freezing the action. A good starting point is a shutter speed of 1/500, then adjusting your aperture and ISO accordingly. Since this is an outdoor sport, your lighting is going to change over the course of the game. This may mean slowing down your shutter speed to let in more light, as well as opening up your aperture or raising your ISO. If you have a long telephoto lens, consider shooting from the back of the end zone. The advantages of doing this are that it’s much easier to track a running play, you generally don’t get blocked by an official and it’s easier to keep a consistent focus on the player of your choice. You’ll also get head-on images that show the face and have a more dramatic feel to them. Also, be sure to respect the boundaries of the team’s sideline area (usually between the 30 yard markers). This is a no-shoot zone at almost all levels of play in all leagues.
There is a natural tendency to shoot a football game primarily from “your team’s” side of the field. However, try going to the other side of the field every once in a while. From this vantage point, you will not only capture the action, but your own team’s colors and sideline will add a great element to your background. Also, spend some time in the stands, photograph the crowd reactions, capture the marching band and cheerleaders, snap moments of game traditions. There is so much more going on in the stadium than a football game; try turning your back on the action once in a while and take a look around you. As a photographer, it always helps to keep your head on a swivel.
If you are covering a particular team over the course of a season, introduce yourself to the coaches. Your job will be easier if they know who you are and why you are there. The players may be large and intimidating, but they are still kids and the coaches are looking out for them. Play your cards right with the coaches and you may get unprecedented access. If a coach or official tells you something, listen to them. If they ask you to move, move. You’re in their house and you have to play by their rules. If play stops for an injury on the field, show respect and put your camera down. While it might make for a compelling photograph, it is possible that you just witnessed the end of a player’s life-long dream or his chance of going to college. Be sensitive and keep it in perspective.
Any seasoned photographer will tell you that photographing sports is not easy, and football may be one of the most difficult. However, with a little practice and preparation, you’ll see your images start to mirror those in Sports Illustrated.