I love football and I love taking pictures. As I'm preparing my gear to photograph tonight's pre-season game at Newport Harbor High School, I'm reminded of the incredible amount of great information that I have learned and shared over the years with other sports photographers. I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some basic lessons that I've learned that will hopefully help you get that perfect shot.
I'll share a story that I've heard many times over the years. Someone says that they purchased a DSLR and even added the extra telephoto zoom lens, but the images that they get are often dark or blurry. They often are frustrated thinking that they just must not be very good photographers. Sports photography is very challenging, especially if the game you are shooting is a night game under mediocre lighting which seems so common on most high school fields.
The lenses pictured above are a couple of examples of consumer quality lenses that are often sold at big box stores with DSLRs with the promise of getting closer to the action. While they do magnify the image, they just don't work well in low light situations. If the aperture number printed on your lens is larger than f4, it's going to be very difficult to get the quality of image that you're looking for. Both of these lenses have a variable aperture of f4-5.6. The numbers printed on the lens can be a little confusing because an aperture of f2.8 is a smaller number but a larger opening than the f4 aperture. I recommend using a pro lens like the 70-200mm f2.8, which can be rented at PROtog rentals for as little as $35 per game. The larger the aperture (or the smaller the f/ number), the more light it captures while taking the photograph, so you can use faster shutter speeds to stop the action and lower ISOs to get better quality images (but more on exposure in the next section).
I've also been asked if a newer, more expensive camera would get better results. In my opinion, the lens is the most important piece of equipment, but a better camera can also have some advantages. If you have an older digital SLR, one of the biggest improvements that you will see with the newer cameras, is the quality of image at higher ISO settings. Another big advantage is a faster burst rate. If your current camera can shoot 3 frames per second and the newer model can shoot 6 frames per second, you are twice as likely to capture the shot at the exact moment that you are trying to get. It's frustrating to see the football is just on the edge of the frame in one shot and in the very next shot the receiver has the ball and is running away. If the camera shot at a higher frame rate, the chances of getting the ball right on the finger tip of the receiver greatly increase.
Every field is different and getting the correct exposure can be a challenge, but here is a good place to start. The "running guy" icon on some cameras is NOT what I recommend. It can save you in a pinch, but it doesn't always give you the result that you're trying to achieve. The only way to do that is to get off of the program mode and make some manual adjustments. A high shutter speed is the most important part of this equation if you want to stop the action. I try not to shoot slower than 1/500, and try to aim for at least 1/1000 if possible. In order to get this fast shutter speed, we're going to need the aperture to be wide open at f2.8 for most shots. This also will show a very shallow depth of field, so the subject is sharply focused and the background is blurred. This helps draw the viewer's eye to the action and away from a distracting background. The final part of this equation is the ISO setting. I have found that with most night games, a setting of ISO 1600 - 3200 usually works pretty well. The higher that number gets, the more your image quality will suffer, especially if it is an older camera.
Some of the newer cameras can do extremely well at higher ISO settings. The image above was shot with the Nikon D4 at ISO 12,800. Getting the right exposure is just a balancing act between these three variables. When metering the scene to check these settings, I find that the evaluative (Canon) or matrix (Nikon) metering does the best job when dealing with fast moving subjects under variable lighting conditions.
3. Auto Focus
There is so much more to this topic than we have time for today. When Canon introduced the 5D mkIII, the first big improvement I saw over the previous version was that they added an AF tab to the main menu with 5 pages of different settings that can be customized to your shooting style. Then they came up with evern more settings on the 7D mkII. Canon must have received a great deal of questions regarding their new AF system because they have just recently introduced a 51-page guidebook that details all of the AF features, functionality, and possibilities within the new 7D mkII.
The most important and basic AF setting is to be sure that you have it set to AI SERVO (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon). Setting your AF to this mode alows your camera to constantly track moving subjects. I've also found that selecting the dynamic AF points, or letting the camera choose the focus point for you, using the greatest number of focus points, usually works the best for football. There are times when the AF locks onto one player, and even when other players cross the path between your camera and the subject, the camera's AF is rarely fooled and usually stays on target.
While photographing football, you need to anticipate the shot you want, then when the player comes into frame, hold down on the shutter release while your camera takes a series of photos in rapid succession as fast as it can. Some cameras will have both a high speed continuous and a low speed continuous setting. I usually use the high speed for shooting football. The main thing you want to avoid is the single shot mode which requires you to lift your finger off of the shutter release then press it again to take your next picture.
5. White balance and RAW
It's always best to get the image "right" inside the camera to save you time editing in post. Stadium lights usually don't match any of the camera's white balance presets, and auto white balance under these conditions can be very inconsistent. The best tool that I've found for setting the white balance on your camera is the ExpoDisc. It's a white filter that goes over the front of your lens. Take a picture with the ExpoDisc on the front of the lens, then use that photo as a white reference for your camera's white balance setting. This will lock in the proper color for the remainder of your photos. The next best thing to do, if you can't get perfect white balance at the field is to shoot in RAW, and fix the color in post-processing. This takes time, and RAW files are larger so the number of continuous photos that your camera lets you take and the speed that they can be captured (frames per second) might be limited. The ExpoDisc is a great tool to have in your bag, and if you just want to try it out, PROtog rents them for $5 a day.
6. Position yourself
While photographing football, try to position yourself a little below the players' eye level. This makes for a more interesting composition and the ability to see the players' eyes. Sometimes this means that you will be sitting on the ground or resting on a knee while photographing the game. Also, look at the background to make sure that it's not distracting. If you're shooting from the home side of the field and notice the empty bleachers in the background, you might want to move to the visitor's side of the field so you can see the seats filled with the home team fans. Be prepared for great reaction shots of players celebrating after a great play. These make some of the most interesting photos. Look for the shot that not everyone else will have. Look for details to photograph. It may be a football or a helmet sitting in the grass, a close up shot of some equipment, or a conversation between a couple of players on the sidelines. Keep it interesting so you have a variety of images to share.
Hopefully, this will give you some inspiration to get out there and photograph some great football this season. If you have any questions about photography we're always happy to help. If you would like to schedule a one on one training with one of our experts that will teach you all you want to know about your equipment, just give us a call. There's no better feeling than to help someone capture a memory.
by Mark Jenkins
President, PROtog Rentals