Almost every American High School has a football team, and it is perhaps the major sport for all such schools. Homecoming is almost invariably scheduled for a week when the team has a home game. As such, this sport, perhaps more than any other, serves as a great opportunity for taking pictures. I normally shoot Football with two cameras: one with a zoom lens for the action shots, and one with a shorter fixed lens for the sideline shots. For cameras I used to use a D3S (action shots) and a D800E (candid shots), however I have replaced the D3S with a D810.
Since most High School stadiums are poorly lit, using cameras with a high ISO capability is almost always necessary. Some places will allow you to shoot the action with a flash, however the distances involved are long, and unless you have a large and planned flash setup, this will only work for plays that are near where you are standing.
For your major action camera, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is perhaps the best you can use. If you have the money for a D4S, you might get away with a 70-200mm f/4, or even an 80-400mm lens, however in such cases you typically are pushing the ISO limits. Football should be shot with a reasonably fast shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second, however 1/800th is better. Remember, the longer the lens, the faster your shutter speed should be to help eliminate lens shake. Some people shoot from monopods, however I prefer the mobility of shooting handheld (especially when the players spill off the field onto where I am standing). For other camera settings, please see my “High School Sports Photography Tips” article.
The large sidelines of Football are an advantage, allowing you great mobility. Move up and down the field, with the action, as much as you can. Pictures can even be taken from behind the end-zones, featuring runners coming toward you.
Football is a sport best shot with both eyes open. If the action is moving right to left, your right eye should be to the viewfinder, and your left (or “open”) eye should be watching downfield. When the action is moving in the other direction, you can either switch eyes, or move to the other side of the field. This takes practice, but it helps you to anticipate the action.
Don’t forget to take pictures of the defense in action, such as a nice tackle.
If a quarterback is fading back to pass, try to see with your open eye who he may be planning to pass to. Once the ball is in the air, quickly pan to the anticipated receiver, and get ready to shoot the catch (or perhaps interception).
Also, try to get photo sequences. You can easily get five or more shots in a row of a runner who breaks free. You can also get several shots in a row with some receivers.
A nice catch, and then,
A vicious hit!
The sidelines are a great source of people photos. I typically use my second camera for these, catching candid shots of the players. Most of my candid shots are done without a flash, but there are exceptions. However, I would advise to never shoot candids of the players and coaches with a flash (at least not during the game).
Besides the players and coaches, there are the fans, the band(s), and the cheerleaders. Arrive early to get pictures of the cheerleaders warming up (typically the light is better). For Homecoming plan on using a flash for pictures of the King and Queen, plus the members of their court.
The last time I was that high off the ground, I was skydiving. The better before game light made taking this shot quite easy. I actually shot the entire sequence, from launch to landing.
Arriving early gave me the opportunity to get on the field during warm-up for the above shot.
The school I shoot at also has Senior Night, when the Seniors are introduced along with the parents. The pictures from these (also usually shot with a flash), are typically big sellers.
Some caveats for this sport
It is shot outside, and the weather can turn foul. Be prepared for rain (or snow, if you live far enough North).
Always introduce yourself and talk to the officials before the game, to make sure of any restrictions. Some officials are more forgiving than others. Also, playoff games have restrictions that regular season games don’t. If you get tossed, you don’t get pictures.
Take one or two water bottles with you. You may not get a break until halftime, or even until the game ends. I sometimes wear my Camelback, but that does increase my load.
Once you know what you’re doing, and have a little practice, American football is perhaps one of the easiest sports to photograph.
I am very much an amateur but have been shooting HS Volleyball and middle school basketball and my son’s Team Handball for a few years now. Football is new for me and this was very good information and thanks for the insight. I do have one question…You said you carry 2 cameras, I plan to do the same but how to you actually carry them. Do you just use the shoulder straps or do you have another comfortable way to carry both around ?
I have a harness that I use for the heavier camera, and just use the supplied camera strap for the second one. There are two-camera harnesses available (check B&H or Adorama).
I also photograph high school sports….over 8 years I have never had a cheerleader approve of a crotch shot in public. It’s quite embarrassing for them, and just a thrill shot for most men.
Sadly, the photographer thinks shots like this or a gymnast, swimmer, hurdler, etc. are all action shots without taking the athlete’s emotional well being into consideration. These are underage girls! Porn sites capture these images and can get away with using them because they are athletic and not meant to be sexual.
Beautiful photos! Perhaps its mentioned somewhere already, but what camera did you use for these shots?
Most of the above were shot with a Nikon D3S, and a few with a Nikon D800E. Below each shot are listed the camera, lens and settings. Glad you like the shots.
Great pics William,
I would really appreciate if you can explain where you focused exactly for most of the pics especially for the pic of the flying woman.
For action shots I normally use Single Point Focus, so I try to keep the focus point on the chest (largest body area) of my intended subject. Aiming at the face (for me at least) tends to end in too many missed shots when shooting action. When I shoot horse polo, I focus on the horse (again, largest body area). For the cheerleaders, I will have to access the file and see. I remember shooting several sequences, and it is possible that if I used Single Point, I kept it on the grouped cheerleaders at the bottom. I may have switched to 51 active, and started with the point on the airborne cheerleader. I will advise exact on that shot later with an additional comment.
Thanks a lot William for the useful feedback, I am really impressed with the IQ under the high ISO, and with how you handled the focus & composed the images. Did you perform any cropping & noise reduction in post processing especially for those taken with high ISO?
I process all my shots using DxO Optics. I shoot in 14-bit NEF (Lossless compressed). DxO has some nice auto noise reduction, and that is what I typically use. Almost all shots are cropped (normal for action photography), with amount of crop depending on each shot. Glad you like the shots. Football is a fun sport to shoot, and has a lot more potential for sideline photography than most other high school sports. If you have not read it, you might view my “Sideline Photography Tips” article from last month.
I was not too sure about the focusing method, but based on your comment I’m going to shoot single-point focus. Coming from the film era I shoot 100% single-point on everything. I really don’t comprehend why camera manufacturers have all these “focusing points”…maybe good for advertising and product differentiation.
However, I’m going to shoot JPGs. I stopped shooting RAW about 8 months ago and will probably never go back to it. I’ve read all the articles on RAW v. JPG. For me the biggest difference between the two is that JPGs are more fun and eliminates all the consternation about Photoshop updates. Free at last!
Just for the fun of it, I’m going to shoot a few HDRs when the teams are in the set position and not moving.
If you shoot with a tripod, put a more distance between you and the sidelines. The players spill out of bounds, and you don’t want to be hit by them. Bad for you, your equipment, and potential harm to the players. I have seen people not move when shooting monopods, and I hate to think how much worse they would be if using a tripod. Remember, you do not have the right-of-way, nor are you protected. Watch a pro or college game, and see how often the protogs get hit. They and their equipment are insured, and while you may be insured, your equipment may not be, so getting hit is not worth it.
Very good article.
As a former HS QB, I would add some non-photo suggestions:
-Check the school website out and see if you can determine who the leading ground gainers were the previous year, and if they are on the team this year.
Chances are they are going to get most of the hand-offs. See how big the other backs are for short-gain plays.
-Focus on the QB and follow him with the camera. Most every play starts with him. Check out to see if he’s a good passer. Also, check out the pass reception abilities of the ends.
-If the ball is at the 20 yard line stand behind the goal posts and get ready.
Basically, the more you know about the game the better chances of getting great action shots.
Great shots, congrats!
Do you typically use shutter priority with auto-iso on the field?
I shoot in Manual mode, set shutter speed and aperture myself, and then use Auto ISO with the limit set. For football I try to keep the ISO at between 6,400 and 8,000. Shutter 1/500 (slowest) to 1/800 (fastest) and f-stop as open as possible when under the lights. When I have late afternoon light (JV Football), I can use faster shutter and/or close the aperture some. If you have not read it, you might check out one of my earlier articles: “High School Sports Photography Tips”.
Glad you like the shots.
Very Nice Photos.
Thank you. A lot of work, but always good memories.