It’s that marvelous time of year where everything is pumpkin spice and Home Depot already has their Christmas decorations out before the Halloween ones. And yes, I’m also talking about every weekend from here till February with endless amounts of football that will be played. Whether this is your first time shooting football or you’re a seasoned pro there are always new things to learn when shooting a football game. Here are some tips to help you photograph football games this upcoming season whether it’s high school, college football or even the NFL.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to photograph football games for over 10 years now and I’d say I probably have close to 100 games under my belt. Does that make me an expert? Not one bit, but I’ve been lucky enough to learn from some of the best who’ve shot way more than I have and their wisdom has helped made me a better sports photographer, so maybe some of my good luck will rub off on you.
Photography Gear – Camera, Lenses etc.
One of the most important questions, what gear do I need to photograph football games? It’s a trick question honestly. What gear you have is what you’ll need. Is gear important? Absolutely, but if you don’t have 5 bodies and 10 lenses, then you have to work with what you have.
I know you see photographers on the sidelines during games with 400mm lens and like three other bodies slung around their neck, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. They can only shoot one camera at a time. It’s ok if you have one camera body. Master it until you get another and another. Same goes with your lenses.
Ideally a 400mm or even a 200-400mm would be perfect for football or any sports for that matter. Those lenses don’t come cheap. Can you shoot a football game with a 70-200 lens? Yes. Make sure you have a wide angle or a 24-70 as well.
Tripods and Monopods
If you’re doing video work then a tripod is fine. If you’re a photographer, no tripods allowed. They take up way too much space and on the sidelines and endzone space is a luxury we do not have. Stick to monopods or hand holding. The camera and lens, not each other.
As for what type of monopods to get, you can’t go wrong with a carbon fiber monopod, but they are pricey. Make sure to get a monopod that can support the weight of the camera and lens. You don’t need your monopod snapping because the weigh is too much. You saw what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in “Shallow Hal.” The chair couldn’t handle a lot of weight and snapped. Just saying.
Just like there is no sex in the champagne room, there are no flashes allowed during the game. I repeat no flash photography is allowed. Save if it for the post game hugs and handshakes.
Using a flash during the game is one of the quicker ways to never see the game from the sidelines again.
Rain and Snow Gear for Your Camera
Football is played, for the most part, in colder weather. It’s also never going to be sunny 100% of the time. You have to protect your gear from the elements.
Think Tank makes some great gear to help protect your gear from inclement weather. If you have the money for their stuff I say go for it.
Another dirty, little secret is that you can take a heavy duty garbage bag, poke a hole for your lens to stick through and use gaffers tape to secure it. I have done this numerous times in the monsoons we get here in Miami and it works just as well and ore affordably than the Think Tank rain gear. I’m just saying like TLC, “I ain’t too proud to beg.”
And if Think Tank is reading this and wants to sponsor me, I won’t say no. I have a lot of Think Tank gear and I love their speed belt modular system.
What Camera Settings Will You Need
There is no real right answer to this. Every game is different. From the time of the day, to the weather to the lighting of the stadium. All of those factors weigh in on your settings.
My philosophy for camera settings when I photograph football is think how a Kardashian dates; fast and wide open. Meaning if your lens is a f/2.8 then shoot at 2.8. You can shoot at f/3.5 and f/4 as well but anything higher then you’re going to be like Soulja Boy and crank that ISO.
As for the shutter speed, I recommend nothing lower than 1000th of a second. Football players are fast and you want to freeze the action not get blurry images. Yes you can pan with lower shutter speeds to get some really artistic shots, but you don’t want the whole game to be panning action.
Starting from Scratch
We’ve all had gone to a shoot a day or week prior and then go to another shoot, but forgot to update our settings. Maybe you had the white balances manually set or you forgot to reset your ISO. Before every game reset everything back to a blank slate. Then once you get there you can adjust your setting as needed.
You definitely want to set your autofocus to a continuous mode. For Canon cameras, continuous focusing is labeled AF or AI Servo. And on Nikon and Sony cameras, it’s called AF-C. Continuous focus mode helps track your subject while you focus either by pressing the shutter halfway or using the back focus button.
A quick side note. I highly recommend using the back focus button to focus. I feel it is more reliable than pressing the shutter half way and accidently pressing it completely down thus getting an out of focus shot.
Laptops, Tablets and Photography Software
If you have to transmit during the game you will need a reliable laptop or tablet with you. You need something with a lot of hard drive space and something with plenty of RAM. My personal preference is for Lenovo laptops. They work perfectly for what I need. They’re fast for the work I do and I can always count on a great battery life.
Investing in an external SSD hard drive is also a great option to help with the hard drive space. SanDisk makes plenty of good ones and at reasonable prices as well.
Photo Mechanic and Adobe Photoshop
A lot of professional sports photographers use Photo Mechanic in their post production workflow. I love it. Importing is quick and I can only upload the photos I tag in camera.
The big reason why I use Photo Mechanic is for updating the Meta Data. Using rosters from Code Replacements, I’m able to add a code and the player’s name, number and team are automatically added. It beats staring at a roster card and typing everything by hand.
And when I’m done, with the tagging and bagging aspect, I head to Adobe Photoshop to fix horizons and do some cropping. Learning how to crop for sports is what makes good photos better.
How to Get a Photo Credential
Asking photographers via Instagram or Twitter messages if they can get you a credential is not the way to go. It’s not going to happen; ever. We get credentialed through the people we are working for. We can’t get an extra credential for you to watch or learn how to shoot. We can’t have assistants or interns “shadow us” either.
And for the love of all things holy, please stop saying you’ll shoot for free for a credential. Never work for free. You may think it’s helping you get in the door, but it’s hurting the people who are already here struggling with declining prices to photograph games. By shooting for free or offering to, you going to put a lot of people out of work and keep money in the pockets of the teams, wire services, etc. that don’t need it.
Sports photographers are severely underpaid and overworked like a lot of people in the sports creative field; don’t offer to work for free. Thank you for listening to my PSA announcement and now back to our regularly scheduled program.
For youth sports or high school even, you can talk to the coaches and see if they’ll let you shoot on the sidelines in exchange for some pics of the team to be used for social media. I realize shooting college football or even the NFL is sexy, but sometimes you have to work your way up. And there is nothing less about shooting high school or youth sports. It’s a great way to learn to shoot in low light situations. Trust me there is nothing appealing with shooting in dim high school lights, but it’s a great learning experience.
For college or the pros you will need a news outlet, a wire service etc. basically to sponsor you to get a credential. Any Joe off the street can’t just get a credential because they want to see what it is like. Credentials are for the people who are using the photos for news/reporting purposes.
The wire services shoot so other news outlets can use the photos when doing a recap or report of the game. Team and league photographers have their photos used for social media posts and for team/league recaps as well.
Your best bet is to find a local blog site that covers the team and see if they would mind sponsoring you in return for photos.
Now I said never work for free above, but local bloggers don’t have deep pockets like other outlets. You may have to work for free in exchange for credentials to build a portfolio that will hopefully get you paid.
What to Wear
When photographing football or any sports, you want to be comfortable. With football you’ll be running a lot and I mean a lot so comfortable shoes are a must. Sneakers are preferable but if you’re into snow, you’re going to need some snow shoes of some sort. And I’m not talking about tying tennis rackets to your feet as your traverse the cold, blustery snow.
Same with clothing. Wear something comfortable and something you can move freely in. You’re going to be running, standing, squatting, kneeling and doing the hokey pokey as your turn yourself around out there so might as well do it comfortably.
Use Kneepads to Photograph Football Games
Invest in some great kneepads as well. I’m not talking about the hard shell ones from your local hardware store. I mean the ones that provide cushioning and allow you to move as normal as possible.
Kneeling on the ground for long periods of time isn’t ideal. Some fields have fake grass and concrete underneath it. Kneeling on that will make you wish you invested in kneepads sooner.
Your skin will thank me later. I say use sunblock all year round. Yes, even in the winter.
If you didn’t know that you can get sunburned just as easily in the winter as you can in the summer let me be the first to tell you that you can.
Photographing Game Action
So you’ve taken all the wisdom I imparted on you above and now you want to get into the meat and potatoes of how to photograph a football game in it’s entirety. Let us begin.
Pregame and Warmups
Pregame is a great time to get your settings dialed in. Just know that they’ll change as the day goes on, but you have a great base to work from.
Players come out for light stretching and it’s a great time to get them interacting with opposing players. They could have gone to school together or are family members catching up and those moments are always great to have.
After light stretching the players go back in to suit to come back out to warm up in full pads. It’s the perfect chance to get up close with the players and get some not so posed portraits. Look for players with visors that have reflections of the stadium or lights in them. Always a killer shot those are.
The players also participate in group drills so you can get the wide receivers catching or the linemen blocking. Again a nice to have if you’re telling a story of a player or the game.
When the teams take the field they run out from their tunnels. Sometimes they just run out. Other times there are pyrotechnics or smoke they run through. Position yourself to make sure you get the shot you want.
Also very important tip: if you’re not allowed on the field for pregame or for the tunnel entrance, don’t go on the field. I’ll repeat do not go on the field. Your credential will be revoked and more than likely you will not be shooting any games for the rest of the year.
Now we’re getting to the sexy stuff and not so sexy stuff.
First the not so sexy part. The sidelines are always packed. Other photographers, tv crews, in game reporters, alumni, fans, officials, game officials, ball boys and the list goes on and on. You’re going to have to maneuver your way around all of them all of the time. They’re going to block your view and you’re going to be frustrated. There is nothing you can do, but move on and find some open real estate for the next play.
And please respect your other working photographers and not blatantly block them so you can get the shot. The sports photographers circle is small and everyone knows everyone. You don’t want to be known as that person who is the sideline jerk. Trust me.
As for game action, this is your time to shine. And a quick tidbit; you’re not going to get every shot. Don’t stress if you miss a touchdown; hopefully there will be another.
What to Shoot and Where
When shooting the quarterback staying a couple of yards behind the line of scrimmage for the side facing shots. Whether they’re in the shotgun or a 5 step drop, they’re going to move back from the line of scrimmage to create some space from the defenders coming in.
If the defense is imposing it’s will on the offensive line than staying a few yards back will help you get the sacks, tipped passes or even the celebrations from the defenders.
If the team is 30 yards away from the endzone, shoot from the endzone. You can get some real nice, open looks of the quarterback throwing the ball or the running backs rushing. The sides of the endzones can be busy with the game official moving back as well as the tv camera people stationed there.
The field is basically split into thirds. From the 30 yard line to endzone you can work. From 30 yard line to opposing 30 yard line is off limits as that is the bench area.
When walking or running to the other side don’t stop to shoot from behind the bench area. I know it’s tempting with the players so close, but shooting from behind the bench is another no no. Can you shoot from the side of the bench that is past the 30 yard line into the bench area, yes. But if a coach or security tells you that you can’t shoot the bench area, common sense says don’t.
You know where you can shoot from it’s up to you on how you want to shoot the game. If you have long glass you can be down the field. If you’re working with a 24-70 or 70-200 then you want to be closer to the action so it fills your frame up.
Don’t Spray and Pray
And by don’t spray and pray I mean don’t just hold down the shutter so your buffer fills up in hopes you get a decent image. Legendary sports photographer Peter Read Miller wrote in his book that you don’t press the shutter button until the action is about to start. Meaning you don’t photograph the wide receiver running down the field. You photograph just before the moment he jumps in the air to make the catch. That way you’re not wasting shots.
It’s great advice that I’ve used over the years and if you want to learn from a legend, buy his book on sports photography.
Capture All the Emotion
Some of the best photos aren’t a amazing catch or touchdown. Reactions and emotions play well in photos. From tears of joy to tears of pain, capture it. You’re there to tell a story. Tell the whole story not just the sexy bits.
Speaking of a story. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s first season in the NFL he was with the Dolphins. I was shooting a game and they lost and the Dolphins were eliminated from any playoff contention. Fitzpatrick coming from Alabama wasn’t use to losing or not playing for a title, so he was kneeling on the field dejected.
I began to photograph him, but not in an intrusive, in your face way. I was about 10 feet back and he noticed me and he started to yell at me aggressively to not take his photo. I did anyways because he is on the field and fair game.
I got my shot and moved on. I didn’t feel threatened or anything. I was just doing my job. I walk into the photo room and a few photographers who saw what happened starting jokingly say, “Don’t take my picture.” And they agreed that I had every right to take his picture.
So that is one of my many stories, but back to the lecture at hand.
Post Game Tips
Speaking of post game photos. Players will meet up with guys they went to college with, they’ll hug, exchange jerseys and what not. Make sure you capture those moments as well.
Another tip. Have Sharpie markers with you. Players will need them to sign the jerseys with and if you give them the Sharpie they’ll more than likely pose for you holding up the jerseys.
Just be respectful of other photographers who are getting the jersey shot. Don’t just jump in and tell the players to look at you.
The majority of learning how to photograph football games and players isn’t so much about the action, well it is, but learning what you can and cannot do. Where you can go and cannot go as well as working with other photographers who are there to photograph the game as well.
For everyone to be successful everyone has to work together in some sort of fashion or way. You may be shooting for competing publications, but at the end of the day you’re all sports photographers and professionals and treating each other as such goes a long way.
If you have any other tips or tricks to share on how to photograph football games or any sports, let me know via Instagram message or Twitter. I’m still calling it Twitter, not X. It will never not bet Twitter.