How to Shoot an NFL (American) Football Game
You’ve all seen the images—crisp and clear, an NFL football player catches a pass on his fingertips, his eyes blazing with focus as he sails through midair on his way to the end zone. How to shoot such compelling football images? Here are some insider’s tips on getting that kind of shot.
Shooting football is a specialty niche that only a select few photographers ever achieve any real mastery of. It requires lightning-fast reflexes, great timing and a deep understanding of the game being played out in front of you. And, you MUST have the right (and expensive) equipment to work with, or you won’t come away with the photos. So it’s challenging on many levels and in many ways.
Here I’m going to give you some tips to help you achieve at least acceptable results your very first time out. These tips won’t turn you into the next great Sports Illustrated photographer, but they will help you avoid a bunch of beginner mistakes. I’ll also pass along tips from the perspectives of two working pros who make most of their living shooting sports. So stick around and pay attention!
The first thing you’ll notice when you watch an NFL football game while kneeling on the sidelines is just how FAST everything is happening in front of you: these guys are not only huge, but incredibly quick! Which means you need some excellent gear to capture this type of action.
You’ll need two motor-driven cameras that can shoot at least 6 frames per second. Eight frames+ is even better. Slower than six and you’ll be frustrated by all of the shots you saw but weren’t able to shoot. This means you’ll need, then, something on the order of at least a Canon 7D (8 fps) or Nikon D7000
(6 fps) or D300s (7 fps). Believe me on this one: these are minimum frame rates for this work, if you want to get great images.
Here’s where things really get tough. The favorite lens for American football, bar none, is the ultra-fast, ultra-expensive 400mm f2.8 fixed lens, whether Canon or Nikon . (Both make excellent models.)
Why is the 400 f2.8 the best lensfor football? Why not a cheaper, slower model? For a couple of important reasons: most football is played under artificial light in domed stadiums. Or if not, it’s played outdoors and frequently at night. The extra speed that the f2.8 aperture affords you is therefore critical since it allows you to shoot at faster, action-stopping shutter speeds. But it’s not the only factor: football is a jumble of guys, moving quickly, out in front of you. To properly isolate the player with the ball, it’s almost always preferable to shoot at wide-open apertures, since it blows the background out of focus so beautifully. This is simply not possible with the optics built into cheaper, slower lenses. So you truly need a big, expensive lens for this work.
Second lens: on the second camera body, you’ll want a 70-200 or 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. This is a great lens for goal line work up close when the play breaks in your direction. (If the guy runs away from you, you’ll have to muscle your 400 around and try to make a shot.)
Third lens: some type of wide angle in a fanny pack around your waist. Just in case something important happens right in front of you. (Or for the end-of-game celebration/agony, when you can run around on the field like an idiot.)
For that big lens, you’ll need a monopod. Most college and pro teams prohibit tripods on the sidelines due to safety concerns so you find a decent monopod to be an absolute must. The two brands I would consider are Manfrotto and Gitzo. I use a Manfrotto monopod that’s simple, sturdy and fairly cheap.
Charged extra batteries for all cameras—pretty obvious, right? You don’t want to run out of camera power late in a game.
Extra memory cards for your camera—again, obvious. Can’t afford to run out of shooting room here.
Radio with earbuds—I like to listen to the play-by-play of the game from a local radio broadcast. This can help immensely when you’re out on the sideline because you’ll learn critical information about penalties, injuries and other things that aren’t obvious from your vantage point.
WHERE TO STAND
This is critical, isn’t it? Knowing where to be, when to be there, is a big key to success in this business. Part of this answer will be a function of the equipment that you have to use.
If your longest lens is a 70-200mm zoom—The only hope for good photos with this gear will be close to the line of scrimmage. You don’t want to be more than 10 yards away from where they’re lining up or you won’t have much more than dancing ants in your photos. That said, lots of dramatic stuff can happen near the line.
Once they get close to the goal line, pick a spot near a corner of the end zone and pray! Maybe the play will break in your direction and you’ll get something nice.
If you have a 400 mm lens, or longer—now you get to play with the big boys! The cleanest shots come usually come from the corners of the end zones, because from this vantage point there will usually be less of a tangle of bodies in front of you. You also have a better chance of seeing the direction in which the play is breaking. So with a 400, you’ll be able to spend more time close to the goal line, shooting back up the field.
But which end zone? Good question, and the answer is a bit tricky. It will depend upon which team you are actually trying to shoot, and also whether you’re working alone or are part of a team of shooters.
If you’re solo, then it’s all on your shoulders. A good general rule of thumb: when your team has the ball, stay ahead of the line of scrimmage (in other words, stay ahead of the direction that they’re driving in). When your team’s defense is on the field, stay behind the line of scrimmage (in other words, you’ll be shooting into the faces of your team’s men).
Here’s the practical result of this strategy: you’ll always want to shoot your team’s touchdowns. If you’re ahead of the line of scrimmage when your team has the ball, they’ll be running the ball towards you (and the touchdown). You’ll have a far better chance of making a decent photo of their touchdown because you’ll be closer to that point on the field. Conversely, by being behind the line of scrimmage when your team’s defense is on the field, you’ll be in perfect position to shoot any play in which they manage to sack the opposing quarterback for a loss. Also, if they intercept the ball, your team’s defense is now running the ball back towards your position. Got it?
If you’re part of a team of shooters (usually a team of two or a team of four), then everything changes a bit. You’ll want to coordinate your position with your colleagues to avoid duplication of positions. Generally, with two shooters, you each take a side of the field; with four shooters, you’ll each have a quadrant that you’re responsible for.
WHAT TO SHOOT
Well, the good stuff, of course! But how do you get it? A couple of general tips: first, understand what the story of your particular game is: is it all about the passing? Is the defense really the story due to their outstanding play? Is your quarterback getting sacked a lot? The answer to these questions will determine a lot about the types of images you’ll need to produce. (Having great pass receptions is always nice, but if the running back has over 100 yards rushing and scores two touchdowns, he just might be more important.)
Game action: the Holy Grail of sports photography! The key to great game action is anticipation: you can’t stay focused on the quarterback all the way through his release of the ball, or you’ll never have a chance to shoot the so-quick reception. So one of the techniques you’ll want to develop is knowing when to take your eye up from the viewfinder on pass plays to see where the quarterback is going with the ball. If you can see the intended receiver, try to lock focus in on him before the ball gets there, and fire that motor drive! The best photo is usually right before the ball reaches his fingertips (or he drops it).
Finally, as great as game action is to get,game reaction can be just as important. What happens at the end of the play is frequently critical: did the referee throw a penalty flag (and did you manage to shoot it)? Are the players celebrating after a score? Don’t lower your camera just because the play is over. Keep an eye out for telling moments afterwards.
My advice to those who wish to shoot football is to approach shooting a game as if you are a player:
1. Like a player, you can’t be distracted by the “visual noise” going on around you; the fans, the cheerleaders, the sideline activity, etc. Focus on the game. You can shoot the other stuff before the game, at halftime and during timeouts.
2. You will get better pictures if you anticipate a play rather than react to it. So like a player, know exactly what is going on in the game at any moment; what down it is, how many yards there are to go, is a “Hail Mary” likely? Did the starting running back go out so the quarterback will more likely be throwing? Is there a mismatch at wide receiver?
3. Put yourself where the picture is. If you are interested in one team over another, make sure you are facing into that team. That way if your offense scores a touchdown or your defense gets a sack, you will have the right angle on the play.
4. Pay attention at all times and shoot everything. It is easy to get lulled in the course of a long game, but the best moments of the game can come from even the most innocuous play (the Saints Super Bowl onsides kick, for example). I shoot every punt, as boring as they usually are, because you never know when there will be a game-changing block for a touchdown.
5. I tend to get in the end zone, especially if an offense gets to the red zone, because to be honest, the touchdown is the picture you want to have first. This is also a good place to hang out if you have a short lens, because you are right on top of the action.
6. I’ll close with another player analogy: make sure you get a good night’s sleep before the game, make sure your equipment is prepped and where you can reach it quickly, stretch out before the game because you will be (or should be) running between plays to reposition yourself, and if you get a great shot, dump a bottle of Gatorade over your head. You’ve earned it.
1. You’ll probably be using a 70-200, so you’ll need to stay really close to the line of scrimmage—no more than 10 yards off the line.
2. When it gets close to the end zone, pick a corner and hope you get lucky.
3. Don’t worry about what the other photographers are doing—that will just mess with your head.
So with your gear tuned up and your credential in hand, you’re now ready to hit the field…good luck!
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog