How to Shoot an NFL (American) Football Game

Jubilation--known by sports shooters simply as 'jubo'--can make for great storytelling photos. Here the New Orleans Saints's Garrett Hartley kicks the winning field goal as time runs out during the New Orleans Saints win over the San Francisco 49ers on September 20, 2010. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

Jubilation--known by sports shooters simply as 'jubo'--can make for great storytelling photos. Here the New Orleans Saints's Garrett Hartley kicks the winning field goal as time runs out during the New Orleans Saints win over the San Francisco 49ers on September 20, 2010. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

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!

EQUIPMENT

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.

CAMERAS

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.

LENSES

Bill Feig of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate newspaper shoots from one of the endzones in the Louisiana Superdome during a New Orleans Saints NFL football a game with a Nikkor 400mm f2.8 lens. Note the black gaffer tape holding the two sections of the lens hood together. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

Bill Feig of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate newspaper shoots from one of the endzones in the Louisiana Superdome during a New Orleans Saints NFL football a game with a Nikkor 400mm f2.8 lens. Note the black gaffer tape holding the two sections of the lens hood together. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

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.

Long, fast lenses are the key to successful football action. 400mm Canon f2.8 @ f3.2, 1/1600th sec, ISO 1600. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

Long, fast lenses are the key to successful football action. 400mm Canon f2.8 @ f3.2, 1/1600th sec, ISO 1600. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

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.)

OTHER ESSENTIALS

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.

A sideline photographer 'chimps' -- checks his shot on the LCD screen following a play--while using a Canon 400 mm f2.8 lens. Note the 'flip-card'--the roster of all players on both teams--that he has taped to his lens hood for easy reference. The lens is supported here by a Manfrotto monopod. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

A sideline photographer 'chimps' -- checks his shot on the LCD screen following a play--while using a Canon 400 mm f2.8 lens. Note the 'flip-card'--the roster of all players on both teams--that he has taped to his lens hood for easy reference. The lens is supported here by a Manfrotto monopod. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

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.

Good Shooting Positions: Gold team is driving to the left (red arrow), yellow line is the goal line. Camera icons show good shooting positions for this situation. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Good Shooting Positions: Gold team is driving to the left (red arrow), yellow line is the goal line. Camera icons show good shooting positions for this situation. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

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.

Sometimes the best photo comes AFTER the play is over. Roman Harper of the New Orleans Saints  'does the Bernie' dance after running a loose ball back for a touchdown. Note all of the photographers near the goal line in the background who are getting essentially nothing on  this. Sometimes you just have to be lucky. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

Sometimes the best photo comes AFTER the play is over. Roman Harper of the New Orleans Saints 'does the Bernie' dance after running a loose ball back for a touchdown. Note all of the photographers near the goal line in the background who are getting essentially nothing on this. Sometimes you just have to be lucky. (Copyright 2011/Andrew Boyd/The Times-Picayune)

What follows are some tips from two of the best football shooters I know, Michael DeMocker of The Times-Picayune and Sean Gardner, who shoots for Reuters and Getty Images.

Micheal DeMocker:

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.

Sean Gardner:

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

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

13 Comments on "How to Shoot an NFL (American) Football Game"

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  1. Greg says:

    Great timing on this article. Last week I just started shooting HS football for my local Patch.com. I’m glad that for my first time out I didn’t make too many beginner mistakes. I learned fast to stay near the scrimmage line since I only have 70-200mm to work with – 400mm is way out of my budget, even to rent. I also have to settle with using my 60D at 5.3fps. However, HS isn’t as fast as college and pro football, either, so I shouldn’t be missing the lack of fps too much. The defense tip I’m glad to see because it didn’t occur to me to point away from the offense when my team was defending. The rest of the work will come with practice as I shoot more games.

  2. Glad you found it useful, Greg.
    I didn’t address high school football, but one great tip to try if you haven’t already: since most high school is played after sundown in ‘near-darkness’ lighting conditions and you’re probably already shooting ISO 1600 or so with a top shutter speed of only 1/250th, if you have a Canon strobe that fully ‘talks’ to your camera, put it on. The strobe will know you’re at 1600 and react accordingly, giving you just a bit of ‘pop’ fill flash. The result will be your 1/250th sec exposure will now have a nice sharp action-stopping edge to it. Try this if you haven’t.

  3. I don’t have such a strobe (yet). I was shooting at ISO 3200 to get about 1/500th sec exposure, and it did work out fairly well. I need to let my finances (and wife approval) recover from the 70-200mm f/2.8L purchase before getting any more equipment.

    If you feel like viewing my very first effort of football photography, I have my pictures here: http://gerg1967.smugmug.com/Sports/Berkmar-vs-Etowah-Aug-27-2011/18736936_hntP9b#1449705428_xXSBRhG

  4. Sean Condon says:

    I really liked this article. I started to shoot NCAA Div II football this year for the school and really enjoy it. As with most people, I am shooting on a budget. I have a Canon 60d with a 70-300mm f4. Works good for the most part, but I can tell I need just a bit better. For one game, I begged my wife to allow me to rented a Canon 300mm f2.8. Not having a second camera, I was kinda stuck using it throughout the game. If nothing else, I may have looked cool. I took a lot of shots, but with lack of experience i felt I didn’t have the camera set up properly. Until i seen your photo in this article #15 diving for the ball with the camera settings listed (400mm Canon f2.8 @ f3.2, 1/1600th sec, ISO 1600), I had assumed that most of 400mm shots were with a aperture manually set at 2.8. Everyone suggest to have a f2.8 lens, thus I’m thining if you have one of these lenses, your keeping your camera setup manually with the aperture to f2.8. Knowing I would lose a lot of shots with setting to Apeture Priority, I stuck with Shutter priority and tried variations of 800-1200 shutter speed and iso at 800. It was a cloudy day.
    The last few weeks I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to find articles that suggest what settings to start with when shooting daytime football games. Again, most articles mention what lense you need, but not what settings to use or start out with. In my case , all games are daytime with the expection of one game that was in a dome.
    1. Can you offer any advice as to what settings (at least to start with) are preferred whether I’m using my 70-300mm f4 or a rented f2.8? Things like, do I want to use apeture priority vs shutter pri. so that i am somewhat guaranteed that one setting compensates the other. If I’m outside on a sunny or partly cloud day, do I really need to crank my iso past 100 or 200.
    2. I understand the 3 settings to get the correct exposure, but other then using trial and error and using my LCD to see how the pictures look, I struggle looking for that starting point for the settings. Is my little exposure meter on the camera my guide to compensating on setting for the other?
    Thanks again.

  5. Good questions, Sean. For football, I’m going to want to throw the background out of focus almost all of the time–so I want the wide-open aperture. Whether you accomplish this by using Manual exposure or Aperture priority is up to you. I’d want a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second for that outside setting as well, so don’t bump the ISO up any more than necessary. Good luck!

  6. ron says:

    hi im gettin ready to shoot Supercross for 2012 for the first serious time. i have a canon t3i and was wonderin if the 70-300m f4 lens would work in low light with having such a high iso because there in stadiums?? or would i be better off with the 70-200mm f4 with the bigger glass to let more light in?

  7. ron says:

    with out having such a high iso***

  8. ron says:

    without havin a high iso**

  9. If you’re two lenses are both f4, then it’s the same amount of light, isn’t it? You’ll be able to rate the ISO up to 2000 or so and get some nice results with that camera.

  10. John says:

    Andrew,
    Thanks for taking the time to share some of your advice for shooting pro football. I have a chance of shooting a pro game next week in Indianapolis @ the Lucas Oil Stadium.

    I’ve been doing high school football this year and getting great results after making the investment in the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS II. It’s on a 5D Mark II which doesn’t give me the rapid shutter fire. I have a 24-70mm 2.8 that I can put on a 30D for anything really close. The 30D isn’t full frame and gives the magnification but I heard that the 70-200 doesn’t perform as well when it’s not on a full frame. It has a slightly higher shutter fire rate too but it doesn’t reach the same ISO ratings. I was wondering if I should stay with my best lens on the 5D mark II without the magnification and higher fps or go with the 30D. There is no way I can get the 400mm 2.8 by any stretch of the imagination right now. On that note, I have another question. I was wondering what the rules of the road are for a photographer on the NFL sidelines. In high school, you can pretty much roam all over the field as long as you are keeping out of the mix of the players and the threshold of the field. Can you follow the line of scrimmage in an NFL game or do you have to find a spot and stay put?

    Thanks,
    John

  11. rachelle says:

    I am wondering how you are able to photograph a professional game? Do you have to pay to go? How does this all work?

  12. John,
    I would want the higher frame rate on your telephoto, regardless of the magnification. As to what’s allowed on the sidelines, if you are credentialed as ‘Field Photo,’ then you can roam the endzones–BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE–and the sidelines, up to either the 20 or 25 yard line (I can’t remember which, but it’s well marked). Don’t creep up over the yellow line either, you can get quickly kicked out if you do. Most stadiums are ‘kneeling only,’ but you’ll find out quickly by observing other photographers. I also urge you to kneel on one knee only to allow quick exits if the mass of players is suddenly filling up your area! I’ve seen guys get hurt that made the mistake of shooting with both knees down–hard to get up–or worse, sitting on their butts! You can die that way. The players are really, really big, and very, very fast!
    Good luck and have a great shoot!/andrew

  13. You have to be a credentialed member of a media organization to shoot from the sidelines. It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing and the teams keep a tight rein on access.

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