Knowing how to shoot a ‘Hail Mary’ photo is incredibly useful if you’re ever planning on doing any photography in a group/mob setting. Sporting events, political conventions, protests, riots, breaking news—all of these are situations in which knowing how to pull off a decent ‘Hail Mary’ shot can save your lunch. I’ll explain what these photos are and how to shoot them below.
The expression comes from the ‘Hail Mary’ pass in football:
A Hail Mary pass or Hail Mary play in American football refers to any very long forward pass, or long bomb, made in desperation with only a small chance of success, especially one thrown at or near the end of a game. The expression was made famous when it was used to describe the game-winning touchdown pass by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson in the NFL 1975-76 wild card playoff. Afterwards, it was reported that Staubach said, “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” (From Wikipedia)
At its most basic, a Hail Mary photo is one you shoot with the camera extended out away from your body, usually up high, but sometimes out at the side, because you’re either blocked or obstructed from a more normal approach, or in some cases, because the angle you actually want is higher up and the situation does not allow you to physically raise yourself up. Usually, it’s because fans, police, or other photographers are in your way, depending upon the event you are shooting. Hopefully, I’ll teach you how to increase your percentage of success with this technique!
To maximize your chances of pulling off a decent shot, here’s what you need to do:
1. Try to prefocus on your subject. This may be difficult if there are other photographers or cops in your way, but give it your best guess. You’ll find that the distance will not change significantly between a ‘ground level’ shot and one with the camera extended up.
2. Use a wide angle lens. This type of shot is always more successful if applied in wide angle situations; the optics of wide lenses make focusing more forgiving.
3. Now raise the camera over your head. I like to use two hands for this since it helps me keep the camera more or less level to the scene.
4. Point the camera slightly down to accommodate the new shooting angle. This is the hardest part, since you can’t see through the finder to know the correct angle.
5. Now while shooting, carefully pivot the camera. You can start at the ‘top’ of your best guess of the right perspective, and work your way down, shooting as you slowly change the angle of the photo.
6. Keep repeating this as you photograph the scene.
7. As soon as it’s feasible, check your results to see if your guess on the shooting angle was correct.
8. If the situation in front of you changes and you can jump in closer, you may be able to abandon this approach and go for a straight shot.
You’ll find that you get better at this with repeated practice.
There’s one variation on this that’s worth noting. Sometimes you know in advance that you’ll encounter a situation in which a significantly higher shooting angle will be needed. (For instance, basketball players cutting the nets off after winning a championship, which makes a great wide angle shot if only you’re 10 feet tall). The solution to this is a Hail Mary photo utilizing a monopod and a remote camera trigger. When the moment arrives, put on your wide angle lens, attach camera to an extended monopod with a remote radio slave trigger, and raise the whole contraption up over your head. Fire away, making sure to shoot plenty of angle versions. Hopefully your best guess will contain a great shot!
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. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog
See also: Washington Post story on this technique