In photography there’s a saying that goes “it’s not the camera/equipment that takes a great picture, it’s the photographer.” In shooting football, that’s mostly true. Mostly. Most people think that to shoot sports such as football you need a super long telephoto lens. That’s mostly the case.
In photographing football (and sports in general), given two photographers of equal abilities, the right equipment may make a difference. However, one can have the longest lenses and fastest cameras, but without knowledge, skill and talent it will be for naught.
When watching an NFL or college game on TV, you always see phalanxes of photographers on the sidelines — each one with a long lens that resembles a mini-howitzer (white for Canon, black for Nikon). And, in truth, it’s much easier to get a good shot with a big lens. A longer lens will help to capture plays from farther down the field and thus increase the opportunities of getting a good shot, but it can be done with a shorter one, too.
In sports photography we start with smaller lenses but only because the cost of a telephoto lens, especially a fast one (one used in low light) can be prohibitive. Given unlimited resources most photographers will likely opt for a big expensive lens. It will help to bring the action closer to you. But in the real world, those who are just starting out and most likely on a limited budget) shooting football usually will have a less-expensive shorter lens (probably the one that the camera came with) but they’re the ones that are tougher to shoot football with. Many amateur photographers can get frustrated and give up trying altogether. In my opinion, the shorter the lens you have, the more skilled and patient you have to be to get a great football shot.
The secret is that you have to wait for the action to come to you. If you shoot with a wide-angle lens to what’s know as a “normal” lens (50mm) to even up to around 200mm (which is in the telephoto range but still a little on the short side for a sport like football), you have to wait until the action is virtually right on top of you. It’s easier said than done. Some teams may run or pass mostly up the middle of the field — or worse, on the opposite side to where you’re standing. Sometimes the action may come close enough only a handful of times (or less) during a game. You have to be johnny-at-the-ready when that happens and not be asleep at the wheel. Your chance may not come again.
The play known as “The Catch” was in the 1982 NFC championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. Near the end of the game, 49er Dwight Clark received a pass from quarterback Joe Montana for a touchdown to win the game. Though there are many shots of the play, one of the best photos of Clark reaching out to pull down the pass over the Cowboys’ Everson Walls was shot by Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. with a relatively wide 50mm lens. He was in the right place at the right time, and knew what to do with the moment.
A long lens will likely yield more good pictures (or at least more opportunities to get them) than a shorter lens and probably in faster fashion. So do you need a super long telephoto lens for football? The answer is yes and no.