Are you ready for some football?

The 2015 high school football season is well under way with week 2 starting on Friday. Football is not only a popular sport to play and watch but to photograph as well. Many newspaper and sports photographers have cut their photographic eyeteeth on football. Here are some tips on shooting America’s most popular game.

When I first started 31 years ago, access to school football fields were pretty much unrestricted. Almost anyone could walk up and get pictures from the sidelines. Today most fields are surrounded by fences that keep people back from the action. If you want to shoot from the sidelines try to get permission from a coach or school official. If you do get access to the field always be aware that there are hazards, namely players barreling out of bounds and into you. Don’t be distracted by other people next to you and always be aware of the action on the field and be prepared to backpedal out of the way.

To avoid motion blur (the fuzziness created by a person/object moving too fast) you need to use a fast shutter speed, 1/500th of a second or faster. If you’re shooting a JV game you’re in luck. They’re played first so there’s plenty of daylight to shoot under. However, most varsity games are play at night as or after the sun goes down. You have to either get a fast lens (one that has better light gathering capabilities) or increase the camera’s ISO setting (increasing the camera’s light sensitivity) or both. Fast telephoto lenses are great but the biggest problem is that they’re expensive. The difference between an f/4 lens and an f/2.8 lens, (a 1-stop difference) can be a doubling (or more) in cost. Increasing the ISO also has its drawbacks. ”Noise,” that speckling that can happen in some pictures and a reduction in some sharpness, can occur the higher you go on the ISO scale.

A camera with a high frame rate (one that shoots at 5 to 10 frames per second) helps to capture the fast action of football. It’s possible to work with a camera with a slower rate but it takes more precise timing and more patience to get a shot of peak action. Football is played on a large field so photographers general use long telephoto lenses (generally in the 300mm to 400mm range) to shoot it. It allows them bring in the action from across the field. The game can be shot with shorter lenses, but you either have to wait for the action to get closer to you or you have to get closer to where the plays start.

Last week when shooting a game at Bear Creek High School I saw a teenage also photographing the game, I assumed for the yearbook. As play came near then passed him he tried to run along with the action and get a shot as the play ended. There’s no way he could be as fast as the players, so he missed the shot. A better option is to pick a spot (I usually stand 20 to 30 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage) then let the action come to you. I move up field in between plays. Again, when using shorter lenses, you need to stand closer to where the action starts.

In football there are a lot of people on the field, 22 players and another 5 or 6 officials. There can be a lot of traffic and your view of the action can be blocked with all the bodies running about. You have to be patient and wait for players to clear out to get an open shot. Running plays are the easiest to master. You can track the ball carriers after they receive a handoff. Passing plays are a bit harder. Several receivers are usually sent out and the challenge is to figure out which one the ball will be thrown to. I try to concentrate on the quarterback and when I see his body and eyes turn in the direction that he’s going to throw, I whip the camera around and try to find the receiver. It’s something that takes a lot of practice and even then you can still miss a lot.

Football games are colorful events and if you can’t get access to the fields there are other things you can shoot other than the action. There are cheerleaders, the band and mascots that are away from the field and are easier to photograph. And then of course there are fans. They wear the school colors, paint their faces, wave flags and scream and yell for their team, all the while making for great pictures.

Shooting football and playing the game have something in common. The more you practice at them, the better you’ll get at doing them. So practice, practice, practice and you’ll be ready for some football.

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