Aug 17, 2010

How to Photograph Football

Getting good photos at a football game is very, very hard to do this without going out and purchasing the f2.8's (fast lens) as the High School football stadiums and gyms are notoriously dim - our eyes can adjust, but the camera don't lie.

The amount of light will be key or significant. Forty years ago I started out shooting nighttime football with film and now in this digital era here I still apply that film knowledge once the game begins at 7:00 pm. I set my camera to an ISO of 800, my f-stop at 2.8 and in the AV mode, which automatically selects the shutter speed, which is normally 500th and above. When the light fails normally at the end of the first quarter I reset the ISO to 1000, put the camera on manual mode with my aperture still selected at f/2.8 and set my shutter speed to 250th of a second and throw on a 550 ex flash unit set at 1/4 power. With the Mark II, the max flash synch speed is 1/250 second. However, the camera does offer high speed=flash sync with the EX series flashes. This allows flash at all shutter speeds (even1/8000 second where basically, the flash fires continuously). This function must be activated on the flash unit’ and is indicated by an H symbol on the flash unit’s LCD panel and also in the MKII’s viewfinder. Then if the smallest or largest aperture blinks (on the flash units LCD in or in the cameras viewfinder) I select another shutter speed.

Football photography
Even then at 250th second it won't freeze the action but will gives me something to work with. I have used shutter speeds to 640th of a second, but like the lower shutter speed of 250th just to add a feeling of ambient light from the fields tower lighting units. If the lighting is really horrible, which it usually is, I shoot raw and compensate the exposure in post processing.
I've found that there are often pools of 'better' light on the field where the lights overlap. It can be worth camping out in one spot where you can take advantage of this. This is normally from the 20-yard line to the other 20-yard line, but that’s not the case where the lighting in the end zones are weaker. Also, pay attention to the game - that way you can be looking for the dramatic shot, rather than reacting to it. Football is way too fast a game for that.

If you are unfamiliar with the controls on your camera the aperture priority mode might be a good choice for you to practice with. Set your aperture your lowest aperture and your ISO to 800 or 1600 and let the camera set the shutter speed. You may get a bit of motion blur occasionally but it will help you get a feel for what setting the shutter should be on to capture what you want at that venue (lighting is different at every football stadium). Alternately, if you know the shutter speed you want (at least 1/250 of a second with your lens extended) you can use the shutter priority mode and let the camera set the aperture.
It is the combination of low light, fast action, camera motion (from panning) that makes focusing such an adventure. Focusing has to be dead on given the 2.8 aperture; as a result I use the center focus point exclusively - at least that way I'll have an idea of where the focus tracking the action will be.

If you don’t have one of the fast lenses here’s some helpful hints:

  1. Monopod A must. Reduces camera shake
  2. Lens Image stabilization. Turn it on to setting 2. Reducing horizontal shake (setting 1 on the lens) is ok, but using both axis gets better results.
  3. If your stadium's light absolutely stinks, use the custom function and set ASA to 3200 ("H"). Set the camera’s se aperture priority, set it at the lowest f-stop, and let the camera dictate the fastest shutter speed.
  4. Stand about 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. You'll still get full frame, but the action will be moving more toward you than left to right, so you'll get less blur. If you're trying to shoot defensive players, stand 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, to get faces and the occasional sack behind the line.
  5. When the light gets REALLY bad (meaning we have a shutter speed of 1/250 or less) stop down 1/3 or even 2/3 of a stop. It keeps the shutter speed up, and you can always pull the brightness up in Photoshop. If you shoot at the highest ("L") setting, you'll have more data to pull out.
  6. If you have a second camera with a flash, use it too. When the frame of your zoom fills at 70mm, stop shooting, grab your second camera and get the shots as they come to you on the sideline (if they fill THAT viewfinder, stop shooting and get the heck out of the way!)
  7. Make sure you use your dodge and burn tools in Photoshop. You'll want to dodge the faces inside the helmets, especially for African-American players. Personally I lasso the face and use the curves to bring out the faces. Most photographers -- even newspaper photographers -- don't do this, and the mom's of our team's black players just love me because they can actually see the faces of their sons in the shots.
  8. Burn lots of frames. I have a 4GB card and shoot about 370 frames per card to get 120-150 good shots. Bottom line: You paid for 8fps -- use it.
  9. Adjust your metering according to the camera's owner's manual. Set it to center-weighted metering (where no eyeball icon appears on the top menu. This will help your camera get the right light, rather than letting a bright background light source or a super-dark night mess up the metering.
  10. Keep tinkering. Every stadium's lighting is a little different. So shoot, look at your images and make adjustments.