This is the first in a series of posts about things I've learned over the past five years of photographing high school sports. The availability and relatively lower cost of good quality gear has seen the number of sideline photographers increase. I often give people--especially yearbook and school paper photographers--tips to help them get the best results possible, and below are some for football.
You can download a shareable album of my favorite football photos here.
1. Get there early
There are lots of good reasons to arrive well before a football game starts. Fans are tailgating, the cheerleaders are ready for a team photo opportunity, the band is marching into the stadium, and players are warming up on the field. If you're careful, you can be on the field and get good shots of player faces that are otherwise not possible. Some of my favorite photos opportunities come during the playing of the National Anthem.
2. Know the sport
The more you know about how football--or any sport--is played, the better your images will be. Why? Because it's all about being in the right place at the right time, and you need to anticipate what will happen next. The good thing about football is that there is usually time between plays to get into a new position. You're not always going to be right, but when you are it makes a huge difference.
3. Do your homework before the game starts
Understand the records of the two teams and what the results will mean. Is something more than a victory at stake like a playoff position or a league title? Understand the relationship between the two teams. Is this a rivalry game? Understand what the game means to the home team. Is it Homecoming or Senior Night? Answers to all of these questions may open up opportunities to capture special moments and emotions.
4. Get to know school officials
There are limitations to where you can be and what you can do on the sidelines. For high school football, there is typically a dotted line that provides an easy way to know your restrictions, but it always helps to introduce yourself to the athletic director and coaches if you can. They appreciate knowing everyone on the sidelines because they have to be concerned about player safety. They will also sometimes allow you into areas that are otherwise off limits and they will remember that you were courteous to them.
5. Look for new perspectives
If you can get your camera up high or down low you will be amazed at how different your perspective can be. Just about every shot you see from a high school game is taken at eye level. They can be good, but they can also easily be ordinary. One of my favorite shots ever was taken from behind the tunnel as the players ran on to the field.
6. Know what's happening
Pay attention to the score, to the amount of time left and to the meaning of the game. All together this will help you anticipate what might happen next. Also, don't stop shooting at halftime. The marching band performance and special ceremonies that take place between halves are always great photo opportunities at a football game.
7. Turn around
Be creative and look for special images that are not about the play on the field. Most fans love to have their photos taken, and most schools have a student section that has a theme at almost every game. Football is one of the few sports that cheerleaders and marching bands actually attend on a regular basis, and both are great for posed and ad hoc shots. When something great happens on the field, turn around and see what the cheerleaders are doing. Sometimes it's worth missing the action shot to get the reaction shot.
8. High school stadium lights, well, kind of suck
As human beings we are lucky that our eyes adjust to low quality lighting. But our cameras have a harder time with that. Some stadium lights cycle power and flicker. We don't see it, but our cameras sure do. In a rapid sequence of images you will sometimes get a wide variation in the color of light in each one. You're trying to freeze the action--which means a fast shutter speed--but the light is pretty dim, which calls for a slower shutter speed and/or a wide aperture. It's just something that you have to bear with, and you can correct many problems after the fact, but take a day game if you can get one when you're first starting out!
9. Where is the ball?
Most of the time, but not always, a good football action shot must include the football itself. Why? Because the ball acts as a reference point and helps the viewer understand what the players are doing. Think about it for a minute: the location of the ball at any time in a football game is actually the single most important aspect of the game. Your images should reflect that.
10. Have fun
If you don't enjoy what you're doing, your shots will say so. Let yourself be absorbed by the game itself. Love the sweat, the excitement, the disappointment, the highs, the lows, and all of the in-betweens. And try to capture them. Be a storyteller, by living the story of the game and then capturing it in frame.