I Am Not A Football Shooter … Tips On Photographing High School Football. And Photos From The Bloomington North-South Game.
I had a post last year on how I learned I was not cut out to be a wedding photographer (click here to see that one). Saturday I received a hint that I may not be cut out to be a football photographer, either. For those of you who have no expectation of ever giving said shooting a try, I am tempted to say, “Wise choice.” For those who might at some time in the future, allow me to pass along a bit of what I think I learned.
This was a high school football game, one that took place on Saturday afternoon because lightning the night before had forced a suspension of play. It was a big rivalry game, one between the two Bloomington high schools (so there was no love lost on or off the field, to be honest). The kids played hard and did their best, and I took photos instead of sides. It was a fun way to spend the afternoon. So, what exactly do I think I learned?
You need really good equipment to take good photos. The pros are shooting college and pro games mostly with 400mm lenses, the 2.8 variety. And that, as we know, is an expensive proposition (think in the $9,000 neighborhood). A lot of those games take place at night and you need the 2.8 lens to get the light you need. High school football usually takes place under the lights, also (and inferior lighting at that). You have to be able to keep your shutter speeds up to freeze the on-field action, and that means you need light (a fast lens). I was using my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 with a 1.4 converter attached, giving me a 300mm reach but at f/4 (the converter robs a lens of at least one stop). And that 300mm reach was very often not enough to capture what I really wanted. You can get by, but do remember you need some fast, long glass if you want to really do a good job of capturing football action.
And you need a camera with a big buffer and lots of frames per second. Trying to catch the action you want one click at a time is a sure-fire recipe for frustration. Heck, it was frustrating enough to try to get the height of action with a long burst from my full frame D3. I found myself wondering what it would be like to have a D4 (Nikon’s latest big and fast sports camera) or at least a D3s. I had a backup camera with me for shots when the action moved closer to me. That one was Nikon’s D300, a DX crop camera that definitely is slower than the D3. While the D3 at its best was going click, click, click, click …. the D300 was more like click. Click. Click. Click. And I discovered I needed to shoot clickclickclickclickclickclick to get what I wanted (and, remember – the college and pro players move a LOT faster than the high school kids).
You can get pretty tired lugging two cameras around for an entire game, especially holding up the long lens for most of the time. I really suggest a monopod to take the burden off your arms and shoulders. Plus it helps to have that stabilizing monopod to steady your all-around shooting. And since you want to make your on-field action and players seem large and imposing, you really should spend a lot of the time shooting up (from your knees). A pair of kneepads is invaluable. Fortunately I had advance warning and took along a pair of kneepads we have here at home that are used for gardening. They worked just fine even though they are cheapos. I would have been hurting by the end of the game without them.
Don’t try lugging around a camera bag full of gear, even a compact bag. You are up and down the field the entire game as the teams change position. It is enough to keep track of what is going on with the teams without trying to also watch a bag of expensive equipment. Plus that bag is going to get heavier and heavier as the night or day goes on. Wear a vest and pack it with extra batteries and cards and a cleaning cloth and whatever little things you might need. Or invest in a belt system that distributes lens bags and holders evenly around your waist. Just make sure you have all your gear with you at all times and don’t have to keep looking around for it (you know, even at a football game equipment can mysteriously disappear).
Carry two cameras. Action happens so quickly that you are not going to have time to switch lenses. If you try you inevitably will have the wrong lens on every time you want to shoot something. Have a long lens on one camera and a wider lens on the other. When the action comes roaring up on you, grab the wider one and shoot away (instead of trying to switch lenses). Trust me, even though they are high school kids, they can run. Fast. If you don’t have two cameras, borrow one for the night or afternoon. Or shoot something else.
By hook or by crook make arrangements to get out on the field. You have to keep your eyes peeled for players running over you (they really don’t watch where they are going), coaches moving up and down the sidelines, and referees doing their jobs. But all that still is better than trying to shoot from outside whatever fence may be present around the field or heaven forbid from the stands. If those are your only chances, I really advise forgetting the whole thing. The field is where everything happens.
Most of what happens is a big pile of bodies running into one another and then falling on the ground. And that is not so exciting or interesting. You have to concentrate on who has the ball, and try to get photos that include said ball. It is far easier said than done. Believe me, I have a new found respect for sports shooters of all kinds. This is tough work. But if you give it a try, just keep shooting and shooting. After a bit you will find yourself getting at least a little bit into the flow of the game and beginning to anticipate where the ball may go. Then you point the camera in that direction and shoot. For football I find I have joined the shoot-first-and-check-the-images-later crowd. I shot more than 500 images Saturday afternoon, and I am posting 12 of them (and I am not overjoyed with even all of those 12). That is not my preferred or usual style of shooting – so I hereby declare myself probably NOT a football shooter.
To see the results of my Saturday afternoon, click on the image of the football players at the top of this post. I had fun shooting, because a bad day shooting is better than most days doing something else. And what’s that old saying? Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, shooting football definitely has made me stronger.