Let me also say that I by no means claim to be an expert in sports action photography. I do feel I have a good eye for sports action and have a good understanding on how to get the shot, so let me share that information with you.
You will hear photographers say that it's the photographer and not the equipment that gives you great results. That is true to an extent. There are many factors that go into getting a great shot. Knowledge of the sport being photographed, photographer's timing, positioning, camera used, and then the lens. I'll do my best to cover each one of these. Equipment will become more important as your shooting situations change, such as weather, night, and indoor games. When shooting night or indoor games the equipment you use will become more important. You will find that most youth and high school sport facilities have terrible lighting. So in order for you to get quality action shots you will need lenes that give you the capability to shoot in low-light situations. This is where lenes with an aperture of f/2.8 or lower come into play. Next you will need to deal with digital noise. Some low-end cameras don't do well when shooting at high ISO's. These are all things that you need to take into consideration when shooting sports action.
Friday Night Lights
Why "Friday Night Lights", well for high school football it's all about Friday night varsity football games. There is nothing more exciting then being on the sidelines under the lights with thousands of fans in the stands yelling at kickoff. There is also nothing more challenging than trying to capture the action at a night football game. What you'll find is that lighting conditions during a night game is constantly changing. The sun is just setting at the start of the game and by half time it's gone. Just when you thought it couldn't get any darker the second half comes and brings with it a darkness that just slaps you in the face and dares you to capture some action. Welcome to high school football.
I will normally start with my camera set to aperture priority at my len's widest opening (f/2.8). As the sun goes down during the first half I will just increase my ISO to give me a decent shutter speed. Usually before the first half is over I will have started using my flash, which I set to high sync. Once I start using my flash I'll take a few test shots to determine my best shutter speed and set my camera to manual mode. Now as the game continues I will have to adjust my shutter as it gets darker towards the end of the game. I will normally slightly over expose my pictures so that I can darken them if nessasary. You will find that by over exposing your shots you will get less noise when having to darken them as opposed to having to brighten them up. Your camera will need the ability for high ISO's (3200) and a lens with a wide aperture of f/2.8. Anything less and it will be hard to obtain a decent shot. Throughout this post you will see actions shots taken during the day as well as under the lights.
In order to capture quality action shots a photographer needs to have a understanding of the sport they are photographing. By knowing the sport the photographer can better anticipate where the action will occur and the best position they need to be in to capture it.
Timing is being able to anticipate the action and know when it will occur. This is one of those aspects that equipment can play a part. Having your standard kit lens, the lens that comes with a camera or low cost consumer lens can cause focusing issues. Your standard lens might be slow when it comes to focusing, which can cause you to miss the action. I currently use Canon and shoot with "L" glass, which is very fast and very clear. The other issue you'll have with a standard lens is the f-stop range. The lenes I use have a wide aperture of f/2.8 throughout the focal range, such as my 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. This means that if I shoot at any focal range (70-200) the lens will keep a constant f/2.8 throughtout the range, which will help with shutter speed and background blur. Your normal lens will have an aperture of f/4.6-5.6 throughout the focal range. In this case when your shooting at the low end of 70mm then your aperture will be f/4.6 and when zoomed in to 200mm your aperture will be f/5.6. Can you still get quality action with these lenes, sure you can. You just need to understand your equipment's limitations and addapt your timing to that. Don't start shooting once you see the action. Anticipate the action and shoot as it happens in front of you.
There are various levels of football and all have their own rules for sideline photography. The following information is based on my dealings with various leagues. I have dealt with two different youth football leagues and both had different rules when it cames to photographers. One league allowed me on the sidelines during the games to photograph the kids in action. The other league would not allow anyone not approved by the league to be on the sidelines. If your interested in photographing youth football and want to be on the sidelines then make arrangements with the league and get prior permission. This may mean becoming the leagues official photographer to have sideline access.
Next is high school football and once again the following information is based on my dealings with various local high schools. When it comes to freshmen and JV football high schools tend to be more flexible and open to photographers and field access. I've also found that by being professional and staying out of the way of the team and coach you won't be questioned or kicked off the field. Now varsity games are quite different. Varsity games have a lot of activity and people on the sidelines. Due to this the school will try their best to limit access to the sidelines. When my son started playing high school football I would go out to the practices and take shots of him and other players. I did this for two reasons. The first was to get some shots of my son and the second was to become a familier face to the coaches. Prior to the season starting and after a few weeks of practice I approached the head coached and asked him for if I could get field access during the varsity games. There will always be a photographer hired to shoot team and individual photo's of the athletes, but very few will have a photographer to capture action shots of their athletes. Make contact with the coach and / or staff to get that access.
The question I'm most often asked about is camera settings. I'm a very active member of a photo forum (Mpix) and will as often as possible critique the work of others as it relates to sports photography. Often most of what I offer them is advice as it relates to their camera settings. Of course there are other details in shooting sports but camera settings seems like a great place to start, but first here's what I will tell people about camera settings. Set your camera to aperture priority at your lenes widest aperture. Then just adjust your ISO to get the speed you want. Now let's did deeper.
When shooting youth sports you will often have backgrounds consisting of houses, parked cars, and various people watching the game. Backgrounds like this can often distract and take away the focus from the athlete / child. When you take a picture of a child in action, weather it's your child or one your being paid to shoot, you want the focus to be them, not something in the background. Some times you can lessen your background by just repositioning yourself, but often you don't have that ability and you will find with youth sports, especially football you have no control of where the action will go. I will discuss field position later.
So do I hear you ask, "How do I handle a distracting background". The answer to this is wide apertures. When shooting football, or any sports action for that matter, you want to isolate the subject your shooting from the background. You can do this by shooting at a wide aperture. The smaller the f-stop number, such as 2.8, the wider the aperture opening. The larger the f-stop number the smaller the aperture opening. Apertures deal with two things in photography. The first is that it decides what your depth of field (dof) will be. The second is how much light is allowed in. How does this help with distracting backgrounds. Well first and foremost a wide aperture will have a shallow depth of field. This means that your subject will be in focus and the background will be blurred. The farther the background is away from your subject the more it will be blurred. So if you hear (read) me saying "Use your widest opening" this is what I'm referring to.
The below two pictures displays this effect. Even though I shot this at f/2.8, the background is still somewhat focus and a bit distracting. The subject is not isolated and blends into the background. The reason for this is the player running the ball is very close to his background and since I'm on the other side of the field the background is within the players depth of focus range. The closer this player would be to the more blurred the background will be.
In the next two pictures you will see that the athlete is further away from the background then the above two examples. Since he is further away from the background the background has a greater blur to it, which now isolates the subject from the background putting the focus on him and not the background.
Now let's talk ISO's and shutter speed. I will tell most people don't be afraid to increase your ISO to get a faster shutter speed. I tend to shoot my action with a shutter speed of 1/1000 or faster. Now this is under decent circumstances, such as day games. When shooting at night you'd be lucky to get a shutter speed of 1/400, but that's a whole different issue. During a game under a sunny sky you should have no problems with keeping you ISO at 100 or even 200. It's when you have overcast or cloudy skies. Then you really need to shoot at higher ISO's, such as 400-1600 and this all depends on how fast a shutter speed you want to shoot with and weather you want to stop action or not.
Now with higher ISO's you will get noise in your shots and I highly recommend a noise reduction program. I currently use and recommend NoiseWare, but there are several different programs out there to choose from.
Now let's discuss field position as it pertains to getting specific shots. Knowing where to stand for the type of shot your looking for will greatly increase your chance of getting the action you want. Knowing the game and play of the game will also increase this chance.
I tend to arrive at the game an hour early. I do this for a couple of reasons. First the added time allows me to go through my gear checking eveything and make sure my setting are right. You don't want to shoot a game later finding out your setting were off from a previous shoot.
Once everything is set I'll then attempt to take some shots of positions that are hard to get during game play. This being the receivers. Once the game starts the action tends to move along very fast and receivers are tough to get in action, unless your watching a paticular player and waiting for the action. So with that said I will often take some shots of the receivers during their pre-game warmup.
The next two shots will show you two examples of warmup shots. The first shot is going to show the receiver with some background that shows it wasn't taken during game play. The second shot will show the receiver in a clear shot (no background to indicate it was taken during warmup). So when taking shots during warm-up be aware of your background and you might end up with some decent action
Let's look at various players and where you would capture them in action. Since the Quarterback (QB) is usually the main player on the team let's start with him. The best place I've found to get some great action shots of the QB is just inside the line of scrimmage, which is where both teams linemen will line up at the start of play. From this position you can get shots of the QB scrambling towards either side looking for an open receiver. You can also capture shots of him handing the ball off to a running back.
A great position to obtain quality action of the QB is at the sideline just behind the line of scrimmage. From this advantage point you can get the QB dropping back for a pass, such as the two examples below.
From this same position you can get shots of the QB running out of the pocket (behind the line) looking downfield for a man open. If no receivers are open then you have the opportunity to get shots of the QB running the ball for a first down. The next two shots show this example.
This last shot is also of the QB running out of the pocket to avoid a tackle. Once again I was standing on the sideline just parelle to him as he turned towards me.
The following shot was taken from the end zone. The QB, #8, took the snap from the center and turned to toss to one of the running backs.
These next two shots were taken while on the sideline parallel with the QB. I wanted to show that in the first shot I have a nice capture of the QB handing off the ball to the running back. Not really much action to this shot, so I decided to crop tight and get a better shot of the QB's facial expression, as seen in the second shot.
Now let's go over the running backs. These are the guys who will get the ball from the QB and run through a hole on the offensive line or to the outside (towards the sideline).
Depending on the shot you want will dictate where you will stand. To capture a shot of the running back running through a hole you would usually need to be at the end zone shooting down the field. Now to get the shots of them running to the outside you can either be parallel with the line or down field. Either position will give you nice results.
This next few shots were taken while standing along the sideline at various stages of the running back running around the outside of the offensive line.
I had the same field position with this shot as I did the one above. The only difference is the timing I used. I waited a bit longer and took the shot once he made the turn and begain running down field.
There are various positions to obtain pictures of both the offensive and defensive linemen. One of the easiest spots to get pictures of linemen is at the end zone. If you want shots of the defence then wait until the offence has their back to your end zone, or if you want shots of the offence wait until attempting to score in the end zone your located at.
Other positions are just off of the scrimmage line on either side, depending on who you want a shot of. This will give you opportunities for shots in the stances or blocking.
One final note to add. Don't throw those pictures away because you think their not worthy of keeping. Try looking for some action in the picture that you can crop tighter on to give you that keeper. The next few shots will show that example. This also show how you can crop out elements that don't add to the picture or the action.
I have posted a lot of information and pictures within this post. I hope that the added pictures provided you with an example of what you can achive by proper position and using the correct settings. If there is something you felt I've missed, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.