Background

My photography experience goes back to approximately 2009 when I got my first “real” camera (which I define as a camera with full manual control), a Sony a230 DSLR. For about 2 years shortly after I worked for my church as the Media Director part-time which, unironically, taught me to hate photography and digital arts in general. Since that time I have exclusively treated photography as what it truly is to me: a hobby and passion. 

In 2017 my wife, an assistant band director at Lubbock-Cooper High School, asked me if I would help her out by coming to a few games and getting photos of the band for social media use. Thus I acquired my first-ever sideline pass as a photographer. I had, quietly, always wanted to try shooting a football game and this was my chance to be close enough to the action to give it a try. On September 1, 2017, a new addiction was born in me: sports photography.

September 1, 2017: The first sports shot that got me hooked

Here I am now in my third year and my love for shooting sports is stronger than it has ever been. Unlike any other genre of photography, action photography is a beast in its own class. I would like to share some of what I’ve learned after spending a few hundred hours on the sidelines (but knowing I have so much room to improve).

Before you continue reading this guide, if you do not yet understand terms such as ‘aperture’, ‘ISO’, or ‘focal length’ I highly suggest you check out some photography basics guides that are out there, as this will not cover those definitions.

Gear

I would absolutely be lying if I said I didn’t want to start with this subject. In photography, gear does not matter … unless you’re shooting sports. In my first year on the sidelines, I was using a Sony a6300 with the 18-105mm f4 G OSS. In this write up I am going to cover quite a lot of more basic concepts so as to serve all skill levels of photographer. This lens, while not as bad as some kit lenses that come with DSLRs, was certainly not the ideal piece of equipment to be using on the sidelines at a high school football game. The maximum aperture of f/4 was simply too dark to properly compensate for the low light of high school stadiums and the long end of 105mm was far too short to capture much of the action properly.

That said, looking back, I still managed to get some decent shots with that setup. In many ways, working with such limitations helped me to learn many of the principles and ideas I am covering in this guide. Let me be clear here… I could talk about gear all day. I love gear. It’s a serious problem. But for the sake of brevity, I am going to simply list out what I believe you need as someone on the sidelines trying to get good photos of the action.

  • An interchangeable lens camera capable of shooting 10+ frames-per-second
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 lens
  • A well-made, comfortable strap

That’s it. If you’ve seen me at games pull up with my ‘kitchen sink’ bag of gear, you might be wondering why this list is so short. Simple answer, these are just the bare essentials. For those of you who have been into photography for a while, some of you are probably getting flustered right now. “MY camera only shoots 5fps and it’s fine! MY lens is only f4 and it’s fine! You don’t NEED this stuff!”. True. No one is saying that you must have these things to get good photographs on the field. What I am saying here is that, in real life, the difference between one frame to the next when you’re using a 5fps camera is the difference in time between a receiver going up to catch a ball and being on the ground, and you’ve missed the moment where they actually caught it.

Gear can be expensive and confusing. Don't get ahead of yourself here.

Exposure Settings

Lighting. The sports photographer’s natural enemy. For the sake of this guide, I’m going to be using high school football for most of my examples. Settings will vary from stadium to stadium, arena to arena, and even from yard line to yard line! Again, I can’t stress enough that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for exposure settings, but there are certain ‘ideal’ constants and ranges that we need to aim for when making exposure considerations. 

pixel5’s 3 Rules of Exposure

  1. Thou shalt not sacrifice shutter speed for a lower ISO
  2. There are no modes other than manual
  3. The meter lies

If you shoot at 1/400s to avoid shooting over 1600 ISO, I will come through your screen and slap you right across the face. If you do this, this is why your photos suck. Sorry cupcake, this is the reality of things.

The school I shoot for actually has pretty decent lighting for a high school football stadium. There are 4 arrays of lights on each side of the field and they are relatively close to the ground, while also being anti-flicker and having low color-shift (Have you ever noticed sometimes a light changes color from white to orange frame-to-frame? That’s color shift). Let’s take a look at my typical settings for a [night] home football game:

  • Aperture ƒ2.8
  • Shutter Speed 1/1000 second
  • ISO 6400

The Why

When you’re shooting night games, you begin to understand why it’s so important to have an f/2.8 (or faster) lens. The difference between 2.8 and 4.0 is a full stop of light, which means you’d have to double your ISO to 12,800 to maintain the same shutter speed. My ‘In Case of Emergency Break Glass’ shutter speed is 1/800, but 1/1000 is where I absolutely try to be at the slowest for football. Motion blur is the surest sign of amateurism in sports photography. Again, crank your ISO. No one cares about grain in your photos, but they will care about motion blur.

In any case, you should be occasionally checking the images on the back of your camera to ensure your exposure is still where you want it.

Physics

It’s important, on some level, to understand that not all lenses are created equal. Aperture (the ƒ number) is merely a function of the focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture opening and not an actual measurement of how much light is being transmitted through the lens to the image sensor. The value for such a thing is measured in T-Stops (transmission). DXOMark is a good resource to look up the actual transmission of certain lenses. Transmission is NOT the be-all-end-all of lens quality, it’s just one aspect of it. For example, my previous lens, a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 Sport, actually transmits at about T3.3, where as the much more expensive Sony G Master version transmits near T2.9. If you’ve ever wondered why top-level professional sports photographers don’t use third party lenses very often, this is why. Their images are being blown up to put on billboards and they need every last ounce of detail they can get out of their gear, a lower ISO helps with that.

Daylight

You get to shoot a daytime game. Awesome! You can crank up that shutter speed while staying at a low ISO because of all that beautiful sunshine. You don’t have to worry about a thing, right?

Oh my sweet, summer child. You’re in for quite the frustrating experience. Don’t get me wrong, after several years of practice I love shooting daytime games, but learning to deal with the ever changing lighting conditions is an ordeal. A cloud passes by and suddenly you’re underexposed by 2 stops, or the game transitions from day into night slowly and you become the proverbial boiled frog not realizing how much the light as changed in the last 30 minutes. But this next example is the worst to deal with… Let’s look at the following images together.

These two images are from the same sequence on one play. It’s actually a fairly forgiving example, but it’s the only one I could find without spending a year looking through my library. The runner, within about 2 seconds, goes from direct sunlight to the shadow of the press box. Of course, with post processing you could pretty easily correct these specific images, but many such scenarios are not as forgiving with the contrast between sunlight and shadow being much more severe. This is where understanding your exposure, and even being able to change it on the fly, becomes crucial. You have to answer questions such as “If I expose for the average of the two, will I be able to recover those shadows or highlights in post?” and “Is auto ISO an option I can consider using? Can I trust it on my camera?”. Know your tools and pay attention to the hot spots on the field of play!

Autofocus

The subject of debate among professionals and hobbyists alike, but perhaps the most important aspect of your gear to have experience and practice using. Camera manufacturers have been on a carousel, taking turns on who has the best autofocus for this or that over the last couple of decades, but here in 2019 I’d say they are all pretty good. What it comes down to is using the settings that are most reliable and best suited to the action that’s in front of you. On Nikon’s DSLR cameras, the ‘Dynamic Area’ AF area is quite a common selection among professional sports shooters. However, it never really worked for me using their new Z6 mirrorless camera. In football, I used the Wide-L area and switch to the smaller Wide-S area when the action gets much tighter on the goal lines and you are looking at more bodies in the frame. On Fuji, it was a similar story.

As a general rule of thumb, the more autofocus points [the bigger the area of autofocus points selected] that you tell the camera to use, the more autofocus calculations the camera has to do, the more likely you are to lose track of your subject. With this in mind, use only as big of an area as you can reasonably justify. For me, in football, I keep my subject in the center 25% or so of my frame so that’s where I keep my autofocus area. Since my camera has a joystick, I can quickly move that area around the screen for certain compositions (though most of the time it stays centered).

Getting the correct subject in focus is often difficult

There are more detailed settings on many cameras, such as how quickly it should be switching off of one subject and onto another or tracking forgiveness along a certain axis of movement. These are things you simply have to play around with to see what works best.

Oh, and in case it’s not obvious enough, use continuous autofocus. ‘AF-C’, ‘AI Servo’, different camera brands call it different things… just make sure it’s continuously able to focus as long as you’re holding the button.

Speaking of buttons, what is this “back button AF” you might have heard people talking about? It’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of the shutter release half-press triggering autofocus, the camera maps the autofocus to a button on the backside of the camera. It’s quite a common practice for sports shooters who want to focus at a certain point and do not want it to refocus if a player, ref, or coach happens to run in front of the camera during a play. Personally, I do not use this. Instead, I do the opposite... a button on the back of my camera halts autofocus. Either way, you should have some way to stop your camera from changing focus in those instances where you don’t want it to!

Be a Rule Follower

Before I go any further, there’s an important topic of discussion we need to go over. Your presence on the sidelines is a privilege, not a right. It doesn’t matter why you’re there or who you’re shooting for, you must respect the ‘rules of engagement’ at all times, every time. On a football field, stay behind the press line. If there is no press line, just know it’s 3 to 5 yards off the sidelines. Some stadiums will have a dotted line 5 yards off the sideline, stay behind it. Unless you’ve been asked to be there by the coaching staff or athletic director, stay OUT of the players and coaches box (the area between the 30 yard lines from the sideline and back about 10 yards).

You are there to cover the event, not participate in it. If the teams are playing at one goal line and you are at the other end of the field, walk all the way around the end zones, do not cut across the corners. During timeouts, stay off the field! Until the final play is blown dead, the floor is lava!

When you arrive at a venue you’ve never been to, or if you haven’t been there in a long time, ask if they have a special media entrance or sign-in area. Some places want you to wear one of their lanyards, a wrist band, and some larger venues will ask you to wear a vest designated with ‘MEDIA’ or ‘PHOTO’ they provide. If you aren’t sure, call the administration beforehand and ask! I have found that, in high school, most places do not require anything more than you having your credentials around your neck. A lot of stadiums ask volunteers to man their gates and ticket booths and, unfortunately, more often than you might expect they can let that power go to their heads. Keep a smile on your face, be polite even if they are not, and you will be fine.

Respect your fellow photographers. You all have equal right to be standing on the sidelines. Stay aware of them, look where you’re going before you start moving. Respect their line of sight and they will respect yours (at least, they should).

What Matters Most

The story

Every time, the story is king. The story arrives unannounced and it leaves in an instant. The story has no respect for you and will not wait to be captured. Stop asking “What did it look like?” and ask “How did it feel?” when you’re in the moment. Have you ever watched a replay of a sporting event with friends and said, “Man you should have been there!”? Why should they have been there? What was different about being there versus watching it through a screen? There’s an energy that sparks emotion which we cannot explain. These are people moving a ball from point A to point B, so why are we in the stands losing our voices in 40 degree weather in the middle of November? Humanity. These are the moments which make us human.

Faces

People need faces. Who wants to see the back of a helmet running into the end zone? We want to see their face! Body language can say a lot, but the face is the protagonist of every emotion’s story. It wasn’t a robot that just scored, it was an athlete who has trained their entire lives to push a pile of 250 lb linemen 2 yards and put his team ahead by 6 with a minute left in the game.

Faces are something your photos can have that spectators in the stands can’t usually see

Sports happen, even with the clock isn’t running

I’d argue that the moments between plays are just as important as the big plays themselves, sometimes even moreso! The referees blow their whistles to tell the players to stop, not you. The celebrations after a score, the heartbreak after a close loss, players jumping up and down after a recovered fumble… these are the images which matter most and have the best stories.

One of my favorite photos came from a moment after the whistle

Be a Defensive Coordinator

In your own mind, at least. I was mildly entertained when, earlier this season, I went back and watched some of the highlight videos from the games I had shot. I noticed that, more times than not, I was standing right where the scoring plays happened. Like a walking, talking spoiler alert. Did I know what the play call was? No, but I had a feeling.

When you’re the photographer for one team, you have a huge advantage when it comes to knowing what you can expect to happen next if you’ll simply pay attention. Every time they’ve had X player in at running back, he’s in there for pass blocking… he’s coming onto the field now, so guess what’s about to happen? Maybe 7 times out of 10 when your offense is in the red zone they throw a back corner fade, be ready for it!


Even if you’re a neutral or unaffiliated photographer and haven’t kept up with either team, you can see trends begin to emerge as the game progresses. Some situations are more obvious than others, such as when an onside kick is coming or desperation heaves on 3rd and long. Basically, be a fan of the game. Get good at guessing what’s coming next.

Be Lucky

Honestly, that’s what it all comes down to. You go to games and stand in the cold for hours hoping that, at least once, you’re standing in the right spot at the right time with the right lens. I think that’s what makes sports so much fun to shoot, the chaos of it all. If it all comes down to luck, why does all of this matter? It’s a fair question. But in my experience, luck favors the prepared.

A Few Final Tips

“Safety framing” can be a useful tool. Zoom out farther than you need to ensure that you get your entire subject in the shot. Starting on the wide end of your zoom range as the play starts and zooming in as it progresses can be a good trick as well if you’re struggling to follow the action. It happens to the best of us.

Don’t just dump your cards. No one wants to sort through 2500 frames of almost-the-same-photo-as-the-one-before-it and your out of focus trash. Regardless, it’s only going to make you look bad! Put your best foot forward, choose the best images from the events you shoot and let the others sit in your archive.

The act of stopping to look through your images on the back of your camera, called “chimping”, is something you should be very careful about doing. When you’re getting started into sports, or shooting a sport you’re new to, avoid it as much as possible. As you get more experience, you will begin to figure out when you have opportunities to do this. Take a second or two to check focus and rate the good images (if your camera supports it). Don’t bother deleting images, get a bigger card if you need to! Deleting images takes up too much valuable time.

The final and best tip I can give you is to be friendly. I can’t tell you how many great people I’ve gotten to meet in just a few short years of doing this. Coaches, stadium staff, and other photographers. We’re all here for the same reason, and we’re going to have fun while we’re at it!

Thanks for reading!

I hope this has helped you! My enthusiasm for sports photography is unending and I just felt the need to share what I've learned so far. Please drop if a line if you have questions or comments!