Deal 9: Hacking Photography mega-deal
I spent a good portion of my career photographing sports, from children all the way up through the pros. One of the most challenging sports to photograph was soccer (football or futbol if you’re outside North America). I’ve had colleagues liken it to “photographing a moving tree in a moving forest” because you’re focused on one player, while other players are moving across the frame between you and the subject all the time. It takes patience and some knowledge of the game to be really good at photographing it.
Soccer is a fast-moving sport and thus requires your camera to be set a certain way. I shoot most of my action using Aperture Priority, with the aperture set around f/4 or f/5.6. I want a pretty shallow depth of field so the athletes pop off the background, and so that background objects don’t distract from the subjects. I then set the ISO to be sure I get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Generally this means 1/500 minimum. Faster if you’re using a lens longer the 500mm. I set my camera’s autofocus system to AI Servo or Continuous (dependent on the brand of camera you use- it means the same thing). AI Servo or continuous simply means that your camera will focus on the subject and continue to track the subject as it moves towards or away from the camera. Finally, I set my camera’s drive to continuous so that I simply have to press and hold the shutter button to take multiple images. This enables me to take an entire sequence of action, meaning I won’t miss peak action by taking only one shot, or more importantly, I’ll get multiple images to choose from of the play to be sure I get the best shot out of the action. Note that some cameras have multiple continuous settings, such as continuous low or continuous hi. I suggest getting as many shots as possible and using continuous hi, if you have a choice. For instance, the images accompanying this article were taken using an EOS-1D X, with the drive set to Continuous Hi, which is 12 frames per second. Realistically, faster is better, but even a consumer camera firing at 4 frames per second can produce outstanding results.
Unfortunately, soccer is a sport that screams for long glass on your camera. The fields are so large, and the game so spread out, that putting anything less than a 300mm lens on the camera will leave you missing a lot of shots. Truth be told, a 500mm lens is ideal. I found a lens such as Canon’s EF 200-400 f/4L IS Extender 1.4x to be a great combination as I could zoom in and out and cover things close to me at 200mm, and zoom all the way in when the action moved away. Nikon makes a similar lens, without the 1.4x extender built in. For more cost-conscious options, lenses such as Canon’s 100-400mm or the many 70-300mm lenses on the market are also good choices.
When on the field, or pitch as the rest of the world calls it, I have several places I like to stand. My favorite place is behind the end line, to the side of the goal. This allows me an angle on the goalie when he comes out to make a play, but also gets action coming more or less right at me. I find it much easier to photograph players running towards me, rather than to try and pan with action moving parallel to me. When the action is coming to me, I don’t have to work to keep the AF point on the athletes. When I have to pan with the athletes, there’s always the chance I move too fast or too slow and the AF point loses focus.
I find the combination of speed and physicality to make soccer incredibly rewarding. I love capturing the players fighting for the ball, fighting for position. I love capturing the emotion as they score a goal, or the dejection of losing a big game. Spending an afternoon at a soccer game provides a ton of great opportunities, so go take advantage of them!
August 5, 2013 06:18 am
I shoot on Rugby most of the time. Is similar to the soccer. Most of the time I shoot during the morning. I used to set my camera in Shutter Proirity in order to freeze the action.
Looking on your recomendations movein in to AP, moving the ISO probably over 400 in order to get a high shutter priority.
My question is what about the quality of the picture when you go over 400 in ISO? Is not good to set ISO not over of 200?
July 11, 2013 11:47 pm
Sorry Murray, I can only shoot when the games are played. Night time sports around here is not unheard of, but he lighting isn't too bad. Mostly the games are played at local colleges where ISO 3200 would do the job. The D90 is a bit long in the tooth compared to newer DSLRs, so you might find an upgrade in order if night sports is something you're doing a lot of. And I'm sorry you can't find any helpful insights simply because the games I shoot are held during the day.
July 10, 2013 03:38 pm
Great photo's. It seems though, that you have the luxury of day soccer. My sons school plays just as the suns going down. So none of this means a thing without some fast glass and a camera with clean High ISO capabilities. Show me some shots under the lights with a D90 and a Sigma 70-200mm f2.8..
July 2, 2013 11:13 am
Rick, I thought these were some really good tips! Thanks for sharing what you do. Very helpful. @ Justin, I find that photographing an event helps it to be more interesting for me. It helps me to mentally focus on what's going on and looking for what looks interesting. I love getting "the shot" where someone is flying through the air, or are heading the ball, or a good fight...for the ball.
July 1, 2013 11:11 am
Great tips on shooting soccer & thanks for providing equipment suggestions :)
June 30, 2013 01:44 am
I love watching soccer and photographing soccer! Soccer is a sport of many intricacies, so if you do not have a good understanding of the game, then I can see how it would be boring.
I think soccer is one of the harder sports to photograph because it never stops, for 45 minutes. Constant action. But oh the joy of catching a player heading the ball, scoring a goal, stealing the ball from another player, looking up to find a teammate while dribbling the ball. There are so many finer points of soccer that can be captured in photographs. In addition to watching the game the pictures tell another part of the story of the game.
Thank you Rick, for the settings you like. I will have to give them a try.
I am using a Canon 7D and looking to purchase the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens because so many games are played at night.
June 29, 2013 01:12 am
SIDEWAYS LESSON: There's a sideways sort of photography lesson in this topic for me. Personally, just my bias, watching soccer is about as stimulating as watching paint dry. In 50 years of living and numerous attempts at catching the soccer bug, the game just never grabbed me. Photography clue? If you want to take really great images, don't photograph things that don't interest you, moreover, really GRAB you. The viewer of your photos can FEEL the emotional connection between you and your images and thus your subject. Passion for your subject is an essential ingredient for great photography. If you're not feeling the connection with your subject, neither will viewers. I know there are billions of people out there who LOVE soccer and will love looking at your images of soccer ... but only if YOU love soccer too, and you take the time to learn how to infuse that love into your images until it explodes or oozes from your images with the intensity and passion you feel for the subject. Lean to spend time with your subject, to let your fire for it build as you study it through the lens, learn to wait for and capture those moments where the essence of the thing leaps through the lens and directly into your heart and you hear yourself saying "OOOo THAT'S IT!". My photography went from "pleasing and technically competent" to "inspiring" when I finally learned this lesson. And I learned it from someone who had less technical know-how but a more intuitive understanding of this fact. Life is more fun when we live with passion ... and the same goes for shooting.
June 28, 2013 11:04 pm
This was a great start for me as I have shot other sports other than soccer. Learning where to stand and understanding the game is very important. I have been asked to shoot some high school games this year by the coach I now know of two places to stand for these shots from your article, behind the end line and the 18 yard line (is that a particular location in soccer based on metric system? Sort of like the 20 yard line in American football?). Do you have any other suggested positions to improve the capturing of the action.
June 28, 2013 07:27 pm
I think one of the essentials is to ensure the ball is in the shot, if it's an action shot. Otherwise, it's a photo of two guys running/colliding :0...of which I have a few of these. Otherwise it took a lot of trial and error.
June 28, 2013 10:07 am
@Brian- To each his own. I just try to do something a little different now and then. It may not be a great shot but it illustrates the concept of panning nicely. As for showing up with business cards to shoot youth soccer- I do not recommend this approach. Anyone can make up business cards with any name they want on them. It's best to approach league officials and let them decide if they'll let you on the fields. I have worked with many leagues over the years, often they won't have a problem, but this is one case where asking permission first is better than asking forgiveness later.
@Mikael- I mentioned several other lenses, including the 70-300, and 100-400. I happened to be able to borrow a 200-400 to try for the weekend I shot these images. I simply stated the lens I used and my opinion of it. I'm not selling anything.
June 28, 2013 06:09 am
Nice little promo input to try and sell the Canon 200-400. wish we all could afford it. Maybe instead give information to most individuals who don't have 12,000.00 to spend.
June 28, 2013 05:44 am
I've shot a lot of soccer mostly up to U14 with a 70-200 on a DX camera. As mentioned above, position is everything, and you must know that you are limited to the 1/4 of the field closest to you for the really good shots. One photographer can't get it all. So don't try to capture everything. A corner kick photographed from midfield is just too far uess I invest in more equipment b
However, I have learned that some great action and expression in the final photo will often compensate for slight out of focus or extreme cropping. Like the kids playing, I'm not perfect . . . but I'm still learning!
June 28, 2013 05:36 am
Only one person mentioned the bane of high school and college soccer - low lighting even in stadiums (only TV quality lit stadium I saw was UNC-Greensboro). You better have a fast lens AND a monopod. Boosting your ISO eventually lets you just document the game as the shots become so grainy as to be otherwise useless.
June 28, 2013 03:27 am
Sorry, but I don't like that last shot at all. The second shot is awesome.
I've been wanting to practice at some soccer matches, but those available to me right now are young children of which I don't know any.
With today's concerns about protecting children, I've been hesitant. However, advice I read elsewhere says to bring with you some business cards (whether you have a photo business or not) and if anyone approaches you or even appears to have concerns about you - give them a business card and honestly tell them you are practicing. Having a name & contact info for you may very well calm their fears. Plus you may wind up doing some business. I once shot an adult ice hockey game for practice and got a good donation to a charity out of the session when I gave one of the goalies a great shot of themselves.
June 26, 2013 08:49 am
I consider myself a beginner still. Our local high school boys team went 22-0 and won the state championship. I decided to borrow a 100-400 Canon lens to use with my 7D to follow play-off games. I kept it on Tv (shutter priority) at 1/1000 to stop the action. The challenge for me was lighting. The 100-400 only goes as low as 4.5 and at 400mm 5.6. The games were played at dusk which meant the light progressively changed and I ended up pushing up my ISO as high as it would go to keep it at 1/1000.
Below is the link to my pictures:
(this may be a repeat, I didn't notice my other post made it on)
June 26, 2013 05:27 am
My local high school went 22-0 and won their state championship this year. During this time, I borrowed a 100-400 Canon lens to use with my 7D. This was my first time shooting a sport this fast. I decided to use Tv (shutter priority) set at 1/1000. My biggest challenge was lighting. Because the 100-400 only went to 4.5 and because the game were played at dusk, The lighting got darker as time went. For some I had to push the ISO up really high. Below is a link to all the soccer games I followed:
(I should mention I consider myself a beginner still)
June 25, 2013 02:48 pm
Interesting read and nice tips!
June 25, 2013 10:22 am
I started shooting my son's high school soccer games with a Pentax K-x with a 300 mm lens and it is some of the most challenging (and rewarding) photography I've attempted. I am a novice so knowing the game definitely helps. When I get those awesome action shots, it's worth sorting out the not-so-awesome ones...not to mention the kids love seeing themselves battling for the ball.
June 25, 2013 09:58 am
You offered a lot of good information in this article. I am the Director of Photography for a camp that includes an international soccer camp. This means I am taking hundreds of photos of the soccer players every week. I wish you had written these tips last year! I had a steep learning curve, since I am not a sports photographer, but eventually arrived at the same types of settings and placement that you did. Your point about trying to keep the action coming towards you is certainly true, even if it isn't always possible. My question for you is how you deal with the bright sunlight, especially when it is behind the players. I try to open my aperture as wider, but too often it ends up blowing out the background (the fields are in a very open area. There is really nothing around them on most sides). I suppose given the choice between a blown background and a visible face, the choice is obvious, but thought I'd ask in case you had a tip that I hadn't thought of. Thanks!
June 23, 2013 08:54 am
Jim, on a Rebel T1i, that 55-250 has the equivalent field of view as an 88-400mm lens would on a full-frame camera, so it falls right into the range needed at the long end. This is due to the smaller sized sensor. And gee, it only took three comments for someone to emphasize what they feel the proper name of the sport is. I honestly don't care as long as I'm being paid to shoot it.
June 23, 2013 08:27 am
Agreed, the most important thing about shooting FOOTBALL is knowing the game. When you know the game well you can predict 90% of passes and shots which makes great photos easier to capture.
June 23, 2013 05:31 am
You don't always need expensive equipment to take action photos. Check out some of my photos taken with a Rebel T1i + 55-250mm at the web address above. Not quite as good as yours but somewhat respectable for the equipment used.
June 23, 2013 03:49 am
Thanks for the tips and I agree with you about shooting soccer is difficult.The most challenge part for me is to stay focus on one player since in soccer, other player will pass across rapidly at any time and make the focus lost again and again.
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