Tips for Photographing Football (Soccer)

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Football (called soccer in some parts of the world) can be a very challenging sport to photograph. The ball is constantly moving quickly around the pitch, which may make it somewhat of a challenge to capture the action if you don’t have the right knowledge on how to do so. This simple guide will point you in the right direction to get more success at your next football match.

football or soccer photography action

Players contest the ball. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

First, let’s start off with equipment, because heading to a game with the wrong kit is definitely not going to help you.

Equipment

For best results, an 18-55mm or similar lens will not be sufficient to cover a game of football; the players and the action will be too far away, and you will most likely end up being disappointed with the results. Using a 70-200mm or equivalent is a great starting point, and will be a fantastic range for areas closer to goal. However, if you do have anything longer in your bag that is always helpful; anything up to about 400mm will be perfect. Anything longer than that can get a little too tight on a football field, unless you want to photograph players at the other end.

If you find that you’re current lens isn’t quite long enough, don’t feel like you need to run out and buy a longer one; cropping can always help quite a lot. With newer cameras having such high resolutions now, you won’t find too much of a drop in final image quality. Renting a lens for a day or two is always an option you may want to consider as well.

Also, bringing a small camping stool will be of great comfort to you, and because you will be closer to the ground than standing, it will help you get less of the field in the frame.

Fig 3

Players competing for possession of the ball. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Settings

If you’re comfortable with using Manual mode, the below will be a helpful guide to getting you started. If you’re not too comfortable with Manual mode just yet, using shutter speed priority set to 1/800th, or faster, should do the trick.

Shutter Speed

Football (soccer), as with the majority of sports, is fast paced. To be able to freeze the action you will need to use a fast shutter speed; 1/800th as a minimum, is a great starting point for more advanced players as they tend to move much faster than younger, junior players. If you’re photographing a very young age group match, you may find that 1/500th could be fast enough, however 1/800tj would be a safer option.

Fig 5b

A fast shutter speed was used here. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

To add some variety, slower shutter speeds can create some fantastic images when done correctly. Shooting at around the 1/30th mark is a great starting point. If you find that there is too much blur in your images, then speeding the shutter speed up slightly will help. Conversely, if there is not enough blur, you may need to slow the shutter speed down.

Fig 4b

Try using a slower shutter speed to create motion blur showing speed. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Aperture

For single player shots, f/2.8 would be ideal as it will isolate the player nicely. However, if photographing tackles, etc., where there is more than one player, it is best to use f/4 as this will give you a slight increase in depth of field (DoF), without sacrificing too much shutter speed. If your lens cannot got as wide as f/2.8 or f/4, that’s perfectly fine, just use the widest aperture your equipment offers.

ISO

Now that you have your aperture and shutter speed set, use the ISO to fill in for the exposure, or brightness, you want to have. Depending on what shutter speed/aperture combination you have, you may find ISO 400 on a bright day works, or on the other hand, if you’re in a low-light situation such as at dusk, night, or on a heavily overcast day, ISO 800 or higher may be required. Just be careful with how high you go on your particular camera as each model can perform differently at higher ISO’s. This is something that you may need to play around with a bit to explore.

Autofocus

Using the correct autofocus function on your camera will be a key element in ensuring you capture a sharp shot! Because you will be photographing moving subjects, One-Shot AF on Canon, or AF-S on Nikon, is not an appropriate focus mode to use, as it will not continually track the moving subject. In this situation, using AI-Servo on Canon, or AF-C on Nikon, would be the best solution as it will continually track a moving subject, so long as you keep the autofocus engaged. If you’re comfortable with manually selecting AF points, that will further help you control your camera’s focus even more; just select whichever autofocus point you wish your subject to be placed in the frame.

Positions

As with any sport, sitting in the right position will increase your chances of getting the shot. For football (soccer), this is generally around the corners of the pitch or field.

Fig 1

An overview of a soccer pitch with a guide of seating positions. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

  • Position 1: Looking down the pitch (field) will give you some great shots of players as they run with the ball toward you. You can also get some great shots of goals here, too. This position is also the most versatile position as you can get a good mix of everything.
  • Position 2: Looking around the pitch (field) is fantastic for shots at goal, as you will generally be able to get the goal shooter, and keeper in the frame. From here, you will also be able to capture players running down the pitch (field), but they will not be as head-on if running down the wings.
  • For some variation, try shooting at position 3, as from there you will be able to get some great panning shots of players with the ball, as they run the length of the pitch. You generally won’t be able to get many great goal shots from here but you may find some great tackle opportunities if they happen around mid-field.

Do not be tempted to run around the pitch following the ball – you will be forever running, and not photographing! It is much better to sit in one location and wait for the action to come to you. You can always move locations, such as at half-time, if you’re wanting to photograph a particular team.

Fig 10

A nice tackle here. A player hslid right under the other for the ball. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

What to look for

Here are some things for you to look for at your next game.

Celebrations – This could be of the team that just scored a goal, or after the final whistle, capture the team that won the match.

Fig 6

Teammates celebrate scoring a goal. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Fig 12

A player shows the toll of losing a match. These images are also quite powerful, as the players can often have great expressions.

Action – This will be a major part in the game. Football (soccer) has a lot of tackles, headers, dives, slides, not to mention goals, and goal deflections by the keeper. Staying focused is key to capturing these moments. Also bear in mind, that older players will generally play with a higher intensity than the younger players, so capturing dramatic tackles will happen more often. But be aware that older players also move a lot faster!

Fig 2

Players falls from a push. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images

Fig 7

A player took a shot at goal. Having the goal keeper, and the front goal posts in the frame, clearly illustrates that this is taking place at goal. © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

Fig 9

Players heading the ball. Getting the ball close to their heads is key with these types of images. If the ball is too far away, it can get lost. Also, the players expressions are generally better when the ball has just hit their head! © Daniel Smith / Getty Images.

The crowd – If the game you’re covering has a lot of supporters, don’t forget to get some shots of them, too, they can add some great atmosphere. Look for emotions on their faces; maybe they’re excited as their team just scored a goal, or they may be very quiet as their team is about to lose. The crowd is a great place for emotions.

Conclusion

Football (soccer) can be a very rewarding sport to photograph. As with any sport, the more you understand about the game, the more you know where to look for action, and will be able to follow it easier. However, if you’re not all that familiar with football (I’m not an expert on it by any meaning of the word) practice makes perfect.

One thing I would suggest is if you are planning on heading down to your local club to photograph a game, as a courtesy ask any match officials or club president if they are okay with you doing so. They will appreciate it, and it will make it easier for future photographers. Happy shooting!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Daniel Smith is originally from Melbourne, Australia, but now resides in the UK. He specializes in sport and editorial photography and is a photographer with Getty Images. You can see more of his work at Carbon Photographics, and by following him on Instagram.

  • Tony

    Hey Daniel, I consider myself an amateur photographer. I have tried photographing high school soccer (futbol) matches with some success. I use a Canon 7D with 100-400 f/4-5.6. It does well in good light but at night stadium lights here are poor and my camera strains. My main question to you is about orientation. Which is preferred, landscape or portrait? I’ve attached a link to some of the games I’ve done. As you will see most are landscape. However, I do not think I’m tight enough. By the way, they are my first and essentially my only attempt at photographing the sport. I do enjoy sports photography and hope more time to improve.

    http://tonycarlson.zenfolio.com/f937257202

    http://tonycarlson.zenfolio.com/f377181097

  • CarbonPhotographics

    Hi Tony. Great question! When it comes to orientation I genreally like to keep photos with 2 or more athletes landscape, and single person images in portrait as doing this will allow me to keep the framing a lot tighter. There are some instances where using landscape for single players will work, such as when they are more side-on rather than head-on,

  • Hi Tony. Great question! When it comes to orientation I genreally like to keep photos with 2 or more athletes landscape, and single person images in portrait as doing this will allow me to keep the framing a lot tighter. There are some instances where using landscape for single players will work, such as when they are more side-on rather than head-on. However, there isn’t really a ‘preferred’ choice; especially if the images are only for your own use. In this case, it’s whichever you prefer! Exceptions may be if you are photographing for a website, for example, they may prefer more landscape images that portrait as that’s what their webpage templates use.

    And your lens/camera combination is perfect. As you say, it’s great during the day, but you will find it difficult at night time when shooting at f/5.6. I also had a quick look at the links you provided. You have some great images in there; especially considering you haven’t had much experience covering football! I would do as you say; crop in much, MUCH, tighter!
    The reason sitting down is helpful is that is a) saves standing up and is much more comfortable!, and b) it gets you lower to the ground so you have less grass in the frame. Standing up means that you often get more grass in the frame as you’re shooting down more than shooting slightly up or level, as is the case when sitting down.

    I hope you enjoyed the article and got something out of it! Keep practicing and remember to always have fun!

  • Tony

    Thanks Daniel. Very helpful advice. I do hope to do more. I have to find a game where I can be neutral as I find myself watching (cheering for the home team) more than shooting.

  • Valics Lehel
  • Hi Valics! You’ve got some strong images in there! It looks like you’re on the right track with your settings which is good. I often use high ISO’s as you’ve mentioned; especially during night matches. I regularly use ISO 8000 to get the shutter speed and aperture combination I want. I use ISO mainly to control my exposure with the aperture/shutter speed combination I’m using. Thanks for the comment!

  • Here’s one for this post

  • Chrissie

    I am looking for some suggestions on photographing indoor All-Star Cheerleading Competitions. Any of you that have been to one of these, it is more like a rock concert with the bright lights and music. Hahaha. My daughter is very much into the sport and a flyer, so always front and center! I am new to my Nikon D3300 (Christmas gift from Hubby) :). I think it was mostly because of my desire to learn how to take amazing photos, but maybe also so we stop buying pictures at every event! LOL Any help and or suggestions are greatly appreciated. My lenses are 18-55mm and and 55-200mm

    I know this isn’t the right category, but with the forum down, I thought I’d give it a shot 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing, Gordon!

  • Hi Chrissie. Thanks for the comment, and hopefully the forums will be back up soon!
    If you’re new to photography, I would suggest using the sports mode. But if you feel comfortable enough, set your camera to shutter speed priority (S on Nikon) and set the speed to around 1/1000th of a second; this will freeze the action for you. I would start your ISO at ISO 800, but if you notice your aperture (f/ number) flashing, then your camera is telling you that the photo will be underexposed as it cannot use a wider aperture (limited by the lens). If this happens, increase your ISO until it stops flashing. Set your focus mode to Continuous so your camera will continually track your subject; even if they move.
    The lighting is something that may be quite tricky to adapt to, but with a bit of luck, you should be able to get some great shots! Have a look on DPS for tutorials on shutter speed, aperture and ISO. They will help you a lot!

  • Daddyphototaker

    Having two daughters in cheerleading started my adventure in photography. These competitions have horrible lighting and I quickly learned my kit lens was nowhere near adequate. If you can get 1/320 at f2.8 and keep your Iso below 5000 you’ll be lucky. The kit she describes is going to struggle. I’d suggest looking for a prime lens to get a bigger aperture (lower f stop) – perhaps an 85 f1.8, but these primes are notoriously slow to focus. It might be cheaper to pay for a few pictures at the event. From my experience it was a multiple $1000 investment. Which has moved from cheering to dance and today…volleyball. It was worth it!

  • Yeah…new kit is definitely the way to go in this scenario; but always the most practical. You can get some great shots with kit lenses in low light; they just may not be the type of shots you had imagined. Not everything has to be frozen in time!

  • laboheme

    Loved this article. I shoot just for fun. Bought A really nice camera so I could shoot action shots of my daughter playing soccer and became pretty good at capturing shots I was pleased with. (Sony A77). She plays Rugby now but is 5 hours away so I don’t have much opportunity. This made me want to find opportunity! I included one I took at one of her rugby 7’s tournaments (untouched) below. Definitely amateur but rewarding none the less (she has the ball lol). Thanks for the article!!

  • I’m glad you found some inspiration from this article to push yourself further! Keep at it!

  • Dirk Tassaert

    I am on a tight budget. Is a 70-300mm good for photographing soccer in daytime ? Sorry for my poor inglisch

  • Ali Nobbs

    Love this especially since half the pictures are of my team (middlesbrough fc) … I am just getting into more action shots so thanks for sharing

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