How to Shoot High School Football

How to Shoot High School Football


It’s the middle of August here in Atlanta, and that means that the kids are back in school.  It’s a bit earlier than most places, but regardless of where you live the rites of fall will soon be in full swing.  Here in the South, one of those rites plays itself out every week– not in cathedrals of brick and stained glass windows, but in those made from steel beams, cement bleachers, and 6,400 square yards of well-tended grass.  Yes, it’s high school football season.  And in the South that means an almost religious zealotry.  If you think I’m kidding, give me a call and come for a visit.  Make sure to bring your camera, though, because you’re not going to want to miss this.


The Right Gear

I’m not going to spend a lot of time here discussing camera bodies.  Some of the photos in this article were taken six or seven years ago on a used Nikon D70, while later images were shot with a Nikon D300 or D700.  As long as you are photographing with a reliable DSLR, your bigger concern is going to be the glass. As much as you may covet that 400mm lens you see NFL sideline photographers shooting with on TV, it is possible to get really great shots at this level with a few basic pieces of equipment.  As with any sporting event, you are going to want a good mix of wide-angle and zoom images.  When I first started shooting sports I was using one body and one lens– the 70-200mm f/2.8.  I was able to shoot and edit creatively enough to get that variety of necessary focal lengths.  As things progressed, I was able to add a second lens– the 24-70mm– to the arsenal.  With these two lenses I was able to get everything cropped properly in the camera, without having to rely on destructive post production.  If you can only afford one fast lens right now, definitely opt for the longer zoom.

Fast lenses are also going to be important once the sun goes down because most high school sports have a prohibition against using flash.  I’ll confess to occasionally firing my flash, but be careful with your angle.  You don’t want to blast a player with flash full in the face and possibly change the outcome of the game.

Since flash is not going to be an option, you will most likely need a monopod for keeping your camera steady– particularly at slower shutter speeds after the sun goes down.

As with any type of shoot, make sure you have all of the necessary backups– batteries, memory cards, etc.  Make sure you also have a plan for when it starts raining.  This isn’t an “IF” it starts raining.  Into every sports shooter’s life some rain WILL fall.  Be prepared for it.  The Think Tank Hydrophobia or the OP/TECH USA Rainsleeve should do the trick

Trust me.  At some point it's going to rain.

Trust me. At some point it’s going to rain.

Getting In

Unless you are a credentialed photographer from a media outlet or the school’s contracted photography company, chances are you’re going to have to pay to get in.  The good news is that it’s usually less than $10.  You might be able to talk your way in, but the money goes to a good cause, so don’t be a tightwad.

Get There Early

You are also going to want to get there early.  The teams take the field to warm up anywhere from one to one and a half hours before game time.  Warm-ups are going to give you one of your best opportunities for quality shots.  For starters, the light is better.  The sun hasn’t set and you’re going to have a really great quality of natural light– particularly if you shoot with the sun at your back.  Players also tend to move a little more slowly in warm-ups than in the actual game.  You’ll have an easier time capturing motion, and more of an opportunity to isolate individual players.  In some cases, you may even be able to actually walk out onto the field to shoot and not be restricted to the sidelines.  If you do walk out onto the field, PLEASE BE CAREFUL!  There are probably 150 kids and coaches out there warming up.  They are big, fast, and not paying attention to you.  Their job is to play football– not give you a good photo op.

Get there early and take advantage of the sun while you can.

Get there early and take advantage of the sun while you can.

Know the Sport

The biggest key to getting quality photos of any sport is to have a solid understanding of the game and how it is played.  These games have an ebb and flow all their own.  You are going to want photos of both the offense and the defense.  Is it a running play or a passing play?  What are the odds they’re going to fake the punt on 4th down?  Do you need to be on the sideline or the end-zone?  The home side of the field or the visitors’?  Remember that there is a big difference between shooting as a media photographer and shooting as a parent.  As a reporter or school photographer, you are there for “the big picture.”  As a parent, you are mostly concerned with getting photos of your son, and he’ll be easy to track with that big number on his back.  In either case, the more you understand the subtleties of the game the better prepared you will be.



When I say “focus” I’m not just talking about your photography.  As noted above, these kids are big and fast and strong, and are trained to run through anything in their way.  I once saw a photographer stand his ground on the sidelines, despite the fact that a player was being pushed out of bounds right at him.  I watched as his camera, lens, and monopod all went flying in three different directions and he flew in a fourth.  He was wheeled off the field with cuts to his face and a leg that had been broken in two places.  No photograph is worth that.  Focus on where you are and what is going on around you.


Now let’s talk about the other kind of focus.  It’s an action sport and you want action photos.  Whereas you would ordinarily focus on the eyes for a portrait, these kids are all wearing helmets and you’re not going to have that option very often once the game starts.  Your camera’s auto-focus works by looking for contrast.  Football uniforms are usually going to have a lot of contrast between the color of the jersey and the color of the numbers.  If you can get the eyes, great.  If not, your best bet is to try locking on either those numbers or the ball once players start moving.


Camera Settings

As with any photo shoot, there is not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” exposure.  But this is a sport, after all, and if you come home with 250 blurry photos you aren’t going to be happy.  Keep in mind that since shutter speed controls ambient exposure, the faster your shutter speed is the better your chances of freezing the action.  I generally like to start with a shutter speed of 1/500 and adjust my aperture and ISO accordingly until I get the look I want.  Since this is an outdoor sport, your lighting is going to be changing over the course of the game.  What started out with great natural light before the sun went down is going to finish in the dark under less-than-ideal stadium lights.  That may mean slowing down your shutter speed to let in more light, as well as opening up your aperture or raising your ISO.  This is going to take some practice.  Be prepared for some trial and error.


Vantage Point

First and foremost, let the light guide you.  I know…sounds all dramatic and stuff, but really.  Take advantage of the sun while you can


Obviously, the closer you are to the action the better your photos will be.  As noted earlier, having a solid understanding of the game will definitely help you decide where to be.  This is one reason why you hardly ever see a veteran sports photographer standing still for very long.  Be aware that some places are going to have restrictions on where you can and can’t stand, regardless of your press credentials.  “The Box,” for example, is the area on the sideline between the 20-yard lines.  This area, for a variety of reasons, is supposed to be off-limits for anyone other than players, coaches, trainers, etc.  A game official who is a stickler for the rules could penalize the team for your presence in the box.  If that happens, start running and don’t look back.

There is a natural tendency to shoot a football game primarily from “your team’s” side of the field.  If you’re a parent, this is where you know people and feel comfortable.  Try going around to the other side of the field once in a while.  From this vantage point, you will not only capture the action, but your own team’s colors and sideline will add a great element to your background.

Be Creative.  Keep Your Eyes Open

It’s football, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative with your angles and composition.  If you’re the parent of a player, find a way to focus on your athlete and make them stand out.  If you are selling game photos on your website, getting creative will only help your sales.  I tend to think in terms of portraits.  Changing angles resulted in getting this quarterback against a perfect background.


Don’t fall into the trap, though, of assuming that everything worth photographing is right there on the field in front of you.   Spend some time in the stands.  Shoot the crowd reactions.  Photograph the band and the cheerleaders.  Capture the traditions.  There is so much more going on in that stadium than just a football game.  Turn your back on the action once in a while and take a look around you.  There are stories everywhere.   Learn to keep your head on a swivel.


Pay attention.  You never know who might drop in.

Pay attention. You never know who might drop in.

Spray and Pray…to Motor Drive or Not to Motor Drive?

As with so much of what we do, five photographers will give you five different answers.  When I first started shooting high school sports I was doing so with a slow camera that didn’t have the buffer speed for just leaning on the motor drive and hoping for the best.  That was probably a good thing.  I learned to both compose my shots and choose my moments a little more carefully.  I developed a pretty fast shutter finger, and, I think, a better eye for sports action. Even now, though, with better equipment, I tend to leave my camera set for single clicks.



If you are covering a particular team over the course of a season, introduce yourself to the coaches.  Your job will be easier if they know who you are and why you are there.  These kids may be big and strong, but they are still kids and these coaches are looking out for them.  Play your cards right with the coaches and there’s no telling what kind of access you might get.


Being nice to coaches gets you all kinds of access.

If a coach or official tells you something, listen to them.  If they ask you to move, you move.  You’re in their house and you have to play by their rules.

No flash.  It may sound silly to you, but you have no idea what the consequences might be.  There may be college scouts in the stands, and you blinding the receiver with your flash might have an impact on whether that kid gets a scholarship or if he’s even recruited at all.

If play stops for an injury on the field, show some respect and PUT YOUR CAMERA DOWN.  While it might make for compelling photography, it is entirely possible that you just witnessed the end of a child’s life-long dream or his chance of going to college.  You don’t want him or his parents seeing that on your website.  This is high school, not the NFL.  Be sensitive and keep it in perspective.

Any seasoned photographer will tell you that photographing sports is not easy, and football may be one of the hardest.  With with a little practice and preparation, though, you’ll see your images start to improve quickly and steadily.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

Some Older Comments

  • Barry September 5, 2013 12:30 am

    My daughter is in color guard and it really helps to know the routine

  • Nick Kallis September 3, 2013 02:46 am

    I use a 1.4 extender for my 70-200 for added reach and use back button auto focus it helps keep the focus spot on the subject if someone passes in front. I think the biggest challenge is night games with any crop body your shooting at extremely high ISPs.

  • Ed Cox August 31, 2013 05:30 am

    What a great article. Full of common-sense tips and insightful suggestions. I'm going to the first game of the season tonight and I'm taking my 70-200mm.

  • Clay Teague August 31, 2013 01:57 am

    Good article and timely as I begin my 4th year on the sidelines of the Jones County High School Greyhounds in Gray, GA.

    If you are in the stands with a point and shoot camera, turn off your flash because it is not strong enough to help and will actually hurt you since the camera will slow down the shutter to accommodate the flash.

  • marius2die4 August 30, 2013 07:18 pm

    Very good article.
    Another point of view of a game in my pictures:

  • suzi August 30, 2013 11:06 am

    Wonderful article both tech wise and esp. the real life aspect. Great job.

  • Tony Carter August 30, 2013 04:48 am

    As for injuries on the field, I would suggest to keep snapping away, but be stealth about it and don't take TOO many. HOWEVER, use discretion as to if/where to post those pics. Remember that you're pictorially recording a game, which will include the good, bad, and ugly. You will always regret NOT taking questionable shots, but again, use good judgement from that point on.

    Once, I was photographing a rugby tournament game when all of a sudden, during a play, one of our players was on the ground covering his face. No one noticed until the play had stopped and before long, an ambulance showed up. The teams "took a knee" and I took some pics. As the injured player was being hoisted into the ambulance, he gave a thumbs up to everyone from the gurney. The ambulance took him to the hospital and the game continued. After he was released from the hospital, he asked if I got any pics from what happened as his memory was fuzzy from the incident. I sent him the series of pics from him getting unintentionally elbowed in his right eye to his grandmother looking worried as the ambulance was leaving. He was thankful and posted those pics to his facebook so that others would know what happened, because it defined his season. Thankfully, he fully recovered in time to play for the next year!

    From taking a lot of sports pics, I've captured broken noses, accidentally pulled-down pants, lacrosse and rugby guys in mid-air, faceplants in the mud in football...and more importantly, the reactions and emotions that were displayed from those. Even if I don't display or share them, at least I know that the photos exist :)

  • Alan August 30, 2013 04:42 am

    I guess it's two different purposes for photographing high school sports. Telling the story of the game and making year book memory photos.
    Perhaps the fields the author works on fields much better lit then those I've shot on for 30 years for daily newspapers. I have always strobed High School sports football, basketball and volleyball. The only time I've haven't is when High School association rules prohibit it during state championships.
    It's a good thought to not shoot them because it might distract them but the reality is the stadium is a giant distraction. Along with screaming fans, cheerleaders and screaming there are parents from the stands and sidelines shooting them with what? Strobe. My strobe isn't going to be any more distracting. It's an element that athletes take in stride (except the losing ones who try to use it as an excuse) Regardless of your reasoning the goal is the same. Get the best photos of the kids possible. That's done with strobe. It's even better with with high speed sync now on modern DSLR's. No matter how great a DSLR you have you still need some fill to see faces and expressions under the helmets especially shooting from the end zone of most high school fields.
    For basketball and volley ball, I run two strobes attached to the stands fired with radio remotes. less distracting because they are coming from the side lines near fans who are also strobing them.

    As far as shooting injured players? Absolutely, every one. It's part of the story of the game. Not with a 16 in their face but certainly shoot them. Why? Because it could be a sprain or the ending of a career for a star athlete. Huge story, that must be told.

  • Tom Jodis August 30, 2013 03:43 am

    I volunteered last year to take photos of my son's senior buddies that were on the High School Football team. I read everything I could get my hands on to prep for the season. I used a Nikon D700 with the 70mm-200mm f2.8 lens. I did do a lot of post production work (cropping) to get the pics I wanted. But the one thing I did that made for some great shots was adjusting my white balance as the game went on. Moving from twilight to field lights, adjusting my white balance allowed me to capture some great pics that otherwise would have to been adjusted in post production.

  • Greg August 30, 2013 03:31 am

    Thanks -- this was very good and timely, and good reminders to read through every season. I could have used the on-field etiquette part years ago...had to learn the hard way. For camera settings after shooting 4 years of HS Football here in Texas, I have found that AutoISO is my best friend. F2.8, 1/500 or faster. Otherwise you're adjusting ISO as the sun goes down, or setting ISO at the worst case highest stetting and getting more noise than you need to in most pics. For focus, single point with AF-C has worked best as the camera can't figure out which same-colored-fast-moving-uniform you want to track. Turn off a lot of the in-camera auto stuff as it will slow your camera down. I shoot raw because if there's one with a face I want to brighten a little from the helmet shadow, the data is there to do so. I went to custom white balance as my camera had trouble with the mix of sunset and stadium lights. Be prepared to spend $$ on your lens, but rent first to make sure it's worth it to you. Have Fun!!!!

  • Jeff Guyer August 30, 2013 03:26 am

    Avoid them? No way-- get as many as you can! Some of the photos in the article were to demonstrate how to isolate individual players, since that is what many parents will be trying to do.

  • Jeff Guyer August 30, 2013 03:24 am

    Stay tuned, Pattie. I'm working on it as we "speak."

  • Alice Owens August 30, 2013 02:42 am

    That was a really great article, not only from a photography tip standpoint but from the side of the kids and parents, coaches and administrators. I work with youth full time and have been the unofficial photographer for the local high school volleyball team and it frustrates me to see parents popping off their flashes in the middle of a serve, set, or hit. It frustrates me to have camera people all up in the face of an injured athlete. You gave great tips for working around the high school and using photography as a way to create lasting memories for these kids and their families. Thank you!

  • Pattie August 30, 2013 02:14 am

    I second the request for info about shooting the halftime show. My daughter is in the color guard, and I'm having a hard time photographing her twirling the flags, ribbons, etc. Suggestions would be great! Thank you!

  • Alan August 30, 2013 01:54 am

    Why avoid photos of contact between players? QB sacks, Passing battles, etc

  • Jeff Guyer August 29, 2013 02:57 pm

    Hi, John-- Although I know a lot of sports shooters use AI Servo due to the moving nature of their targets, I tend to stick with single shot. It may not be the best choice, but it's what I started with and it's served me well.

  • Jeff Guyer August 26, 2013 11:01 am

    Glen-- As a matter of fact, I do have some suggestions for photographing the band at halftime. The more I think about it, the more I think it merits its own article. Stay tuned!

  • Jeff Guyer August 26, 2013 10:56 am

    Shannan-- Have you changed lenses or your camera settings? A little more information might be helpful.

  • Shannan Felix August 26, 2013 09:36 am

    I have a Nikon d5000. I used to shoot great football pics with this camera and now all the sudden everything is blurry. I am just learning. What am I doing wrong? Any help would be great. Thanks, Helpless mom!

  • John August 26, 2013 07:35 am

    Thanks for this informative article. I went to South Gwinnett High School many years ago, so I appreciate the great Parkview picture at the top of this article.

    Software today does a great job with noise reduction, so it's rarely a problem to go up to ISO 1600.

    Curious about what autofocus mode you tend to use. Do you tend to use One Shot, which holds the focus constant after it locks on, or do you use AI Servo, which adjusts the focus to objects moving around?

  • Garpue Barchue August 26, 2013 05:43 am

    Great article! For a new comer and aspiring professional photog, the article illuminates a lot; sport photography is of an enormous interest of mine.

    Many thanks.

  • Glen August 25, 2013 11:46 pm

    Thanks for a Great article! Can you offer any further advice about shooting the half time show? You mentioned in passing shooting the crowd, band and cheerleaders. I was a band geek and so are my kids. ALL the kids involved in high school football work hard. Individual and group practice take up hours outside of class. Learning a new or adding to a routine each week is not easy work. Im sure that I'm not the only parent that may have gone to high school football games for the half time show, so any tips, pointers or advice would be appreciated.


  • Mridula August 25, 2013 04:52 pm

    More than the photography aspect I am fascinated by your social commentary. Looks like quite high stake event which kids future on line. A sport that has no connect in India thank you for your insights.

  • Cathy B August 25, 2013 09:49 am

    Great to see Gwinnett County football featured. I live between Parkview and Brookwood so I would the opportunity to shoot with you.