Soccer (called “football” in much of the world) can be a tough sport to photograph. The ball is constantly moving around the field, and key moments appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Unless you know the right techniques, you’re bound to struggle when the action heats up, leading to missed opportunities and failed shots.
Fortunately, you’re in good hands! I’ve spent years doing professional soccer photography, and in this article, I share my hard-earned knowledge, including:
- The best soccer photography settings
- Where to position yourself for the best photos
- How to choose the perfect gear
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to shoot soccer games like a pro, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Pick the right equipment
Sports photography, perhaps more than any other photographic genre, depends on gear. For the best results, you need a fast-shooting camera and a capable lens; it also helps to have a support system for added stability.
The best soccer photography cameras offer top-notch autofocus systems (ideally with face and eye tracking) and powerful continuous shooting modes. The tracking algorithms will help you maintain focus on players as they sprint across the field, while the continuous shooting will let you fire off bursts of shots so you can capture the perfect moment.
Unfortunately, high-level sports cameras – like the Canon EOS R3, Sony a1, Sony a9 II, and Nikon Z9 – are very expensive, but I’d encourage you to at least invest in a full-frame camera like the Sony a7 IV or the Canon EOS R6. You might also consider an action-centric APS-C model like the Canon EOS R7 or the Nikon D500.
As for lenses:
You’ll need at least one dedicated action lens; for best results, an 18-55mm or 55-200mm kit lens just won’t be sufficient. In the former case, the players and the action will be too far away, and in the latter case, you’ll struggle to capture sharp shots in low light.
Instead, grab a 70-200mm lens to start out. If you can afford it, get an f/2.8 model, which will give you extra flexibility when working indoors or at night. Note that 200mm is long enough to shoot close and mid-distance players, but it’s always helpful to add some extra power to your gear bag, so if you can afford a 300mm or 400mm lens – or a 200-400mm zoom – you’ll be very well equipped. (Anything longer than 400mm can get a little too tight unless you want to photograph players at the other end of the field.)
If you have a decent lens but find that it isn’t quite long enough, you don’t need to rush out and buy a longer model. Try cropping, which can get you much closer to the action and can still give you highly detailed results (as long as you’re using a higher-megapixel camera). And if you’re not sure whether it’s worth buying a new lens, you can always rent some glass for a day or two.
While you can handhold a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens (and even a 400mm lens), I’d recommend bringing along a monopod or tripod. For one, they’ll prevent you from tiring out too quickly; they’ll also reduce camera shake, which is especially critical when working in low light.
One more tip: Bring a small camp stool. It’ll help you feel more comfortable, and since it’ll get you lower to the ground, you’ll be able to include less of the field in the frame.
2. Carefully choose your soccer photography settings
I like to shoot in Manual mode; it gives me plenty of flexibility, and it lets me adjust my settings as needed to cope with changing light. If you’re not comfortable working in Manual mode, Shutter Priority mode is your best option (and it’s especially great at handling fields that feature both sun and shade).
You’ll need to pick the right shutter speed to freeze the action. I’d recommend 1/800s as the absolute minimum for advanced players (though you can drop the shutter speed down to 1/500s or so if you’re photographing younger players). Really, when it comes to photographing fast-paced movement, the higher the shutter speed, the better – so if you have the room to boost the shutter to 1/1000s, 1/2000s, or even 1/4000s, just do it.
That said, ultra-slow shutter speeds can create some fantastic – and highly artistic – images when done correctly. Working at 1/30s is a good starting point, and if you find that you capture too much blur, simply speed up the shutter by a couple of notches. Conversely, if you end up with too little blur, you may need to slow the shutter speed down.
If you’re using Shutter Priority mode, then your camera will choose the aperture for you – but you’ll control it indirectly via your shutter speed choice. And if you’re using Manual mode, you’ll need to choose your aperture directly. So what aperture is best?
For single-player shots, f/2.8 is generally ideal, as it will do a very nice job of isolating the subject. However, when photographing moments that feature more than one player (e.g., tackles), if you have enough light, then use f/4 (it’ll give you a slight depth of field increase). Of course, some lenses cannot reach f/2.8 or even f/4, and in such scenarios, just use the widest aperture you have available.
You’ll also need to choose an ISO, and I encourage you to use this to simply fill in the gaps between your aperture-shutter speed combination and the brightness you want to achieve. It’s best to keep the ISO as low as possible – the higher the ISO, the more noise you’ll get in your images – so on bright days, I often work at ISO 400. Low-light scenarios – for instance, when shooting at dusk, at night, indoors, or on a heavily overcast day – require an ISO boost, however, so ISO 800, 1600, and beyond may be required.
Spend some time testing out different ISO settings on your camera, as different models handle high ISOs differently. These days, you can often work at ISO 1600 with minimal noise, but it really depends heavily on your camera, so make sure you know how it’ll perform before you head out to shoot.
Finally, picking the correct autofocus mode is absolutely essential to capturing sharp shots. Don’t use your camera’s AF-S (or One-Shot) mode; make sure you switch your camera to AF-C (or AI-Servo), which will continually reacquire focus as your subject moves.
And if your camera offers a good tracking mode, use it! You want to be able to follow players as effectively as possible, and if you have to constantly reselect focus points as your subjects move, you’ll miss out on too many shots.
3. Get in the right position
As with any sport, if you can sit in the right place, you’ll have a much better chance of nailing key shots. I generally recommend working from a few specific places, as I detail in the diagram below:
And here’s a breakdown of each option (note that the position numbers correspond to the numbers on the map):
- Position 1: Working near the corner (slightly behind the goal line) 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, too. This position is very versatile as you can get a good mix of everything.
- Position 2: Working halfway between both goals is a great way to shoot goals (as you can generally capture both the goalie and the goal shooter in a single frame). You’ll also be able to capture players running down the field, though if they’re running down the sides, the shots may not be as head-on.
- Position 3: For some variation, try shooting from the sideline near the corner. You’ll be able to capture some great panning shots of players with the ball as they run the length of the field. You generally won’t be able to get many great goal shots from Position 3, but you may be able to capture some great tackle photos if the action happens around midfield.
I don’t recommend you pick a spot and stay in the same place for the game; instead, sit in one location for a while, then move around half-time or so. That way, you can capture a variety of images.
Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to run around the field 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.
4. Keep an eye out for key moments
The best soccer shots tend to feature some kind of action. So always be scanning for these moments, and when you see them, get your finger on that shutter button! In particular, look for:
Celebrations. These could be from the team that just scored a goal, or – after the final whistle – from the team that won the match.
Here, teammates celebrate after scoring a goal in the rain:
You can also show emotion on the faces of the losing players:
In-game action, including tackles, headers, dives, slides, goals, and goal saves. These moments occur frequently throughout the game, so keep your eyes open. It’s essential that you stay focused. And bear in mind that older players generally play with more intensity than younger players, so if you photograph more advanced leagues, you’ll have more opportunities to capture dramatic tackles. (Just remember: Older players move a lot faster, so you’ll need to crank up that shutter speed and be ready for anything!)
Here, one player is pushing the other:
Here, a player is taking a shot at the goal:
And here, a player is heading the ball. (For this type of shot, you must capture the ball close to the player’s head. If the ball is too far away, it can get lost! Also, the player’s expression is generally best when the ball has just hit their head!)
The crowd. If you’re covering a game with lots of fans, don’t forget to get some shots of them, too. They can add lots of atmosphere! Try to capture emotion; often, the fans are just as excited as the team when a goal is scored, though when the team is about to lose, they may get very quiet.
Soccer photography tips: final words
Soccer can be a very rewarding sport to photograph. Just remember: The more you understand the game, the more you’ll know where to look for action, and the better your shots will be!
If you’re not a soccer expert, that’s okay; just spend some time reading the rules, watching some games, and out practicing with your camera.
What soccer games do you plan to photograph? What gear will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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- ADVANCED GUIDES