Master soccer photography with these expert tips. Choose the right gear, perfect your settings, capture key moments, and more!
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.
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.
2. Carry a monopod
Another key piece of soccer photography gear advice?
Bring a monopod. Yes, you can handhold a hefty 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, or even a 400mm monster, but why put all that strain on your arms? That’s where a monopod comes in. It’s your best friend on the soccer pitch, providing support for your gear and sparing your arms from fatigue.
So why do I rate monopods so highly? Well, they keep your arms from getting tired too quickly. They’re slim, lightweight, and easy to lug around – perfect for those sudden location changes or angle adjustments. Plus, they help reduce camera shake. This is vital when dealing with telephoto lenses, notorious for shaking-induced blur.
And let’s not forget, many soccer games take place under dim indoor lights or after sunset. Under such challenging lighting conditions, even a tiny camera shake can result in blurry photos. But a monopod? It steadies your camera like a rock, ensuring tack-sharp shots.
I guarantee you won’t break the bank on a decent monopod, and they’re a cinch to pack and carry. One final tip: take a small camp stool along. Trust me, your back will thank you, and you’ll find that low-angle shots can give your soccer photos a fresh, engaging perspective.
3. 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.
Additionally, 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.
Finally, your camera’s burst mode can be an absolute game-changer. You might know it as continuous shooting mode, but whichever name you prefer, this tool allows you to fire off a whole series of photos in just a couple of seconds.
With burst mode, you’re no longer worried about missing that split-second shot. You’re equipped to freeze heart-stopping moments that pass in the blink of an eye. One caveat, though: The more you use burst mode, the more photos you’ll end up with. That means more time spent sorting through them all, but in my view, it’s a small price to pay for the spectacular shots you can capture.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Know the game
Just like a coach, to excel in soccer photography, you need to know the game inside out. If you’re already a soccer fan, great! Use this passion as an excuse to watch more games, analyze player strategies, and delve deeper into the lesser-known rules. You never know when a tidbit of information might help you capture an amazing photo.
Not a soccer fan? No problem. It’s time to hit the books, tune in to commentaries, and perhaps join a local league for an immersive experience. A deep understanding of the game allows you to predict events before they happen, giving you a distinct advantage behind the lens.
Moreover, knowing the teams and players you’ll be shooting can give you that extra edge. Research their style, their strengths, their weaknesses. Pay special attention to key players, understand their unique tactics. A star player’s signature slide-tackle or header goal, if captured at the right moment, can be a truly sensational shot.
7. Don’t be afraid to start small
You might be tempted to attend a game as a fan and start snapping. However, big lenses often aren’t allowed past security, and the prime positions are generally off-limits to fans. So it’s better to tread a different path.
How about turning your lens to a local league? Even high school games can offer ample opportunities for practice. Reach out, seek permission, and get yourself into the heart of the action. The key here is consistency. Attend as many games as you can and focus on refining your skills. With every click, you’ll notice improvements.
As your collection of striking shots grows, why not let them see the light of day? Local newspapers might be interested in showcasing your work. Don’t be shy to send a couple of your best images. Give them a glimpse of what you bring to the table.
Remember, every click expands your portfolio. Keep snapping, keep sharing, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself ready to apply for professional gigs. With the right contacts and a bit of luck, you may well end up shooting in the big leagues!
8. Capture clean backgrounds
Okay, let’s talk backgrounds. Sure, the players steal the spotlight, and they should. But the setting they’re playing in can make or break your shots. A cluttered or distracting background can take the focus away from the players. Instead, a clean, uncluttered backdrop will highlight the players and lend your photo a professional touch.
Keep a keen eye on the surroundings while you’re on the field. Identify any potential disturbances in the background and try to avoid shooting against them. You’re not just watching the game; you’re seeing beyond it.
Creating a pleasant blur in the background can also make a huge difference. That blur effect, known as bokeh, helps separate the players from the background and makes any distractions less noticeable. To achieve the best bokeh, make sure you use a wide aperture. Also, photographing players when they’re closer to you – and farther from the backdrop – can enhance the blur effect.
One more piece of advice: Consider getting down low. This way, you’ll have the stadium walls and the crowd, not the turf, serving as your backdrop.
9. Capture a few wider shots
Most of the time, as a soccer photographer, you’ll find yourself drawn toward close-up action shots. It’s understandable; telephoto lenses help you get right in the thick of the game, capturing those high-energy moments in stunning detail. But there’s a place for wider shots, too.
For one, a wider lens can offer a different perspective and adds diversity to your shots. It can also frame the game in a broader context, capturing the stadium’s ambiance, the cheering crowd, or even the dramatic sky overhead during an open-air game.
So carry along a wide lens and experiment with it. Try shooting the stadium as it fills up with excited fans. Get a wide shot of the entire field during a key moment of the match. Or capture the collective emotions of the crowd – their celebrations, disappointments, and everything in between.
While these images might not pack the same intense punch as a close-up action shot, they serve a different purpose. They add layers to the story of the game, giving it depth and richness. And they add variety to your portfolio. So next time you head out to photograph a soccer match, remember to go wide every once in a while. It might just result in the shot that completes the story.
10. Edit and share your best shots
Captured some fantastic shots? Great! But don’t let your work end with the click of the shutter. Your images deserve some fine-tuning to bring out their best qualities.
Start by transferring all your shots to your favorite post-processing program. A quick scan should help you flag the promising files. Don’t overthink it, just mark the ones that catch your eye. Now, dive deeper into these flagged shots and select the ones that really stand out. Those are the photos you’ll want to edit.
Editing isn’t about transforming the shot, it’s about enhancing it. Correct the white balance, adjust exposure levels, and ensure the colors pop just right. A little boost in clarity will add that extra crispness to your images.
You can also consider adding a vignette effect to guide the viewer’s focus toward the players. But remember, subtlety is key. Your viewers should feel the effect, not see it.
Finally, select the images you’d be proud to put your name on. These are the shots that tell the story of the game. Share them with the world, be it on social media, your personal blog, or a news site. Let others experience the game through your lens!
11. Learn from the best soccer photographers
Embarking on your journey as a soccer photographer, you’re definitely not alone. You’ll find that there are countless skilled soccer photographers around the world. Many have devoted their careers to perfecting the art of capturing the beautiful game in action. So why not learn from them?
Start by exploring the work of these experienced photographers. Check out their online portfolios and social media feeds. In fact, follow them so their latest photos become part of your daily feed. It’s the perfect way to expose yourself to high-quality soccer photography on a regular basis.
Now, you’re not just browsing for the fun of it. As you scroll through these photos, engage in a bit of detective work. Try to understand what makes these images stand out. How did the photographer frame the shot? What makes it tell a story? Are they capturing high-action moments or subtle nuances of the game?
Take note of what grabs your attention. Is it the angle of the shot, the play of light, the sharp focus on the player’s emotion, or something else? Be curious and question what elements you can incorporate into your own work.
And remember, this isn’t a one-time exercise. This process should be ongoing. Regularly analyze the work of photographers you admire. Over time, you’ll not only learn new techniques, but you’ll also start to develop your unique style. You’re not trying to clone someone else’s work. Instead, let their work inspire you to push your own boundaries.
Soccer photography tips: final words
Throughout this article, we’ve explored the captivating world of soccer photography. By now, you’ve gained practical tips to enhance your skills and create compelling images that do justice to the beautiful game.
Sure, capturing that perfect shot might seem like a daunting task, especially when you’re just starting. But here’s the good news: with the insights shared in this article, you’re well on your way to snapping not just good, but outstanding soccer photographs. Remember, each tip is a tool in your arsenal. It’s all about how you use it to craft your unique style.
Now it’s time for action. Grab your camera, put these strategies to work, and dive headfirst into the electrifying field of soccer photography. You’re equipped with the knowledge you need, so go ahead and create stunning images that tell unforgettable stories of the game. Remember, practice is key. So keep shooting, keep learning, and most importantly, enjoy the journey! You’ve got this.
Now over to you:
What soccer games do you plan to photograph? What gear will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Tips for Photographing Football (Soccer)