Veteran documentary photographer Ami Vitale and photojournalist Elizabeth Dalziel have traveled…
by Rod Mar
Football is easily my favorite sport to photograph. Combining peak action, great emotion and a sense of ritual and ceremony, football is not only a visual feast for the eyes, but also your camera. There’s a reason why up to 100,000 fans pack stadiums every weekend, planning days, weekends and even annual vacations around games.
The basics of all sports photography- great action, good light and clean backgrounds all apply – both Brad Mangin and Darren Carroll mention these “must-haves” in their articles about baseball and golf, respectively.
Let’s talk about shooting football in college terms.
Football 101: Two Faces and a Ball.
The essence of all sports photography can be captured in an old adage, often repeated by crusty old wire service editors to young wannabes:
“Two faces and a ball, kid. Two faces and a ball”.
You get two good faces and the football in your frame, and you very likely have a usable photo. However, that’s harder to achieve than you’d think.
Why? Because players wear helmets. They duck their heads. Often, a player is getting tackled and his head is twisted away from your camera. Anyway, however you slice it, two faces and a ball is a good place to start.
Remember – the eyes have it. If you can see their eyes, your photo is better.
Photo by Rod Mar
Football 201: Field Position Matters.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s important to know WHERE to look for it.
If you’re covering a team, naturally you’ll want that team to be facing you. When I shoot the Seattle Seahawks, I am ahead of the line of scrimmage when they have the ball, and behind it when they are on defense. This way, there is a greater chance of significant action coming in your direction.
On offense – it’s pretty basic – the ball always starts in the quarterback’s hands. He will do one of four things – hand it off to a running back, pass to a teammate, run it himself, or get sacked.
Running backs are easy to find, and that’s where you will find the majority of your basic photos. He’s running either “inside” (through the middle of the field) or the “outside” (towards the sidelines). If a running back is coming to your side of the field and running outside, that’s pretty much the easiest football shot to get.
Tied for the easiest football shot is that of a quarterback passing (duh). He takes the ball from center, drops back, normally stays relatively still in the pocket and throws. It’s hard to miss. In fact, if you have trouble getting a shot of the quarterback throwing, you will probably get kicked out of Sports Photographer University and sent back to junior college where you will major in taking photos in wood shop.
On defense, the players will pursue to the ball, so if you follow the ball carrier, defense should arrive shortly thereafter. Stay with the play on defense because the shot is not always of the initial hit or tackle. Players tend to stack up in multiples and staying with the shot can payoff big.
Special teams play is often overlooked because they represent only a small fraction of the number of plays in a game.
Get behind the punter – when the punt is blocked you’ll have a great image and a storytelling photo.
On field goals, wait for the reaction, especially in pressure situations. If you really want to take a risk, DON’T shoot the kicker and focus on the head coach and the sidelines instead to see their reaction.
The so-called Red Zone poses special challenges. Your long lens will be too tight, and so you need to be adept at shooting with smaller lenses with the play and players closer to you. That’s just one of the things that separates the great football shooters for Sports Illustrated from everyone else – their ability to get great photos of touchdowns with short and wide lenses in pressure situations.
Photo by Rod Mar
Football 301: But What Does it All Mean?
Now that you can cover the basics, you need to add meaning to your photos. This means, telling stories about the game with your images. This advice applies to newspaper shooters, wire shooters and magazine shooters. If you are shooting for a card company, congratulations – I think there is only one left in existence. (And they way card companies are headed, you might start want to learn how to tell stories with your photos because you might end up stringing for a wire service someday soon.)
Decide – what are the big plays? Who are the important players? Is the crowd a factor? How about the weather? All of these things come into play when telling the story of the game.
Consider listening to the radio broadcast as you shoot – that way you’ll know what the big plays are and which players are having great games. Watch the scoreboards and hustle boards so you can be aware of the stats.
The more you know about the sport and the particular game, the more informative your photographs will be.
Football 401: Getting Beyond the Field of Play
Football is as much a ceremony and a celebration as it is a game.
All the clichés apply – color, pageantry, drama. Find them by getting there early and staying late. Walk the parking lots and tailgate parties. Seek out great light and wait for magical moments. If you have a special relationship with a coach or team, try to get behind the scenes, if only for a moment. It only takes a moment to find that great image.
Look for small details that tell bigger stories. Remember all the people around the game too – the coaches, the crazed fans, the cheerleaders, the bands. All will help you tell the story of the game.
Photo by Rod Mar
Because of the nature of the game and the uniforms and equipment involved (helmets and pads that turn men into machines), the human part of the game is often overlooked. Remember that football, like all sports, is a human endeavor first and foremost.
Players and coaches spend their entire lives to reach the pinnacle of their sport. When they win or lose, the reaction is genuine and yours to capture.
Now that you know the fundamentals and the “rules” of shooting football, go break them. Shoot ultra-tight when you think you should shoot wide. In the end zone, go for broke with a short zoom and wide-angle lens so you’ll be prepared to make a special image when the play comes your way. Doing so might mean “giving up” the other half of the field, there’s no reward without risk, right?
Think SPECIAL. Of course you’ll need to cover your bases and get shots of the important players and plays. But every time you get the opportunity to shoot football, you get the chance to make a once-in-a-lifetime photograph.
The moment is out there. It’s your challenge to find it and freeze it forever.
Photo by Rod Mar
- Nikon D3 bodies (3 of them)
- Nikkor VR 600mm/f4.0 lens
- Nikkor VR 400mm/f2.8 lens
- Nikkor VR 200-400mm/f4.0 lens
- Nikkor VR 70-20mm/f2.8 lens
- Nikkor 24-70mm/f2.8 lens
- Nikkor 14-24mm/f2.8 lens
- TC14 1.4 extender
- Nikon SB-800 flash
- Gitzo monopod
- Pocketwizard MultiMax (2x)
- Pretrigger and remote cord for Multimax
- Miniball head (to attach camera w/wide angles lens to monopod for overhead wide shots)
- Rain covers
- Think Tank Airport Security
- Think Tank Speed Demon and pouches
- Think Tank ShapeShifter backpack
And always – sunscreen, sunglasses, iPhone
15 Helpful Tips
- Two faces and a ball — The eyes have it
- Tell the story in a frame
- Go low
- Kneel. Laying prone is even better
- The scoreboard is your friend
- Score, time, down and distance
- Look beyond the field — Faces in the crowd
- Every stadium is a different country – think travel photography
- Be detail oriented
- Football is a superhuman game played by humans
- Have a game plan
- Position yourself for success
- Overcome adversity
Rod Mar is a sports photographer in Seattle, currently working with the Seattle Seahawks. His Seahawks photoblog can be found at eyeonthehawks.com, and his portfolio and personal blog can be found at RodMarPhoto.com.