Football is a physical and fast paced team sport, which requires the speed of soccer and the agility and strength of rugby. The dynamic, raw expressions of power, strength and grace provide varied shots for the photographer who is willing to wait for the action and has a keen eye for picking out details.
Capture the Entire Scene
If you are photographing in a major stadium then you will need good equipment because you will be far away from the players. A fast telephoto lens is really a necessity. Without a telephoto lens, and sitting far back from the action, you can still take some interesting photos. Use a wide-angle lens of 28mm or less to take a photograph of the entire scene. You can capture a sense of the vastness of the football stadium as well as features of the crowd too. Perhaps you want to concentrate on just the crowd. Eccentric fans in costumes or carrying team paraphernalia make interesting photographs.
Zoom in on the Action
Keep an eye out for details and action; a football player just walking or waiting is far less interesting than a player getting tackled. Depending on where you are seated, you will probably need a telephoto zoom lens of at least 300mm. Set the mode to AF (Autofocus) and select continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) mode to automatically refocus the lens on the moving football players.
Choose a Fast Shutter Speed
Think about what action you are freezing – you will want to capture a football player in action, catching, kicking or throwing the ball. Track a player for a while and wait for a good moment but don’t hesitate or you will miss it! Choose a fast shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second and a large aperture to separate the players from the background. For multiple shots use the burst shooting mode and hold down the shutter button as long as desired. Each DSLR has its own frame rate and burst-mode capture rate, which sets your camera’s abilities for rapid, multiple shot photography.
If you are far away from the football player, it can be a bit harder to show movement, simply because of the distant location. Turn the mode dial to TV or S (Shutter Priority) mode and choose a shutter speed of around 1/125th of a second to begin with and try to capture a player throwing or catching the ball. If the photo is blurry, increase the shutter speed incrementally until you have the visual effect that you’re looking for.
Create a Zoom Blur Effect
A great way to capture movement is through creative (or zoom) blur. This is done by zooming in on your subject with a slow shutter speed, and pressing the shutter release during the middle of zooming action. This is easier if you have a clear object or person to focus on. Place your camera on a tripod or monopod to avoid camera shake. Begin with your zoom lens as wide as possible then manually zoom in very quickly at the football player. Use a slow shutter speed starting with 1/60s (adjusting according to results – give it longer if there isn’t enough blur). It takes a good amount of practice to be proficient at zoom blurring, because the timing of the zoom and shutter release is crucial to getting the technique to work.
Because football games are outdoors, weather conditions can be varied (bright and sunny, overcast, rainy, and if you’re lucky - snow). If it gets dark, you need to be able to quickly increase the shutter speed, so you don’t get blur, but you’ll want to open your aperture more and/or increase the ISO. Ideally on a well-lit day try a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second and an aperture of f/16 for an evenly balanced image. If you are unsure you can choose the sports mode on your camera, which will select a shutter speed and aperture setting that will give you adequate images. But mastering the manual control of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) will yield more pleasing results.
Due to the distance from the playing field and the length of the playing field, the ideal camera/lens set-up to maximize the football photography experience is a zoom lens that goes up to 600mm, and a camera body that has relatively low noise at higher ISO ratings. Try out the lens with your camera body before you buy it to make sure it is comfortable - telephotos are heavy. Make sure that the lens works quickly, as the long shutter lag of some models can make you miss every photo. With a telephone zoom of this focal length, you are definitely going to need a lens mount that fits on a monopod (which thankfully comes with most lenses of this length). It is important to properly balance the long lens, so you can pan the camera around quickly to capture the explosive plays that erupt on the football field.
Most of the time you will not be very close to the action, so think ahead – can you get seats where you are closer to the action? Will you be at ground level with the football players? Do you have a good telephoto lens (at least 300mm, preferably 600mm), and spare batteries to last you through the game? Depending on the weather conditions, you’ll need to adjust the shutter speed and the ISO to maintain a small aperture (as the telephoto lens has a shallow depth of field to begin with). Use high shutter speeds to freeze the action without blur. Though you might consider lowering the shutter speed for creative use of motion blur, and experimenting with the zoom blur technique. These are both creative tools for the palette. Remember to be prepared for weather conditions; if it rains you will want to have a protective case, umbrella, or special rain cover for your camera. Get involved, soak up the atmosphere and always keep an eye on the action!