Sports photography is one of those disciplines where there is just no getting around the fact that the gear you need to consistently make great photos is expensive. Scan the sidelines at an NFL game and you’ll find twenty or more photographers. Each brings at least two camera bodies and numerous lenses to the game. Many will be shooting either the Canon 1DX or a Nikon D4s. The two most common lenses are long, fast telephotos: 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8. If some conniving super thief were to devise a scheme to steal all that gear, they’d easily walk away with over $1 million in kit.
Why is sports photography so expensive? It all boils down to one thing: speed. The sports photographer needs a fast camera and fast lenses. The top Canon and Nikon professional camera bodies have burst rates in excess of 10 frames per second. In a profession where the job is to capture the defining moment and where the players have world-class size, strength and speed, the difference a tenth of a second can make is astounding. In that brief instant, a player can go from diving for the goal line to fumbling the football. The sports photographer needs a camera capable of capturing that moment.
Because of the speed at which the game is played, a sports photographer needs to use very short exposures to freeze the action. Yes, there are situations where a slow shutter speed can allow you to make an image that perfectly captures the astounding pace of the action. But in most circumstances, the objective is to freeze action. Exposures of 1/1000-second or faster are commonplace. To shoot at 1/1000-second, you need lenses that collect available light in big, slurping gulps.
A 400mm f/2.8 lens drinks light with gusto. It focuses in a blink and follows focus even as the player with the ball is doing everything possible to elude both you and the other team. It also delivers images having a very shallow depth of field. The subject is sharply focused but the background has a pleasing, soft creaminess. This creates separation between the subject and background, making for a better photo.
To shoot at 1/1000-second in an indoor stadium or at night, you need a camera body that makes great images with a minimum of light. To accomplish this demanding task, your camera sensor needs to make clean images at ISO’s of 4000 or higher. While the lighting at professional venues is typically pretty good, the light level at a collegiate venue is often much lower. The light levels at high school football stadiums makes you wonder how the players can find the end zone without using a flashlight. There is no escape from this. If you use longer exposures to allow the sensor time to collect more light at a lower ISO, the athletes will be blurred and the detail lost. Even indoors or at night, the sports photographer needs speed.
This level of performance is unavoidable and it’s not cheap. Are you familiar with the old phrase, “Cheap, fast and good; pick any two.” In sports photography, there is no such thing as cheap…not if you want to make great images.
Having the right equipment is only the start. The most critical tool available to the sports photographer is something that cannot be bought. That critical tool is knowledge and there is no substitute. If you know the game, you have the ability to anticipate where the next play is going. If you can anticipate where the next play is going, you have the opportunity to position yourself, to focus on the right athlete or place on the field and to be there ahead of all the other photographers to capture the decisive moment in the contest.
I recently had the opportunity to photograph my first NCAA football game. I’ve been a sports fan – particularly football – most of my life and have been working professionally in televised sports coverage for 25 years. In other words, I know the sport and I know what makes for a great sports image.
My photographic equipment can be accurately described as pro-sumer. I shoot with a Nikon D610 digital SLR camera body. Nikon classifies this as an Enthusiast level camera. The 24 megapixel full-frame sensor is among the best available in any digital camera. I’ve shot with it at ISO 6400 and been very pleased with the quality of the images. The 39-point auto focus system is good – not great, just good – and the burst rate is a respectable 6 frames per second. The buffer allows me to shoot at continuous high burst for 2-3 seconds before the camera will start choking on new image files.
Like most of you, I’m on a budget. So, when I made the move to full-frame, I went with third party lenses to maximize both performance and value. The Tamron line of f/2.8 Di VC USD lenses deliver both. I am primarily a landscape photographer who does occasional portraiture. The Tamron glass gives me a range of focal lengths and apertures that meet the needs of both disciplines. Best of all, they deliver excellent image quality at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent Nikon lenses.
I used the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 Di VC USD zoom with my Nikon D610 body to shoot the football game. The D610 was set to aperture priority and I shot at f/2.8 throughout the game. I also used the D610’s auto-ISO feature to configure the camera to use a 1/1000-second shutter speed and choose the ISO that would allow for the proper exposure. Auto focus was set to AF-C (continuous servo), with 9 central auto focus points selected. I did experiment a bit with offsetting the auto focus points to the left or right (top or bottom when shooting in portrait aspect) but invariably came back to the central auto focus point. I also experimented with the D610’s continuous focus lock setting, ultimately choosing a setting that is slightly more responsive to motion than the default configuration.
The first decision I had to make was where to position myself for the opening kickoff and first offensive series of the game. Now, I am an NAU employee and support my Lumberjack sports teams. That said, Eastern Washington entered the game as the 2nd-ranked team in FCS football. They were 7-1 on the season with their only loss being a 52-59 decision against the Washington Huskies. To be perfectly candid, I expected the Eagles to put up a lot of points against NAU so, I set up at the end of the field where they would be scoring. This decision paid off as Eastern Washington’s first touchdown of the game was scored at that end. Unfortunately, while reviewing the shots I’d made of the play, I realized a corridor labelled, RESTROOMS, was the prominent background element in the images. Note to self: always be aware of your background.
As the 1st quarter progressed, it was clear that NAU had come to play. They weren’t intimidated by Eastern Washington and were gradually building momentum. So when the end of the quarter arrived, I decided to stay at the south end of the field to be in position to capture a Lumberjack touchdown. That proved to be the right decision as, early in the 2nd quarter, NAU quarterback Chase Cartwright hit receiver Beau Gardner in the end zone for the Jacks’ first touchdown of the day. For that score, I was positioned to photograph the celebration with NAU cheerleaders and fans in the background.
The Eagles blocked the extra point attempt and the two teams battled to a standstill for the next 8:00 as Eastern Washington held a narrow, 7-6, lead. Sensing that the Eagles were slowly reclaiming the momentum, I hustled to the north end zone to position myself for a possible Eastern Washington score. My instincts paid off as Cooper Kupp found the land of milk and honey on a 14-yard pass from Jordan West. I was positioned at the back corner of the end zone and had a great view of Kupp leaping over the pylon for the score. NAU battled back, scoring two field goals in the final 5:00 of the 2nd quarter to cut the EWU lead to, 14-12. Recognizing the shift in momentum, I moved to the south end of the field and made some nice photographs of Northern Arizona’s final drive of the half.
During halftime, I weighed the question of which team would come out of the locker room having made the correct adjustments. I gambled on NAU and set up at the north end zone. Almost immediately, I was questioning the decision as Eastern Washington marched right down the field. But the Jacks held them to a field goal and, on their next possession, Northern Arizona quarterback Chase Cartwright led the team on a drive that culminated on a 1st & goal from the 3-yard line. Seeing receiver Ify Umodu breaking out to my side of the field, I rolled the dice again, isolating on Umodu on the next play.
As a result, I completely missed a touchdown pass to NAU’s Alex Holmes. In hindsight, I should have continued employing the technique that had been working throughout the day of focusing on the quarterback, reading his body language after the snap and breaking for the receiver on the throw. I also decided I had been over thinking the game since the start of the half. So, I returned to a mode of trusting my gut instinct on where to go for the next series and then being smart about following the development of the play.
This strategy paid off on EWU’s next possession. I had gone back to the other end of the field, setting up on the Eastern Washington side. Running back Quincy Forte powered his way to the 1-yard line before being tackled by the face mask. I had a perfect angle on and view of the face mask tackle. On the very next play, Forte forced his way into the end zone right in front of me.
Eastern Washington had a 24-19 lead and the teams battled back-and-forth, trading field goals over the next 15-minutes. It was during the 2nd half that I identified the spot where I wanted to be when the game ended. The location offered two great options for backgrounds. One, was the NAU bench on the opposite side of the field. The other option was the NAU cheerleading squad along the back of the south end zone. Either would make a perfect background, if the Jacks were able to score a late touchdown to win the game.
When the Eagles took possession of the ball with 4:37 on the clock, I sensed a game-clinching score coming and worked my way through the EWU bench to the north end of the field. Facing a 4th & 4 at the Northern Arizona 23 yard line, Eastern Washington burned two timeouts in succession before going for it. A conversion would have allowed the Eagles to run out the clock but Jordan West’s pass to Cooper Kupp fell incomplete.
The final seconds were setting up exactly as I’d hoped: Northern Arizona had the ball on their own 23 with no timeouts and :47 left on the clock. They needed a touchdown and would have to be aggressive in their play-calling. So, I hustled back to my spot at the south end zone and waited for the magic to happen.
On NAU’s second play, backup quarterback Jordan Perry completed a toss to Alex Holmes who sprinted 54 yards before going out of bounds at the Eastern Washington 20 yard line. On the next play, Perry took the snap and immediately looked to his left and my side of the end zone. As he cocked his arm and released the ball, I instinctively panned to pick up true freshman Dan Galindo breaking open across the goal line. Galindo was right in front of me as he cradled the ball, rolled across the turf and sprang up in celebration. With :12 left in the game, Galindo had just scored the go-ahead touchdown.
A huge celebration ensued as Galindo was surrounded by teammates. Team mascot, Louie the Lumberjack, even joined in. Cheerleaders and fans were frantic with joy. The Skydome was filled with the roar of fans who knew they were witness to something very special. Northern Arizona was about to defeat the number two team in the country. But there was more work to be done. NAU went for a 2-point conversion and failed. They squib kicked on the kickoff and Eastern Washington’s offense took the field with just :07 remaining. Their final desperation play ended when NAU defensive back Darius Lewis intercepted a backwards lateral and ran with the ball until time expired.
I immediately ran onto the field to capture the bedlam and ecstasy of the win. After making a few exposures with the 70-200, I ran over to my camera bag to exchange the telephoto zoom for the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR. I used this wide angle zoom to document the post-game celebration.
In hindsight, there are two lessons I took from this experience. The first is the importance of knowing the sport you’re shooting. Understanding the game and having the ability to anticipate what will happen next are critical to getting great photos. This is particularly true if you are limited to shooting with a relatively short focal length. (200mm is pretty short for football and other outdoor sports.) The second lesson is the value of choosing a location that allows you the opportunity to make a great photograph. Envision the scenario you would like to capture, go to the best spot for capturing that moment and allow the game to come to you. Of course, there is no guarantee things will play out as you want. That’s where your talent as a photographer comes into play. You’re there to document the event as it happens so, do your best with the cards you’re dealt.
Whatever your sport, whatever your photographic passion, today is a new day. It’s time to get out and shoot.
Bill Ferris | October 2014