Before the game
First and foremost, make sure to have all sideline and parking passes before the event for pro and international soccer. If the passes aren't already in hand, call around before game day to find the person who has them. If the promoter promises to have them at the game, insist on a contact name and cell phone number as well as a back-up person and cell number.
The people at the ticket booth and security don't know what they haven't been told, so their first impulse is to deny access. Having a name and cell number guarantees access - even if the contact wrecks on the way to the game.
Work the fans
Arrive early and work the parking lot for anything interesting. Look for tailgate parties, face painting, herds of pee-wee league teams or street vendors.
Also work the crowd in the stands for painted faces, costumes or anything else interesting. Don't forget to take a look at the vendors for additional images (freelancers need to give them biz cards to make after-market sales).
Although it's wise to get team rosters from the Web before arriving, get the official roster from the pressbox before the game begins (there could be changes since the Web version). Also, see if the goalkeepers have jersey numbers. If not, find out which goaltender wears which color – VERY important.
Before most pro games, there is normally some form of entertainment on the field. The entertainment will be directed at the home stands and PJs are allowed on the field during this time. Shoot it for the archive and get proper cutline info.
At high school and lower games, get some CYA shots of the players warming up. In particular, get some decent shots of the goaltender blocking shots during warm up. Shoot from in front and behind the net (behind the net for pro and int'l).
At high level games, the players will normally sign autographs and have mild interactions with fans. The easy way to work it is either with a long lens where the fans blend together and the player is isolated or to shoot from behind the player to show the faces of the fans. The point is to easily identify the player while avoiding the need to identify every fan getting autographs. However, if some cool interaction happens, work it and get names.
When the players are introduced, they normally line up in the middle of the field. Get shots of each team (shoot four or five players wide). This helps match shoes, hair and body type with jersey numbers for cutline identification later. Note where the front numbers are located (shorts, jersey or none) for follow shots during the game.
Each level of play has different rules. Typically, at pro games, PJs get to cover both goal lines and one sideline. At international events, PJs get one sideline and one goal line (forces the PJs to stay for the whole game). Don't ask, but test the limits all around the field to see what security allows. If you are told not to be in a certain area, then there's your limit. Otherwise, work it until someone complains.
Shoot the game
For simplicity, we only have one local team playing this game. For new PJs, editors only want shots with a home-team focus unless otherwise stated (wire piggy-backs). It doesn't matter how great the visitors are, focus on the home team. Better images show both teams' faces, but focus on the home team's eyes first.
Like other contact sports, PJs want to capture conflict between the players of opposing teams. Shots with only the home team could be made during practice. The importance of shooting the game is to show the battle between two teams.
Like most other sports, watch the players not the ball. However, understand the ball MUST be in each shot, and it should also be connected or very close to the players to be successful. If a PJ tracks the ball, all the players can blur (not in a good way).
It's really important to shoot soccer with both eyes open. Watch the game and what is in the viewfinder at the same time. Timing is extremely important because nobody maintains the ball very long, so PJs need to watch the ball outside of the frame to shoot when it as it connects with players.
PJs who don't do a lot of this long-lens, double-eye stuff need to practice on a flock of birds or some other randomly occurring event to get accustomed to seeing long through one eye and tight through another.
Like football, it's best to shoot from one knee because the players will be looking at the ground during most of the game. If PJs want to see the players' faces, it's frequently the only way to get the shot.
Please take a look at a standard soccer field to understand the positions.
Start at the halfway line (50 yard line). Because the game starts in the center circle, get some safe shots and then move past the center circle (to the 40s) for mid-air collisions as they go up to get headers.
With men's games, most of the action is around the 35 yard lines on both ends (the goalie can kick to about the opponent's 35 yard line). Work this zone first for the safe shots. Women's games are normally around the 45 yard line.
Soccer is a low scoring game. The goaltender is the primary reason the score is low. The goaltender is best shot from the sideline even with the penalty box (about the 15 yard line).
Once you have some safe shots, work the goal line. If you have a preferred team, go to the goal line of the opposite team and wait for the action to come to you. When it comes (it takes a long time), it'll be extremely fast, so be ready.
The best position on the goal line is around the outside of the goal box line to about half way between the net and the corner. From there, PJs can see most of the field without the net interfering. Since this is where the players score any goals, it's the place most likely to get "the" shot.
Expect poor light
Soccer is often played in poor light. Although many games are played during the day and high-end soccer games are played in well-lit stadiums, some high school games are played on "B Fields" and are hard to see and harder to photograph. Consequently, be ready to use flash if necessary (preferably on a flash bracket to minimize red-eye).
I mentioned using The Beast to light soccer. It was a rare opportunity. I'll probably do it again some day and would suggest other folks give it a try, but don't expect to have many opportunities because access to the pressbox roof may not exist and the refs could always object.
The one caution I'll give about flash is firing from the sideline toward the goal from the same direction as the ball. If a goaltender misses the ball AND is not very sporting, s/he may complain to the ref. If it looks like both of these factors might come into play (PJs know before the game starts), shoot the goaltender a few times when there is no threat. This gives them a chance to complain before the team's loss is blamed on a PJ.
Work shots for publication first. Often these won't be published because they're a stepped-up version of safe shots. Each sport has its own variation of average shots (think a "C" on a college exam). These images might be great, but PJs are merely covering their rumps.
Get the coach
When the ball moves close to one end or the other, coaches start shouting commands to their players. From the 40 yard line, it's an easy shot to get the coach shouting to the players. If the PJ has a long enough lens shoot across the field to get the other coach with players in the foreground (don't use flash for these shots due to the inverse square law of light and red eye caused by light parallax).
Get the players
Always focus on the player's eyes instead of the ball. Each team has 10 players plus a goalkeeper. Try to get one clear shot of each player controlling the ball. These can be used throughout the season. Tight header and chest shots are best. These actions make the player look forward or upward rather than at the ground, but any shot with the player connecting with the ball will do.
PJs want the player facing the camera. Shoot from both sides of the field to get all the players. Even if the shooting areas are restricted, PJs can get missing players during the second half when goals are reversed.
Shoot the defenders from about the 20 yard line as they face outward from the goal. Especially try to get any collisions as the defenders are most likely to have conflicts with the opponents' forward players.
After the ball goes out of bounds, a player gets a throw-in from the sideline. Many players come near the sideline to receive the ball. It's also the most likely time to get short-lens images of a header or chest trap. Get one safe shot of the player who throws in the ball, but primarily concentrate on those expected to get the ball (they'll be about 10 to 20 yards into the opposing team's area. The throw-in can even be shot with a wide angle lens if the players are close to the sideline.
Now it becomes important to understand the game. Roughly, teams try to get the ball into the opponent's goal and prevent the opponent from doing the same. Some teams have strong, fast forwards while other teams use subtle passes and complex formations to get around defenders. A team may employ multiple strategies to get the opponent off balance and sneak a player into position.
During corner kicks particularly, watch for any of the “star players” outside the goal pack. Often, the play involves the ball being fed around the pack to the star who sneaks toward the goal from the sideline and is fed the ball mid air.
In soccer more than other games, it's critical to have the ball in the frame and near the players. Capture the frame slightly before the players make contact (it's moving slowest then).
Additionally, one or two players on each team tend to score the most points. Know if they are right or left –foot kickers and time your best shot for their power kick. It also dictates which side of the goal the PJ should be positioned. Right-footed players rotate to the left as they make mid-air kicks. The opposite is true with lefties. Since PJs need to see the eyes instead of the back, position appropriately.
Go long for outside
Soccer is obviously a long-lens game. It's common to see 600mm lenses on dits at high-level games. If possible, have a 400mm on one body and a 200mm on a second body for closer action.
Understand longer glass actually means fewer shots because other players block most plays. It's frustrating on deadline, but easier to edit.
Try some super-tight shots along the sidelines for throw-in plays. Although the high-flying action remains in the middle of the field, a sideline shot with a 400mm may capture a face-and-ball shot or (more rare) face-ball-and-opponent's-foot shot.
On important or evenly-matched games, watch the home sideline for tension and reactions. From the sideline at about the 40 yard line, watch the teammates on the bench from a kneeling position.
On finals games, be ready to run. The editors want to see a dejected player in the foreground with the jubilant team celebrating in the background. This means the PJ must circle around the losing players and align the winning team behind them. This lasts about 10 seconds.
Although we're all trained to get the fast, sharp shots, remember to get a few f/22 panning shots with motion and blur might make interesting results. These are "artsy" shots to show the game's speed and motion. A pan with the player ensures the main torso and head are sharp while the rest is blurred. A pan with the ball ensured everything except the ball is blurred (a useless shot). At f/5.6 or 8, pan with a slow rear synch on a slower iso.
Don't forget to spend a little time shooting down from the stands as well. This gives PJs clean backgrounds behind the players. However, this angle limits PJs to primarily aerial plays (headers, corner kicks, etc.) where the players look up instead of down.
If possible, try shooting from a low angle behind the goal net. Get as close to the net as possible and shoot wide. If all works out, the PJ has a goalie flying through the air either stopping or missing a ball on a clean sky background. It's a very dramatic, but high-risk image (because you may miss something on the field and not have a single shot to show for your trouble).
As a useful alternative, pre-position a camera at the back of the net with a wireless remote trigger. Nobody can claim interference if the camera is pre-positioned. Shoot the game normally, but when the play comes to the goal, shoot with the wireless remote.
If using this method, zone focus on the area the goaltender is likely to be. It's also a good idea to use some gaffers tape to lock the focus ring (a bump could knock the camera out of focus).
These images are high risk. The likelihood of anything useful is minimal, but if it happens, the PJ looks brilliant at the editing desk. These are the "A" grade shots. Again, I stress not to try these until some publishable shots are already accomplished.
Break out the longest glass and try to get a mid-air shot in front of the goal. Kneel at the penalty box line and focus only on the star player (if they are known for mid-air and/or bicycle kicks). This may cause the actual goal to be missed, but it's a killer if it works. Because the player may be too close, it's possible to be too tight and/or have depth-of-field issues.
Blind overhead shots
An unusual and somewhat risky shot is an overhead shot. The shot can either be accomplished by mounting a camera on a football goalpost over the net (high school games) or by shooting blind from a monopod.
Mount the camera on a monopod with a long plunger, electronic shutter release cord, or use an infrared or FM remote. Pre-focus and test the camera angles (with digital cameras and a monopod ball head). Then, place the monopod base onto a shoulder and follow action. This approach allows a slightly wider lens (50mm works) to get a looser shot. However, remember the PJ is shooting completely blind and may still get nothing.
Other visual variety
Try layering some images. It's hard to accomplish at f/2.8, but it's entirely possible for daylight games. Shoot from the ground through players' legs or find other foreground elements on the sidelines or stands to add some visual variety. Work signs, mascots or flags in the background or as foreground frames.
Try some shots from high in the stands or even atop the pressbox by doubling the longest glass.
Also try some of the "cool" things. Look around for anything reflective for surreal shots. Try a slow-shutter, double-action zoom as the players dribble the ball.
I shot an ad for a beer manufacturer, and they insisted an entire daylight game to be shot at f/22 on 50iso chrome for the look they wanted. They wanted it to have a feel of speed and fluidity rather than sharpness. I never saw the results because it was for a foreign market, but they were really happy with the results and paid well.
Daylight games allow silhouettes and other options. It's up to the PJ's imagination and technical prowess. If time isn't an issue, don't leave the game until absolutely every trick has been attempted. I've even heard of specialty devices attached to the lens to make multiple ghost exposures of the same players with a rotating lens shade.
If PJs have the time during a tournament, experiment with new techniques. I've never seen these or tried them (yet), but consider making some infrared shots or even shoot through large bags of water (maybe even colored water) for cool distortions. A cool shot is a cool shot no matter what the assignment says.
Enough for now,