Tuesday, August 17, 2004

How to shoot football - Part I

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Southlake Carroll High School football players take the field before a football game against Irving High School at Irving Schools Stadium in Irving on Friday, September 5, 2003.

Texas is about to be absorbed by something many sociologists classify as a religion: Friday night high school football. Football can be challenging for most PJs. When it's played in a barely lit stadium, it gets really vicious. Here are some suggestions to get rookies through the first season.

I've broken this entry into two parts because football is more complex than many other sports due to the number of players and strategies involved. This entry will discuss some of the shooting issues. The next entry discusses some of the strategies for successful action images.

The first game of the season requires extra effort because this particular game may yield images needed for several weeks. At papers with large coverage areas and limited resources, the PJ may only get to all the teams by the end of the season. In the meantime, Sports reporters are constantly churning out updates about the teams already shot and the individual players on those teams (not to mention the season recap). So, plan an excessive amount of images from the first few games of the season.

Get the ball
Get the ball in every shot. Aside from jubilation and sideline shots, it's very rare for ball-based sports photos not to have the subject of the game included. The closer to a player the ball is, the more useful it is and the tighter it can be cropped (to run larger).

Shoot from one knee
Consider shooting on one knee with a monopod. This angle allows the PJ to see inside players' helmets. It's particularly helpful since players often put their head down to run. The point is to see the expression on the players' faces if possible. Compelling images can be made from a standing position, but they tend to lose a lot of the fire. An additional advantage is the perception of large players. If the PJ is a seven-footer and shoots from a standing position, even the college kids look like little leaguers. Shoot from the ground to make the players appear larger-than-life.

Here's a cautionary note about close encounters of the football kind. Since football is often shot through long, fast glass, the PJ typically has time to scramble out of the way. However, sometimes the play lands on the PJ's feet.

When it happens (it will) jump straight up into the air. The players will hit the PJ and bounce her/him, but the only worry is a bruise and landing. In some cases, the players slide under and past the PJ and all is good.

If the PJ stands still or tries to plant a leg for an escape, there is a chance to break or sprain a knee, ankle or other critical body parts. I've seen a PJ have both of her knees broken and lose her career on one sideline play.

When the players are too close to focus, jump straight up.

Know the game
Images improve as PJs learns the rules and strategy of the game. Watch college and pro games when not shooting and think about where to be positioned, when to shoot and what to expect. Learn to predict the plays to capture defining shots.

The more PJs know about a particular team, the more successful PJs are. If PJs prepare for passing plays from a wishbone team, it's a waste of time. A pass might happen, but it's far less likely. Also, if the team's quarterback has the greatest arm in the division, don't spend too much time looking for the handoff when balls are getting yanked out of the air on every play.

Report special stories
Along this line, know about special stories on the team. Is anyone about to break a school or district record? Are any players in the halftime band show? Are there any female players? Are there any exchange students? Is anyone recovering from some life tragedy (death of a relative, auto accident, burn victim, etc.)? Are there any players with prosthetic limbs?

Get these shots and be prepared to explain the importance of the player or the play to the editing desk as well as being able to write solid cutlines with this information. There's no difference in the game shots, it's a matter of highlighting the player to personify the game.

Use a flash
Frequently, flash is required to get any image. It's nice to use fill flash to put a little light inside the helmet and see the players' faces. Occasionally, the flash is the main light because the lightning bugs are doing a better job than the four 100-watt lightbulbs positioned around the field. Remember it's better to transmit flash images than no images.

If the PJ has a turbo battery, use it. This ensures the flash recycles fast enough to handle the action. If it's raining, either don't use the turbo or wrap it safely in a waterproof wrapper. The burning sensation in the PJ's leg isn't a suddenly-pulled muscle, it's electrocution (trust me).

Eliminate red-eye
For fill flash, red-eye shouldn't be a problem. A flash bracket gets the flash further away from the lens plane and minimizes red-eye. If there is no light, the players are likely to be red-eyed meanies no matter how high the flash is (due to distance and light angle parallax combined with the players' dilated eyes).

In extreme cases, red-eye reduction in Photoshop is authorized for sports images. Try everything to avoid it (I use a 2-foot-high telescoping bracket), but if it happens, don't kill yourself over needing to color correct the eyes.

Simply select the red-eyed pupils in Photoshop with a lasso tool at a 3 to 5 pixel tolerance, open Saturation and pull down the red and magenta channels to 50 percent saturation and lightness. This is enough to remove the red without making the players look like dead sharks or zombies.

Use low film speed and fast lenses
In all lighting situations, shoot with the lowest film ISO possible and at the widest aperture setting the PJ can successfully handle (800 iso and f/2.8 are favored for night). I haven't seen football shot too fast yet (boxing, karate, and hockey can be shot too fast) because there are plenty of blurred shots running throughout the season. However, remember the more fractions of a second there are to shoot, the more fractions of the same second will be missed (8 fps at 1/8000 = 7,992 missed moments).

Take follow shots
Because football teams have more players than other sports and the players are constantly changed for specialized plays, PJs need to take more "follow shots" than game shots. Follow shots identify the participants of a play. These images can be slightly out of focus without concern. We only need to know which players (by jersey number) were involved in the play. This can be extremely critical for teams that stress uniformity (same color everything including shoes), and those with only front and/or back numbers (kudos to the coaches of teams with shoulder, sleeve, helmet and hip numbers). Many great shots get scrapped because the players can't be positively identified.

Edit with dead frames
To save editing time, PJs who know they have a great shot get the follow shots and then fire two frames at the ground or cover the lens for two frames. On tight deadlines, this code quickly lets the PJ know where to look first for the best images. With digital cameras, simply lock the best frames so they are marked when imported in PhotoMechanic.

Enough for now,

Please also see How to shoot football - Part II


Lisa said...

Can you do something on how to photograph a meteor shower?

Mark M. Hancock said...

I did, but you deleted it. :-)

Andy Smothers said...

Oh Captain my Captain! You are the best. Thanks for all of the priceless information, Mark. You continue to be my mentor in the business and a good friend. It is people like you who take the time to share their insight, life experiences and talent with others that truly make the world a better place to live. Great information as usual and I will take it to heart. You are a great inspiration.