With football season just around the corner, many of us are getting ready for the Friday Night Lights. The boys have been practicing for a month now. and coaches ... well, they never stop. For those of us priveleged to photograph the big games, theree is also a bit of preparing to do, and unfortunately, this is one of those sports that will help you justify all that gear envy. No doubt about it, better AF systems and faster glass will help you get more usable shots. But even if you don't own a 1DIV and a 400 2.8, you can still get some excellent results using the gear you already have. Here's how:
First off, do your research. Know what to expect from the teams you are covering and who is going to do what. Mom's and dads shooting from the grandstands will get thier kid, and they'll be happy. But nine times out of ten, great pitures are not made while shooting from the stands. Besides, that long lens will get in other people's way and you'll be known as a nuisance. Wherever you are shooting from, make sure you are safe and able to get the shots you need. Vey often, the best vantage point is at the level of the playing field, but be sure you have permission before you venture onto the field. Depending on the level of play, you may be restricted to certain areas. If you are on the field, remember that the kids game comes first, your safety, THEN your pictures. Also, be aware of other photographers working the game. You are each there for a purpose, and no, your picture is not more important than the other guy's. In other words, don't step into some else's frame!
If you are limited, it is usually to the press area that is on the goal line side of the 25 yard line. This does give you lots of room to work ... its just that you have to have either a really long lens or wait for the action to get close enough to shoot. On restricted fields, those 50 yards in between belong only to the players and coaches (and they have to stay within those lines!) though you can go behind the team area to get to the other end of teh field. Remember too that the end zones are great places to shoot from. There, the action is coming right at you, and if you have a lens longer than 200mm, you can often get some really cool shots as they approach. When working a goal line situation, I ususally swithch to my 70-200 and shoot from behind the end zone. One little trick that I use is that I always try to be where I can see the facces of the players I am shooting -- between 5 and 35 yards from the line of scrimmage, depending on the picture I am working on.
If you are shooting midget league, you are lucky ... the action is usually slow enough to follow and the games are played during the daylight hours. Early season Middle School is not too difficult because you still have enough light. For those kinds of games, a minimum shutter speed of 1/500 is required to freeze action. Once you get to High School games .... watch out! Even places with good lights are photographic balck holes. You will need a camera capable of high ISO and know how to use your flash as well as fast glass. Auto focus systems are easilty fooled under the lights, white balance is a nightmare and freezing action can be a challenge. Many of us end up using our speed lights to help illuminate the situation and freeze action, but here again, you've gotta be careful. It is very easy to create ugly shadows or to have ghost images if your flash is not properly balanced. Most experts will tell you that you need to ioverpower ambient by 3 stops in order to avoid ghosting. That can be a challenge at 1/250th! Another solution is to use your flash only as a fill light, but this requires a dedicated system flash setr to High Speed Sync.
The best word of advice is to find an experienced sports photographer to mentor you. Share your successes and failures and learn from them. Anyone who has been around the block a few times can point out what is happening in your pictures. Some of us even have come up with solutions to make those errors disappear! In the end though, getting winning pictures takes teh same effort as winning the game ... it simply takes a lot of practice!