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How to take photographs at a football game

Winter's on the way which means the football season is well under way. Frank Reid and Sam Furlong give us their tips for capturing perfect match photographs.

|  Sports and Action
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Long lens action at a football match
Here the second that Kevin Betsy turns on Neil Austin is not just captured with a fast reaction but also a shutter speed of 1/1250sec that freezes the action. However, what makes this image stand out is the isolation and compression that you get with the use of a long lens. In this case a 400mm f/2.8 Nikkor and a narrow aperture.
You might think that taking photographs at a football match is quite simple, but you'd be wrong. Before you even think about how you can take good photographs you have to actually get access to a game. To shoot football league matches you need a license so if you're just starting out, try contacting non-league clubs or better still head down to your park to cover a Sunday league match.

“Sunday games are a great places to learn or to go to Vauxhall conference level who aren't under the same restrictions and the football league,” explained Frank Reid. “They're always looking for someone to take the odd picture for the programme, especially people who wont charge them. If you go to the club and say can I take some images for your programme, that gets you in. Then you maybe able to stay there for the season and before you know where you are, you're at a standard where you can offer an image to your local paper. Once they know you're there and available and more people see your work you can then maybe offer a bigger newspaper a picture or two.”

Photographer Sam Furlong also gives the same advice: “Football photography is very competitive and hard to get into. For someone starting out I would say don't expect to go straight in and start shooting Premier League action or the World Cup. Start doing some local football, see if the local paper is interested, try and pick up a few Saturday shifts off them (local paper staffers generally dislike working weekends). After a while you may get to do some of the better games if there is a local league side on the papers license. Once you have a few cuttings and invoices you can apply for a league license and then go along to games. Generally you have to pick your fights so to speak.

Staying ahead of the game is very hard and I don't really know of anyone who would truly describe themselves as ahead of the game. I think consistency is the answer. Be reliable, go to games and get the goal and celebration pictures (those are the main things papers look for), any incidents such as fouls/fights and a couple of good frames of the managers never go amiss either.”

As a new kid on the block there is little point commercially going to the big games where the top agencies may have a couple of guys as well as all the local well established guys. Look for the games that slip under people's radars - the second choice fixture for that weekend.
Don't let the rain stop your photography
Don't put your kit away if it rains, here I captured a strong image of Hartlepool United manager Chris Turner only because I was willing to sit in the rain and see what I could get.

“It's easier to get into the smaller clubs, especially clubs like Darlington and Carlisle, they're always open and welcoming for new photographers to go in and learn how to shoot football, explained Frank. “ I think that's how most club photographers start. You can write a letter to the club and ask them if it would be OK for you to take some pictures.”

So, you've got permission to take some photographs but this is only the first step in getting the perfect match photograph. A good sports photographer needs to know the sport they're photographing as it enables you to follow the action and predict what is about to happen.

“Knowledge of your subject is one of the most important things. Sure, a good professional will get usable pictures from most sports without problem, even the first attempt but for truly great pictures you need something more,” said Sam.

If they run away, stay with them!
The way a player reacts to scoring a goal can give you fantastic images. It would have been easy to put my camera down as Andy Monkhouse and Sam Collins ran away from me, yet by staying with them I not only managed to get them in a different celebration picture I had the bonus of the Hartlepool United crowd celebrating as well.
Sam says technical skills are also important: “Sports such as football are fast paced and often take place under artificial lighting so the photographer needs to be able to use their equipment to it's best advantage. Make sure colours are correct by setting the correct white balance for the stadium lighting, a fast shutter speed is needed to freeze action so a high ISO and fast aperture are the order of the day - the lower light of night games makes this more difficult and sometimes compromises have to be made. It's the photographers job to know where these can be made and where they can't and how they will affect the final result.”

A great tip Sam has for keeping up with the action is to follow the game through the viewfinder with both eyes open. One eye is looking through the camera but your peripheral vision in the other eye can get a sense of that player about to slide a tackle in from the side of frame! With practise it can be very useful.

This knowledge and understanding isn't something you get overnight. Even Frank spent four years taking photographs before he got any form of consistency.

“I've taken photographs at football games for 27 years now and when I started photography wasn't done using auto-focus cameras, I was shooting in black and white on a manual focus camera and then I'd go back and work in the darkroom, from 6pm on a Saturday until one o'clock on a Sunday morning, on the images and developing black and white pictures. I learnt through making mistakes and through having to understand photography. Now, it's easier to get what you'd call a 'usable image'.”

To a degree, Frank's right, the digital equipment available now gives the user time to concentrate on capturing the image but to take advantage of this you must understand all the ins and outs of your camera completely. Knowing how your camera works will allow you to become more consistent and when you become more consistent it will allow you to produce a better standard of images.

“If you want to do an image which will be used on the front of a Sunday Supplement or in the paper it has to be perfect, it has to be absolutely right,” said Frank.

A quick sport like football is almost impossible to keep up with if you don't know the sport , there is no substitute for being able to predict the game and both Sam and Frank say practising with your equipment helps.

“Knowing how your AF reacts to different situations, understanding all the custom tweaks that modern cameras allow you to do, how they affect that camera's operation and fiddling to figure out the best way to set them for a certain sport,” explained Sam.
Tight all action image
Once again here is an incident in a game that would not have the same impact, if the background was not thrown out of focus by the combined use of a long lens (400mm f/2.8 Nikkor) and a shallow depth of field. If I had been cautious and used a 70-200mm Nikkor just to make sure I "Got all the scene in the frame". Then yes I for sure would have captured the incident but it would have had no or little impact. Here your attention as the viewer stays with the image because there is nothing to distract you or take your attention away from the action area of the image.

Of course, practising and keeping your skills sharp out of season is also a good idea. One of Sam's friends keeps his reactions sharp in the closed season by getting his kids to throw frisbees for the family dog! 

OK, you have your game to go to and you know how you should be taking your photographs but do you know who to photograph, where and how easy it will be to do? If you've been in the business a while you probably will but if, for example, you're working at a new ground visiting a day or two before the match will let you check the sun's position, you can find out how long it will take to get there and you can also see how easy the club is to access.

“Google maps is great because you can look at the map and see where the ground is sitting and everything else which helps you know where you're going, what the place is like and also it lets me know what bag I need to carry my gear in,” explained Frank. “If it's clear there's good access I will take my trolley bag. If I haven't I'll take two or three bags with one on my back and one or two to carry.”

Sam also suggests you see if there's anyone returning from injury or suspension. Is there any bad blood between the managers or players on opposing teams which is likely to result in fireworks? Has any player/manager said anything in the media that week? If so then some good pictures of that individual will be a must as well as keeping one eye on them in case they do anything stupid. Also, some teams have celebrity fans, not strictly sports photography but if Elton John or Gordon Ramsay is in the stand then quickly putting a doubler on the 400mm you'll get a few frames which may sell.

Look for good stock images
I am always looking for the chance to get good stock images. This is a full frame image of Leon McSweeney. I would never put forward an action sport image if it did not have two players in it however, images like this are the bread and butter "STOCK" that any good back page sub would die for.
According to Sam, a frame showing two blokes running with a ball shot is just not enough any more, modern cameras are so good that it's not hard to get a technically decent picture, you need something more - either something aesthetically beautiful or something that really tells the story of the game. Sam always makes sure he has the goals, celebrations, incidents (fouls/fights/rude gestures etc.) and sometimes just some nicely done action such as people flying through the air/heading the ball and guys sliding in to take another player's feet away.

“I need guys running to the left, ones running to the right, square pictures, wide pictures, up right pictures,” added Frank. “Of course I need goals too because as my editor says: goals aren't important but they are nice to have!”

Frank knows he has to get, roughly, seventy five images from one game. Forty of which go to the Hartlepool Mail.

“They will only use ten but if I send in 40 I know I have every player covered, every goal, every foul, every sending off. I also have different newspapers to send to and I have to send these a supply of different images, to make the content as fresh as possible.”

To capture the action, Frank has three cameras with three different lenses: a 400mm f/2.8, 300mm Nikkor f/2.8 and a 70-210mm Nikkor f/2.8 lens. His prime lens, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 allows him to capture action from the far end of the ground and working at f/2.8 means when the light levels drop he can open the lens up as wide as possible to keep the shutter speed up which allows him to freeze the action.

When it comes to presenting your work, be careful. Due to football league rules, some members of our site had to take all of their work down.

“The FA control who gets into grounds and takes pictures to keep it fairly tight for the benefit of the working press so photographers couldn't come in, take pictures and sell their work,” explained Frank. “It stops unlicensed images appearing everywhere and stops money getting taken off the working press photographers and also it allows clubs to get revenue from selling their own images.”

For games that require a pass, if you don't have one you wont get in – simple as that. The process isn't as simple as showing up and waving a pass either. Photographers like Frank and Sam have to fill out an online form 3-4 days before a game, and that goes directly to the club and with that goes their portraits which the football association have. They then come back to you and tell you you have permission to go. Then, when they get to the ground they have to show them their passes and the ground check that the image on the pass matches the one they have on record.

“Unfortunately with the money in football these days, the lawyers and accountants have jumped on board and the game has become bogged down in licensing and regulation,” said Sam. “ For editorial use things are generally fine and I do have some football league photos on my own website which are just for self promotion, not commercial gain. If I were selling reprints I don't think it would go down so well.”

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nikonhammer 13 129 2 England
29 Nov 2009 10:13AM
Perfect article its alomst as if it was written for me! I posted on the forum about football during the week and this is ideal. Thanks guys and well worth the read

John_Humphreys 17 69 2 Ireland
1 Dec 2009 7:13PM
Good article guys - particularly on the commercial aspects! John
StevenPrice 18 30 2 England
27 Dec 2009 7:11PM
this is a super article everything that Frank & Sam have said is spot on, essential reading for any budding football photographer.
buttyboy 12 18 Wales
1 Apr 2010 8:37PM
Well done lads, extremely interesting and learnt a few things from reading your article.
25 Jul 2017 8:31PM
As this article is a good few years old maybe you would like to do a new one and correct some glaring anomalies,first the National League successor to the Conference requires all photographers to be licensed
Secondly and more importantly you suggest giving photos free to papers, maybe you could find out how many photographers have lost their jobs in the intervening years because papers no longer need to employ them as they get so many freebies

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