Words and images by by Dan Aitch
Try to make contact with the team whose home ground you’ll be shooting at and introduce yourself ahead of gameday. Most teams will be very friendly and happy to have you along but you need to observe some basic rules while shooting –
- You are not allowed to shoot from within the team areas on the sidelines – these are from the 25-yard line at one end of the field, across the halfway line, and down to the 25-yard line at the other end of the field. Teams occupy one side of the field each, and so these areas will be out of bounds to photographers for the duration of the warm-ups, pre-game activities and the game itself. The only exception to this is photographers who are registered with one of the teams who are playing so if you see it happening, don’t assume it’s ok for you to join in.
- The team areas will extend to approximately 5 yards away from the field so if you’re walking behind these areas, keep your distance – players are usually big and covered in very dense and hard-wearing armour; if you bang into them it’ll hurt and they might not even realise they’ve done it. It is usual for photographers not to shoot or film players from behind the team boxes without permission, although it’s perfectly acceptable to shoot them from the sides.
- If you want to shoot from on the field for the coin toss, or team introductions (the team players are called out one at a time to ensure their face matches the registration card permitting them to play in the game) you’ll need to seek the permission of the two Head Coaches, and the match officials. It’s worth introducing yourself to the away Head Coach and officials anyway, just out of courtesy and to get your face known.
Keep your distance while you’re on the sidelines – aim to be at least 8 feet back from the playing area, possibly more, depending on the situation. If it’s a European competition game rules stipulate that you must be at least 12 feet back. American football has officials (like ‘linesmen’ in football) who are always on the sidelines and won’t appreciate you being in their way while they’re trying to keep up with the action on the field (especially if they’re running backwards and don’t know you’re there). If the officials ask you to move back or vacate an area, please do what they say – they’ll be more aware of likely on-field activity and will be acting with everyone’s best interests at heart. If you find yourself in the frightening position of large, fast players haring towards you in pursuit of onfield activity, look after yourself first – your equipment is (hopefully) insured and can be replaced – move away from the field without turning your back on the players – it’s easier to avoid someone if you can see them, and they can see you. Learn how to move backwards quickly. If it’s really too late to get out of the way, curl up on the ground, make yourself as small as possible and hope for the best – starting to move when it’s too late will cause more damage than it saves.
Also, be ready to make a lot of effort shooting this game – if you’ve shot lots of football or rugby you’ll be used to squatting on a stool and waiting for the action to come to you – if you wait for the action to come to you in this game you could be sitting around with nothing to do for a long time. Be prepared to walk up and down the field many times, just to stay within range of the action.
Fast-action sports need a fast shutter speed to freeze what’s going on but don’t fall into the mistake of using shutter priority. Shoot in Aperture Priority, keep your aperture wide open, and manipulate your ISO to keep your shutter speed at at least 1/640th, preferably higher. Not only will this freeze your action but the wide-aperture will give you a shallow depth of field and bring your subject leaping out of the photo at you.
Be aware that while the player who’s carrying the ball might seem easy to avoid (even if he’s running straight at you) there will also be eleven defensive players you probably can’t see through your viewfinder who have taken a pursuit angle to tackle the ball-carrier – they may cause you more damage if they ‘blindside’ you when you’re not ready for it. The speed that players move at is enough to take them 8-10 yards off the field before they come to a halt. The energy released by two American football players colliding is enough to cause a non-padded individual a lot of damage.
Shoot from your knees (or one knee to allow yourself to move quickly when at risk of collision with the players) wherever possible if you’re shooting game action. Remember to invest in a good set of knee-pads. Buy the ones aimed at carpet-fitters, not skateboarders – you want pads that will cushion your knees for a long period of time, not those designed to absorb occasional high-impacts. If you can, find an unusual vantage point or unusual angle to shoot from, but when you’re concentrating on the on-field action, a low vantage point will give you a better view of the players’ faces under the helmet. If it’s warm and dry, and you’re well back, you can try shooting while you’re lying flat on the grass – it gives a great perspective on the action.
Not unique to British football but worth stating – Know the ‘Down and Distance’. There are numerous websites that explain football rules and it’s worth trying to understand the basic concepts for progressing downfield and scoring. This one is a good example - Talk American Football
Once you understand the ‘Down and Distance’, you will have a better idea of what sort of play might be coming (a running play or a passing play). The shorter the yardage that remains, especially on 3rd Down, the more likely it is to be a running play, and if a lot of yardage remains, it might be a passing play. Passing plays are usually employed to gain big yardage.
Pay attention to what you’re shooting and where from. Try not to ‘chimp’ your images, once you’re happy with your exposure settings because there is always something happening on or around the field e.g. coaches yelling, players off the field shouting at each other, officials making calls and physios repairing players. Just because American football is viewed as a ‘stop/start’ game, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to photograph during the ‘stop’ periods. Most American football squads will contain more then 30 players. With only 11 on-field at any time, there are some great character studies to be made.
Watch the coaches. They can be the most animated and enjoyable subjects to shoot – they shout, scream, jump around and generally make bigger subjects than virtually anyone else on the field. In the heat of the moment you’ll get the true spirit of the game, without the helmet and facemask to obscure the emotions.
Be aware of the officials. They rarely get animated but they’ll always manage to get in the way of your best photos, as with all sports. There’s also a ‘chain crew’ on the sidelines, consisting of at least three people, plus some ballboys. Make sure you know where they are, and where they’re likely to be when you’re choosing where to shoot from. There’s nothing worse than tracking a player as he runs downfield and at the crucial moment when something big is about to happen, your view is obscured by someone who’s legitimately standing five yards away from you and blocking your view completely.
British American football is often played in a park or on a remote rugby field. Try to be aware of your backgrounds – there’s nothing worse than a wonderful action shot that has Auntie Mabel in her deckchair, with an ice-cream, in clear shot in the background. Sometimes it’s tough to prevent, but with a little planning you can avoid most distracting backgrounds.
Celebrations can often take place without someone having scored first so try to be aware of ‘big plays’ and the photo potential they offer. Also, at the end of the game the players line-up to shake hands, whatever the score. The field is ‘open’ to all once the game is over so you can get some good shots of post game emotions. If you want to shoot the post-game team huddles, please respect their space and shoot from a distance. The end of each quarter is signified by the referee holding the ball aloft in one hand. The fourth time this happens it means the game is over. Virtually no British football games will have a visible game-clock on display and due to the vagaries of game-clock management, there’s no way of working it out by looking at your watch. ‘Two-minute warnings’ are a good indicator that a half is about to end but if you’re not paying attention, you won’t hear it announced. Besides, it means two minutes of game time and might take ten actual minutes to pass.
Don’t necessarily follow the ball. American football is a combination of sumo-wrestling, chess and athletics. There are always good images that can be created away from the ball-carrier, especially the linemen ‘fighting’ each other in ‘the trenches’. It’s where the game is won and lost and can provide some great opportunities for strong subject-matter.
Be prepared for pass plays - they can be the best shots – giving you a combination of the quarterback launching the ball downfield and a receiver leaping to make a spectacular catch. Shooting with both eyes open can really help this. It’s a hard habit to master but it can give you a much better idea of what is happening on the field. Give it a go and see how you get on. If you’re trying to capture both the quarterback’s release of the ball and the receiver catching the ball on the same play, it’s an invaluable technique to help you locate where the ball is going without having to take your eye away from the camera.
There are many things happening on-field before the play even starts – quarterbacks calling signals, wide-receivers making gestures to ensure they’re lined up properly, or defensive players swapping positions and keying on the activity and the formations of the offensive side. Keep an eye on these and you’ll get some good shots, even if your equipment and the light conditions mean that you’re unable to freeze game action with high shutter speeds.
remember to have fun. It’s a great sport!