Soccer Game Photography

Soccer Game Photography

As Alex’s first high school soccer season winds down, I started to reflect on what I have learnt in the past two and half months as a team photographer.

Post Processing

This should have been the last topic, but I decide to talk about this first as this process was the most helpful in my learning process of being a decent action photography. Post processing is very important for sports photography as we shoot in moment’s decision, and there is no time to adjust or even zoom. The steps I take to process pictures are:

  • level the picture, particular when this is post, bleachers, goal, etc in the picture.
  • Adjust lighting if necessary. For the night-time games, I normally choose settings to shoot slightly underexposed. Otherwise, the pictures would be overly grainy (as ISO has to be turned very high). With fields better lit, I got good results shooting at 1/1250 second, f/2.8 and ISO4000; some other stadiums (like our own high school stadium) I had to shoot at 1/1000 second, f/2.8 and ISO5000.
  • Crop to express the subject better. Most of the time, I crop to individual (picture 1), or 2 to 3 battling athletes (picture 2).  Occasionally, I choose to keep a crowd to show intensity (picture 3).

Picture 1.

Picture 2

Picture 3

Taking the Pictures

  • Know my camera – for this kind of photography, Auto setting will not be able to produce good pictures consistently, especially for night time games, auto setting will almost guarantee blurred pictures. We have many game days that had one game starting at 5 and 2nd game starting at 7. So shooting between 5 and 9 means setting will have to change almost constantly to adapt to change of lighting. So know the camera well, and change settings as soon as condition changes
  • Understand the technical part of photography – understand shutter speed and aperture is very important. For intense games (like boys soccer game, particularly at higher level), players move really fast, they don’t stop, look around, settle and shoot. They are moving in fast speed with the ball and shoot while running, thus shooting at high shutter speed is critical. Usually speed over 1/1000 almost guarantee sharp pictures, to be safe, I normally make sure it’s above 1/1250. I also like to shoot wide open, say f/2.8, this way, the background can be blurred and be of less distraction. Picture 4 is a perfect example. Though there are a lot of people and cars in the background, they were blurred enough not to cause distraction. If I were to shoot at f/8 or f/11, on a sunny day like that, everyone in the background would be equally sharp as number 14 on the foreground.

Picture 4

  • Experience with various setting – I shoot with Shutter priority at night, and Aperture priority for day time games. I normally do not let ISO float, as I am afraid it might float to 8000 or 10000 to compensate the low lighting and the pictures become overly grainy. Instead, I force ISO to a value that I feel comfortable, 100-200 during the day, 3200-5000 for night time. These values don’t come to me automatically, I study the setting during post processing, and try to remember what works for my need and apply those settings during the future games. I do tweak them a little during the game based on where I stand to shoot.
  • Hold the camera leveled – this may sound trivial, and crooked pictures can be fixed quite easily in light room, however, this might mean you end up losing critical piece of the picture, for example, the ball that’s in mid-air might be out of the frame during correction. So holding the camera leveled can eliminate the need to rotate picture during post processing
  • Know the game and try to know the players – Understanding the game that I shoot is quite important, this way I can anticipate better the movements of various players. I found knowing each player is even more important to produce outstanding pictures more often. For example, one of the star player, B, on our team hardly dribbles with the ball, he usually takes a very good look when the ball is coming to him, or when he takes the ball away from the opponent, and sends the ball to his teammate for the next play. I learnt that, and started to focus on him before the ball gets to him and shoot as soon as the ball reaches him. Thus, even though he doesn’t keep the ball much time, I have awesome shots of him every game (picture 1). Another star player, D, has this look in his eyes that shows focus and determination when ball comes to him. I tried to look for that, and when possible, capture the moment (picture 5). Player G always cups his two hands to make a heart for his mom when they jog across the field, while there are 28 of them running across the field, I always tried to capture his gesture. In fact, I loved one of the pictures so much, I placed the picture in his senior memory book. His mom came to me and thanked me for being thoughtful (picture 6).

Picture 5

Picture 6

  • Anticipate Moves – while bursting 20 frames per second might sound cool, it actually causes a lot of work during post processing. I hardly use bursting in games, instead, I would rather watch the game intently and anticipate the move and take picture(s) at an optimal time. This of course doesn’t come naturally, but the more I take picture, the better I get at anticipating when to get good shots. My yield (good and presentable pictures vs number of total pictures taken during the game) increased from 20% initially to around 60% toward the end of the season.
  • Follow the Ball, not the Player – players usually have a lot more body movement and facial expression when they are handling the ball. While I follow the ball, I tend to get good pictures. If I just follow player, sometimes it’s necessary as some players don’t play much and I need to get their pictures, I end up getting very frustrated and take pictures when they are standing, or walking.
  • Emotional Moments – While taking a series of pictures to show the player scoring a goal might be memorable, it takes many pictures to describe the event. I like to take pictures when they celebrate the goal. The jump, the run, the high-fives, the chest bump, the emotions really come through in a single picture. I also always take a picture of the score board immediately after the goal to mark the place as well as the time (picture 7). Losing a game, though painful for the players, is a good opportunity for good pictures as well. It really shows how emotional the players are and how serious and dedicated they are to the sport.

Picture 7

  • Shoot Raw! – Raw file provides so much more data than JPEG. This is key to post processing.

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