Taking sports photos in the bright sun : Redskins Training Camp

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redskins-training-camp-desean-jacksonI attended an NFL training camp for the first time recently, and it was a challenging and a fun experience photographing professional athletes for the first time.

Photographing fast paced sports photography requires experience and advanced skills. Fear not! It just means combine the basic skills you’ve acquired, and practice.

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The Challenge!

  1. The speed! The overwhelming first impression of these football players is that they are fast!! Tracking the play and players through the lens is a huge challenge.
  2. Limited access. Fans at training camp have fairly good access to view practices, but it’s not the best view, angle and distance for photographing.
  3. The crowd. It’s crowded around the fans area, so finding a spot by the field with a good view was a challenge.
  4. Obstructed views. Players are rotated in and out of plays which means some players will stand on the sidelines at any given time. So the action on the practice field gets blocked by these huge players, and also by staff and media folks who have access to the field.
  5. Practices are done throughout the two large fields. Different groups on offense, defense, special teams, they all split up and rotate around different sections of the fields so you never know whether the players you want to watch are going to be near you or on the other side of the field.

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Now that I have a better idea of how things operate, I would have picked a spot in the front of the roped area before the practice began before it got crowded. A hat, sunscreen and cold water is necessary. The sun was scorching!!

Thought Process When Taking Photos

  1. Sun light: The sun was behind us, blasting on the players. Which means once exposed properly the colors will be rich and full of contrast. As I mentioned before when I’m in a situation to embrace the sun, I take full advantage of it.
  2. Shooting location: Goes hand-in-hand with the sun’s location, as my shooting location is often dictated by where the sun is. Think also about how much you can zoom with your lens. I had the 70-200mm lens so I knew I couldn’t too far back. In this case, I wasn’t left with much choice since fans are allowed to watch only in certain areas, so I picked the best spot in terms of distance to the action, the angle and thankfully the sunlight.
  3. ISO: ISO at 100. Full sunny day means lowest ISO possible for rich colors and contrast.
  4. Aperture: F/2.8. In hindsight f/4.0 or f/5.6  would have been better.I missed focus on this shot that could have worked if I had greater depth of field. I needed to focus the receiver but my focus got locked in on #25 instead. The surrounding players would have been in focus. 
  5. Shutter Speed: 1/3200. When photographing fast paced action high shutter speed is necessary to freeze the action.
  6. FocusingFocus and tracking fast moving athletes takes practice. I used the back button focusing on my Canon 5D Mark III and set the focus setting to AI Servo, and the zone focus points. The zone focus points gives me more area to focus on and AI Servo allows me to keep focus on moving subjects.

Shooting Tips and Lessons learned

  1. Shoot a sequence – The players are fast and the action happens fast. Anticipate, react and shoot away.
  2. Don’t chimp – Don’t chimp during the action. Like I said these players are fast, so if you chimp you’ll miss some good action.
  3. You can’t shoot everything – It’s impossible to run around the practice field and shoot everything. Take advantage of where you are and shoot what you can.
  4. Pick a player and track – After I realized how fast the actions happen, I opted with picking a star player and followed him with the lens whether the play went to him or not.
  5. Keep shooting – I missed many shots. Either I was too slow to track the play or I missed the focus. It’s good to learn from mistakes and keep practicing.

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*I often did not know whether the quarterback was going to hand off the ball to a running back or throw it to a wide receiver. Even when he threw it, I didn’t know which receiver he was throwing to. I opted with picking a star player and followed him with the lens. Sometime the ball went to the player I picked and sometime it didn’t. And sometime the play happened on the other side of the field and my view was blocked by other players on the field. It happened on this play where Desean Jackson caught the ball, but from my view the catch was obstructed by other players on the field. I stayed with the play, re-focused on Desean and took photos of him running after the catch.

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**One of the most encouraging things I witnessed at the Redskins training camp was watching Josh Norman(#24) practicing alone after the official team practice. Josh Norman is one of the top corner backs in the NFL, yet he was practicing basic drills after the rest of the players had gone inside.
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Advanced Tip : Back Button Focus

By the way, have you heard of back button focusing? The back button focus allows you to lock focus with a button on the back of the camera instead of the shutter button. This allows the shutter button to be used only as a shutter for taking photos instead of a button that you have to press half-way to focus then use as a shutter. Your success rate in nailing an action photo is slim if you do not use back button focusing. You will miss many shots even while using back button focus, and without it you will miss even more. The majority pro photographers I know use back button focusing. If you have been having trouble nailing focus on your subject, I’d recommend you learn to use the back button to focus technique. Each camera has a custom way of setting up the back button focus, so search the internet on how to set it up on your specific camera model.

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I hope you find this post helpful. If you have further questions please write in the comment section or on the PTC facebook page.

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