Sports QAD

The following presupposes credentialed or official press access to the sidelines. In football, for instance, you’ll note that there’s a dashed line set back from the actual sideline at most collegiate and pro stadiums. If you’re credentialed press, you position yourself behind that line (some stadiums also require you to kneel in some areas due to visual sightlines from the stands). Always ask the sports information director or someone else who would know if there are positional restrictions at the venue you're shooting at. 

Note: all focal lengths are for full frame cameras. Adjust accordingly for crop sensor cameras. In this article I’ll be using Nikkor lenses, as those are the ones I’m most familiar with and have plenty of sports experience with. Some focal lengths might not translate well to other mounts.

Some general items: 

  1. Get a credential.
  2. Do what any official/referee asks you to do (generally move your position)
  3. Do what any coach asks you to do.
  4. Remember there are shooters who are established and working for someone, so be respectful of those folk (you'll want the same thing if you become an official team or agency shooter).
  5. You can't give student athletes anything that the typical student wouldn't get (it's a Title IX violation), so don't try the bribe route to get posed shots. 

Overall, be nice, play by the rules, and respect others and you'll be able to get future credentials and sometimes even help from the team. As one of my pro friends says: "it's all about relationships with the athletes, coaches, school administrators, conference officials, and officials/referees." Mess up any of those relationships and you won't be invited back.

Ice Hockey
Note that some rinks have cutouts that dictate where you can shoot, others have glass walls that you’re shooting through and may have limitations on where you can be along those walls. Don't block sight lines from the stands. 

  • Basic kit that works well: 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 at rink side, maybe something longer if on a shooting platform in or above the stands. The 70mm mark gives you reasonable coverage of the net and a few players from corner access points, meaning you can shoot wide into the corner and to the play at the net with the 24-70mm, and shoot long into the oncoming players at mid-ice up to the net with the 70-200mm.
  • Other lenses I might consider: if you really want smashed-up-against-you results in the corners, a wide angle zoom like the 14-24mm f/2.8 might be useful in the rinks that have all glass walls in that area. The 105mm f/1.4E turns out to be a pretty good lens for isolating action near the net if you have the right shooting angle. If you’re restricted to a platform up above the rink, you need longer glass, typically 200mm+. The 200mm f/2 or 300mm f/2.8 is useful for middle ice isolations.

How fast your lenses need to be depends upon the rink lighting, and to a lesser degree, on whether you’re shooting rink side or from a platform above. When you’re shooting down on the rink your camera will want to give you smaller apertures (the ice is reflecting the ceiling light). You can’t generally see the faces from above, so often you can use a slightly smaller aperture from above. But if you’re down rink side, you really need an exposure that’s going to open up faces in the helmets. Fortunately, the ice is a great reflector. Unfortunately, so are the glass walls you tend to shoot through. I'd wear black if I can for that reason.

Ice hockey moves fast. You absolutely need 1/1000 minimum even for women’s collegiate levels, and you’ll find yourself wanting 1/2000 in many situations.

There are formal restrictions on where you can be on the field. Many schools don’t allow photographers in the area of the two team benches, meaning that you find you can often shoot only from the goal line to the 25 yard line or so, and behind each end zone. You must stay off the actual sidelines and behind the dashed lines.

To photograph quarterbacks, blitzes, the handoffs of running plays, etc., you need to be at or behind the line of scrimmage. To photograph completed passes and breakthrough runs, you generally want to be well ahead of the line of scrimmage. But…you need to understand what the officials will be doing. There are positions that aren’t good because you’ll end up with an official in your way. For instance, you usually don’t want to be lined up exactly with the goal line when a team is clearly in the red zone on offense.

Be aware that taking up a corner position in the end zone may cause you to interfere with a Side Judge who's running to get position on pass plays. The home team can actually be penalized for interference if you manage to get tangled up with the official. If you have doubts about your position, ask the referee (and always check with the institutions athletic department about any positional restrictions; they vary from venue to venue). 

  • Basic kit that works well: 400mm f/2.8 and either the 24-70mm f/2.8 or 70-200mm f/2.8 depending upon where you’re positioned and what you’re trying to capture. Most of the time you’ll be using the 400mm well in front of (or behind) the action, typically behind the end zone or towards one of the corners around the goal line. You flip to the shorter focal lengths when the action is near you.
  • Other lenses to consider: the 105mm f/1.4, 200mm f/2, and 300mm f/2.8 all can be used well if you’re going to be moving up and down the sidelines some and can control your position vis-a-vis the players well. The lower level of football we're talking about, the more likely you can roam the sidelines. For pro games, good luck fighting for position. For a college Division II or high school game, you can often use shorter lenses and roam (but again, check with the sports director to see where you can actually be; in a couple of rare cases, a good relationship with a coach has actually allowed me to enter the players area; just be aware you have no priority when in there, you can really only get wide angle shots when in a crowd like that).

There’s the consideration of day game versus night game, as well. Generally shutter speeds north of 1/1000 are desired even for high school games. A game that starts at 1pm on a sunny day in a stadium that doesn’t cast long shadows means you can probably get by with f/4 and even f/5.6 lenses. But for late afternoon games in those big stadiums that cast long shadows across the field, you’re going to have to adjust that down at least a stop (f/2.8 and sometimes f/4). 

At night, it depends upon the stadium. Some collegiate and pro stadiums are well lit and f/2.8 with the right camera will work just fine. Some high school stadiums are notoriously poorly lit and even f/2.8 can be an adventure in random photon noise. That’s when the 105mm f/1.4 and the 200mm f/2 can be useful, but only if you can stay close to the action.

Soccer plays on a bigger field than football. Moreover, you can’t really move up and down the field following the action as you can with football in most venues (you can move, but you can't move as fast as the action does, so pick a spot and stay relatively put). You tend to end up somewhere near one of the corners or somewhere between the center and the goal so that you’re covering is what happens from one goal area up to about mid-field.

Note that professional, FIFA, and other formal soccer matches often have advertising billboards ringing the field, and you have to be behind those, which often puts you even further away from the action. Moreover, they put a frequency-based lighting behind your players you need to be aware of (e.g. stay away from the silent shooting modes). 

Note that most soccer fields are not lit nearly as well as football fields for night games. You absolutely need your fastest lenses for night games in order to keep shutter speeds up. 1/1000 is typically fine.

  • Basic kit that works well: 600mm f/4. The new 180-400mm f/4 lens is another reasonable choice if you're mostly shooting action at one end of the pitch, or a day match (because it's 560mm f/5.6 with the converter in place). Maybe a second camera with something like the 70-200mm for close action in the area nearest you. 
  • Other lenses to consider: not many. With the 400mm you’d be cropping a lot. The 500mm can sub for the 600mm if you don’t have the 600mm, particularly with a crop sensor body. The 800mm is f/5.6, so that pretty much rules it out at night, but it could be very useful for center field coverage during the day. One of my buddies thinks the 200-500mm f/5.6 works well during day games in good light (he often uses it on a D500 body instead of his D5, which means he's really got a 300-750mm effective focal length range; soccer is probably the sport that he and I both use our longest lenses on). 

We media folk no longer have a lot of flexibility in most college and professional venues. If we want close access, we’re stuck with sitting on the floor at one end of the court or the other. Which you pick is usually dependent upon which team/coach you’d be favoring in your shooting. Sometimes you'll be assigned to one end.

It used to be that the entire ends of the court were open to still shooters. These days, not so much. There will often be one or more video or broadcasting cameras who get first choice of position, cheerleaders taking up some of the floor end, and these days, sometimes even seating that pushes in and restricts the photographer shooting area still further. Most venues I shoot in now only allow photographers on one side of the basket at each end (college, where photographers get the right side of the basket, cheerleaders the left; pros shooting for the team or an agency tend to get the entire end, but it can be crowded). And for big or much publicized games, that area will be jammed: you’re not going to be able to move once settled in.

Shutter speeds for near action need to be high for near action, especially for pro games. 1/1000 sometimes still produces edge blur on motion.  

  • Basic kit that works well: 24-70mm, and some shooters also use a 70-200mm for far/mid court action, or a 300mm for far court action. 
  • Other lenses to consider: I’m going to be experimenting more with some of the newer wide angle zooms that have appeared, particularly things like the 24-35mm f/2, 15-30mm f/2.8, or even 12-24mm lenses. Because of the restrictive position, a lot of basketball shots look pretty much the same. Many pros have a really wide lens sitting on another camera on a low floor mount for action that happens right at the end line. Others have cameras mounted (with prior permission) on the backboard. A few experiment with rafter-mounted cameras (again with prior permission). All these “extra cameras” tend to be triggered by radio, sometimes set to firing at the same time as the one in their hands. 

While sideline access in sports always has some danger to it, basketball end court positions are extremely vulnerable. You don’t want to have a lot of gear with you, as when a player lands on you trying to save a ball from going out of bounds, you don’t want their weight and momentum jamming lots of gear into your face and body. I sat next to a videographer who got the full force of a pro slamming into their camera: the result was a broken jaw and eye socket.

Traditional media access for baseball is at one or both ends of the player dugouts. These areas sometimes have low fencing or are sometimes at a lower level than the field (like the dugout). But they are almost always completely exposed to play on the field, which means you need to keep 100% alert at all times when occupying them, as foul balls and errant throws can end up hitting you. If you’re not in the media area, you’re often behind fencing or netting that will impact your focusing and shot. 

At some fields you can set up behind the netting behind home plate (and sometimes there are peek-through access for cameras), but that’s getting rarer and rarer to find in pro venues, and even in Division I college venues. Those are premium seats and are now often sold as such. 

Almost certainly you’ll be restricted to one place on the field for college and professional games. You may be tightly packed in with other shooters, as there isn’t a big area that produces good angles for shooting. Umpires and base coaches assume positions on the field that reduce those angles to just a few, too. 

  • Basic kit that works well: 500mm f/4. Maybe a second camera with something like the 70-200mm for action near the dugout, like celebrations. But whether the primary should be 500mm or something shorter, such as 300mm or 400mm will depend a bit on how much foul territory there is in front of you, and whether you’re going to try for shots of outfielders or action at second base. Some stadiums have very little foul territory, while others have quite a bit, and you'll be sitting beyond that area. That’s why when I’m shooting with the Canon bodies I really like the 200-400mm f/4 with the built-in teleconverter (and now the similar Nikon 180-400mm). Most of the time I’m shooting it in the 350-400mm range, but for second base and outfield I flip the converter in and am at 560mm. 
  • Other lenses that work well: Not many I’d consider on my primary body, which really is going to have a long lens tuned to how far I am from the action. You don’t usually move around; baseball action is in a few fixed places. There is the notion of using a wide angle to capture the full stadium, especially if the sky cooperates in an interesting way, but that may need to be a 180° diagonal fisheye to capture the full sweep of the stadium from your position. And you want to capture any celebration that happens in or at the dugout you’re at, so a lens appropriate to that on a second body might be useful. 
  • If you have access to the dugout bench: the 24-70mm is probably the right lens. 
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