May 26, 2014

Sports Photography tips from a season touring with the LFL

NSW Surge LFL Team

For someone who is not a sports photographer I had to learn a few things before I could successfully tour with the Legends Football League for a whole season. So here, I am going to share my sports photography tips with you all on what I learnt about capturing action on the field. This post is by no means specific to american style football either. The photography tips can help improve your photography of any sport.

Not long ago I posted about my role touring with the Legends Football League in Australia, and part of that role was to photograph the action on the field at each of the games around the country. This took me to AAMI Park in Melbourne, Centrebet Stadium in Sydney, Skilled Park on the gold Coast, and NIB Stadium here in Perth.

Read on for my Sports Photography Tips and more photos from the debut Australian season of the LFL.

WA Angel Stephanie Lethborg LFL


Like any type of photography, there is a real art & skill to shooting sports, but it is definitely one of those genres that you really need the right gear to be able do your job properly. Having to photograph players from the sidelines on large open fields means you don’t want to be leaving home without some serious glass(lenses). Wide apertures and long reach is what you’re after for this application.

Canon equipment Canon Lens

Personally I would want at least a 200mm lens or you’re not going to get close to any action unless it’s directly in front of you. In my case I toured with a Canon 400mm 2.8 L prime lens and a Canon 300mm 2.8 L prime. What a couple of magnificent lenses I must say. They are enormous. These lenses enabled me to get in nice and tight for some great close-up shots of players facial expressions. I typically used the 400mm and my second shooter would use the 300mm. On hand would still be a 70-200mm 2.8 L to back us up for anything in closer range and that explains the photo in the above left. That was taken in Perth where my second shooter Karl Pearce laid down his gear next to mine and we snapped a photo. It’s not everyday we get to play with that kind of hardware.

Given the cost of these sorts of lenses I’m referring to means you’re probably going to be renting them. That is where the rental department at Camera Electronic Sales and Service helped me out for the entirety of the LFL season. Don’t be fooled by pros using all this fancy gear, a lot of them still rent it.

Just a quick note on lenses, this doesn’t mean you don’t need or shouldn’t use a wide lens as well. There are plenty of opportunities for the use of a wide lens before, during and after a game.  A lot of wide lenses are typically used to mount to things or get interesting point of view shots. Be bold. Get creative!

After you have your glass sorted, a sports camera body is essential to sports photography. If you’re a Canon shooter like me then that puts you in line for the 1 series. I used a Canon 1DX which gave me the blissful sound of 14 frames per second of 18 mega pixel goodness. The main feature you need in a camera as a sports shooter is that high frame rate. A lot of sport is very fast paced and you want every chance to be able to freeze that action at just the right fraction of a second.  I tried shooting on my 5DMKIII and just got frustrated with it, it wasn’t fast enough. The 1DX was a dream camera to use and the low light capability was extremely good given I had to shoot in stadiums at night. With sports it’s imperative you maintain a fast shutter speed, and to do that at night time means you need to increase the ISO.  So that’s where the low light capabilities of the 1DX was very handy.


WA Angel Britney Were

For the beginners out there, forget the sports mode on your camera. In fact forget any of the automatic settings. All sports photographers you will find are sitting on Aperture Priority mode, or sometimes perhaps Shutter Priority mode. Aperture priority mode allows you to set your desired aperture, and let the camera calulcate the shutter speed for you. You do need to make sure that shutter speed is high enough to freeze the action though.

In order to capture that action it’s all about fast shutter speeds. You want to freeze that action. There’s a lot of guidelines out there as to what shutter speed to use but I personally don’t like to go below 1/600th second. If I can shoot at 1/1000th I will, but lighting conditions aren’t always optimal, and there’s a limit to how far you want to push your camera’s ISO.

All the LFL Australia games were at night. So even though we are under bright lights, for a camera it’s still a low light situation. That’s why the wide aperture (F2.8) capability of all my lenses is so important. The 2.8 allows a lot more light to get in (than say a F5.6) and helps to keep that shutter speed to a much shorter duration.  The aperture itself though isn’t enough, the ISO has to go up as well. It’s more important to freeze the action and get a nice sharp shot than it is to worry about some noise and grain in your photo. So the first thing I did was ramp that ISO up to 1000 as a starting point, and occasionally I found myself sitting on anything up to 2500. Thankfully I was using the Canon 1DX which handles higher ISO’s amazingly well and to be honest it was nothing a little bit of Lightroom noise reduction couldn’t fix. You may not be fortunate enough to use a great camera body but we all have to start somewhere. Find the compromise you’re willing to make with your ISO and shutter speed and go from there.

The second part to this is that you want to make sure your focus mode is set to Al Servo. This way you can hold down the AF-ON button or your shutter halfway and let the camera constantly seek focus for you. This way you can track a subject as they move on the field. Everything happens so fast in football so you don’t have time to focus every time you see a moment. This also enables you to maintain focus on your subject while you are holding down the shutter button snapping at a high frame rate.  If you have the options in the camera’s menu, switching to a sports focus assist mode is beneficial. This is important for tracking subjects that make erratic movements and accelerate quickly. If you own a Canon 1DX or even a 5DMKIII you have a lot of control over your cameras focusing abilities. I suggest you read the manual on this one and do what you feel is right for you.


NSW Surge Shari Onley

Part of the art to being a good sports photographer, is knowing what is going to happen before it happens. You really need to know the sport, the rules and if possible know the coaches and players. If you were watching the Chicago Bulls back in the 90’s trying to make the game winning shot with a few seconds left, you would be locked onto whatever Michael Jordan was doing. Chances are, he’s going to be the one making that shot. Being able to predict and pre-empt plays gives you an enormous advantage.

I can really speak volumes about this tip because when I started shooting american football, I didn’t have a clue how the game worked and I would miss opportunities without a doubt. As I came to know the sport a lot better, I found myself making a lot of conscious decisions about where I was going to be and how I was going to shoot. Knowing when the ball has changed possession is a good one, you don’t want to be stuck up the wrong end of the field. Sometimes you cant hear the referee’s and if you aren’t paying attention you can miss the changeover. So you need to pay attention and know what’s going on.


NSW Surge Cinda Barclay

So let me sum up everything I rambled on about above.

– Use a camera body with a high frame rate (10+ frames per second)

– Use long telephoto lenses (200mm and above. I used a 400mm)

– Use Aperture priority or Shutter priority

– Ensure you use a fast shutter speed (at least 1/600th to freeze the action)

– Use a wide aperture eg: F2.8 (especially in low light)

– Use a High ISO if required to maintain fast shutter speeds in low light

– Know your sport inside and out to have the best chance at capturing the action


VIC Maidens LFL

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. A huge thank you goes out to Camera Electronic who have continuously supported everything I do and have specifically supported my role with the LFL. I certainly wouldn’t be lugging around a Canon 400mm & 300mm F2.8 prime lenses without their help. So if you can’t afford it, rent it from Camera Electronic in Perth W.A. If you can afford it, then they will be happy to do you a good price as well.


Jayne Caldwell LFL


To keep up to date with the LFL teams in each state, jump on facebook and follow your local teams here:

W.A.: https://www.facebook.com/WesternAustraliaAngels
VIC: https://www.facebook.com/MyVictoriaMaidens
NSW: https://www.facebook.com/NewSouthWalesSurge
QLD: https://www.facebook.com/QueenslandBrigade

and the new addition to the league, the Adelaide Arsenal: https://www.facebook.com/AdelaideArsenal