Football Photography

Originally Published in 2004

I love football, not just watching my own team the mighty Arsenal, but any football match, from Premiership to non league (OK, I will not go and watch pub football), It doesn’t matter if it is on TV or live, I love it.

At live games, it’s the atmosphere, and also the excellent views that I am fortunate to get, sitting on the touchline.

Many of my friends (that are not photographers) regularly ask to be my assistant on match days, and they are deeply envious. I was very lucky to end up doing football pics for the national papers. I was working for an agency, that didn’t do any sport, so I blagged a press pass to cover Reading FC versus Bristol Rovers using the Agency’s credentials, with their permission obviously.

Then during the following few days I approached the Sunday Express, offering my services and the Sports Picture editor, asked me to send some samples of my work in, so I wired several pictures from the Reading game there and then, and within an hour I had a commission to cover my first match for a national newspaper.

My first Football match was shot using a pair of Kodak/Canon DCS520 bodies with an old 70-200F2.8L and a 400mm F2.8L and the results (I felt were good enough) My kit hasn’t really changed a great deal from when I first started.

I now use a pair of EOS1D’s with a new 70-200F2.8LISUSM and my Old 400mm F2.8L, it isn’t particularly attractive, but it’s fantastically sharp. Occasionally I will use other equipment but the important thing is to keep it simple. You don’t have much time on footy games, most papers want pictures at half-time and full-time so you have to be able to select your shots, and wire them and get back to photographing the match inside 15 minutes.

The brief for a football match will normally be a layout shape,(the pages have already been designed, and waiting for content, so you’ll be told, landscape or portrait, and occasionally vertical cut-out, or panoramic). Some papers will change the page layout to suit a special picture. Mostly the papers are interested in celebration pictures for lower division matches, or pictures of the action which are representative of the way the match went. Although quite often northern editions will require different pictures to the southern.

Football matches can be stressful to cover especially if you have 2 or 3 commissions and they all want pictures at half-time and full-time. So we have developed a solution so that the images can be wired simultaneously to multiple papers.

The amount of time that this saves is phenomenal. Captioning images in the lower league games is tough, and you’ll regularly see snappers asking fans in the front rows to identify players in their pictures, in the premiership where most players are household names it is much easier . I can think of nothing better than spending an afternoon watching my favourite sport, and being paid for it.

There are a number of bits of advice that I can give to budding sports snappers, first is don’t expect to be able to make a good living at purely sports photography, there many snappers and agencies that have the market place thoroughly sewn up. However as a GP (General Practioner) Photographer you can earn useful extra income from football work. The best way is multiple commissions. The best that I generally manage is three per match.

90 minutes isn’t very long, but during the cold months, sitting still, in an exposed position, it gets very very cold. During the FA 3rd round a couple of seasons ago, I spent the entire match sitting in a pile of snow, at Wycombe (for Wycombe vs Wolves) by the end of the first half I couldn’t feel my feet, and my fingers were going stiff with the cold, which made captioning pictures difficult.

Appropriate clothing is essential, warm winter clothing, waterproof over-trousers and jacket, good quality gloves (Trekmates are my favourite but no good for using the keyboard) Barbour do some nice Neoprene gloves with finger-tips that can be folded back.

Never wear anything that could be perceived as club colours, neutral is best, also a good idea is to wear a hat or cap, as it will protect you from flying objects (such as tea bags, trust me it’s true I was hit by one at Gillingham v Chelsea).A collapsible seat is handy, especially when cold as an Aluminium lens box is very cold and uncomfortable a cheap fisherman’s seat will do, or a tripod style seat.

No one can tell you how to take good football pictures, I’m not sure how to myself, you have to develop your own style, and focus on your strengths. I personally prefer to concentrate on cameo pictures of players doing what they’re best at.

However papers want goals, and celebrations. You have to be completely comfortable with the equipment that you are using, and be able to make changes instinctively, whether it’s changing from Aperture Priority to Manual, or changing the ISO whilst the camera is at eye level.

That is why I chose film and digital bodies that handle in exactly the same way. Keep both eyes open at all times, and use your peripheral vision, as there will be times when you are concentrating on where the ball will be going rather than where it is, for example focusing in the 6 yard box at corners or when the ball is about to be crossed from the wing.

Positioning is important at a football match, I usually decide, once the team sheets are handed out which attack I am going I am going to cover, and then stick with it until half time, If I have then found myself at the quiet end of the pitch I will re-evaluate. If you are shooting for the Team Magazine or Program you have it easy, you choose your teams attack, and follow that. If you are covering for a National Paper, you have to ensure that you have photographs that reflect the game.

There’s no point in having three goals for the team who go on to lose 5-3, likewise if you are covering a North v South game, the Northern Editions will want at least some pictures of the northern team doing well, a lesson that was bought home to me when covering West Ham vs. Blackburn Rovers, When West Ham completely out played the visitors, and it was difficult to salvage a Blackburn Rovers attacking picture.

There are difficulties with covering football matches not just the capturing of appropriate images, but getting images that are technically good enough, during the early and late parts of the season it is relatively easy, however afternoon matches in December and January can be tough, you start (sometime) with bright sunshine, and end up under a mixture of artificial light, and in the middle something in between. If you are shooting Raw files this is a less of a problem, as they can be adjusted after shooting. As speed is essential I shoot jpegs, and endeavour to get it right in the camera. Even at some of the biggest stadia the sun is very low in the sky, and you can end up shooting in to the sun which is a nightmare, ideally you want the sun over your shoulder, with the pitch and stands bathed in sunlight.

Always try (although it’s not always possible) to shoot with a crowded stand behind the action, an empty stand behind the action looks naff. One important point is how to keep your camera equipment dry, as I am sure that you are aware, pictures are required irrespective of the weather condition. Keeping the camera and lens dry is relatively simple, I use the Canon Rain Cape for one camera body and the EF400mmF2.8L, however others use with equal success, a transparent plastic bag and a couple of elastic bands which was the advantage of being a lot cheaper. The second camera body with the 70-200F2.8L sits just under the cover for the Lowe-Pro bag and is picked up when required.

The laptop remains in the bag until required and then either an umbrella or rainproof jacket is held over the top of my head and the laptop whilst selecting and wiring images. If you got to football matches you will regularly see photographers with their jackets over their heads if it is not raining it is that they can keep the glare of the sun of the screens
One thing that you may have noticed, if you buy more than one Sunday newspaper, is that a lot of identical pictures appear, accredited to different photographers, now you may think that it is because we all sit in the same place and shoot the same action. Well sometimes we do all sit together, but more often than not all the snappers will meet at the ground an hour or two before the game starts (primarily because the earlier you get there the easier it is to park, but also to set up our equipment) and discuss where each of us will sit. Depending on the number of photographers we will generally cover both attacking quarters of the pitch, the dead ball line and the half way line. It is important that other snappers trust you, you have to be able to get the results.

At half time and full time we then share out the pictures, and wire them to our respective papers. The process of sharing images is called G.A.N., which stands for Giza A Neg, whilst we all shoot digital, it is still the preferred expression.

The biggest mistake that most amateur photographers make when trying to take sports pictures (in fact with a lot of different subjects) is that they fail to fill the frame, now some of this is caused by not having the very expensive long lenses that we use, and not having the access to the parts of the stadium that we have.

However when photographing almost anything it is important to fill the frame. Get up close and personal, some people also don’t seem to learn, that if you took photographs last week at a Reading FC game, and they were crap, if you do exactly the same this week they will still be crap. Something has to change. Many people also look through the viewfinder, but don’t seem to register that if it looks a long way, away then it will look a long way away on the prints.

Many people fail to actually look through the viewfinder when taking photographs which is why so many cut of heads of subjects or end up with lamp-posts growing out peoples heads. When taking photographs it is important to think about what you are doing.

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