Photographing at football games
  • Track the action in a certain zone.

Don’t follow the ball all over. Be ready with the exposure, composition and focal length so that when the action comes to you, you will be ready. Don’t impulsively snap pictures when the action is moving to the opposite sideline; all you’ll capture are players’ backs.

  • Photographing your child on offense

I like to take photos of players on offense by positioning myself behind the line of scrimmage — that is, moving a little farther back from the direction the offense is moving. In youth football, most plays will either be a handoff in the backfield or the quarterback dropping back.

A little knowledge goes a long way -- if you can anticipate your team's strategy, how fast your child runs, how far they can throw, etc, you will be able to position yourself more effectively to get those great action shots! (image © Stephen Green)

If you are tracking a wide receiver, he or she will look back in your direction. Keep in mind that kids don’t throw very long, so you can limit your zone that you are trying to capture.

  • Photographing in the "red zone"

In situations where the offense is in the last 20 yards of the field, I like to position myself just behind the end zone. The action will come to you if you are positioned along the edges of the end zone.

  • Know the situation—and your team.

Know the down and yardage situation so that you can anticipate if the offensive team will be passing or running. If you know your team, you might also be able to anticipate which direction they like to run or pass the ball. And on defense, you can anticipate which side and zone your child might be assigned to for coverage.

Photographing at soccer games
  • Track the action in a certain zone.

Like football, soccer is played on a large field. Position yourself to focus on one area, and prepare your exposure, composition and focal length so that you will be ready when the action comes to you. Even with the most powerful of telephoto lenses, don’t waste time trying to photograph action on the opposite sideline, or at the far end of the field. Be patient, and wait for action to come toward you and your camera.

  • The movement in soccer is primarily to the goal.

I like to position myself near the goals, and unlike for pro sports, you likely will have access to get behind them. Keep in mind that soccer is primarily a defensive sport but that the ball is almost always moving toward the goal.

  • Corner kicks and free kicks are great opportunities.

Set-piece plays are great for photographs because they are isolated and predictable. Pre-focus on the ball, and let the kicker come to it. Using Canon’s Servo follow-focus will help you get a sharp shot as the player comes through the ball. And if your child is waiting to receive a corner or free kick, track them within the isolated area where they are positioned.

Corner kicks and free kicks are great opportunities for solo shots of your child. Pre-focus on the ball, and let the action come to you. In this case, late afternoon sunlight and strong body language in the diagonal action of her arms lends real drama to the shot (images © Stephen Green)

You will be able to get some shots in anticipation of the ball and if they meet the ball with their head.

  • Know your team’s strategy.

Does your child’s team like to use the sides or the center? Do they look for long or short passes? Remember, don’t follow the ball, but isolate a zone and anticipate when your child might get the ball in that area. If your child is a defensive player, you should try to anticipate what players they are marking and be prepared when those opposing players get the ball.

Photographing at basketball games
  • Take advantage of the opportunities.

Basketball gives kids a lot of chances to touch the ball. By pre-focusing and positioning yourself in the right areas, you might get a number of opportunities to photograph your kid on offense or defense. Young children will often block their faces by holding the ball up high, so be patient and give yourself enough time to grab good shots.

  • Photograph from a higher angle.

I like to elevate myself a bit—climbing up on the bleachers—so that I can shoot down on the action.

Photographing basketball from a high angle (up in the bleachers) has advantages: Your child's face is less likely to be obscured by the ball; the stadium floor tends to be brighter and more reflective which will give the photo a lighter feel with or without a flash; also, the floor makes an evocative yet non-distracting background to the action (images © Stephen Green)

By using the floor’s reflection, the subject will gain a little light. The floor is often far brighter and lighter in color and tone than the backgrounds in the gyms our kids play in. Photograph from higher up so that you can avoid some of the muddy, dark feel to indoor photos.

  • Shoot from under the basket.

The action in basketball always comes to the hoop, so this is always a prime position to shoot from. The one drawback is that photographing players farther from the basket can be tough: There will be a large cluster of players in between, making for a messy shot. But if you pre-focus on the areas along the end-line or in the low post, you can get some great, up-close photos of layups, rebounds, blocked shots and short jump shots.

  • Or shoot from the sideline, close to the backcourt.

Unlike in the lane, the players around the perimeter are likely to be spread out. Take advantage of the cleaner sightlines here by shooting toward the backcourt. But keep in mind that you’ll have to anticipate the action here. It can go in several directions and happen quickly.

  • Learn your team’s play style and the situation.

Where does your kid like to shoot from? Does he or she dribble to one side more than the other? Who will he or she be defending? By understanding your team’s strategy, you’ll be able to anticipate the action. And if you’re aware of the score and time, you’ll be better prepared to know if the team is going to start taking three-point shots or take their time passing the ball.

  • Defense and free throws are good isolated action.

Basketball is one of the best youth sports to photograph on the defensive side because there’s a strong one-vs.-one relationship. Track your kid on defense as he defends the ball, positions him- or herself for a rebound or tries to swipe for a steal.

Candid shots are easy to come by in basketball as players are substituted frequently -- look for these moments of team focus and comraderie to capture the spirit of the game (image © Stephen Green)

And free throws are predictable action that will allow you to catch your kid preparing for and at the top of the shot. Don’t forget to get the high-fives after, too.

  • Even when your kid’s not playing, you can get good candid shots.

Basketball will substitute players quickly, so your kid will be on the bench several times during the game. These are great chances to get up close and focus on candid shots. Timeouts also provide a good opportunity for photos with teammates.

What’s next
There are times when using pro consumer-level gear may not be able to provide you with the options you need most, like speed and quick focus. The lenses I use at the professional level are designed to be shot wide open and to focus quickly in autofocus modes.
At some point, you will find it well worth the investment to upgrade to a higher-level lens once you have become familiar with the limitations of your current one.
Sporting events are great opportunities to capture shots of your child at their happiest and least self-conscious -- take advantage of these moments, whether they are playing competitively, or just hanging out on the sideline with friends and teammates (images © Stephen Green)

You don’t have to buy an expensive super-telephoto lens like a professional sideline photographer has, either. Consider investing in a less-expensive fixed-focal length lens. A lens like an 85mm f/1.8 or 100mm f/2 is great for indoor sports like basketball, while a 300mm f/4 or 400mm f/5.6 will be excellent for outdoor sports like football and soccer. You will have to position yourself according to its range, but it will give you a faster shutter that will allow you to work in lower light.

All the principles mentioned in this article still apply—upgrading your lenses just will allow you to work quicker and in a variety of lighting situations.
What it’s all about
I love photographing my kids playing sports. While my strategies for grabbing photos at my 12-year-old’s girl’s soccer games are different than those for my 6-year-old’s boy’s basketball games, their emotion and interactions with teammates is the same.
The best advice I can give is to enjoy your kids and be patient. Capture their joy for the game and learn their teams. And like a young athlete, don’t forget that you can practice anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to wait for the game.
February 2010