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Night Football Photography Tips

by Miguel CavazosUpdated September 22, 2017

Photographing football games at night presents unique challenges due to the quality of the light created by stadium lights, along with distractions from large crowds. Football photographers who shoot night games must control white-balance settings, use long lenses with wide apertures that provide focal-length flexibility, set optimal camera sensor light sensitivity, and avoid distractions created by activities at the game.

White Balance

Stadium lights at night football games often use non-continuous lights that cycle through multiple portions of the light spectrum. These lights make it difficult to set the appropriate white balance on the camera. Use a flash to photograph subjects within 10 feet of the flash, or set up strobes on stands for important shots at the end zone or on the sidelines. Set the white-balance metering mode to center-weighted metering, and sync the white-balance metering with the auto-focus point on the camera. These settings meter the white balance for the light that is concentrated on the subject in focus.

Focal Length

Use long, variable focal-length lenses (i.e., telephoto zoom) such as a 70-200 or 300-400 millimeter lens. Longer focal lengths make distant subjects appear closer by narrowing the angle of view, and wider ranges provide a greater degree of flexibility. If possible, use two cameras with lenses that cover different ranges. Telephoto zooms provide the flexibility to capture shots at various distances without changing the lens. For example, some tele-zooms enable football photographers to shoot extreme close-ups of the ball or players' facial expressions and wider shots of plays between downs, all without missing parts of the game while they stop to change the lenses.

Aperture

Use lenses that have wide maximum apertures. Some zoom lenses can shoot as wide as f/2.8. Set your camera to aperture priority mode (i.e., Av mode), and shoot at the widest aperture (i.e., lowest f/number) at night games, especially when shooting subjects in motion. Wide apertures have greater light-gathering ability and permit faster shutter speeds that can capture subjects in motion and help prevent motion blur. Wide apertures help emphasize the subject by blurring backgrounds and reducing clutter in the shot, and at night, these aperture sizes enhance this emphasis by blurring dark backgrounds.

ISO

Set the camera’s light sensitivity to ISO 400 or higher. Higher ISO settings allow photographers to use faster shutter speeds that help stop motion and prevent motion blur. Higher ISO settings increase digital noise from small, light-reflecting particles in a shot, so only use ISO settings above 400 if the lens aperture is not wide enough to gather sufficient light. Use electronic flash to photograph subjects within 10 feet to reduce the need for higher ISO settings.

Subjects

Night games attract particularly large crowds, because more members of the community are out of work or out of school. Night football games present various potential subjects, including the players, coaches, fans, cheerleaders, mascot, band and others. However, avoid distractions by focusing on the three primary photo subjects - the fans, the players and the ball. Anticipate the quick, game-changing plays by the wide receivers during third downs. Anticipate punting the ball or aggressive plays during fourth downs. The ball is usually the most important subject of a photo taken during a play. The players are the most important subjects immediately after a play, and the fans are important subjects after plays that change the course of the game, as well as during halftime and pre-game activities.

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