Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shooting youth soccer

Odds are, at least one of your kids has played organized soccer (or "football," as it's more appropriately called in most of the world) at some point.  It's an easy game to pick up and requires very little equipment other than a round ball & some open real estate.  Being an outdoor sport, it's also one of the easier pastimes to photograph.  I'm no Sports Illustrated photographer, but I have shot my share of kids sports.  There's also a lot of carry-over here from other types of event photography, which is my bread and butter.  Keep reading to find out what I know about shooting soccer.

First and foremost, when attending a family sporting event, keep your priorities straight.  If your own kids are involved in the game, don't let your photography steel your focus from your family.  The camera will always be there; the kids won't.  I make a point of not even bringing my camera to at least half of my kids' sporting events, because I find I can't pay attention to their participation when I'm peering through a viewfinder.  Giving my family my undivided attention at some games allows me to not feel guilty about hiding behind the camera at other games.

Tell the whole story

Good sports photography involves capturing not only the action, but also the environment.  Like any type of event photography, you want to draw people in by telling the the story of the event, not just by showing a hit list of action shots.  It's unfortunate that most people ignore the environmental shots, because those are the easiest ones to capture with common equipment, and can also be the most touching moments. 

Don't forget to dig out the camera with a wider angle lens that allows you and your viewer to get up close and personal with the subject.  Capture your kids as they lace up for the first time, or approach the field, or sit on the sidelines, or celebrate a victory with refreshments.  The camaraderie of other parents gathered together to cheer on their kids can also make great subject matter.

While a long lens and a fast shutter helps tremendously with action shots, most environmental shots can be captured using a simple point & shoot camera or even a cell phone.  Slow shutter speeds and long shutter delays aren't often a problem here.  If you do have a DSLR, the standard 18-55mm kit lens will work just fine for these shots.  However, if you've got an even wider lens (like Canon's 10-22mm ultrawide, which I love), you can get some really cool effects with a unique visual perspective.

Catch the action

Of course, you can't have sports photography without photographing the sport itself.  Sports like soccer which are played in bright sunlight lower the bar significantly, because it's no longer necessary to use expensive, wide-aperture lenses or camera bodies with awesome high-ISO noise levels.  A high-end point & shoot camera with a good optical zoom can take surprisingly good shots of action that's not terribly far away from your seat.

If you want to reach to the far side of the field, you'll need a longer telephoto lens, which probably means you'll have to shell out for a DSLR body.  Lenses with wider maximum apertures (lower f/numbers) probably aren't necessary for good exposure, but they do improve the camera's ability to autofocus quickly and reliably, and a shallow depth of field makes a more interesting shot.  Still, an inexpensive 300mm f/5.6 zoom lens can capture quite good results.

The most engaging action shots are often the ones in which you zoom in as tight as you can to focus the viewer's attention on a single subject.  This adds a level of intimacy to the shot that you can't get from a wider view.

It also helps immensely if you can get down to shoot from the level of the players.  For little kids, that means kneeling down on the field so that your camera is at shoulder height for the kids.  This perspective makes the viewer part of the action rather than a spectator in the stands.

My equipment choices

Let's walk through how I shot my pre-school son's games this past spring.  YMCA micro-soccer is great from a parent/photographer perspective.  There are no referees, the playing field is quite small, and you can get as close to the sidelines as you want as long as you don't interfere with the game play.  When I bring my cameras, I don't even bother bringing a lawn chair, because I know I'll be up & moving throughout the entire game.

Since I have two decent camera bodies, I take them both.  I put my ultra-wide 10-22mm zoom lens on my Canon 50D backup body, and store that (without a strap) in a small, triangle-shaped holster bag attached to my belt on my right hip.  I whip out this camera when the action is right in front of me.  Sometimes I hold the camera out at arm's length over the goal, shooting downward as the kids attempt to score.  Other times, I'll shoot a worm's eye view of an in-bounds pass.  It's also great for capturing crowd reactions.  I might just as well duct tape this lens to the 10mm setting, since that's where I always use it.  I frequently put a circular polarizer on this lens, since it will typically be capturing a fair amount of sky, and the polarizer will darken it up for much more drama.

I generally set this camera to focus only on the center focus point so I can quickly control the approximate distance of my target.  I give it a medium aperture like f/8, which at these extremely wide focal lengths will put nearly everything in focus.  I set the shutter speed to no slower than 1/250s (I'm still shooting action, and I might be swinging the camera around at arm's length in the process).  I let the light levels determine the ISO setting, but it's typically around 200-400.  If using a polarizer, I have open up the exposure by about 1.5 stops.

When shooting on a clear or consistently overcast day, I set my exposure manually so that it doesn't change on me.  On a partly cloudy day when the light is constantly coming & going, I shoot in Shutter Priority (Tv or Sp) mode, since freezing action (and camera shake) with a fast shutter is more important than getting a specific depth of field on these wide angle shots.

Canon 7D autofocus points
My long telephoto lens gets put on whichever camera body has the best focusing engine.  For me, that's my Canon 7D.  This setup hangs from a neck strap.  I set this body, too, to focus on the center point so that I have some control over which player is in focus.  The 7D is nicer than its less expensive siblings in that it has 19 focusing points instead of just 9.  For sports, I generally set it to use the middle 9 points, which form a somewhat tight square around the dead center of the frame.  This is still tight enough to isolate individual players, but not so tight that I'll accidentally focus on the background if a player slips off of my single, center focus point.  I love this mode for shooting sports!  I find that turning on all focus points makes focusing too random, and you never know which player will be in focus.  "Control.  Control.  You must learn control!"  This web site does a good job of explaining the various focus point options on the 7D.

The focusing mode should be continuously focus as long as I've got the button pressed.  Canon calls this "AI-SERVO."  This allows me to track along with the players, keeping them in focus until I decided to take the shot.

For capturing action, I generally want to isolate my primary subject and blur out the foreground & background, which means using the widest aperture that your lens allows.  For cheaper zoom lenses, this generally means f/5.6.  If my lens has a variable aperture (as most inexpensive zooms do), I typically set the camera in Aperture Priority (Av) mode at the widest aperture (f/4, for example).  As I zoom in and the aperture changes to f/5.6, the camera will automatically reduce the shutter speed to match.  This method gives me both the tightest depth of field and the fastest shutter speed possible at any focal length.  I try to keep the shutter speed no slower than 1/1000s if I can.

Which lens you choose depends on how big your playing field is and where you'll be sitting.  If you're right on the sidelines of a tiny micro-soccer field, a 300mm lens (horizontally, on an APS-C sensor) will fill the frame with a pre-schooler's body at the far end of the field.  If you're near the midfield line, a 200mm lens will do just fine.  If you're shooting high-school sports from the sidelines, a 400mm lens (or a smaller lens with a teleconverter) would probably make you happier.  As sexy as it might sound to use your 300/2.8 prime lens, you'll probably find it too limiting if you're positioned anywhere close to the field, since the action takes place all over.  When shooting from the stands of a high school or college game, where even the closest action is a ways away, a prime lens would be more useful.

I used my Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lens last season, with great results.  I've since purchased a Canon 70-200/2.8 lens, and will combine it with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter next season.  Even pre-schoolers move fast enough that image stabilization is a useless feature.  If your lens has a focus limiting switch, use it.  It speeds up your focus time by preventing the lens from hunting for a subject less than 10 feet from you.

You'll note that I have a big gap from 22-70mm that isn't covered with my lenses.  Considering how close to the action I'm able to get with micro-soccer, I don't miss this at all.  If I were forced to shoot from farther back at a more official game, I might feel differently.  When using my longer zoom lens, I find that I shoot at the 70mm wide end far more frequently than the 300mm long end, since most action takes place at mid-field, and I usually want to capture the entire group of involved players to provide a little context for the shot.  Again, the focal lengths required depend on where you're sitting and the size of the field.

If you only have one camera body, you'll still want to take a wider lens just in case, but don't be too cavalier about swapping lenses during the game, especially if there's much of a breeze.  Dust on your sensor sucks.  You should get a few wide shots now and then to set the stage, but you'll want to wear the long telephoto lens most of the time.

Final tips

When positioning yourself, keep in mind where the light is coming from.  Unless you're going for a creative silhouette, you'll want the sun at your back so it's lighting your subjects.  Also be mindful of the background that will be in your shot.  Do you want cheering fans as your backdrop?  The goal?  An unobtrusive, grassy berm?  The parking lot?  If you're rooting for a particular team, try to position yourself near their goal so that the players are facing you during most of the action.  Of course, sometimes these considerations are mutually exclusive, so just do the best you can.

The hardest thing for me to learn when shooting sports was to keep the camera trained on the action all the time--even when not shooting--because you can't react fast enough to catch a great moment if the camera's hanging from your neck when it begins.  When a great play is made, zoom out a little bit, but keep the camera to your eye & aimed at the major players so you can capture their celebrations.  These moments make better memories than the kick that scored the goal.  Likewise, keep the camera trained on the players any time they're not uncontested during normal play.  Great plays will begin and end in a split second.

That advice notwithstanding, don't forget to look around.  Sometimes, memorable action occurs nowhere near the ball.

Speaking of split second reactions, I always set both cameras to rapid-fire at the fastest frame rate possible, which is 8 fps on my 7D.  Don't be afraid to burn off 3-4 frames with every button press, as you never know which of those four will capture the greatest action or expression.  You can always delete the bad ones later.

Hopefully these tips will give you some ideas that you haven't considered before and will help you take better soccer photos at your next game.  As always, if you've got any questions or other suggestions that I've overlooked, please share them in the comments below.

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