My experiences with shooting field sports in natural light

When we are photographing field sports, understanding the impact of the different types of natural light and how it impacts your photographs can be as important as knowing how to operate the camera and lens you are using. The type of light we are shooting in, the quality of that light and the directionality of the sun and it’s position in relationship to the subject will make a huge difference in the appearance of the photos. The same field with the same players can appear evenly lit with vibrant colors one day then suddenly flat and/or unevenly exposed the next day. When shooting football and most field sports in general, most of this is due to not only the quality of light but the positioning of the subjects and the photographer on the field as well the field’s orientation.


Field orientation is important because at the same time of day with the same overhead sunlight on a field with a North-South orientation and one with an East-West orientation will result in your subjects being lit totally differently when they are placed on the field. For example, one orientation will leave you with the sun coming from the sidelines onto the field while the other will be lit from one end zone or the other and will become the backlit side of the field.

There are two high schools football teams that I cover regularly and although they both play at the same time of day and have identical fields the shooting experience in terms of how the images render is totally different on sunny days because one field is lit from the side at 3:00pm while the other field is has the sun falling behind the end zone.


Side-lighting is simply photographing a subject in the field that is lit primarily by one side of the field. It is (in my opinion) at times the most challenging and least attractive lighting on a subject, mainly due to the unattractive and uneven shadows it highlights. If a running back is headed straight towards me up the middle of the field he will be lit on one side by the sun and the other side will be darker or under exposed. More care needs to be taken with obtaining a proper exposure in this sort of lighting because it is easy to exaggerate the uneven light on the uniforms by overexposing and blowing out highlights. The other non-aesthetic issue for me is that in harsher sunny conditions, (especially when there is significant haze) the camera is often unable to find contrast and this can affect your cameras focus tracking ability. Uneven light doesn’t mean that you cannot get great captures of course, it just means that some of the photos (for me) would be more pleasing to the eye and even more appealing if they were more evenly lit. There are instances however when this isn't the case.

The following are some examples of side lighting along with some notes on each photo. I am also including a few side lit photos I was happy with and which enabled me to do some creative editing as well.

A basic example of side lighting on an action photo. In this play the sunlight is coming from the right side of the field. Notice how the runner is only partially lit and his right side is totally in shadow.
Another example of side lighting. This is the same field as the previous photo but the athletes are coming in the opposite direction so this time the sunlight is coming from the left side of the field (camera left) onto the player. Although the lighting is spotty, the subjects are turned slightly towards the sun which is lighting the defenders face and half of the ball carriers face.
This is an example of side lighting and how uneven the lighting on the subject can appear. In this case the player is in the backfield and he is opening up into the sunlight coming from the side of the field camera right.
Another example of sidelighting, camera right on the same field with the player running up the center of the field.
This is the University of Penn field and this is actually a photo captured with the light coming from behind the Quarterback.
Another photo where the sun is coming from the left side of the field. The runners face is turned slightly towards the sun which lit half of his face as well as his chest and shoulders.

As I am never opposed to any one type of lighting I figured I would share some examples of side lighting in action photos that I felt were a bit more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the reason I feel like these worked out well is what they all have in common..... they all were taken close to sun set so the sun is lower in the sky and therefore lighting them differently.

Quarterback rolling out to make a pass. This was taken at about 6pm and then sun was setting at about 8pm that day.
This could have been another example of a strongly unevenly lit capture, however the lineman are both casting a slight shadow over the quarterback and preventing the harshness of the light from hitting his face.
Another sidelit capture shot from the sidelines, notice the sunlight is coming from his side which in this particular field was coming from the end zone.
Another example of how different the illumination that comes from sidelight during sunset. lighting.
Another shot of a sidelit field at sunset...


Backlit shooting is essentially when you are photographing players coming towards you who have the sunlight at their backs. Backlighting is a popular preference for many photographers who cover field sports. One of the advantages is that it offers an even lighting minus the uneven/harsh shadows from side and sometimes even front lighting. In addition, the faces are usually evenly illuminated with few shadows on the face. To properly expose backlit photos I sometimes adjust upwards from a third to a full stop above normal. It’s a delicate adjustment to capture your subject without overexposing the background too much. Backlighting creates an evenly exposed area on the players while highlighting a lot of the interesting details like dirt and dust as well as making a nice rim lighting around helmets and uniforms. The only negative with shooting backlit is that the color and contrast can often appear dull and might need to be adjusted in post a bit.

Below are some examples of backlighting in action.

Example of backlighting shot from the sidelines (more on that later). Notice how the backlighting illuminates all the debris coming up from the ground and makes an interesting rim lighting on the runner.
Basic backlit shot of a running back headed towards the end zone. Notice how generally even the lighting is on the main subject.
Now notice the lighting from this same football game from the other side of the field which is front lit completely. Notice the shadows and the uneven lighting but also how much more vibrant the colors look due to the direct sunlight.
Backlighting...In this photo the Quarterback is turned sideways to avoid a sack showing the light that would normally have been lighting him from behind if he was facing forward.
Another example of backlighting.
Backlighting on multiple subjects.
Another example of backlighting and the even type of lighting you can get even in the harshest lighting. Again notice the details in the debris.
Another backlit photograph, notice how even the lighting is on the subjects as well as how the details of the grass are lit.

The next photographs are backlit photos all taken during sunset hours.

This was sunset backlighting diffused a bit but the cloud of dust.
Another example of backlighting creating a rim lighting around the subjects as well as lighting up the dirt in the grass.
Another backlit show at sunset which can give off an almost glowing effect on the details.


Front lighting is simply when you are photographing a subject that is facing you and being lit from the sunlight behind you. While it still has the potential to create shadows on the faces of the players it usually lights the players uniforms well and gives the appearance of more natural vibrance/saturation to the images. Front lighting usually becomes more pleasing as the sun gets lower in the sky (if you are fortunate enough to be shooting at that time of day) since the sun will more evenly and pleasantly light the entire subject including any shadows under the helmets and it ends up being a beautiful warm lighting.

The following are some examples of front lighting including some taken early in the day when the sun was high in the sky comparing it to some when the sun was setting.

This was a typical 1pm game with normal overhead sun with few clouds, notice that there are still some shadows including the ones under his helmet.
Another afternoon game shooting front lit from the back of the end zone.
Another front lighting capture, notice the shadows under his helmet despite the overall photograph being lit well by the sun.

The following are some examples of front lighting including some taken early in the day when the sun was high in the sky comparing it to some when the sun was setting.

This is a front lit game where the sun is setting and with the sun being lower in the sky it is now illuminating the Quarterbacks face and the overall photo evenly including under his helmet.
Another example of the not only even but warmth that can come when the sun is setting behind you and lighting the field and the players so evenly.
Another example of the type of illumination and warmth of light that can come from a front lighting as the sun is setting.


As I mentioned earlier, field orientation is important and will play a big part in how you shoot a game. My ideal situation would be to only shoot football games on fields where the sun was coming from the end zone and I could always shoot either front or backlit from that vantage point. The reality is that you can't do much about the positioning of the field however you can get the same sort of front or backlit photos by simply changing your shooting position on the field. For example when covering football normally I like to shoot from the end zone perspective where the play is coming towards me or moving away from me. Essentially, front or backlit photos are my ideal. However if I am shooting on a field that is only getting lit from the side, I can shoot in the backfield from one side of the sidelines to get front lit subjects or go to the opposite sideline to get captures that side that are backlit. Again, this may not be an ideal way to shoot most of the game because the players will be moving past you and you will miss a lot of what is happening downfield if you are shooting only from the backfield. It is a work around however to get some photos with more ideal lighting.

Here are some examples of changing your direction on the field to obtain different lighting on your subjects.

This field was primarily being sidelit when shooting from the end zone perspective. In order to get back or front lit subjects I had to shoot from the sidelines occasionally which now put that same sidelight at the Quarterbacks back. Fortunately he faced me when throwing this pass so now I was able to get a more pleasantly lit photograph of the QB than I was able to get when I was downfield.
This play was taken after the team switched sides after the Quarter so now their backfield was actually facing the light so I was able to get some nice front lighting in the backfield.
This is another field that is always sidelit during most of their games. I covered some of the action from the downfield position and then I switched to the sidelines and waited for some action where the players would be facing me where the sun is behind me and illuminating them more evenly.
This is another capture and example of front lighting from the sidelines..


The types of lighting I mentioned earlier were the more challenging types of lighting for field sports photographers. Soft light is a general description of the type of weather conditions where the sun is diffused through the clouds, faintly or extremely. Despite this general description this type of lighting can vary drastically from a warm partly sunny day where all parts of the field are lit evenly to an extremely cloudy day where the subjects appear dim and lacking color. Soft light in most situations is more ideal for autofocus tracking but can be less dramatic than the harder forms of lighting.

Extremely cloudy or gray days can be problematic at times because it can present the same challenge with the cameras focusing ability. Below are some examples of the extremes that soft and/or even light can present themselves.

Soft light is generally characterized by a soft even light with very few shadows.

Thanks for reading. I hope this helps someone and happy shooting !!

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