I updated the article to include Auto Focus information, lenses and a few minor corrections.
Disclaimer, I’m not an expert at this, I’m not a professional; this is just what works for me. You can check out my sports related work at Bob Panick Photography. The football shots are under the Carlson High School menu item.
I’ve had a few people asking questions on shooting football so I decided to put together a blog post on it. But first some background, I’ve been shooting High School Varsity football for seven years now at the high school I graduated from back in 1977. I’ve never made a dime off of the shots I’ve taken, I do it purely for my own enjoyment. I give the yearbook images to use since they don’t have any cameras that can get good shots of the game. I also go through the images at the end of the season and print up some of the best for the team.
So I started shooting with a Nikon D7000 with a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, and I got some fairly decent images from it. When the Olympus E-M1 came out I tried shooting using the old Four Thirds 50-200 f/2.8-3.5. Which worked fine if there was enough light, but when it got dark f/3.5 was just too slow and I ended up going back to the Nikon. I didn’t go back to the E-M1 for sports until the 40-150 f/2.8 PRO showed up, at that point I sold my Nikon gear and I haven’t looked back. I’m now using the E-M1ii which is a big improvement on the original E-M1 for a lot of reasons I’ll get to.
The work horse for shooting football is the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 Pro. This is equivalent to 80-300 mm full frame equivalent; only one full frame lens comes close to matching its focal length and speed, the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8. If you’re shooting with an APS-C sensor like a Nikon D500 or the Canon 7Dii the 70-200 f/2.8 has the same range and speed.
Ideally something a bit longer like the Panasonic 200mm f/2.8 would be very nice to have. But it’s a bit of an expensive lens at $3000 and lacks the flexibility of a zoom.
I carry a second body which often has a 12-40 f/2.8, that’s equivalent to 24-70 f/2.8 on a full frame camera. I don’t use it too often for shots of the game, if they’re close enough I need that lens, I need to be getting out of the way. But I do use it for sideline shots.
Another lens I use in the first few games while we still have some sunlight is the Olympus 300 mm f/4 Pro, full frame equivalent of 600mm f/4. This lens is quite frankly too slow for shooting under the lights, and is really too long for a lot of shots. But it does let you shoot the far side of the field and get some nice close shots. I’ve even shot with it from the corner of the field when play was 40 yards out. It’s a bit more difficult to shoot with since finding your target with the narrow angle of view, but when you do it can give some nice shots. With practice it gets easier and faster to acquire your target.
The information pertains to the E-M1ii, and most of them will apply to any camera, except obviously some of the settings specific to the E-M1ii such as Pro Capture and electronic shutter. The E-M1ii has three custom settings that can be stored. For me I use C3 during football season; C1 is what I use for wildlife, C2 is for HDR. Outside of sports season C3 usually ends up being High Res photography. And if anyone form Olympus is reading, I can make a good argument for a dozen or more custom settings. I've included my C1 settings for someone who doesn't want to use electronic shutter.
So let’s talk through the settings here and why I use them.
Image Type - RAW
Some people are going to look at me like I’m nuts. Yes, I shoot RAW. Why, simple the light I shoot in is crap, and I need all the help I can get to pull back the shadows; and RAW is much better at than JPEG. I also don’t have deadlines so I'm not in a hurry to get them sent out. If I get them out in a week, or even two it’s not a big deal. If you have deadlines, I would shoot RAW + JPG, so you have the best of both worlds. BTW, here’s a hint, write both to slot 1 and use a fast SD card (300 MB/s rating). If you try to split it so RAW goes to slot 1 and JPG goes to slot 2, you slow the write process down by a lot and you may run into issues with filling the buffer or not being able to clear it.
Shutter Speed - 1/1000 second (ideally)
For sports you want to be at 1/1000 second if at all possible, faster is better here. That will freeze most action, except the football in flight. Quite frankly any camera and lens can shoot at 1/1000 in good bright sunlight. But if you shoot football in Michigan, sunlight is usually setting, or at the end of the season has set. High schools also don’t put a lot of money into the stadium lights so it can be quite challenging. There have been times I’ve had to drop down to 1/400 second at ISO 6400. That works, but the number of keepers will drop do to motion blur. I’ve found that above ISO 6400 the images aren’t very good, I get more keepers going to a slower shutter speed. Note, here when I say keepers I’m talking something the yearbook can use or some 8x10 prints, not things I would blow up large.
Exposure Mode - Shutter Priority
Some people swear by shooting in manual, that’s fine, but I’ll take shutter priority (S mode). Here’s why, in S mode I can easily make exposure compensations on the fly. I find I’m often shooting at -0.7 EV but that changes depending on where on the field they are playing. The zones of darkness (a.k.a. the end zones) can be a stop sometimes two stops darker than the middle of the field. I find I often have to change the compensation, shooting in S mode makes that easy.
Exposure Metering - Matrix
I have a running debate with a bunch of people about matrix vs. spot metering; and I’ve come to the conclusion I’m never going to convince them they’re wrong. Way back (like 5 years ago) people shooting with DSLRs had to take a picture, look at the back, and make an adjustment, and repeat until they got a good exposure. Today with mirrorless cameras, we have What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG), I simply adjust the exposure compensation so that my subjects look appropriate and fire away knowing that I have exposure nailed. By using matrix metering the camera is pretty consistent on exposure as the play develops. BTW, Olympus calls matrix ESP.
So why don’t I use spot metering. A little about football (and many other sports), the visiting team wear white jerseys, the home team wear team color or often black jerseys. There can be three or four stops exposure difference to the camera meter between the jerseys of the two teams. If you are using spot metering, during a tackle, the spot is going to be flipping around very quickly between light and dark targets, which will throw off your exposure reading.
By using matrix metering which averages the entire frame the differences are pretty minimal and I get much less variation, yet as they go from brighter areas to darker areas the camera can adjust automatically. I might tweak the exposure a bit as they move around the field, but not by much.
Blinkies - On
On the E-M1ii I can set the camera to show highlight and lowlight warnings (some cameras call these zebra striping), as blinking red or blue areas showing blown out or underexposed areas respectively. After dark the sky is going to be blinking blue, but I can generally ignore that. What I’m most concerned about is not blowing out the whites. In fact I try to keep the white uniforms within about 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop where they are blinking. This gives me a little hedge as the game moves along. Keep in mind I’m using matrix metering, so this solution works really well for fast moving plays that can cover a large part of the field. As the players are lining up for the snap, I’ll do a quick exposure adjustment by increasing the EV setting until I see highlight blinkies; then back off one or two clicks of the EV adjustment (1/3 or 2/3 stop). There isn’t much I can do about the lowlight blinkies, so I don’t worry too much about them. This is a very quick and fast way to handle the light changing as the play moves down the field.
Shutter Type - Electronic
When I first got the E-M1ii I shot using mechanical shutter, mostly out of habit because that’s what I used on the E-M1. After the first half I decided to experiment with electronic shutter. I honestly didn’t think I would need 18 FPS. Boy was I wrong. 18 FPS really helps, I look at it this way; at 10 FPS I got a little over a single stride per frame. With 18 FPS I get roughly half a stride in each frame. This gives me a bigger set of shots to pick from, one where the athlete looks your way, or they are in a nice Heisman pose, or dodging a block. Basically a lot more choice. The pictures below are 1/18 of a second apart, that works out to 56 milliseconds, but look at the difference in pose between the frames. If I had been shooting at 10 FPS I wouldn’t have gotten the middle frame, which is a much better pose. The nice part is I got several to choose from, that I wouldn’t have had at a slower frame rate.