How to Take a Great Soccer Photo

I believe in recycling, re-purposing and reusing, so here an updated version of the most popular entry from my old blog. I still get viewings of it every week and frequent questions from readers. How to Take a Great Soccer Photo!

For several years I was the photographer for the Minnesota Thunder Soccer team and their Women’s Team, the Minnesota Lightning, I shot about 25 high level games each season. In addition I typically shoot a few of the US Men’s National Team Games. In September 2007 I was in China with the US Women’s National Team at the FIFA World Cup, shooting for our book Portrait of Passion.

Bringing it down to a more practical level, there are over 80,000 kids registered with the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association. Doing the math, there are an almost unimaginable number of parents out shooting photos of their kids each week. Let’s guess that about one quarter of the kids have parents who are shooting 20 photos each week – hmmm that works about to be about 400,000 photos each week in Minnesota! Good thing all those photons are free!

There are lots of reasons that soccer parents have difficulty getting a good soccer photos, first of which is that Soccer Photography is HARD! Youth soccer is especially hard since the movement of the ball is fairly unpredictable and if you are trying to shoot the player with the ball, there are 19 others, not counting the goalies that are trying to get in the way of your shot.

Here are some of the most common problems and some simple solutions that are guaranteed, well almost guaranteed, to improve your soccer photos!

Problem #1 – The image of the players is just a speck on the photo! Lots of field, not much detail of the action –

Recommendation – Mentally divide the field into quadrants and only shoot when the players are in your quadrant of the field. Just be patient, the shot will come to you! If you have a longer lens (say a 300 mm or a 400 mm) then you can extend the range of the area you are shooting.

Problem #2 – The image of shows activity, but not much of soccer action –

Recommendation – Again be patient! Only shoot when the players are coming at you. In doing this you will capture the expressions and the intensity of the game. If you are shooting a game where the players have reasonably good skills, one of the prime spots to sit is at the end line. As the forwards and midfielders are moving the ball do the goal, there are often great opportunities to get some head on shots! If you are trying to get goalie shots or defenders, somewhere between the top of the goalie box and midfield works really well.

Problem #3 – My photos are blurry!

Recommendation – The image stabilization technology that is being built into many new cameras and most high quality lens is really terrific; having said that, there is nothing that can replace a high shutter speed for stopping action and getting a clean crisp photo. The general rule of thumb on the minimum shutter speed that you should use to handhold a tele-photo lens is the reciprocal of the focal length. In other words, if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200th of a second (the above image was shot at 1/200th). And yes, image stabilization technology does reduce that, but image stabilization deals with how steady you can hold the camera, not the movement of your subject.

1/200th of a second is not sufficient to stop action in soccer. Even at a youth level, I suggest no less that 1/400th and as the age of the players and speed and their skills increase, so must the shutter speed.

All of this means that you will have to shoot with your camera set on Shutter Priority (or Manual). For those who are accustomed to shooting in a program mode, you will need to change the Mode setting on your camera from P to TV (on Canon) or S (on Nikon).

What you may notice, particularly if you are shooting in the evening, is that your images are appearing too dark. Increase your ISO setting to the highest practical level. This will vary greatly depending both on the camera model that you own, as well as the age of the camera. Some of the newer cameras from both Canon and Nikon, have extremely high ISO ranges, but some of the older models are more limited. The new Canon 1D X when released in the spring will have an amazing 204,800 ISO!! I think it glows in the dark!

If you are shooting a night game with poor field lighting (which is pretty typical at anything lower than a professional level), you may find that you only have three alternatives:

  1. Lower shutter speed which will probably give you a blurry image;
  2. Higher shutter speed which may not provide sufficient light; or
  3. Put your camera away until you can get close enough to take a celebratory team photo after the game using your flash.

A brief story and a final recommendation – while shooting a Minnesota Thunder Soccer game one evening a couple years ago, a fan walked by my son Jonathan (now a film maker and photographer in Chicago), and the fan asked are you getting lots of good shots? Without hesitation Jonathan turned and said You will never see the bad ones! The moral of the story is, if the shot isn’t good, delete it! Your friends and family would much rather look at 10 really cool shots of your favorite team than 100 mediocre ones. As a side benefit, they will think you are a great photographer!

I hope that my recommendations are helpful to you and that you will indeed get a few great soccer shots. It is always soccer season somewhere and I will add to this topic and include things like shooting a great team photo, lens length selection, working with two cameras, the three shooting zones, and workflow.

In the meantime – have fun, after all, that is what is all about! Check out our Competitive Image website, if you get a chance!