Peak Action + Exposure/Focus + Post Processing = Great Football Action Photo

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 1100, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

If Ansel Adams shot football games the way many photographers do he would have never become famous.

Ansel Adams is not a great photographer because he was able to capture a great moment and compose it in a compelling way. He is a great photographer because he went beyond just the capture and spent literally months trying to process and print images just right.

Today’s cameras help you capture the zone system with little skill required by the photographer. This is the problem today. Too many photographers shoot football games for example and just crop the photograph and then publish the photo.

Same photo as above but this is with no post processing other than slight crop.

Post Processing is Key

You can see the difference between the photo above that I took into Adobe Lightroom and worked on to give me the results above, verses the same Nikon RAW NEF file exported from PhotoMechanic to a JPEG after a slight crop.

Here is another example for you to see the comparison.

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 500, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

No processing other than slight crop

Comparing the Histogram on top photo


You are not trying to get a perfect bell curve histogram. You are trying to be sure that in the top histogram you can see a lot of information on the far right. This is the details being blown out. Recovering this by sliding your highlights to the left to recover that information.

These are just the adjustments I did for the top photo. Notice with the middle of the day light the inside of the helmets tends to go black from the shadows and the highlights are blown out. I am trying to open up the shadows and recover the highlights.

Here you can see the area that I then dodged in the photo to be sure you could see the player’s face. Here are the actual slider settings for the dodge here:


I understand that shooting RAW takes more space and more time to process than just shooting a JPEG and using that image. I hope I have established this is not the way to make your work stand out.

With the RAW image you have all the information that landed on the CMOS chip of the Nikon D4. I have more dynamic range in this file than can be seen by my computer monitor.

With a JPEG the camera’s computer makes some assumptions and then tosses out some of that information to save on space for your image file size.

Couple of things that if you shoot JPEGs for daytime football that will become difficult for you to correct later in post processing.

First of all if your white balance is not just perfect and you want to correct it later the nuances of color shifting this to what is possible is no longer there. You have tossed out some of that information.

Second all the information in those blown out highlights is no longer there. Your ability to add folds back into those white jerseys for example will not be possible.

Third the amount of information in those shadows is also lost. The camera software assumed you wanted those areas black and therefore you have less information there to open up those shadows.

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 900, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

Which photo do you prefer? This one just above or the one just below?

When it comes to evaluating the two photos there is one thing that I look for in sports photos that is hard to see in the second unprocessed image—expression. I believe your sports photos are better when you can show the expressions of the athletes you help communicate the effort and competition of the peak action.

Notice the highlights that are blown out in the lower photo and how many of the shadows are just too dark.

Post processing matters with your photos. Do more than just crop your photos and add captions and you will stand out from the pack.