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.

Covering Football: Action, Reaction and more

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 28735, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000


The most obvious photos from a football game are the action during the game. If you only shoot this you will miss a good amount of what the game is all about.

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 51200, ƒ/5.6, 1/1600


The fans really care about the game and the outcome. Don’t spend all your time looking at the action on the field look into the stands for the reaction to plays.

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 25600, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

Go back and shoot more action. It is best to get the big plays. It is the time in between plays that you can turn the camera away from the field.

Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 25600, ƒ/5.6, 1/800
A lot happens in those stands. Keep your ears tuned in around you as well as your eyes.
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, ISO 25600, ƒ/5.6, 1/1000
After major touchdowns many schools cheerleaders have traditions of celebrating on sideline or like here in the endzone.
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 25600, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
After big plays like this one you will find fans reacting.  Sometimes you will see coaches on the sidelines interacting with the referees.  
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 28735, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
The idea is if you are at a game it is a big event with a lot of people doing different things and roles.
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 18102, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
There are the bands that perform before the game, during the game and at half time. They practice as much as the football team. It is a major performance for them.
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 10000, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000
Not so obvious
Nikon D4,  Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8, ISO 560, ƒ/5.6, 1/100
I take photos of people on sidelines that I work with during games. I try and then send them a copy of the photo. This helps to build relationships so that the next game when I need some help with access these friends are now seeing me as someone they want to help.
Look for different angles
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 25600, ƒ/5.6, 1/1600
I like to go up into or onto press boxes to get a different perspective of the game. Don’t shoot all the action from the same position the entire game. On the other hand don’t move around so much that you are missing action because you are always moving.
Nikon D4,  Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, Sigma 2x EX DG APO Autofocus Teleconverter, ISO 25600, ƒ/5.6, 1/800
Hopefully you will have editors cheering with your coverage. The key is to give them variety and hopefully these tips will have you looking for different photos at your next football game.
Nikon D4,  Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8, ISO 4000, ƒ/9, 1/200
Don’t leave early
Stay shooting after the game. There are still photos to be made.

Nikon D4,  Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM, ISO 800, ƒ/5.6, 1/100

Love the Nikon D4 & Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM for Football

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM w/ Sigma 2x, ISO 36204, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

There are a few things that are extremely important technical aspects for a great sports photo:

  • Well exposed
  • In focus
  • Sharp

The Nikon D4 and the Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM with the Sigma 2x converter helps me to get the moments and technically being just right.

The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Lens is a telephoto zoom lens featuring a fast, constant f/2.8 maximum aperture. This lens is the first lens designed under Sigma’s new Sports line of lenses, making it well-suited for fast-moving subjects such as wildlife, nature, aviation, racing, and other similar situations.

The built-in OS (Optical Stabilizer) system enables a reduction in the appearance of camera shake up to the equivalent of four stops, resulting in a long lens that can easily be used handheld and low-light conditions. The OS system is divided into two modes; one for general shooting applications, and one that is better suited for panning shots of moving subjects. The OS system can be further adjusted to suit your needs through the use of the USB Dock.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM w/ Sigma 2x, ISO 36204, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000 [While this is a little noisy for my tastes, the dynamic range is pretty good and the important thing is it is in focus, sharp and well exposed]

The Nikon D4 camera features a 16.2Mp 36 x 23.9mm CMOS sensor with Nikon’s FX-format and the EXPEED3 image processor. ISO sensitivity can now be extended as low as ISO 50 or as high as 204,800 with a standard range of 100-12,800 ISO. Additionally, 10 frames per second continuous shooting in FX-format for up to 200 shots ensures the decisive moment will not be missed.

D4’s AF sensor utilizes 51 strategically placed AF points that are designed to capture subjects as you choose: by working together like a net to capture moving subjects or for pinpoint accuracy. Use a single AF point to home in on the exact place on your chosen subject. Each of the 51 AF points delivers fast and accurate AF detection to an impressive low light level of -2 EV (ISO 100, 20ºC) with every AF NIKKOR lens – expect to shoot more smoothly at night stadium assignments, poorly lit indoor arenas, cathedrals, theaters and any other low-lit venues.

D4 aligns its 15 cross-type sensors in the center to detect contrast for both vertical and horizontal lines with lenses f/5.6 or faster. The five central points and three points to the left and right of them in the middle line are compatible with f/8. Which is to say that with the Sigma 2x converter the lens is ƒ/5.6 and the D4 could still autofocus in a low light level of -2 EV at ISO 100. I had a lot more light than that in the Georgia Dome.


ISO 51200 & 25600 with Sigma 120-300mm on Nikon D4

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM w/ Sigma 2x, ISO 51200, ƒ/5.6, 1/2000

Chick-fil-A Kickoff

Last night I had the privilege to shoot the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between Ole Miss and Boise State. Ole Miss pulled away in the second half from Boise State for a 35—13 victory.

I was enjoying shooting with my Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM. I added also to my gear a Sigma 2x converter, which I used giving me a 600mm ƒ/5.6 lens. The photo above was made with that combination.


Photography has as much to do with Yin-Yang than anything I have ever encountered.

Yin-Yang are concepts used to describe how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

When you change any one of these three you must adjust one of the other to keep a proper exposure. This is the trade-off made all the time in photography.

Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, ISO 16000, ƒ/4, 1/2000

Sports Settings

Here are my default sports settings for a game with these three:

  • Aperture—While I love the bokeh at wide open, I tend to shoot around ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6
  • Shutter Speed—1/2000 If the highest ISO is reached, then any need of more light the shutter speed will drop below 1/2000 when using the Auto ISO settings.
  • ISO—Auto ISO 100-12800, but for some of this game 100-51200
Warning about using Auto ISO—you cannot use manual and keep a constant setting. The meter will adjust the ISO up and down. If you want to truly shoot Manual Mode then you must turn off the Auto ISO.
Nikon D4, Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM, ISO 7200, ƒ/2.8, 1/2000
I love the Bokeh on the Sigma 120-300mm and with the Ole Miss dancer opened up to ƒ/2.8. For action I find while I love the ƒ/2.8 I prefer a little more depth-of-field to keep them tact sharp.

Here are more examples with the settings showing in the lower left hand corner for you.

Click here to see the photos in slide show larger.

College Football: My Gear

This is my gear that I will shoot with this Saturday covering the Chick-fil-A Kickoff between Virginia Tech and Alabama at the Georgia Dome.

Here is the list of gear

  • (2) Nikon D4 Cameras
  • 14-24mm ƒ/2.8 Nikkor
  • 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 Nikkor
  • Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8
  • Sigma 120-300 ƒ/2.8 (old model in this photo, but will be testing the 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S)
  • Sigma 1.4 converter
  • Nikon SB-900
  • Manfrotto 294 Aluminum 4 Section Monopod
  • Manfrotto by Bogen Imaging 323 RC2 System Quick Release Adapter w/200PL-14
  • ExpoDisc
  • Shure FP15/83 Lavalier Wireless System
  • RØDE VideoMic Pro
  • Zacuto Z-Finder
  • AWP Knee Pads
  • ThinkTank System for lenses using belt and harness
  • ThinkTank Memory Card Holder
  • ThinkTank Airport Security™ V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag
I do have other things in the ThinkTank Airport Security™ V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag, but the list is what I will work from.  
This weekend I will be getting from Sigma the 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM | S brand new lens that sells for $3599.  I will be shooting it and comparing it to past results with the first generation 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 that I already own.
Stay tuned for my review from the weekend of putting it through the paces of covering the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game.

College Football—Getting Something Different


Most photographers covering a college football game for a publication get a press pass that give them sideline access to the game. This let’s them get those photos that the fans cannot see from their seats. The idea is simple, if you want your photos to be better get closer.

What I like the most about getting tight photos like this of the defense taking down the running back is you can see their expressions. I think this helps tell the story. Capturing the emotion of the players really helps engage the audience.

The downside to these photos is that every photographer who is given access to cover the game gets the same photos. Look on the sidelines of any college or pro football game and just start counting all the photographers and video cameras. It will surprise you as to how many are there to capture the game.

Turn around 

If you are on the sideline, just turn around and look for moments from the fans. You see they can tell you as much about the excitement as the players.

From the Stands

Don’t shoot an entire game from the same perspective. Mix it up. I like to go up high and shoot down on the field for a different perspective.

Before the Game

Arrive early and capture some of the pre-game activities. Here I capture three generations all showing how proud they are of being apart of the game.

Mix It Up

The tradition at Georgia Tech is the Ramblin’ Wreck comes on the field every pre-game home football game. I really don’t need the same shot every single week to look the same, so I moved around looking for a different view of this tradition.


There are traditions like the Ramblin’ Wreck and at The Citadel the Summerall Guards half time performance that are just as important to cover as the game itself.

While capturing the Summerall Guards makes for good photos you still need to make the most of the day.

Arrive Early

When you arrive early you can get the photos outside the stadium and capture the pageantry of the day.

The Corp all marches over to the stadium and attends the game together. Capture this early and you have something different.

Fans hang out to see the teams arrive and you can show the excitement here.

Many college bands play mini concerts before the game for the fans. Go find these events and show how this is truly a community event involving more than just the football players on the field.

Show how families are involved by capturing face painting of kids.

Look for Different—Not Better

Don’t get caught up on capturing a better photo always. Sometimes the most effective photo works because it is different. People are not use to seeing that perspective or moment.

This is an example of a different photo. Not all that interesting, but the access to behind the scenes will make someone stop and maybe read that caption.

Sometimes using a special lens will help you get something “different” as I did here with a fisheye lens of the fan trying to catch a winning ticket in a booth.

Now if I shot most all the shots that day with the 16mm fisheye lens the photo here wouldn’t be different, so do so sparingly.

For more tips on covering the story read some of these blog posts:

Oct 02, 2008
Variety – Make plenty of photos from different angles. In addition to using the zoom actually get closer and farther away from the subject. Make wide-angle and close-up photos. Try some without flash, some with direct flash 
May 01, 2011
A high angle is usually successful today because it is unique to our everyday lives. Seldom are we tall enough to see this angle, so it looks different than you just walking around. Even the lady in this mural is looking from 
Nov 08, 2011
For the photographer I recommend trying shooting all day with an extreme wide angle lens like a 20mm or even wider. If this is your normal lens of choice try something different like a macro or extreme telephoto. It is forcing 
Apr 27, 2012
Delivered on time; Invoiced in a timely matter. “Second Mile Service” possibilities. Early delivery of images; Well packaged presentation of the images; WOW factor photos. Different angle than they have seen before; Maybe a 

Jan 04, 2009
A telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens help us to tell the same story in different ways. The choice of which lens is like a writer choosing which words to use. It depends on what needs to be said. A telephoto lens not only 

Life on the sidelines of a college football game

Nikon D4, 300mm, ƒ/3.5, ISO 8000, 1/2000

This is a taste of what it is like to be on the sidelines of a football game.

As you can see in the photo above all the photographers are there getting the shot right in front of them. Hopefully you are noticing my shot of the action is not so good. I am all the way on the other side of the field shooting with a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens.

As you can see it isn’t that I missed the moment, I was not in the best position for the play.  This is why most major outlets like Sports Illustrated, Associated Press and some major newspapers will have more than one photographer at a game.  They can position on opposite sides of the field to improve the odds of having the play covered.

Here you can see the same play and moment, but this was captured by another photographer who was in a better position than me.  This is why having more than one photographer covering an event is important. (photo by: Greg Thompson)

Photo Assistants

Daniel Shirey has a photo assistant working with him during the game.

The photo assistant during the football game is an extra set of eyes and ears for the photographer. They also help carry the gear and give it to the photographer as they need it.

They will also know the shot list of the photographer and help them point out when certain things are just about to come up or are now happening. They watch also for players just about to run over the photographer to help them get out of the way.

I have noticed that most of the time the videographers are standing while a good number of the photographers are on their knees. If you look closely you will see knee pads on many of the photographers.  This help protect the knees and help the photographers stay on them longer due to the cushions.

Standing vs Kneeling

Nikon D4, 500mm, ISO 12,800, ƒ/6.3, 1/2000

This photo of the NC State player shows a shot from standing.  As you can see there is a slightly downward look towards the field.

Nikon D4, 150mm, ISO 8000, ƒ/5, 1/2000

 If you look closely you will notice the camera is below eye level of the players.  I am shooting more up and towards the players.  The advantage here is you make the players bigger and more heroic than when you shoot from standing up.

Pay attention to your backgrounds and try to keep them clean. Shoot low to the ground as often as you can and keep that shutter speed really fast. I am using 1/2000 for the shutter speed to not only stop the action, but it improves the sharpness of the players.