Aug 29, 2012

Some tips to make your high school football pictures better

One thing I have learned over the last five years of shooting high school football is that, for parents, a terrible picture of their own child playing is still a good picture.  That said, everyone would rather have good shots.

Football vs Ennis-4694
Some parents have bought decent DSLRs but still get blurry photos.

Unfortunately, high school stadiums are usually dim.  It is one place that spending a bunch of money on lenses really can help, but all is not lost.  Here are some things to thing about.

Choose lenses appropriately.  A cheap 300mm zoom will not let in enough light for crisp action shots.  For example, as a Canon guy, I would skip the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 and go for the Canon EF 100mm f/2.  It may seem counterintuitive, but the tradeoff will get you much faster shutter speed.

To make up for the shorter lens, Get as close as possible.  Any cropping you do afterwards will really reduce image quality, so it is important to fill the frame as much as possible.  Move to stay close to the action.

Do not rely on "Sports Mode."  Yes, the camera makers put it there for a reason, but not for low-light. Most sports mode settings will not bump to the highest ISO settings.  Learn how to force the camera out of its comfort zone.  Manual mode it is.

The built in flash is a waste of battery.  Unless you are on the sideline and the action is within 10 yards, it isn't going to do much except giving nice red eyes to everyone in the picture.  Adding a big flash can be useful if you are on the sidelines (many small newspaper photogs use them).  I don't like the look myself, but I am going to try a few tricks this year.

Here are a few example pics along with the settings used.  Note.. all of these have been brightened up and had noise reduction applied in Adobe Lightroom.

To set a standard, how about Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
Of course the light is good.  Everything is good for the pros and HD television cameras.  It is roughly four to eight times brighter than any of the 3A and 4A high school stadiums.
ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/800
Don C. Johnson: Sports

Terrell Memorial Stadium
Terrell's field has no track, so that lights are relatively close to the field.  That isn't enough to make up for the lack of bulbs.  It is one of the most difficult places to shoot in the area.
This is ISO 6400, f2.8, 1/500.
Don C. Johnson: Terrell vs Kaufman

Crandall High School
The stadium had some upgrades a few years ago that helped a lot.  Very dark shadows, but the light is much better than it was.  You can see how much more detail you get with lower ISO.
ISO 2000, f2.8, 1/500
Don C. Johnson: Football vs. Crandall Oct 22

Kaufman Lions Stadium
New turf helps a bit, but Kaufman is still very dim stadium.
ISO 6400, f2.8, 1/320
Don C. Johnson: Terrell vs. Kaufman August 28

Greenville High School
The press box may be absurdly high and the turf needs replacing (as of 2011), but the lights are decent for a high school stadium.
ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/640
Don C. Johnson: Terrell at Greenville

Mesquite Memorial Stadium
Mesquite Memorial is a nice place to shoot.  The lights are nice enough, but also it is in a bowl at one end, giving a nice clean background at least part of the time.  Of course there is that nifty tower at one end to play with as a background element as well.
ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/800
Don C. Johnson: Terrell at Poteet

Red Oak High School
I've only shot here once.  Not the brightest, but I still managed to get a lot of shots I liked.  There is something to be said for even distribution of light as well.
ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/500.
Don C. Johnson: Terrell at Red Oak

Forney High School
Forney's lights are nice and bright.  Even better, they are positioned at the ends of the field, giving better light in the end zones and in players' faces.
ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/800
Don C. Johnson: North Forney vs Dallas Roosevelt Sept 23

Tyler Rose Stadium (Earl Campbell Field)
Lights aren't mentioned in possible field upgrades in Tyler, but it sure would help.  The stadium has potential to be a great little bowl, but right now it is ugly and dark.  On the positive end, the giant video board can work as a softbox at one end zone :)
ISO 6400, f2.8, 1/500
Don C. Johnson: North Forney vs Carthage Playoff

Lancaster High School
Very nice facilities in Lancaster, including good lights.
ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/640
Don C. Johnson: Terrell at Lancaster

Ennis High School
Decent lights in Ennis...
ISO 3200, f2.8, 1/640.
Football vs Ennis-4694

For any high school stadium after the sun goes down, I generally start with ISO 3200/f2.8 and see what it gives me for a shutter speed.  From there, it is all experimentation.  Often, in older stadiums especially, there are hot spots on the field that are brighter.  It is worth paying attention and waiting for action in those spots.

Good luck!

Don J.


  1. Have you any setting suggestions for Jacket Stadium?

    1. Hi Brandon.. I haven't shot there since I was on the yearbook staff in 1993!..
      I don't know if they upgraded the lights when they remodeled.
      If you are lucky, it could be like the Crandall example above. If not, look at the Kaufman one. Kaufman put in turf but no lights.

      Good luck and let me know what you get.

  2. Thanks Don for the reply. They did get new turf!!!
    I will post some pics.