Lighting at Football Matches

Due to copyright I am unable to show any shots from inside the ground on this blog. You can of course head across to ActionPlus where you can see some of the games I’m covering throughout the season. 

No Such Thing as an Easy Start. 

The season is less than 2 weeks old (or 1 point in Man Utd’s case) and already I’ve had some challenging games to cover from a lighting perspective. (there have been other challenges of course but they deserve their own blog post).

QPR at home (v Hull City) kicked things off and I could tell even before arriving at the ground things were going to be interesting.  The ground at QPR (with the low stands) means you quite often have a complete section of the pitch in shadow, compared to the rest of the pitch in bright sunlight. Any photographer (especially those dealing with fast changes in the subject location – think a bride, for example, moving from inside the foyer of a church to a bright summers afternoon) will know how difficult it can be to remember to set your camera up to deal with such extreme changes in lighting conditions.  Without some preparation work I guarantee you will miss a percentage of the must-have shots.

So I can hear some out there saying “but if you are in AV mode the camera will automatically adjust the settings to deal with the extreme changes in light?” While this is true there is another (very important) factor to consider when shooting sports (and weddings in fact). You want to control the f stop (to control the DoF) and also quite often the shutter speed minimums as well.

Setting boundaries. 

In my example (football) I won’t want the shutter to drop below 1/1000 second (actually if the light allows me (without pushing ISO too much) I’ll want minimums to be around 1/1200 sec). I know some who will shoot as low as 1/800 sec but this will only be in extreme cases for me when the lighting is very poor. 1/1000 and above will typically allow me to freeze the action. In parallel (to isolate the subject from the background) I’ll want to have my aperture between f/2.8 and f/4 maximum. (preference on f/2.8 – f/3.2) Before the match I’ll have a wonder over to my chosen spot on the sideline and fire off some test shots – now these are really just to give me an idea as of course it’s still a few hours before kickoff and the lighting could still change dramatically.

I’ve covered this app in a previous blog post – The Photographers Ephemeris is a great tool to have an idea on where the sun (and subsequent shadows) will be come kick-off time. Also note that seating choices at grounds are sometimes limited and that is the case at QPR with my preference for shaded stands to be behind the player out of the question. So in this case the stands behind the player would be in bright sunlight. 

TV or AV (or manual) Mode

I’m still a little undecided as to my preference, but generally if the lighting is going to be constant throughout the game I tend to use manual mode with various boundaries as above dialled in. Even with constant light it’s still very important to keep an eye on your exposures throughout the game as the ambient light will be changing, even slightly, which may result in a bit of tuning as the game goes on.

Recently I’ve been using TV (shutter) priority a bit more  – not something I’ve done before (even in other photography pursuits). I typically set my shutter to the values I want (with a bit of range dialled in depending on the conditions). As above I also ensure the aperture range is set accordingly. I then choose auto ISO. Now what I was finding that with auto ISO was the exposure was (according to the camera) begin nailed perfectly but actually when it came to review on the back of the camera or on the laptop I wasn’t 100% happy. Quite often the player would be slightly under or over exposed. This is where custom shooting combined with auto-iso/exposure compensation has been a life saver.

Note this feature (exposure compensation with auto-iso) only became available on the 1DX during one of the more recent (in past 12 months) firmware upgrades so you may want to check you are on the latest firmware if you are following along at home. 

Custom Modes – saves twiddling (too much) 

So I have my base settings (shutter priority (range), aperture range and Auto ISO) … but now I also can dial in some custom exposure compensation depending on how I feel the lighting is looking. Typically I’ll set 3 custom modes with a range of negative and positive exposure compensation to match the light as best as possible. 3 custom modes (along with the base mode) gives me 4 different modes of operation. I’ve started to consider making one of the custom modes a completely different setup (for me this may be useful to get better portrait type shots of player close up – more to come on that later) In wildlife photography the 3 custom modes quite often have completely different setups to match what may be about to happen (standing still vs action for example).

Metering modes 

Given that in most cases I want to the player to fill the frame I find centre weighted metering to be best here. I could use spot metering but I find it struggles with a large subject (the player) combined with a huge dynamics range (shadows v bright sunlight). Evaluative metering, while powerful in a lot of situations, gets too confused (even with the brain on the 1DX) and for now in challenging situations such as shadows vs. light I’m finding centre weighted to be the most successful.

So there you have it. Some of my own thoughts on dealing with challenging lighting at football grounds. Now I’m by no means an expert in the above and I still find sports photography a steep learning curve (from many aspects) but I absolutely love the technical challenge it presents and have learnt so much (reading, on the job training, trial vs. error and advice from other photographers) over the past 12 months. An important season for me coming up I feel and one I hope to document more of on this blog. I hope you find some of it useful.

In sports photography the term successful for me means one which will require least post processing (after you have nailed sharpness / action). I know we all like to get it right in camera (irrespective of photography genre) but it really does matter in sports photography. For one there are only limited modifications you can make to an editorial shot. Secondly getting the shot from camera to picture desk as fast as possible is crucial and the last thing you want is a picture which has nailed the action but needs some serious work to make it usable. 

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