How to handle bad lighting at high school football stadiums

Editor’s note: This is the first of two blogposts on improving football photography at high school games.

If there is anything I’ve learned going into my third year photographing sports in the world of community journalism, it’s assume your stadium/gym lighting will be that of a bat cave, and that you’ll be expected to come away with a good photo with company gear that’s far from top of the line.

We’re going to look into ways you can cover a football game given those two constraints.

First, we need to get some general understanding about football stadium lighting out of the way.

If you were high in the stands, you would see that not all parts of the field get the same amount of light.

The less light you have, the harder it will be to have properly exposed photos.

Football fields have the most light directed at around the middle of the field, specifically the 50 yard line.

The light drops off as you get further away from midfield and as you go closer to the sidelines.

There is also a light dropoff around the 10-to-15 yard line and typically a significant lack of light in the end zone (that fact has always amazed me given the focus of the sport).

That might seem as one more strike against you, but understanding stadium lighting can help you maximize not only your efforts, but also your effectiveness as a photographer.

Now that we have an understanding of stadium light and its limitations, how can we use that to our advantage?

The best way is not to rely solely on it in the first place.

High school football games typically start with about an hour of decent evening sunlight left, giving you an hour to capture the best-lit images you might get all game.

That’s an hour you and your camera won’t be handicapped by the quality of the stadium’s lights.

The tradeoff is that you have to be aware of the location of the sun, which might mean having to shoot photos on the other team’s sidelines (Gasp!).

I find too many photographers have the mindset that they’re shooting for “their team” and therefore stay within the confines of “their team’s” side of the field, even if that means shooting a backlit player resulting in washed-out photos.

General rule: You want your back to be turned to the sun, not facing it. The result will be photos where the player has the most amount of light on him as he comes toward you, giving you the best-exposed photo.

That brings me to another point, positioning yourself to get the best photo you can with the equipment you have.

If you’re trying to get a shot of the offense, either a running back or a wide receiver, you’ll want to be ahead of the ball (probably 10 to 15 yards if you have a wide-angle lens, possibly more if you have a telephoto lens).

If you only have a wide-angle lens, you have to come to grips that you won’t get every shot, and that you can’t shoot a photo of something that happened at midfield and expect you’ll be able to crop later.

Patience is key.

You’ll have to wait for the action to come to you. The closer they are, the better.

I always think of it as wanting to fill your frame with as much action as you can.

Using a telephoto lens, you have more reach to get photos from further away, but my earlier point remains the same – fill your frame.

If you are looking for a defensive shot, you’ll want to be behind the offensive line typically 5 to 10 yards.

Basically you’ll want to be as close as possible to the action you want to capture.

In my next post, we’ll look into what camera settings you could use for a football game and what kind of images you can capture.

To recap basic ideas:

  1. Stadium light stinks; don’t rely on it. Make the most of the evening light.
  2. Pay attention to where the light is falling. Don’t be afraid to move around the field.
  3. Fill the frame and wait for the action to come to you.

By Jason Fochtman

Jason Fochtman is the photo editor for the East Group of Houston Community Newspapers covering 11 papers. Prior to his current responsibilities, he served as the sports reporter and photographer for the Cleveland Advocate, Eastex Advocate and Dayton News covering seven schools.

Jason graduated from Texas Christian University in 2009 and is a former multimedia editor of the TCU Daily Skiff, as well as photos editor for the TCU Horned Frog Yearbook.

You can follow him on Twitter at @JFoch.