Stephen Green
Stephen Green

Stephen Green has been the team photographer with the Chicago Cubs since 1982 when he joined the staff of the Chicago Cubs after completing a documentary project on the Wrigley Field and the fans that was published in book form 1983.

Photographing Youth Sports with Stephen Green

July 28, 2011

Keep in mind that shutter speed is one of the most important settings with all action sports.

I have been photographing professional athletes for over 25 years at some of sports best venues, but my most cherished shots are the ones of my own children. When my kids started playing sports, I wanted to photograph them with as much professional polish but without the pressure of pro sports.

In many ways, photographing youth sports is a different task than pro sports. By using your access to position yourself, knowing your child’s team and focusing on the candid moments and fun, you will be able to get professional-quality shots no matter your child’s age.

General Advice (for any sport

1.  Assess the lighting. The very first thing you should do at your child’s sports event is to check the lighting. The picture will be all about the light and how you control it.

First, what direction is the light coming from?

Second, is it a hard or soft light? In other words, how much contrast is the light producing?

Third, what is the most advantageous location to shoot from? This will be determined by what you want the photo to look like—and where then you will have to place yourself.

2.  Choose your settings. In order to take the best pictures, your goal should be to get off the automatic program settings and to consider the three exposure modes you can reliably use with your camera.

Manual: Here you control the shutter and aperture. This is the most preferred setting.

Av: Here you control the aperture. The camera decides the shutter speed.

Tv: You control the shutter speed. The camera determines the aperture. Generally, for sports, you want to use the fastest reasonable shutter speed that the light will allow.  1/1000th of a second or faster is ideal in sunlight;  and you don't want it to drop slower than 1/500th of a second unless you're in very dim light.

Keep in mind that shutter speed is one of the most important settings with all action sports. Learning your manual settings will allow you to figure out the correct exposure for shots. This can be a bit easier indoors, where the light is consistent and predictable (but also low). Outdoors, the correct exposure might change based on weather conditions or your position. Once you get the hang of controlling the exposure, working in manual mode can help you avoid having the camera tricked into the wrong exposure by a dark or bright area in the background, or by a subject in a dark or light uniform.

3.  Learn how to shoot indoors.

Photographing kids indoors can create a real challenge due to the low light available in gyms and indoor arenas. Here are some ways I make the most of the gear I have on hand:

Increase my ISO setting to the maximum level so that I can increase my shutter speed options. I try to take the ISO up as far as I can without allowing too much noise and compromising the file quality. With many of today's  digital SLRs, you can confidently increase ISO up to 3200 (or even higher) and still get a good file.

Find the lowest shutter speed that will allow me to stop the action. I have found that the slowest I ever want to go is to 1/250th of a second - and then, only in extreme dim lighting. (Remember that 1/500 would be a faster speed, and 1/125 would be slower.) Otherwise, I end up with too much motion blur. But by using this option, I need to think ahead of the action and figure out where my kid finds the “still point” at the peak of his or her movement: the top of a jump shot, the release of a free throw, the top of a hockey swing, or the peak elevation of a gymnast or dancer. It’s the one moment within action where it all looks right. Any time the light allows, I prefer to shoot at about 1/500th of a second (when outdoors in good light, faster speeds like 1/1000th of a second assure good, sharp pictures of moving subjects).

Use a wide-open aperture. With light at a premium in most indoor venues, I want my lens aperture to be at the very widest opening possible. Then, I can use the fastest shutter speed to get the correct exposure. This also gives me the added benefit of having the backgrounds drop out of focus so that they are less of a distraction. For those new to SLR photography, the widest lens opening is the one with the lowest “f-number” (such as f/5.6, f/4, or f/2.8).

Add a flash. When shooting basketball, floor hockey and volleyball at floor level, I'll sometimes add a Canon Speedlite to my camera both to help illuminate the subject and to freeze the action. With a Canon Speedlite attached, I can activate the hi-speed sync setting, which allows me to increase my shutter speed to over 1/250th of a second in manual mode — as long as I’m pretty close to the subjects. Because the flash is faster than the shutter, it will stop the subject and isolate your kid from a nicely blurred background.

4.  Use Canon’s AI Servo focus. Indoors or out, since your kids will always be moving at sporting events, use Canon’s predictive autofocus system, called AI Servo AF. It will follow-focus your subject and greatly increase your chances of getting a sharp image.

5.  Know your sport. The more you understand the game and your child’s team, the better your chances will be of getting the shot you want. Remember that you are photographing your child, not the game. Consider the situation: Will a team be passing or running on third down? Will your child be taking the team’s corner kicks, and which direction will be the team be going in each half? Does your child play more on one side than the other?

6.  Youth athletes are not pros. When I photograph professional athletes, I am guaranteed that the venue will be good and that the athletes will have nearly perfect form. Neither is likely with children, so you should focus on capturing the emotion and fun of the kids playing the sport. Some of the best youth sports shots are not action. They are candid, emotional moments on the field and the sidelines.

7.  Take advantage of your access. Professional sports photographers are limited to where they can shoot from during games. You will have much more access at your child’s games. Get behind the goal, up close to the sideline or near the benches. Your positioning—and anticipation—is crucial to getting great shots. Just be sure to be out of the way of coaches and officials, and likewise be sure you’re not in a position where you risk being hit by an athlete, or an errant ball or puck.

8.  Take candids instead of, or in addition to, the action shots. I try to focus on the non-action moments that are a part of sports at every level. But the camaraderie and emotion can come and go so quickly that you might have trouble controlling the lighting conditions. The auto-exposure system in Canon cameras is exceptional for these situations, and the shutter-priority (Tv) and aperture-priority (Av) settings are often great for sports. I often use my Canon Speedlite flash in tandem with the automatic settings to help capture these fleeting moments.

9.  Get the shot you want. I like my sports photographs to have the following characteristics:

  • Make the light work for me.
  • Have the backgrounds out of focus.
  • Stop the action by positioning myself so that the player is coming to me.
  • Frame the shot creatively.

But if you don’t get the shot you want, get over it. Professional photographers miss shots, too. Forget about it so that you can be ready to capture the next shot.

Photographing at football games

  • Track the action in a certain zone.

Don’t follow the ball all over. Be ready with the exposure, composition and focal length so that when the action comes to you, you will be ready. Don’t impulsively snap pictures when the action is moving to the opposite sideline; all you’ll capture are players’ backs.

  • Photographing your child on offense

I like to take photos of players on offense by positioning myself behind the line of scrimmage — that is, moving a little farther back from the direction the offense is moving. In youth football, most plays will either be a handoff in the backfield or the quarterback dropping back.  If you are tracking a wide receiver, he or she will look back in your direction. Keep in mind that kids don’t throw very long, so you can limit your zone that you are trying to capture.

  • Photographing in the “red zone”

In situations where the offense is in the last 20 yards of the field, I like to position myself just behind the end zone. The action will come to you if you are positioned along the edges of the end zone.

  • Know the situation—and your team.

Know the down and yardage situation so that you can anticipate if the offensive team will be passing or running. If you know your team, you might also be able to anticipate which direction they like to run or pass the ball. And on defense, you can anticipate which side and zone your child might be assigned to for coverage.

Photographing at soccer games

  • Track the action in a certain zone.

Like football, soccer is played on a large field. Position yourself to focus on one area, and prepare your exposure, composition and focal length so that you will be ready when the action comes to you. Even with the most powerful of telephoto lenses, don’t waste time trying to photograph action on the opposite sideline, or at the far end of the field. Be patient, and wait for action to come toward you and your camera.

  • The movement in soccer is primarily toward the goal.

I like to position myself near the goals, and unlike for pro sports, you likely will have access to get behind them. Keep in mind that soccer is primarily a defensive sport but that the ball is almost always moving toward the goal.

  • Corner kicks and free kicks are great opportunities.

Set-piece plays are great for photographs because they are isolated and predictable. Pre-focus on the ball, and let the kicker come to it. Using Canon’s Servo follow-focus will help you get a sharp shot as the player comes through the ball. And if your child is waiting to receive a corner or free kick, track them within the isolated area where they are positioned.

You will be able to get some shots in anticipation of the ball and if they meet the ball with their head.

  • Know your team’s strategy.

Does your child’s team like to use the sides or the center? Do they look for long or short passes? Remember, don’t follow the ball, but isolate a zone and anticipate when your child might get the ball in that area. If your child is a defensive player, you should try to anticipate what players they are marking and be prepared when those opposing players get the ball.

Photographing at basketball games

  • Take advantage of the opportunities.

Basketball gives kids a lot of chances to touch the ball. By pre-focusing and positioning yourself in the right areas, you might get a number of opportunities to photograph your kid on offense or defense. Young children will often block their faces by holding the ball up high, so be patient and give yourself enough time to grab good shots.

  • Photograph from a higher angle.

I like to elevate myself a bit—climbing up on the bleachers—so that I can shoot down on the action. By using the floor’s reflection, the subject will gain a little light. The floor is often far brighter and lighter in color and tone than the backgrounds in the gyms our kids play in - you may find you need to deliberately over-expose, using Exposure Compensation in your camera, for proper exposures. But by photographing from higher up so that you can avoid some of the dark backgrounds of fans and the stands that you’d tend to get if you shoot from floor level.

Shoot from under the basket.

The action in basketball always comes to the hoop, so this is always a prime position to shoot from. The one drawback is that photographing players farther from the basket can be tough: There will be a large cluster of players in between, making for a messy shot. But if you pre-focus on the areas along the end-line or in the low post, you can get some great, up-close photos of layups, rebounds, blocked shots and short jump shots.

  • Or shoot from the sideline, close to the backcourt.

Unlike in the lane, the players around the perimeter are likely to be spread out. Take advantage of the cleaner sightlines here by shooting toward the backcourt. But keep in mind that you’ll have to anticipate the action here. It can go in several directions and happen quickly.

  • Learn your team’s play style and the situation.

Where does your kid like to shoot from? Does he or she dribble to one side more than the other? Who will he or she be defending? By understanding your team’s strategy, you’ll be able to anticipate the action. And if you’re aware of the score and time, you’ll be better prepared to know if the team is going to start taking three-point shots or take their time passing the ball.

  • Defense and free throws are good isolated action.

Basketball is one of the best youth sports to photograph on the defensive side because there’s a strong one-vs.-one relationship. Track your kid on defense as he or she defends the ball, positions him- or herself for a rebound or tries to swipe for a steal. And free throws are predictable action that will allow you to catch your kid preparing for and at the top of the shot. Don’t forget to get the high-fives after, too.

  • Even when your kid’s not playing, you can get good candid shots.

Basketball will substitute players quickly, so your kid will be on the bench several times during the game. These are great chances to get up close and focus on candid shots. Timeouts also provide a good opportunity for photos with teammates.

What’s next

There are times when using pro consumer-level gear may not be able to provide you with the options you need most, like speed and quick focus. The lenses I use at the professional level are designed to be shot wide open and to focus quickly in autofocus modes.

At some point, you will find it well worth the investment to upgrade to a higher-level lens once you have become familiar with the limitations of your current one. You don’t have to buy an expensive super-telephoto lens like a professional sideline photographer has, either. Consider investing in a less-expensive fixed-focal length lens. A lens like an 85mm f/1.8 or 100mm f/2 is great for indoor sports like basketball, while a 300mm f/4 or 400mm f/5.6 will be excellent for outdoor sports like football and soccer. You will have to position yourself according to its range, but it will give you a faster shutter that will allow you to work in lower light.

All the principles mentioned in this article still apply—upgrading your lenses just will allow you to work quicker and in a variety of lighting situations.

What it’s all about

I love photographing my kids playing sports. While my strategies for grabbing photos at my 12-year-old’s girl’s soccer games are different than those for my 6-year-old’s boy’s basketball games, their emotion and interactions with teammates is the same.

The best advice I can give is to enjoy your kids and be patient. Capture their joy for the game and learn their teams. And like a young athlete, don’t forget that you can practice anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to wait for the game.

Stephen Green has spent over 25 years covering professional sports and has been team photographer with the Chicago Cubs since 1982 . His clients include MLB , Sports Illustrated, Wilson Team Sports, Nike and various editorial clients. He and his wife Lisa also own and operate Stephen Green Photography in Oak Park Ill where they specialize in Event, Wedding and Baby photography.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

All images are copyright Stephen Green

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