How to Photograph Kids' Soccer Games

September 1, 2009

There's good images to be had after the game, as wellMarin Mommies is pleased to present a guest post by photographer Norm Levin, owner of Natural Portraits: Family and event photography as nature intended. He offers some valuable tips on photographing your children's soccer games (and any other sports activity). Read on to learn how to capture that perfect sports photo. You can visit Norm online at www.naturalportraits.smugmug.com

 

Where did the summer go?

It seems like yesterday that school was out and we were taking the little ones off on a family trip, or to camp, or swimming and baseball practices. As a parent with a camera, which eliminates practically no one, you’ve attempted with varying degrees of success to capture your child actively enjoying his or her outdoor pursuits.

Those cherished summer events are mostly behind us now, living on in our memories and stored on our digital devices.

If your refrigerator door is anything like ours, it’s already displaying your child’s fall soccer team assignment precariously held under a magnet. When the soccer season starts, which should be any minute now, you know you’ll be there digital camera in hand to get the photo goods. May the god of pixels be with you.

As the photographer for the Dixie Youth Soccer Association in San Rafael, the Terra Linda Orcas, and having taken thousands of shots at my three daughters’ various meets and games over the years, I’ve learned the hard way about getting memorable images of kids in action. Here’s some photo tips I’d like to offer:

Have a Game Plan

Anticipate just the right moment to shootThat means first visualizing how your photos will be used and shared. These days you have many options including, making prints for a scrapbook, emailing image files, posting them to a website, creating a slide show.  The most evocative is to tell a compete story, which means covering a match from warm-ups to that post game Parent Tunnel ritual so prevalent here in Marin. You will want to position yourself accordingly.

Understand that Photographer and Parent Spectator have somewhat different requirements. That’s not to say you can’t shriek in delight at your kid’s winning goal, but don’t expect that you’ll necessarily be ready to snap that great sports moment if you're busy cheerleading. Granted, the temptation is to do both. As a compromise, keep one eye on the viewfinder, the other scanning the action.

Use a Decent Camera

These days almost everyone has a shiny new or nearly new digital camera. They range from basic point-and-shoot models (which I first used), to high-end SLRs (single lens reflex) used by the pros. Almost all of them will get you an acceptable photo. Some, however, have the micro-brains and optical power to get more acceptable photos than others.

Rather than making buying suggestions here, I’m going to offer shooting advice to get the most out of the camera you already have. If you do want to upgrade your equipment, you can contact me to get some websites that provide very thorough reviews of just about every digital camera on the market.

Know Your Camera’s Limits

Learn when to click the shutter for peak action.Many digital cameras have a slight delay from when you push the shutter button to when the photo is actually taken. LEARN THIS DELAY. Program it into your muscle memory. If your camera reacts even a quarter of a second after you want it to, you’ll miss getting that peak action. That means pushing the little silver button just a wink sooner than your instincts tell you. Believe me, this can make all the difference between getting the ball in frame or not.

You can do a few technical things to minimize the shutter delay. Use the fastest memory card available. SanDisk’s Ultra series writes data faster than it’s other models. Set you camera’s image size to less than its largest option. A medium size file will write faster, yet should still be big enough to make 5x7 prints.

Pick Your Spot

Position yourself near one goal. You'll get some good shots, even if it means missing half the action.Soccer fields are huge. Especially those for kids in the 8 and up leagues. Even with a long telephoto lens – 5x and more optical (not digital) magnification – you must resign yourself to the fact that you’ll not be able to cover everything. So decide, am I focusing on offense or defense? Sideline action or the goal?
 
Once you’ve chosen your vantage point, you’ll be able to concentrate on how the action unfolds in front of you. You can always move to get a variety of angles. Some of my best shots were taken from 10-20 yards facing the goal. I’ve been able to get shots on goal, with both saves and scores from this spot.
 
Get low, watch your backgrounds, shoot in bursts.If you just want to shoot your own kid (I’ll avoid the obvious temptation here), where you sit will depend on how aggressive your player is and what position s/he is playing at any given moment.
 
For the most dramatic pictures, get down low. I usually sit on the grass aiming my lens at the players’ stomach level. Too many parents try to shoot while standing. Young soccer players will look a little more like the David Beckhams or Brandi Chastains they idolize if you just get down!

Anticipate the Action

Anticipate individual actionI can’t stress this enough. Most sports have predictable moments of “peak action”: a football thrown, a bat swung, a swimmer diving. Soccer, played by Marin children at least, can appear like a controlled riot. Not to offend any hard-working coaches out there, but the younger the players, the less their games resemble soccer as it was meant to be played.

An active goalie will get your some great action. Know whose soccer skills are camera friendlyFor most American parents who’ve never played the game themselves (me), it takes several games, if not seasons, to figure out where the action is going next. As in most sports, each game is a drama composed of hundreds of many smaller actions, which can be anticipated.

Things to look for – a player winding up to kick the ball, a defender readying to make a stop, a goalie’s eyes as the ball approaches.

Focus on just a couple of players, rather than the group.Use Burst

If your camera has a Burst or Action mode, use it. This feature allows you to take from two to six or more frames per second, a real advantage in shooting sports. It doesn’t give you a license to shoot everything without regard to anticipating what’s going on in the game. Remember, you’re the one who’s going to have to edit the photos that evening!

Focus on a Few Players

Fall colors make for colorful backgroundsThis may seem obvious if you’re mainly interested in getting pictures of just your child. Still, the best shots I’ve taken have no more than two, three or four players in them. Too many kids can spoil the shot.

Watch the Background

This is a corollary to Picking Your Spot. With parents and other spectators cramming the sidelines, getting a clean photo of just the players requires keeping an eye on what’s happening in the background. I usually choose to sit on one end of the field aiming downfield or toward the goal where there’s less likelihood of a “busy” background of fans.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Use your telephoto to maximum effect, then crop for even closer view.Once the game is over and your files have been uploaded to your computer, your work has just begun. You need to keep only the best images, and use whatever photo software you have to improve those that can be improved. It’s amazing sometimes how simple cropping can turn a so-so photo into a real grabber.

For those that can’t be fixed, that’s what the Delete button was created for. I can’t emphasize this enough. Even the most experienced pros get plenty of mediocre shots. Out of focus, over/under exposed, just plain missed opportunities. Delete them. No one will miss your “misses.”

Tell a Story

There's good images to be had after the game, as wellSee above tip about having a Game Plan. This is especially true of you’re going to do a slide show, or a website with many photos of a particular game. To make your story more interesting to a wider audience than yourself and Grandpa, include shots of sideline action.

Keep an eye open for those quick little coaching conferences on the sidelinesExamples I look for are the coach talking with his or her players, kids taking a drink or having their halftime snack, other parents and siblings rooting from the sidelines. And the post game cheers of good sportsmanship.

I tell other parents that shooting your kids’ sporting events is akin to wildlife photography. Sure it helps to have that 300mm lens, but more importantly, you have to understand the critters and how they move and behave in the wild.
 
Happy hunting!

Article and photographs copyright ©2008 Norm Levin
May not be reproduced without permission.