Shooting the NFL’s Bucs & Rams From the Sidelines (along with my sports camera settings)

On Sunday, I shot the Bucs vs. Rams NFL game on assignment for Southcreek Global Media (Both teams are having decent seasons so far and the Bucs ended up winning in the last 15 seconds, taking them to a 4 and 2 record. Whodathunkit?).

(Above: Cadillac Williams early in the day, not yet knowing he would make the game winning catch with just seconds left on the clock. CLICK ON IT FOR A LARGER VIEW).

The Dream Lens
I couldn’t hold out any longer, so I went ahead and bought the dream lens—the 400mm f/2.8, and after shooting with it for just one game, it truly is the lens for football. Scary sharp, great shallow DOF, and the 400mm length is really ideal. It definitely is heavier and larger than the 300mm f/2.8, but it’s worth it.

Camera Specs
My main camera was my Nikon D3 (with the 400mm attached, mounted on a Gitzo monopod), and my 2nd body was a Nikon D700 with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. I shot in Aperture Priority mode, wide open all day with both set at f/2.8, at ISO 200 on both cameras.

(Above: Quarterback Sam Bradford hands off to Steven Jackson, an amazing athlete, who had to have rushed for at least 100 yards on the day. Every time he touched the ball, I held my breath because he was always one step away from breaking for a touchdown).

(Above: Freeman was hauling in the ball from bad snaps all day, but I particularly like this one because of the way Cadillac Williams is ready to block up front).


(Above: with 15 seconds left in the game, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams catches the winning touchdown. I was really happy for him. He’s a great guy, and struggled back through two long, painful knee injuries that end most players careers).

(Above: Quarterback Josh Freeman heading in after winning the game in the final seconds. What I like about this shot is the way you can see the stadium in the reflection on the back of his helmet).

My Camera Settings
Here’s how I set up both cameras for shooting Football.

(1) I set the Focus Mode to Continuous (technically called “Continuous-servo AF”

(2) I set the Auto Focus area mode to “Dynamic Area AF” (So I can move the focus point using the multi-selector button on the back of the camera). If the ball carrier moves off the point, it automatically uses the surrounding points to try and lock on the focus.

(3) In the Custom Menu, under Auto Focus, I go to the AF-C Priority Selection and choose “Release”

(4) Also in the Auto Focus Custom menu, I change my Dynamic AF area to just 9 points (ideal for sports tracking)

(5) The last change I make in the Custom Settings Auto Focus menu is to go the “Focus Tracking with Lock On” menu and lower the length to “Short.” (this gives you better response when you quickly change subjects at different positions on the field, like when you’re swinging from the quarterback to a receiver down field).

(6) I shoot in High Continuous mode so I can shoot a string of continuous shots if need be. I sent my camera to Nikon to have the buffer upgraded so it holds literally twice as many shots in the buffer as normal. It’s a $500 upgrade, but if you do this type of thing, it’s worth it. Here’s a link with the details.

(7) I use really fast 600X Lexar memory cards, which not only helps in camera, but it helps big time when you’re downloading the images to your computer at halftime (I upload a handful of shots during halftime to Southcreek so they can get them out there to media outlets while the game is still in progress).

(8) The 400mm f/2.8 is the first lens I’ve had that has a special “Tripod” setting for its VR (Vibration Reduction), but since I didn’t know enough about it, I didn’t want to take a chance, so I turned VR off on the lens. If a sports shooter out there knows whether this applies to shooting sports on a monopod, let me know.

Well, there ya have it. That’s how I set my gear up for NFL for NCAA shoots. Hey, speaking of College football, Notre Dame would be a fun game to shoot this coming weekend, dontchathink? ;-)

It’s kind of weird shooting your home team (or my adopted team, the Bears), because you have a lot of emotion on the outcome of each play, whereas guys who flew into town to shoot the game, probably don’t care that much one way or the other. It’s funny to me because I’ll be shooting and we’ll get a first down or make a big play and I’m yelling right there on the sidelines with my eye pressed up to the view finder. Then once the play’s over, I make the “First Down” gesture. I’m all alone at that point. ;-)

(Above: OK, I’m a sucker for these types of shots. What you can’t see in this frame, is that Buc’s Tackle Donald Penn had to literally jump up in the air a decent ways to reach the fan’s hand. I have shots that show this, but this one was my favorite because they’re actually touching).

(Above: Me with my new baby—the 400mm f/2.8 on the sidelines. iPhone photo by Matt May).

All in all, it was a really fun day, and my first chances to see the Bucs this year. I had some self-inflicted problems during the halftime uploading process that made things take a lot longer than they should have, but outside of that (and the fact that I didn’t get my parking pass in time, and had to park about a mile or so from the stadium), it was a pretty darn sweet day. I love this stuff! :)

  1. Scott,
    When I upgraded to the 70-200 vr11 it was my understanding that vr no longer mattered if on. I don’t think this is the case. I was shooting in the other day and realized my lens was making a noise on monopod. That was the vr so I turned it off. That may be a good Dtowntv topic! I definitely turn off on a tripod.
    Love the end zone TD!

      1. Scott – New Buffer upgrade, New Glass, I’m surprised you are still shooting sports in jepg. Seems to me that you have done sports in RAW in past post without the buffer and 400 f2.8?

  2. hi scott. if you dont mind: how much did the new baby go for? which store?
    also curious on the battery of tests that youve done before going ahead with a specific unit, which i know is close to 5 figures in price, to purchase.


  3. Scott – those are some great photos. Good work. Really like the shot of the reception (in the end zone?).

    And, personally, I’m a fan of being a fan (and cheering while looking through the viewfinder).

    Again, good stuff. Do you think you’ll also be shooting some hoops this season, too?

  4. Scott

    I’ve just finished cleaning the drool from my keyboard, thanks for that.

    I have a question about your assignment work with Southcreek Global Media. I’ve looked at their website and am interested in knowing how it all works. Without getting into the financial side of things, do you have to cover your own expenses to go shoot on assignment or is it all incorporated in the contract?

    Also, I see the watermark for Southcreek Global Media on the images. Do they own the copyright and allow you to use them? Or is there some sort of shared ownership?

    I understand if you’d rather not comment publicly given this is a business for you, so any info you’re able to share would be greatly appreciated.



  5. Scott,
    I’ve just changed my focus tracking lock on to Short, this could explain a problem i’ve been having with my 500mm F4 and D3 so thanks for sharing that it’s great.

    I wasn’t able to make your london show as my wife took very ill, i’m gutted, is there any way someone could post me the goodies cd ?
    I would really appreciate that, but i was really hoping to get over to london but it wasn’t to be.
    Thanks Russell.

  6. Scott,
    Why is 9-point AF better than 51?
    I’m going to shoot my first big sport event and I need to get good images. But when I was shooting action before, I’ve used 51-point auto focus and it worked great. Why 9?
    BTW, images are great!


  7. Great shots SK. Thanks for taking the time to write a detailed post on your settings. Great info to share with the sports shooting community! Are you selling your 300mm 2.8?


    1. I wasn’t gonna go there, but since you did – agreed! ;) Just teasing Scott – your work continues to get better and better in the sports field. Always fun to see the efforts of someone really taking their photography to the next level!

  8. Scott…
    RE: focus lock short v. long…
    I shoot a lot of field sports and find that I like the long lock better. At least I think I do. You have instpired me to rethink that.
    Here’s why… you are focused on one player, say the QB, and another player crosses between you and your target. You want the camera to stay focused on the player you are shoot instead of switching to the closer guy. Am I right on how this works?

  9. Scott,
    I think these are some of your very best game results — and that’s saying a LOT!! I especially like the very first shot of Cadillac Jones. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing that hanging soon on your office wall. So where ya off to today, swimsuit shoot in Bali? ;-)
    Trev J.
    P.S. (Does this shade of green make me look envious?)

  10. Someone has to be the one to start it so here goes… Scott Nice job on the shoot, I really like the red CANON vest it give that pro feeling to the story.. Canons legal team will be contacting you about trying to cover it all up with that hat. All kidding aside nice job.

  11. Hey Scott,

    Those are some really fantastic shots!! Boy, the 400 mm is some big lens! Good for building up the arms! :-) I have a question about the settings you used. Oh, and by the way thanks for sharing these with us. I own a Canon 40D. You mentioned in your settings (Item 2) that you set the Auto AF to Dynamic Area AF. Is there a Canon equivalent for that on the 40D or is that setting for the Higher end cameras?

    Thanks again for sharing your absolutely amazing photos with us!


  12. Scott, do you shoot with matrix, center-weight or spot for these? I’m finding myself moving away from using matrix as often but can’t make up my mind on which method works best for me. Thanks!

    1. I would love to know this info as well. Maybe Scott can do an segment on dtown and entice us sports wannabes. Scott… were waiting… Oh by the way do I tell you that everyone envy’s you on all these excursions that you go on and shoot and great shots. Keep up the good work.

  13. Hey Scott,
    I’m happy for your, and my wife’s, Bucs and their win. However, my Cowboys are not doing so well this year. This post of yours gets me even more pumped for the NASCAR races at Texas in 11 days, not that I’m counting. (Thanks Ken)
    Your camera settings will definately help me too
    YouDaMan Scott,

  14. as per your question
    (8) The 400mm f/2.8 is the first lens I’ve had that has a special “Tripod” setting for its VR (Vibration Reduction), but since I didn’t know enough about it, I didn’t want to take a chance, so I turned VR off on the lens. If a sports shooter out there knows whether this applies to shooting sports on a monopod, let me know.

    My rule of thumb is if I am touching the camera (or monopod) I turn on my VR

  15. Scott, great shots! I really like the one of the interaction between player and fan. I love players who love their fans!

    I’m also so jealous you get to be at ND. Hope they can pull out another game, it’s not been a great year although it’s better than the last few years.

    I was trying to figure out how to help my daughter see you among the photographers, finally have something for her to look for – I’m showing her the photo of you and your new baby.
    Have a great time at Notre Dame! Go Irish! Kitty :)

  16. I always love your football shots, Scott, and your new “baby” really makes your photos pop! No more wimpy 300mm lenses for you, I guess. Thanks for sharing!


  17. Scott,

    Thanks for the post. Great details. One question. In regard to this note:

    “(2) I set the Auto Focus area mode to “Dynamic Area AF” (So I can move the focus point using the multi-selector button on the back of the camera). If the ball carrier moves off the point, it automatically uses the surrounding points to try and lock on the focus.”

    When shooting at 2.8 and needing to lock on, say, a player’s face, if his hand comes up with the ball and is closer to you will the focus shift to that ball or remain with the face where your pinpoint is located? I’ve tested this out several times and it’s hard to come to a firm conclusion by looking at results during a fast-moving game. Do you know how the setting is SUPPOSED to work? Closest point, or remaining on the center point you selected?

  18. Wouldn’t the buffer upgrade be dealing with the software? If so, why couldn’t they just do it with a firmware update instead of charging $500 to do so?

  19. i assume that you had shutter speed up to atleast 1/800th so VR on monopod shoot be irrelevant. I think VR will only be important if on 400mm lens you were shooting around 400th sec or slower. But on monopod, that still might not be necessary under those conditions. I shoot college soccer all the time with exactly your settup and in fact add 1.4x converted occassionally, and images are still tack sharp without VR.

  20. I agree with Chris above – with the kind of light you had and the resulting shutter speed, VR off was probably a great idea. I’ll turn it on whenever I’m at a shutter speed below the focal length of the lens, even on a monopod.

    Keep it real!

  21. Scott Love your stuff and am an avid follower of your blog, & online training.

    You mention you shot in App priority. Did you have any exp compensation dialed In??

    Also would love it if you could do something on how you key word and tag your images. I am assuming you have a template set up in lightroom before th game what details??

    Thanks again and god bless.

  22. Hi Scott, great images! I shot with that lens last weekend for a high school game and I was impressed with the image detail. But I shot it all in RAW. Do you shoot in JPG so no post processing needed and you can upload images directly from the field? Are you selling your 300mm f/2.8 glass?

  23. Hi Scott, great football shots! Some of the darks look a little too dark on my calibrated HP Dreamcolor. If you shot jpg+raw you could bring those up a bit….. :)

    Question, are you using photomechanic for metadata workflow? I’m shooting for Southcreek as well and know there were issues with Lightroom, just curious how you sorted that out. I haven’t pulled the trigger on photomechanic yet. Thanks!

  24. Aside from the forecast being crappy, if you want to make the trip to South Bend this week and stand shoulder to shoulder with other shooters, it could happen.

  25. Hello,
    Ironic you wearing Canon logo shooting Nikon.
    Thank you for the photos and if you can, could you please translate settings to Canon world if at all possible?
    I know you speak both languages.

  26. Thanks for this posting. As always I learn as well as simultaneously get envious when reading your posts. Images are great and being a former player you captured many moments that provide a nice “story” of the game.

  27. Fantastic post Scott with great shots accompanying it!
    Not being a ‘sports shooter’ it’s real interesting to see how others use the camera setting to best suit the shooting environment so thanks for sharing those.

    Having read what you said about the Lexar Memory Cards, I think I’m gonna be investing in a few as i experienced a bit of delay writing to the buffer the other day during a portrait shoot and yep, it was just at the time I really didn’t need it :)


    ps> Upgraded my X-Rite the other day to the iDisplay 2 following your recommendation and it works a dream!!! Thanks

  28. Caddy has recovered from three career ending injuries. He had one while he was playing at Auburn also. I love watching my Auburn boys play in the big league, you got a good one in him. He can take it to the house any day.

  29. Hey Scott!!, TRIPOD VRll…. The tripod VRll mode you are asking about is just a built in feature in the lens, (more BS than anything) When the VRll is on and there is no lens movement recognized from the lens…it thinks its on a tripod and assumes any vibration would be from the shutter, so it applies a lower VR adjustment to the lens, There ya have it!!! Jeff

  30. I love the picture of Sam. I have been a fan of his for years. I have followed him for years, see I am a Sooner and he went to my old highschool. I have many picture of him but I love how you were able to shoot his face. All mine ended up just covered up by helmet.

  31. Hey Scott when photographing sports on your monopod, could you tell us the type of monopod that you use and do you also use a ball head on your monopod? I wish somehow you could resurrect that sports contest that you had last year. Maybe you could ask your friend from the Chicago bears. It’s his team and if he wants to have someone photograph the game, by all means let someone who is capable shoot on the sidelines. If this happens remember where this idea came from… Good luck with your shooting and I look forward to more captivating images.

    1. Hi Phil:
      I’ve tried a ball head on a monopod, but for Football, I don’t really use, and I don’t see anyone out there using them either. I use the Gitzo GM3551 6X Carbon Fiber Monopod. :)


      1. I like to use the Manfrotto 234RC head on a monopod strictly for the quick release action. Not that I swap lenses that often but it’s handy for a quick lock and go setup. Plus if you get high above or far below the action in various sports it’s nice to be able to tilt up or down rather than leaning way forward or back.

  32. Hi Scott!!, TRIPOD VRll…..Tripod mode ( actually called Tripod detection mode) is just a built in feature in the lens, you have no control over it when VR is on and the lens is not subjected to any movement the lens assumes its on a tripod and that any movement or vibration would be coming from the shutter, so it automatically reduce the vibration due to shutter release,


    1. Hi Mike:
      I don’t take as many as I probably should. Usually around 1,200, which most pros will tell you is very low (at least, they’ve told me that). I probably should be around 1,500 on the low end, to 2,000. I’m working on it.


  33. Hi Scott. How do you manage to get the players eyes so sharp and in focus? Where are your focus points on the player, namely, are you focusing on the player’s head or chest to get sharp focus on their eyes through their helmets? Thanks.

  34. Hi Scott,

    regarding point 7 (memory cards): A fast card is very useful, that’s for sure – but if you want to speed up your workflow when sending images to your client in the halftime, then lock your favorite images right in the camera!

    Use every break during the game to check your latest shots and if you see a great one you want to send in the halftime, lock it. I’m sure there’s a fast way to do that with a professional cam. So you don’t have to transfer hundreds of images to your laptop and start sorting out, you just transfer the locked ones which means an incredible boost of speed!


  35. Thats one hell of a lens. So you say thats your lens ? I know Canon has set up rentals onsite on all NFL games to borrow so is it feasible to go out and purchase that kind of lens ? When you can borrow from Canon on game days. To each is own they say but they are great pictures though.

  36. Scott!

    Love the photos, as I have all your NFL updates.

    But. I must make a desperate plea —


    The TB lighting are in the top of their division (so far, it is still Oct) – I would LOVE to see the prep and behind the scenes of what goes into shooting an NHL game.

    Any thoughts?


  37. My dream is to once day do photography for a nfl football team, or a college basketball team, love the work! I am curious is the 400mm a prime lens, I feel it could become a pain to not be able to zoom like you could with a 70-200 2.8. Thanks and love the work!

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