Saturday night I got a chance to shoot the USF Bulls vs. Western Kentucky football game from the sidelines with my buddy sports photographer Andy Gregory. Here are a few of shots from the game. (I got the image above just as the team had gathered in the tunnel to enter the field through an air curtain of C02)

Lens Length vs. ISO & Noise Issues
When I shot the LSU – North Carolina game a few weeks ago, I took my new 300mm f/2.8 lens, and absolutely totally loved it, but you do have to hustle a little more up and down the sidelines to stay close enough to the action. Saturday night, I used my 200-400mm f/4, which worked out pretty darn well because of the extra 100mm reach, but I’m not sure it’s quite as magical as the 300mm f/2.8, with its super-shallow depth of field and the ability to shoot at a lower ISO (plus, losing that one extra stop at f/4 means I have to shoot at least 3,200 ISO the whole night).

(Photo above of yours truly in the tunnel, decked out in knee pads, by Andy Gregory. This was the only in-focus shot Andy took all night. Sorry Andy—I couldn’t help myself)

So, it’s a trade off. I can shoot a 400mm, and get in nice and tight, but it’ll be a little noisier (though I borrowed RC’s D3s to help keep the noise at a minimum). Or I can shoot at 300mm, where I get less noise and sharper photos (because I can shoot at a much lower ISO), but then I’m not in as tight. So, what’s the ideal lens for football? Probably the one I tried to rent from, the 400mm f/2.8 but I was too late—it was already out on rental.

The Lens bottomline
Now that I’ve recently shot with both lenses, if I was shooting another game, like say…tonight’s Bears/Packers Monday Night Football game (Go Bears!), I’d probably take my 300mm f/2.8, for the better depth of field, lower ISO capabilities, and sharper images with probably better color rendition (thanks to the lower ISO as well).

Interesting Side Note
I haven’t shot a college football or NFL night game where there wasn’t a photo credentialed photographer on the sidelines shooting a Canon Rebel, or a Nikon D90 (or equivalent) with a kit zoom lens no longer than 105mm at f/5.6. The noise has got to be brutal for night games or games held in dome stadiums.

Camera Stats:
I used two bodies and two lenses. On the D3s, I used the 200-400mm f/4, at ISO 3,200 at f/4 all night. The second body was D3 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, which I shot at 2,000 ISO at f/2.8 all night. Since it’s a sports shoot (and my buddy Paul Abell wasn’t there to shame me into shooting in Raw), I shot in JPEG Fine mode on both cameras.

(Above: I caught a few of the players heading to the USF locker room right after the game. Where I was positioned, there was about a 20 ft. area that was lit by the stadium lights, and then past that it went into shadows. I caught this shot just as the player was moving into the shadow area. I had to brighten his face just a little, and I converted it to black and white to add more drama).

Post Processing
Very little done to these (except the photo below)—no color correction (all shot using Auto White Balance), and just added some contrast here and there and just regular Unsharp Mask sharpening. You have to be careful sharpening images at high ISO, because any noise that’s already in the photos gets amplified. I didn’t use any noise reduction in post either.

Click on it
To really appreciate the shot above, where the bench is calling for the ref to throw a flag for a personal foul, you have to click on it to see the larger contrast enhanced version.

Above: probably my favorite shot from the night—just after USF’s win, #12 high-fives fans as the team leaves the field.

My thanks to the USF Bulls Football organization for having me shoot the game, and to Andy Gregory for putting up with my constant harassment throughout the night (he’s a friend of Matt’s, so he’s used to it).

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About The Author

Scott is the President of KelbyOne, an online educational community for Photographers, Photoshop and Lightroom users. He's editor and publisher of Photoshop User Magazine, Conference Technical Chair for the Photoshop World Conference, and the author of a string of bestselling Photoshop, Lightroom, and photography books.