There are a couple of prerequisites for practically any photo to be great:
- The focal point of the photo must be crisply in focus. Not sharpened by post-processing, but naturally and sharply focused. Equipment makes a big difference here. Nothing beats a prime (non-zoom) lens for sharpness. I thought my Canon 70-200/f2.8 was the cat's wazoo when I first purchased it... until I shot a 400/f2.8 prime. Wow!
- Proper exposure is required. Again, natural accurate exposure is preferred to post-processing. There are artistic exceptions to this rule, but in sports photography are probably the rare exception.
Now, with those two prereqs out of the way, what makes the perfect football picture? Here's my list:
1. The ball. Any good sports photo needs to include the focal object of the sport. This is one of my early accidental captures, and still one of my favorite football photos. I call it "Portrait of a Football"
2. Players of both teams. That's how you tell it's not practice.
3. A referee. Again, further proof of a live game situation, and the stripes provide a nice contrast in the photo.
4. Eyes! Any photo of a human subject should include the eyes, particularly a sports photo where the eyes relay the intensity of the moment.
5. Speaking of intensity, an intense situation elevates the photo, and is one reason football (and sports in general) is fun to shoot... there's plenty of intensity on the field!
6. Close up. Anyone can take a picture of a football field with players. Getting that close up of a play ten yards away with a 400mm lens is what I like.
7. An interesting background. I really like shots of a player running down the sidelines with interesting sideline folks and expressions in the background. Recognize anyone in this background, and can you guess what he might be thinking?:
I haven't shot the perfect football photo yet... one that incorporates every single one of my criteria. I'm not even sure it's possible, but I'll keep on trying.
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