January 6, 2010 / Photography

Shooting action sports like rugby can make photography fun

Written by Bradley Wilson

Photography is fun. At least shooting is. But it isn’t easy.

Three college photographers and I spent an entire day recently shooting rugby. Only one of us had ever shot rugby before, so this was a new adventure.

All of us knew the basics. We knew what it took to shoot sports like rugby, including soccer and football. It took high-end equipment: long lenses and cameras capable of shooting high-resolution images with extremely fast shutter speeds in less-than-ideal conditions. We went out with almost every piece of equipment we had, including 300mm f/2.8 telephoto lenses, 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lenses, a 1.4x teleconverter and cameras that could capture pictures of at least 5 megapixels, sometimes twice that. Little $200 point-and-shoot cameras would not cut it.

We did not know what our field access would be like. If it was like a football game where we would have to stand five yards away from the sideline and where the action occurred more than 20 yards away when it was close, that long glass would be a requirement. If it was like a soccer game where the action keeps going and going at a fast pace and far away, that long glass would be an absolute necessity. Indeed, I would have preferred to have a 400mm f/2.8, but we can’t afford one $7,500 lens. We were generally content to work with our $2,000 70-200mm zoom. If we were patient, and could wait for the action to come to us, and the lighting was decent, that lens would be adequate if not ideal.

At the Raleigh Viper Pitch, Dave Maki, a senior in graphic design, struggles to get away from players during the rugby alumni match on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009. Current players and alumni from North Carolina State University were mixed between the two teams. Maki played for North Carolina State’s rugby club team for three years before quitting. "Played football and then in the winter they had me come out to play," Maki said.  (Photo by Justin Bost)

Our 70-200mm zoom lens was adequate to the task of getting the shot of Dave Maki, a senior in graphic design, struggling to escape during the rugby alumni match at the Raleigh Viper Pitch on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009. But it was also helpful during the match to be allowed the freedom to get on the field to shoot, which seldom happens. (Photo by Justin Bost)

As it turned out, the sun hid behind a partly cloudy sky – ideal conditions. We didn’t have to use high ISOs that would lead to inferior quality and grainy images. We were able to stick to 400ISO or even 200ISO and still get shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or faster to stop the action. We even played around with a little slow-shutter-speed work and panning, following the action along while shooting to blur the background while keeping the subject sharp.

But it wasn’t easy.

One of us had never used long glass before. It is hard carrying around five pounds of lenses, five pounds of camera and a monopod. Just learning how to hold the massive camera and lens requires some training. It’s a little workout by itself. And since our longest lens was a fixed focal length, it wasn’t like the photographer could zoom in or out to properly fill the frame. He had to rely on some luck and had to be very aware of the action playing out in front of him, even though we were not familiar with game.

This wasn’t even an assignment for this group of photographers. We all went out to learn how to shoot better sports images and to learn a little more about rugby, a sport growing in popularity in the United States. Shoot, before the day began, I didn’t know what a scrum was, or a hooker – the person responsible for organizing the defense in the middle of the field. And it wasn’t easy learning how the ball, in almost constant motion, would move around the field or how the game was scored. It was a learning experience and helped us to prepare for the competitive shooting at Division 1 NCAA football and soccer.

It wasn’t easy, but it sure was fun.

This particular game was not a regulation game; it was a friendly match between alumni and current students on the club team. We had decided weeks ago that our yearbook needed more coverage of club sports, so the alumni game proved not only to be a learning opportunity for us, but a chance for us to expand our coverage.

The conditions were ideal. The players loved seeing this group of photographers show an interest in their game. We appreciated the access we got. We were told, “You want to shoot up close, get out there on the field and shoot.” There weren’t any public information officers, line judges or referees screaming “Get back.” And we didn’t have to risk technical fouls being called when we crossed some almost imaginary line barely visible through our peripheral vision when looking through a short telescope. Even when a bit of rain passed through the area, we didn’t run, scrambling for cover — and neither did the players — we just kept shooting and they just kept playing.

We moved all around the field and the sidelines, shooting the fans, almost all family members of the players, and the players cheering on their teammates. We shot the team members tying their shoes and getting ready on the sidelines because we knew that was part of telling the whole story. And when, after the game was over, the team recognized the “man of the game,” we shot that too. We figured we would not leave until the players did. Sure it required a commitment of more than a few minutes, but the nearly three hours we invested in shooting were necessary if we were to tell even the majority of the story much less the whole story. Plus, it gave us time to talk to the players, fans and coaches to learn the game and to take better pictures.

Periodically, we got together to talk about better places to stand, better angles to get, what shots we had and what shots we did not have. But most of the time, we spread out the length of the field, moved into the end zone to find another angle, and even grabbed the wide angle 16-28mm lens for some different views. That communication during the shoot proved invaluable when it came to editing later as we tried to piece together the whole story.

But there was more to the job than lugging equipment and looking for angles. We had to stop periodically to

Corwin McNeil, a junior in park, recreation and tourism at North Carolina State University, runs to score a try with everyone else in hot pursuit. While the informal alumni rugby matches on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, were mostly for fun, the competitors in both the men’s and women’s games played to win. (Photo by Bradley Wilson)

Experimentation with slow shutter speeds and panning enabled us to get this shot of Corwin McNeil, a junior in park, recreation and tourism at North Carolina State University, running to score a try. Keeping the subject in focus leads the viewers’ eyes to the point of the photo, while blurring the players that are in hot pursuit tells the entire story. (Photo by Bradley Wilson)

take notes, to gather information and to get names. That, we knew, would save us a lot of time later. It wasn’t like the players had numbers on their jerseys that we could match with a roster. We also got names and email addresses of people who could help us later identify people that we missed. That communication also helped us generate an interest in the yearbook and build a rapport with the alumni and players that could only strengthen the yearbook in their eyes. Shoot, they thought it was great we were there, so great in fact, after it was all over, they decided that “since the pros were there,” they would pose for a group shot. We promised to email them a copy for their website.

It was a worthwhile day — but a long, eight-hour day from gathering of equipment to shooting to peer editing. It wasn’t easy. Indeed, it was hard work. Still, to paraphrase Tom Hanks in A League of Our Own: Of course it’s hard, it’s the hard that makes it worth doing! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it!

Photography is a bit like that. Anyone can grab a digital camera and shoot snapshots. But it takes a photojournalist to document the lives of the people in our community and to tell their stories. No one said being a photojournalist was easy. Still, it is fun.

  • Bart deNijs

    Truer words were never spoken. Anyone can point and shot with today’s digital cameras but to tell the story of an event or have the picture scream emotion, that takes someone special, someone who has put in the time and effort to become one with the camera. A photojournalist!

Bradley Wilson