Friday Night Lights – How to Photograph Sports in High School Stadiums


When your child was old enough to start playing sports you ran out to the nearest big box store and picked up the latest camera kit.  As the kids grew into their sports so did your photography.  You started to get more and more keepers and other parents started asking you to take pictures of their kids.

As your photography has grown so has your children and now comes that next proud parent moment when your child makes the High School Varsity team.  It's dusk and the stadium lights are on the teams are taking the field it's going to be a great night.  Then you start taking pictures with your camera and kit lens and realize it's just not working.  The pictures are dark and fuzzy and just plain terrible, now what?  Before we get into the solution let's talk a little bit about the differences between High School sports and Youth Club Sports.

High School Stadiums

A typical High School stadium is surrounded by a track and is also fenced in so simply walking up to the field is not that easy.  The access gates are typically staffed by uniformed police officers or school staff.  Most places that see you carrying what looks like a “Professional” camera setup will let you through. However sometimes they will say no, don't argue but it would be Ok to politely ask what kind of credentials they would like to see so that way next time they will grant you access.

6 light Poles
This is image shows the light output in Foot Candles for an average 30 Foot Candle 6 pole light design on a football field.


High School stadiums in most areas around the country are not built like professional sports venues.  Most stadiums will only have the minimal lighting (30 footcandles) needed to safely play a game.  In my area most stadiums have either 4 or 6 light poles.  Whereas most professional stadiums have lights around the entire field and will light the field almost as bright as day.  I have found that stadiums with only 4 light poles are more difficult to shoot not because it is less light but due to the light pattern.  With only 4 sources of light there are more shadows on the players faces which does not produce very good images.  Stadiums with 6 light poles will have more evenly dispersed amount of light and will produce less shadows on the players faces.

4 light poles
This is image shows the light output in Foot Candles for an average 30 Foot Candle 4 pole light design on a football field.


It is also important to understand that stadium lighting is designed to provide the most light in the center of the field.  When you are positioning yourself around the field you will want to keep in mind that any action more central will be easier to capture.

Media Rights and Access

Another significant different between Youth Club sports and High School sports is what you can and cannot do with the images you capture.  First a quick lesson on High School athletics and how they are organized.  Each school is a member of a league.  Each league is part of a district (multiple neighboring leagues make up a district).  Each district is part of a State Association and each state association is part of the NFHS (National Federation of High Schools).  Every season starts out with league play and if your team does well they will go into the District playoffs.  If they continue to do well then they enter the State rounds of the playoffs.  All this is important to understand because each level of play effects how much access you can get and what you can do with the pictures you take.

During the regular season games (league games) you will typically get full access to the field. Especially the home field of the school you are shooting.  Any images from these matches are usually unregulated (meaning you can post them online and sell them) especially any non-Football sport (soccer, lacrosse, etc…).  Football is usually a significant revenue source for almost every school with a program so getting permission from the coach or the Boosters Club will make access much easier.

District and State playoff games are a little more regulated.  There are a few districts that regulate media access and the rights to the images more than the State Associations.  At the State round level it is very common for restrictions on selling your images.  Most State Associations have authorized or sponsor photography companies that are the only people allowed to sell images.  You can still get access to the fields for these games by getting a Media Pass from a recognized Media Outlet.  I have had the privilege of shooting the State Finals for Soccer and I had to get credentials from a Soccer News Blog. All I had to do was provide a gallery of images for the Blog to post and share.  I was given photo credit of course and my galleries were seen by 1000's of people that would not have been seen otherwise.

Gear Needed

Now that you have access to the games you want to make sure you have the correct gear.  I am a Nikon guy so most of the references I make will be to Nikon gear.  I know Canon has some great gear and when you watch the photographers in the background on TV many are using Canon gear.  I am just not familiar enough with Canon to recommend specific items so if you are a Canon user please feel free to leave your favorite sports gear in the comments.

I get asked a lot for advice on the right gear to take pictures under the lights.  My first response is always money.  Most modern DSLR bodies will take OK pictures if you have the right lens.  However you will get better pictures with a Semi-Pro camera body such as the Nikon D7xxx or the new D500.  For best results you will need a Full Frame camera such as the Nikon D750 or D8xx.  The most optimum camera body is a D4 or the new D5 bodies but let's face it most of us out there taking pictures of our kids are not able to afford the $6999.00 (US) price tag.

Probably the most important piece of gear in your bag will be the lens.  Most seasoned photographers will tell you to buy glass (lens) before upgrading your camera body.  In fact the saying is “You date a camera body but marry the lens.”  So as your child is growing that is a great time to invest in fast glass (Fast Glass is a lens with an aperture of f2.8 and bigger).  At a minimum you will want the 70-200 f2.8 lens.  You don't have to run out and buy a new lens instead look for a gently used lens.  This can be a very affordable and a good way to get your first piece of Fast Glass. You can also find some great primes such as the 200mm f2.0, 300mm f2.8, 400mm f2.8 but again the cost for these can be a bit out of reach for most hobbyists since they start at $5700.00 (US).

Taken with a D7100 and 85mm F1.4 EXIF: 1/800, f1.4, ISO1600
Taken with a D7100 and 85mm F1.4
EXIF: 1/800, f1.4, ISO1600


Once you have your gear now you need to know some basic settings.  If you have read my past article https://improvephotography.com/38219/camera-settings-basic-gear-outdoor-sports-photography/ then you have a good starting point for setting up your camera, wide open aperture, 1/1000 and Auto ISO.  If you have a full frame camera with good low light capabilities then you can afford to keep the ISO higher (3200-6400 range) so that way you can keep the shutter speed higher as well.  However if you have a Crop Sensor camera with not as good of low light performance then you will have to make some compromises.  The above image is just such a compromise I had to make the slightly slower shutter speed freezes the players but as you can see there is still some motion blur at the foot and the ball.

My current setup is a Nikon D7100 and an 85mm f1.4 lens.  With a Crop Sensor body the effective focal length with the 85mm is approx. 130mm.  Since I have a camera that is OK but not great with low light the extra wide aperture of 1.4 helps me keep my shutter speed a little higher.  Not the most optimum focal length for outdoor sports but with a little patience I can still get the shot.

It will take a couple games maybe even a full season but with a little experimenting you will be able to nail down your optimum camera settings. Don't be too worried if there is a stadium that is just poorly lit and once the sun fully sets your gear is just not capable of capturing any shots.  At that point I will head back to the stands and enjoy the rest of the game as a spectator.

3 thoughts on “Friday Night Lights – How to Photograph Sports in High School Stadiums”

  1. Great article. Very consistent with every high school football stadium I’ve ever shot. Love the lighting charts for 4 and 6 pole stadiums. The thing is, those are ‘best case’ charts, That is, when all the lights on top of the poles are functioning. We all know that each pole is likely to have several burned out bulbs.

    Another aspect to shooting high school sports, JV and/or Freshmen games (if the high school has all 3 levels), are generally very easy to get on the sideline. Many times, these games are played earlier in the evening, so you may start the game in bright sunlight, and end the game under the stadium lights. Just consider the changing lighting conditions to be a challenge!

    Lastly, if the lighting is just too poor for action shots, focus on the players on the sideline and the coaches. Here is where you can get images of the players without helmets and shadows covering their faces. It also allows you to capture the unsung players (linemen in football). As the game gets close to the end, you can get great reactions to the plays on the field. This is also the time in the game when the ‘stakes are the highest’ and the reactions will be the most dynamic. (i.e. the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.)

  2. Rebecca Burlingham

    Good article. My photographs concentrate more on the Marching Band. If I take any of players, it is a few test shots. My challenge with the lights is the flickering. Shooting in continuous Low, (D7100 with 70-200 F2.8 G2 lens), one shot will be well exposed, the next shot orange and dark. Any advise?

  3. Rebecca Burlingham

    I went back and read your suggested link. It has me wondering if Auto ISO would help with the light flicker? Can Auto ISO keep up with the change? Or am I likely to have twice as many poorly exposed images.
    Those lights are killing my images.

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