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Lions, Eagles and Snow: The Hardest, Most Fun NFL Game I’ve Ever Shot

My experience shooting an NFL game in a blizzard without AF

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On Sunday I covered what was easily the hardest football game I’ve ever been asked to shoot. In turn it was the most fun I’ve ever had on an assignment.

The forecast for Sunday called for a “dusting” of snow. About an inch was supposed to fall, starting right around 1pm, the same time as kickoff. It sounded perfect: I’ve always wanted to shoot a game in the snow and we’d get just enough to add some flare to the photos.

Around 11am I walked out from the photo workroom to shoot players warming up, and the flurries had already started. Jason Avant laughed as he tossed a ball around with DeSean Jackson. It seemed most though were hiding from the cold in the locker room, so I retreated too so I could send a few photos to the newsroom.

DeSean Jackson, left, LeSean McCoy, center, and Nick Foles, right, run through the snow as they warm up before their game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

DeSean Jackson, left, LeSean McCoy, center, and Nick Foles, right, run through the snow as they warm up before their game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

It was only 20 minutes later when another photographer walked in and said, “it’s really coming down out there.”

I figured it was an overreaction to the first snow storm of the season, but at least a few more players might be out warming up. When I walked outside it seemed like blizzard had appeared out of nowhere. Conditions went to full white-out in a matter of minutes.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy outruns a group of Lions defenders on his way to the end zone in the fourth quarter of the Eagles 34-20 win over the Lions in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy outruns a group of Lions defenders on his way to the end zone in the fourth quarter of the Eagles 34-20 win over the Lions in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

While shooting football in the snow makes for fantastic photos, it’s also the most challenging scenario a modern photojournalist can find themselves in. Cameras today rely so heavily on autofocus for sports that snow renders them functionally useless. Imagine trying to photograph someone standing behind a waterfall. Even if you can see them clearly, no matter what you do your camera focuses only the water. The same went for every thick snowflake between me and the players on the field, and when you consider there were thousands falling every second the challenge was daunting.

Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh stands along the sideline as snow falls before the Lions take on the Eagles on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh stands along the sideline as snow falls before the Lions take on the Eagles on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Some photographers coped by abandoning their long glass and switching to a 70-200. While plays in the middle of the field would be hard to capture, you could document features on the sidelines and hope the storm let up soon enough to bring the long glass back.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles calls for the snap in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles calls for the snap in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

I went a different route.

About midway through the first quarter, with the snow falling so hard it was beginning to accumulate inside my lens hood, I decided to switch my 400mm lens to manual focus, and literally try my hand at focusing on my own. I’ve never shot football on full manual but it was the only way I’d come back with something different.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford delivers a pass between the outstretched hands of a pair of Eagles defenders in the first quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford delivers a pass between the outstretched hands of a pair of Eagles defenders in the first quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

As I mentioned before, cameras today are heavily built on their autofocus abilities. Ask any photographer about the drawbacks of a particular sports-built body and their first critique is bound to be a complaint about the autofocus system. Lenses aren’t built to be relied on for manual focus anymore either. In the golden era of film photography when legends like Neil Leifer and Walter Looss were documenting football games from the sidelines they knew the feel of exactly how far to roll the focus dial to get the shot. They weren’t spoiled by AI Servo Tracking AutoFocus technology like we are today.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy tries to break away from Lions defender Ezekiel Ansah (No. 94) in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy tries to break away from Lions defender Ezekiel Ansah (No. 94) in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

As far as I can compare it to anything, it’s like taking power steering out of your car, or trying to fly the space shuttle without autopilot. But, I tried it anyway. If you don’t dare to fail you’ll never succeed. (I don’t know if someone famous said that before, but if they didn’t I’m claiming it.)

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford gives instructions to his lineman as snow falls in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford gives instructions to his lineman as snow falls in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

I have to say, the photos I came back with are some of the best I’ve ever made at a football game, and when the snow let up in the second half, I had a new appreciation for the autofocus button I could finally flip back to “on” mode.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy hurdles over Lions safety Louis Delmas in the fourth quarter of the Eagles 34-20 win over the Lions in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy hurdles over Lions safety Louis Delmas in the fourth quarter of the Eagles 34-20 win over the Lions in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

The Eagles didn’t disappoint me either. With an offensive surge in the second half, they ran over the Lions and on to another home win. I only wish players had stuck around after the game was over to play in the snow. That would have made for some great photos.

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper walks back to the bench covered in snow after failing to bring in a pass in the end zone on fourth down in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper walks back to the bench covered in snow after failing to bring in a pass in the end zone on fourth down in the second quarter of the Eagles game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2013.

To see more photos from Sunday’s game, check out the full gallery by clicking here.


About the author: Kyle Grantham is an award-winning staff photographer with The News Journal in Wilmington, DE. Before joining The News Journal in January of this year, he worked for the Casper Star-Tribune in Casper, WY from March 2012 until January 2013, and the Evansville Courier & Press from November 2010 to December 2011. You can find him on his website, Twitter and Facebook. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • Christian DeBaun

    Amazing work – thanks.

  • Peter “Pots”

    Those were some of the best sport shots I’ve seen in a long time. It gave you the feel of being there!

  • OtterMatt

    Beyond epic. It’s a shame so many photogs decided to play the “safe” shot, because these are amazing.

  • Ferrell McCollough

    The hurdle shot is amazing. Also love the shot with the outstretched hands, it’s very surreal. Well done with the manual focus, I know the challenges.

  • stevengrosas

    Amazing!

  • Muhammad Malik

    really? Professionals use Autofocus? 90% of the time I use manual focus. I always knew it was better..

  • Boag

    When i was shooting sports in college (only 2 years ago) the only long glass we had was an old 300mm f/2.8 manual focus lens. Some of my favorite shots over my four years were made manually focusing and if you think about it, a lot of the best sports photos ever taken were shot all manual focus. It is a good skill to have in the back pocket for any situation. Awesome images.

  • ISO640

    I’m trying to teach myself to focus manually, which is hard because I wear glasses and I find they get in the way of the viewfinder, but I appreciate anyone who can put their camera on manual focus and get the goods–especially in a face paced environment like football. It also goes to show that it doesn’t matter how great or modern your equipment is if you can’t use it, it’s worthless.

  • Dude.

    Amazing shots! Yet another reason I’m completely hoping there are some NFL stadiums open to the elements for generations to come.

  • Hannah Paige Woodard

    Faaaaaaantastic. <3 Loved watching this game, but I didn't even think about the poor freezing photographers out there! Totally worth it – these shots are beautiful.

  • Ralph Hightower

    OMG! The inhumanity of it all, actually forcing photographers to use manual focus. My wife showed me the differences between the games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the differences between the two playing fields were quite striking!
    Perhaps comparing AF to power steering is a great analogy. My first “car” as a teenage driver was a ’55 Chevy pickup with no power anything, no power steering, no power brakes. Yet, I developed the skills to whip that truck into a parking spot using parallel parking skills and also developed upper arm strength..
    I am sure that when I buy a DSLR with autofocus, that I will experience “culture shock”. I am still shooting with my Canon A-1 that I bought new 33 years ago. Yes, I use film.

  • http://www.praverb.net/ Praverb

    Awesome shots from Kyle. Love the shot of McCoy and the shot of Suh. Excellent work!

  • Jake

    Fly, Eagles, fly on the road to victory!…Great game, great shots, go Birds!

  • Mark Jordan

    Just terrific image after terrific image. I had to shoot for almost a year using only manual focus (long story) and I felt I learned a lot from the experience. All the while, as I was gnashing my teeth over missed images, I kept telling myself that all the sports photographers from before the time of autofocus had to do it that way. Maybe I’ll catch you at the Bob sometime!

  • Scott M

    Great article and great shots! The bokeh is twice as nice with snow. Especially the crowd shots.

  • http://about.me/kientran Kien Tran

    Amazing work! It’s so much harder to shoot manual now since no camera has a prism focus anymore!

  • Emil Nyström

    Terrific images. But blizzard? This looks like a regular snowy day in Sweden. ;)

  • Regular Rod

    Brilliant work and beautiful results!

  • Walknot

    Those photos are now immortal. Congrats! If only the Lions could have pulled it off.

  • jimmy j

    meh. not impressed

  • ryan

    me too…what a joke

  • jonny j

    using the manual focus was tiring for you or what? holy cow, how you have a job shooting professional sports is a joke. get me in touch with your employer

  • Taneli144254354

    Pro sports photographers at least

  • Kelvin

    These almost seem like paintings or video game concept art. Unreal. Great work!

  • Don Davis

    Kyle did a great job in the mini-blizzard. I spent the first twenty years of newspaper shooting manual focus, and the last eighteen auto. As we grow older, the servos really make a difference!

  • Kyle Grantham

    Would you prefer email, or phone number?

  • Julien Ricard

    now remove the snow and see how boring your pictures are.

  • Fullstop

    Lions Suck :P

  • John Smith

    Probably the best photos of this game out there. Great work.

  • ceejw

    Unless you have superhuman reflexes you’ll miss shots trying to shoot high speed sports in manual focus.

  • Edward Hewer

    Your title picture at top of this story is worthy of sports picture of the year. Very rare you capture the QB and WR with defender in shot as he is about to release the ball – and no players around the QB as well – really cool image. Pardon the pun.
    I am in very hot Sydney right now so very interesting story to us down under.

  • Amanda Sonmor

    All of these shots have such a painterly quality — not sure if this is an effect of the manual focus, or the post-processing — but a really beautiful series either way.

  • MHerren

    Yeah it’s not like they’re taking one or two shots a game. They’re expected to take literally hundreds – catching every play that could be the ‘play of the game’

  • Slammer

    Love all of them. Excellent work.

  • Travis

    Great suggestion. While he’s at it he should remove the players too because they provide no excitement, context or meaning whatsoever to the photos either.

  • TL

    Fun stuff and thanks for sharing. Two things though. Who is Walter “Looss”? The legend is named Walter Iooss. And that snow was not a blizzard. Can’t have a “blizzard” without high winds.

  • David Stinson

    I am by no means an Eagles fan, loathe the team and the city, but Kyle these images are spectacular Great work. I’ve looked at them a dozen times already and its breathtaking.

  • Kaz

    Awesome

  • Daniel Stuart Hoffman

    Yeah all credit to the photographers on these shots. I normally don’t find sports photography that interesting, but these are some great shots.

  • Yeahrite

    Lol. Manual focus for sports photography. Just lol. The vast majority of professionals use autofocus. And using manual focus doesn’t impress anyone. What, do you think you deserve a cookie or something? Please.

  • Scott

    If you’re truly interested in manual focus you should pick up a split prism focusing screen for your camera. Modern DSLRs aren’t setup for manual focus out of the box.

    You’ll also want to invest in manual focus lenses as well. The longer focus throw makes it easier to nail focus without going too far. The nice smooth and slightly damped focus ring also helps.

  • Steve Gray

    Great work, Kyle. I’ve done some local sports shooting, and I’ve always thought it would be a blast to shoot an NFL game. And with the snow? Great challenges bring great rewards to those who make the effort…and you did just that. (I was up on section 210, and I’m amazed that you could get ANYTHING until the second quarter.)

  • Guest

    I’m sorry, but these photos without snow are not good pictures (composition, etc)