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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.