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From the Endline: When the rules become guidelines

The best part of a rule is knowing when to break it.

Before we begin, just pause for a moment to appreciate Cristian Roldan’s goal.

It’s... beautiful.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

That’s 16 photos stitched together in goal-scoring goodness. There’s a bit of jitter because I was hand-holding the camera, instead of using a monopod or other stabilization system.

Normally, there’s a rule about this sort of situation: “Don’t shoot through netting.”

Not only is it distracting to the eye and causes a bunch of auto-focus mishaps, it takes away from the mystique that the photographer is trying to create. One of the techniques I believe in (and try to impress on newer photographers) is that the best photos make you feel like you’re right there with the players. Photographers need to get low (so that they’re at eye level or lower) and zoom in as tight as possible.

It’s what makes a photo like this:

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Or this:

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

Or this:

Marco Pappa celebrates his goal. Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

More powerful than a photo like this:

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Did I add some gratuitous photos to highlight Kayla’s and Mike’s work? Those rumors can neither be confirmed nor denied. (Mike and Kayla, remember the bribe money is due by Wednesday.)

That’s not to say that the photo of Will Bruin and Clint Dempsey is bad or unusable, but the netting is extremely distracting and makes the reader feel distanced from the action, even though the photo is reasonably framed. In this case, it turns a “C+/B-” photo into a “C” photo.

As with most rules, however, there are exceptions. As Captain Barbosa so eloquently put it, “They’re more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” There are times when it’s perfectly fine to shoot through netting.

Exception one: Utilizing technique

Max Aquino

With a longer lens, and depending on the netting/fencing, there are ways to completely avoid seeing the netting since the lens can’t focus on something that close. In the photo above, I was able to get away with keeping my lens hood on because it’s a 300mm lens and I was shooting almost wide open (for the photo nerds out there, I was at f/3.5). If I was using my 70-200mm lens, I’d want to remove the hood and press the glass directly against the netting. I didn’t want to risk a foul ball coming back and hitting my glass, even through the netting, so I went with the longer lens and the hood stayed on.

Look, ma! No Net!
Max Aquino Photography

The reason for bringing up baseball is it’s the most common sport to shoot through netting or fencing, especially for people who want to take pictures of their kids at the school or recreational level. This is a photo of my cousin, taken through chain-link fencing at Mercer Island:

Max Aquino

The photo below was taken while lying down behind a webbed fence at the Thornton Creek Fish Hatchery in Ucluelet, BC. I had my big lens (300mm) pressed right up against the fence without the lens hood. For the Pixel Peepers™ out there, the photo is grainy because it was later in the evening and raining, so there was very little light to work with.

Max Aquino Photography

So why does netting prove more difficult when photographing soccer? Photographers can’t get close enough to the nets to effectively shoot through them. You need to be inches away for this to work, whereas the photographers are yards away. It’s why I often have to do things like this to get the shot (watch above the Wells Fargo sign behind the goal):

On rare occasions, photographers have enough trust with an organization and/or league to be allowed to put a camera in the net and shoot remotely (spoiler alert: nobody has that with Major League Soccer). I once asked Wilson Tsoi how he protects his camera in these situations.

His response? “I don’t.”

Believe it or not, this was another Cristian Roldan goal
Posted with permission from, photo by Wilson Tsoi

Exception two: When the net adds to the photo

This is a pretty rare circumstance, but it does happen. In this particular case, Cristian Roldan takes a shot almost directly at me and scores.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Photographers are generally not allowed to shoot from directly behind the net. It’s distracting for the players and also doesn’t usually lead to good photos. Normally when a player is shooting directly at you it means they missed the target, so for this photo to work, a lot had to go right:

  1. Roldan is in focus. There are a lot of things for the camera’s auto-focus to pick from (the netting, the defender, the ball, and the crowd). For this particular photo, I had pre-focused on Cristian’s face utilizing a technique called “back focusing”, and trusted the camera to do its work.
  2. The shot was coming right at me, toward the side netting (I was crouched, with my lens just above the boards, west of the goal). If this was shot from the side or if the ball wasn’t coming directly toward me, the effect would be lost. Likewise, if the ball had gone top corner, it would be appear to be shanked high.
  3. The timing was right. This photo works because the defender adds to the story. The ball has just passed him, but still shows the effort and desperation he put in while attempting to block the shot. As the sequence progresses, you can see the ball sneak past the goalkeeper, but Cristian is watching at that point, instead of still being mid-shot.
  4. The goal was scored. Sometimes the right photo at the right time elevates it from a “B+” photo to an “A/A-” photo.

Out of the sixteen photos in the sequence, there is only one other that tells the story as well. It’s also a good photo and was nearly the winner, but the first shot edged past it because Cristian is still in the middle of his shot and it’s just gone past the defender’s leg.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Other game photos and moments

Did anyone else feel the pure relief from Will Bruin after he put that goal away?

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Some photos are very good standalone pieces, but have little impact on the broader story of the game. Here, Kelvin Leerdam makes an impressive leap to control the ball. He’s completely in focus and the ball is in focus. Everyone else is blurred out, so the eye is naturally drawn to him. On its own, it’s an awesome photo, but due to him not having a massive impact moment in the game, it’s overshadowed by other less technical photos which better tell the story of the match.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

On the bright side, it does give some fun Photoshop opportunities.

Victor Rodriguez scored a brace. He has a very specific celebration — he likes to point at whoever delivered the assist as he runs to the corner, put his hands in an “A” for his daughter Astrid, and blow her a kiss.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

A very cool moment happened in the ECS, as one of the capos noticed a little girl singing and brought her up to one of the stands to help lead a stadium-wide “Boom-Boom-Clap.”

This adorable moment brought to you by the letters “A” “W” and “W”
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Piecing it together

While a lot of what I’ve discussed in my articles won’t necessarily apply to everyday photography, I’m hoping that they give some insight to the thoughts and decisions that flow through my head as I shoot sporting events. There are many niche techniques which can be utilized by anyone, even when simply taking a photo with a cell phone, a point-and-shoot camera, or an entry-level DSLR. In street photography, for example, fences come into play quite a bit. Hopefully, someone will take that extra second to think, “Can I remove it from the photo entirely? Does it perhaps enhance the photo?” before composing the shot.

In the future, I plan to write a few articles detailing what makes a good photo as well as good tips for beginners. In the mean time, if photography is something that interests you, the most important thing is to go out and shoot. Try new things! There will be a lot of frustrations and learning opportunities along the way. Don’t be afraid to say to yourself, “I’m not happy with this photo, but I still like the idea and I’ll try something slightly different next time.” It’s easy to get down on yourself and start comparing, as social media is full of amazing photos that people have taken, but remember those are usually the highlights being shared, not the daily grind. The most important thing is to enjoy the process and take pride in your work and accomplishments along the way.

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