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Shooting the shot-stoppers

Photographing goalkeepers is a bit more complicated than you may think.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Over this upcoming season, Sounder at Heart photographer Max Aquino will be writing a series of articles covering a variety of soccer photography topics. Today, he talks a bit about shooting goalkeepers and shares his photos from the CONCACAF game versus Chivas.

Some positions are extremely easy to get good photos of. Forwards and attacking midfielders, for example, are running right at any photographer who positions themselves behind the goal line. The Sounders also have their outside backs push into the attack. The defensive positions often require a bit of dedication, creativity, and anticipation. If the photographer is on the attacking half, they’re 50-60 yards away and if the photographer is on the defensive half, they’re often turned away and most photos will be of their backside.

Regular view from behind the goal line
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

CenturyLink Field, however, offers an extra bit of reach that most other MLS stadiums do not: the photographers are allowed to move up the sidelines to the top of the 18-yard box. Shooting from the sides gives access to additional angles on the deep-lying midfielders as well as an opportunity to shoot the defense and goalkeeper from the near side. Some photographers have both the gear and skill to capture a save from across the field (such as Lindsey Wasson’s “The Save” from the 2016 MLS Cup). Then again, we’re talking Lindsey here: her eye and technique are phenomenal. For most of the rest of us, it’s too tight a window to reliably hit the target when it comes to auto-focus.

When I work with newer photographers, one of the first pieces of advice I give is to understand the range of your equipment. As you get farther away, your auto-focus becomes less reliable because you’re trying to hit a smaller target. Auto-focus loves movement and large objects; as a result, the goalkeeper will likely be out of focus in favor of the goal itself or another player. As you can see in the photo below, the auto-focus decided that somewhere between the ball and Altidore was the sweet spot and Frei’s face is out of focus. It’s an especially tight window because my 300mm lens only fills the frame at about 30-40 yards; shooting at 100+ yards means I’m really throwing a dart and praying for a hit.

“A” save? Yes. “The” save? Not so much.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

There are times when shooting cross-field is appropriate. “Atmosphere” photos are great because it really doesn’t matter if the goalkeeper is in focus or not. Also, the need to crop is reduced, so the quality of the photograph doesn’t suffer.

Cross-field shots are best when involving crowd atmosphere
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

As a result, to get a good image of Frei, we need every yard we can get up the sidelines to get a photo within the range of a standard 70-200mm lens without cutting the angle too much. Shooting from the top of the 18-yard box gives us photos like these:

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart
Oh yeah. Much better.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

With CONCACAF, an interesting wrinkle forms for photographers. Major League Soccer relies on the communications department and field marshalls of each individual team/stadium to set their own rules, based on their experience and capacity. CONCACAF, however, sends representatives to each game to run the tournament. As a result, they want uniformity in their rules and policies, whether the game is in a large stadium, such as CenturyLink or Estadio Azteca, or a small stadium, such as Estadio Las Delicias (the home stadium of Santa Tecla, capacity 10,000). Specifically, the photographers must remain behind the goal line boards, can’t move up the sides at all, and aren’t allowed to move once they’ve picked their initial spot until halftime.

With that said, it’s still possible to get decent saves and photos of the goalkeepers. However, the trade-off is that the goal likely won’t be in the photo and the angle is going to be sideways or behind.

Taking defensive photos from behind the goal line leads to extremely tight angles.
Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

If you’re curious as to what that shimmer at the bottom of the photo is, it’s light reflecting off the bar on the top of the boards. When we’re packed in tight, it’s photographer etiquette to not lean over the boards because doing so cuts off three or four photographers on the outside. As a result, occasionally the photographer (in this case, me) aims just a little too low and imperfections creep in. The photo is still usable, but I only get a B+ on my report card.

Chivas Game Photos

Of course, after spending the better part of an article discussing the difficulties of capturing a goalkeeper in action from a tight angle, I lead with a photo of a goalkeeper, taken from a tight angle. In this photo, Stefan Frei made a point-blank save early in the game - too close and fast to catch with his hands. Generally, to capture a goalkeeper in action, the photographer needs to anticipate the shot/save and pre-focus on the keeper. This was no exception.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The photo below shows how quickly a goalkeeper can fall out of focus and how tight the focal plane is, as Frei immediately pounced on the rebound to swat the ball away. What’s most interesting about these two photos is they’re both usable, but have their own pros and cons; one is more exciting and tells the story better while the other is better from a technical side.

While the photo is still usable, the ball and Frei’s arms are tack sharp while his face is a bit soft.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Speaking of telling a story, is there a better story than when Cristian Roldan gets fired up? You get all of the passion of Dempsey and Alonso, just without the cards that often come with them.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

A story wouldn’t be complete without the hero (or villain, depending on which side you’re on). When Dempsey scores, he has a tendency to run to his left. This time, he made a beeline for Wingo and came running in my direction.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Of course, Dempsey being Dempsey, the moment wouldn’t be complete without a quick “How do you do?” to the Chivas fans who lined the front row.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The other game photos can be found in the gallery below.

You can follow Max on Twitter: @maxaquinophoto

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