Photographing Rugby

By Gerald Griffin, Hilton Head, South Carolina

(PSA Journal, November 2002)

During my early years of photographing sports for photojournalism competitions, I discovered one that offered me the opportunity to take some wonderful images. I had not played it and even didn't know the rules! But rugby has become a staple in my own photography, although not without a great deal of learning.

The Game

The game of Rugby began at the Rugby School in England in 1823. Two teams of fifteen players each play the game. The field or pitch is about 110 by 75 yards. There are two halves of 40 minutes with a 5-minute halftime. During play any player may carry the ball, kick it, pass it backwards or score. Players are not permitted to pass the ball forward, block or even touch an opponent without the ball. There is one referee, "the sole judge of fact and law" and two touch or sideline judges. Five points are given for a "try" (similar to a touchdown) where the player gets the ball into the opponent's end zone and touches the ball to the ground. After a try, two points may be awarded for a successful place kick or drop kick through the goalposts. Drop kicks and penalty kicks (each worth three points) are also ways to score. During play there are rucks, mauls, scrums and lineouts. Each of these with its own set of rules.


More people enjoy rugby than you might think. While not widely known in the U.S., it is a game for all kinds of people. You can find amateur men's leagues, girl's rugby, college rugby ...and even senior's rugby. All of my work has been with amateur teams in the Rochester, N.Y. or Hilton Head, S.C. areas.


The local newspaper sports department is often a good starting point to find out if there are teams in your area. The Internet is also a great source of information. Try going to one of the Internet search engines (like Yahoo!) and typing "rugby." There is a wealth of useful information available there. Local colleges may have teams. Most amateur games are on the weekends.


In Savannah, GA there is a two-day St. Patrick's Day tournament run by the Savannah Shamrocks rugby team. Eight games go on at once, all day long. Teams from as far away as Maine come to play.


Like all sports photography, the best images of rugby contain:


(1) Peak action -- an image where the action has reached a "climatic" moment.

(2) The ball. Seeing the ball in the image is essential. Otherwise it just looks like someone getting mugged!

(3) Facial expressions. Player's faces with grimaces, smiles...faces that show anger, fear, joy...faces that are dirty and sweaty. These are the makings of great and dramatic shots.

(4) Great colors. Uniforms feature wonderful reds, greens and even the occasional harlequin pattern.

My Approach

I have two primary camera bodies, a Nikon 6006 and a Nikon 8008. Both allow me to shoot continuously with the motor drive set on high, on low or sometimes shoot single images. My best results have come with the low continuous setting. After much trial and error, I only use one lens, my 70-200mm zoom. The results from the times when I used a fixed 400mm lens just didn't give me images that I liked. The players move across a wide area, and only a zoom can offer you the flexibility to adapt to that difference in distance. If you are too far from the action, the players appear too small in the image. Too close to the action and you can lose the sense of the game. A zoom lens that goes to 300mm is ideal.


After a lot of experimenting with film choices over the years, I use 400 speed Kodak Royal Gold or 800 speed Kodak Max films for prints. I enlarge these to 16- by 20-inch prints and haven't had a problem with grain size with either film. For slides I use Kodak Elite Chrome 100 or preferably 200.


One thing is certain. The speedier the film the greater your chance of capturing the action! Leave the tripod and monopod at home. Having tried both, believe me, they will limit your chances rather than help. Both are cumbersome and prevent you from moving quickly up and down the sideline.


Shutter speeds are a matter of taste. If you like some blur in your action you might like shooting at 1/60. However, my experience is the faster the better. Shutter speeds of 1/125 or faster will stop the action, and you'll be more likely to get facial expressions.

Taking the Shots

At a typical amateur game you may find a crowd of about 50 people. Most of these will be friends, significant others, injured players and folks who may have played the game earlier in life. It's actually quite a genteel crowd as sporting events go. If you are at an amateur game you can position yourself on the sidelines. This is a double-edged sword. You will be closer to the action, but you can also get "in harm's way." The ball and players can come hurtling towards you and nimbleness is a necessity. It's usually less crowded on the visitor's side of the field. There are far fewer people there, and you won't have to dodge as many spectators and game officials.


As with any other sport, one of the keys to photographing rugby is capturing the ball. I have some great action images with wonderful expressions, but no ball! The essence of the game is lost. Experience has taught me to follow focus on the ball. Newer cameras with faster auto focus are good. After you have watched and learned the game a bit, you can start to anticipate the action and see potential for images before they happen. One key advantage that rugby has over a sport like football is that you can get some great facial expressions.


Image #1 (Hand to the Face) shows a player carrying the ball and extending his arm to stiff-arm his opponent. The opponent has anticipated the fact he's going to be hit and has started to squint.


I can't stress enough that you have to watch the action out of both eyes: one through the viewfinder on the action and the other watching to see that some 220-pound player doesn't knock you over. The best positions I have found are usually at a 45-degree angle to the action. Other good spots are straight on when there is a ruck (This is when 6-7 players from each side bend over and push at each other while one player tosses the ball at their feet so it can be kicked backwards and out of the melee).


 Line tosses are another sequence that offers a good chance of dramatic shots. Here the players line up opposite each other and one side tosses the ball in between the lines. Players are lifted up by their teammates to catch the ball high up as in Image #2 - Anybody's Ball.


Be careful to watch where you are in relation to the sun. I have taken some good images with excellent action only to find the faces in shadow. Now I am more careful to position myself so the sun will be on the players' faces. This isn't always possible but I tend to try that even if it means I give up my position on the visitor's side of the field and go to the home side.


Since amateur rugby is often played at places like high school fields, there is usually some distracting background like a building in the far ground. It's the last thing I try to work around, but be prepared for a cluttered background. Image #4, Squeezed, shows a less than ideal background but the action, facial expressions and lighting are what gives the image impact. Some teams are right-handed teams; e.g., they will mostly run towards their right side. The first half of the game will give you an idea of tendencies. However, the Hilton Head team I've shot seems always to run plays towards their bench. So you never know for sure.


Now some final, but crucial words of advice: Stay off the field! In your zeal for that great shot, do not be tempted to run out while the game is going on. I know that sounds silly, but we photographers can do some crazy things to get that one perfect shot. Still when there's a timeout I have snuck out a little ways when I saw a shot. Image #3, Broken Nose Remedy, was such an occasion. One fact about amateur rugby -- if you twist an ankle, break a nose, or get your bell wrung, there is one universal treatment. They pour water on the offending area. In this shot the played has broken his nose and so they are pouring water on his head, which has accentuated the flow of blood.


Afterwards, be prepared to throw away lots of pictures. I average maybe two useful images in a roll of 36 exposures. The action is so fast that you'll get blurs, people on the sidelines inadvertently getting in your way, players on the field in your line of sight, wonderful action but no ball and images that are tilted as you rush to shoot.


Amateur rugby players are a breed apart. But they are no different from everyone else in this way -- they really appreciate getting pictures. So take a set to the next game or send them to the coach. The team will really appreciate it. I made some 16- by 20-inch enlargements of the Rochester Aardvarks amateur team for their clubhouse and next thing I knew they gave me an Aardvark jersey. If this happens to you, I recommend two things: first, thank them, and second, NEVER wear it to the game. Otherwise you will find yourself inserted into the lineup and will wake up in the hospital.