Non-league football action with the Canon EOS R3

Sports photographer Molly Darlington returned to the club where her career began to put the professional mirrorless camera through its paces.
A footballer in green attempting to tackle a footballer in white, on a pitch with houses visible in the background.

During a non-league football shoot with the Canon EOS R3, sports photographer Molly Darlington took full advantage of the camera's 30fps shooting speed and says that the battery was "nowhere near close to running out" by the end of the day. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 135mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Molly Darlington

When sports photographer Molly Darlington was commissioned to photograph non-league football club 1874 Northwich FC in Cheshire, England, it was an opportunity for the former Canon Ambassador to return to her roots. "It's where I began taking pictures," she reminisces. "I originally started photographing the team when I was 16, during my first year of college. I then spent the next three or four years following them, both home and away, while I studied photography at A-level and at university, so it was nice to go back."

Despite taking a step back in time for this shoot, Molly brought a camera that breaks new ground: the Canon EOS R3. "I didn't know what to expect because I haven't used a mirrorless camera before, but I was really impressed by it," she says. "I normally use the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, and I could customise the EOS R3 in a similar way. It's definitely lighter to carry though."

Molly had a single RF lens for this job – the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM – and used a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM for the longer shots, which was attached to the EOS R3 via a Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. She added a Canon Extender EF 1.4x (now succeeded by the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III) for more reach when shooting candid portraits of the team's manager from across the pitch. "I didn't know if I'd be able to use both the adapter and the extender at the same time," Molly reveals. "But there was no change in the camera's performance."

Two footballers from opposing teams compete for the ball in the air.

Molly found it really useful to be able to work with a high-speed silent shutter. "If I want my EOS-1D X Mark III to be silent, I have to use Live View, so I don't do it very often – perhaps if I'm shooting a tennis player serving, for example. But on the Canon EOS R3, I can do this while using the viewfinder, which is great." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 108mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Molly Darlington

Football photography challenges

Taking photos at a non-league football match brings a set of distinct challenges compared with covering English Premier League games, Molly says. "Pretty much all the Premier League clubs now have good quality LED lighting, whereas with a non-league club you can be dealing with floodlights that aren't very strong or which sometimes have a yellow hue to them.

"Then there's the background," she continues. "At a Premier League ground, you have a full stadium behind the players – at least you did pre-Covid – which you can blur using a large aperture to make the teams stand out. But at a non-league ground, you have barriers, fences and houses fighting for attention.

"Obviously the game itself is not as fast during a non-league match. That can make it slightly easier to shoot because, for example, crosses into the box happen at a slightly slower pace. But at the same time, it can be harder to predict where the ball might end up."

The slower nature of the game didn't deter Molly from pushing the Canon EOS R3 to its maximum frame rate of 30fps using the electronic shutter. "I don't think I'd need that speed all of the time," she says. "If you weren't careful, you could end up with thousands of pictures from a single football match. The ability to lower the burst speed to settings of between 15fps and 3fps is a really useful feature, though.

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"Being able to shoot at 30fps will certainly come in handy for taking picture of animated managers who are jumping up and down, shouting and screaming," Molly adds. "It will improve your chances of getting a frame where they don't have their eyes closed or they're not pulling a funny face."

A close-up of a footballer in a green shirt controlling a ball with his chest.

The improved people tracking capabilities in the Canon EOS R3 can rapidly detect a person's eyes, face, head or body, depending on what is visible, which is ideal when photographing fast-paced action. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Molly Darlington

A man in a black jacket and trousers shouts while watching a game of football. Another man is stood next to him with his arms crossed, while a third man is sat in a shelter to the right of the image with a basket of drinks at his feet.

Adding an EF extender gave Molly the additional reach she needed during the match to capture the reactions of the 1874 Northwich FC management team. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x at 1/1600 sec, f/4 and ISO6400. © Molly Darlington

Focus-tracking players at 30 frames per second

A feature of the Canon EOS R3 that Molly appreciated while photographing 1874 Northwich FC‘s management team was the camera's accurate, fast people tracking AF. "The face tracking, and in particular the eye tracking, performed really well, and it was quite easy to shift focus between the manager and the co-manager," she says. "Even with the 1.4x extender on my 400mm lens, the camera was still more than happy to move between the two sets of eyes.

"I also found that the tracking really stuck to the players during the game," Molly continues. "If I was focused on one player, and then somebody ran across the frame, the camera stayed locked on the original player."

Molly increased the tracking sensitivity of the EOS R3 a little, as that's what she does with all her cameras. "It's just how I prefer it," she explains. She also left autofocus activation on the shutter release button, rather than using back-button focusing. "I've worked with both methods in the past, but I've settled on the shutter button."

As well as capturing the action on the pitch, Molly photographed life around the grounds. She says the EOS R3's low-light AF (which, with a 50mm or 85mm f/1.2 lens, can focus in conditions as dim as EV -7.51), in-body image stabilisation and high ISO performance helped when she was shooting in the ticket turnstile and the club shop, where at times she pushed the sensitivity to ISO8000. "I didn't notice any obvious noise that you might expect with other cameras. And there was no problem with the autofocus in the lower light either."

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A woman with an open green and black umbrella sitting in a small wooden booth, writing on a sheet of paper.

Molly switched to an ultra-wide lens and set a higher ISO for interior shots at the football ground. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 16mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Molly Darlington

A tan-coloured dog lying under the sign for the 1874 Northwich Football Club.

Molly was also able to try out the EOS R3's improved Animal detection AF. "It was really noticeable how it automatically picked up on the dog in this shot and continued to track its face and eyes when it was moving," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Molly Darlington

The EOS R3's essential professional features

The Canon EOS R3's brilliant autofocus and unrelenting speed might grab the headlines, but there are more than 100 'under the hood' updates from the EOS R5 that make it the perfect tool for sports photographers like Molly. The faster display start-up time means that the camera is ready to shoot more quickly, for example, while a lower shutter release lag time of just 20 milliseconds makes it that much easier to capture decisive moments in a game.

Then there are the practical enhancements that made it so effortless for Molly to slot the EOS R3 into her professional workflow, alongside her brace of EOS-1D X Mark IIIs, such as the shared Battery Pack LP-19 and the ability to transfer network settings between the cameras. "While you can copy a range of EOS-1D X Mark III settings onto a CFexpress card and then transfer those to the EOS R3, the most useful ones are the FTP settings because they can be a real pain to set up," says Molly.

A Canon EOS R3 camera positioned upright on a patch of dirt in front of a football post.

Molly also tested the Canon EOS R3's voice memo function and was really pleased with the results. "I use audio recording quite a lot on my Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. When I send images off-camera, I have to voice caption who's in the picture or a moment in the game, such as a goal or a red card. It's quite an important detail for the editing desk," she explains. © Molly Darlington

In the end, the similarities in handling between the Canon EOS R3 and the EOS-1D X Mark III meant that it didn't take long for Molly to get up to speed with the new camera. Even switching to an electronic viewfinder wasn't that much of a leap.

"Most of the time I didn't really notice that I was actually shooting on an electronic viewfinder," Molly says. "Some people have said to me that they've really noticed a change when moving to an EVF from an optical viewfinder, but I couldn't say I noticed much of a difference at all.

"Overall, the camera felt robust and sturdy, and very similar to the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III," Molly concludes. “It's definitely a camera I can see myself using full-time in the future. I think we'll all end up shooting on mirrorless cameras sooner rather than later."

Marcus Hawkins

1 When used with an f/1.2 lens (except lenses with a Defocus Smoothing (DS) coating), centre point AF, One-Shot mode at room temperature and ISO100.

Molly Darlington's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Molly Darlington's kitbag containing Canon cameras and lenses.


Canon EOS R3

This flagship full-frame mirrorless camera has been designed with the needs of professional sports photographers in mind, including AF tracking at 30fps and high-performance EVF with zero blackout.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video. Molly uses two of these professional workhorse DSLRs, along with an EOS-1D X Mark II, which she uses as her remote camera behind the net at football matches. "It's great for shooting action, and the high ISO performance also really helps. The robust build and weather-sealing are important for shooting outside," says Molly.


Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L IS III USM

The latest version of the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens that Molly uses is a premium quality ultra-wide angle zoom lens, with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture."I'll have a wide lens next to me, just in case I need to get a shot of the players in front of a nice sunset," says Molly. "I also use it for shots behind the goal."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

A favourite lens with professional photographers: fast, flexible, and built for any assignment. Molly says: "When I'm shooting a football match anywhere from just outside the penalty area to the corners, I'll use the 70-200mm. The zoom range gives me flexibility to capture goals and celebrations happening in front of me."

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM

The successor to the lens Molly favours is a fast-aperture super-telephoto lens that delivers a professional performance – ideal for sports, news and wildlife photography. "This is my favourite lens and the one I use for action as well as shots of people watching a game, including managers and fans in the crowd," says Molly.


Canon Extender EF 1.4x III

Ideal for press, sports and nature photography, this compact extender increases the focal length of Canon L-series telephoto or telephoto zoom lenses by a factor of 1.4x. Molly uses the original for pictures of managers on the touchline. "Sometimes you're on the other side of the pitch to the dugouts, but the Canon Extender allows you to frame a little closer," she says.

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