Evaluating Football Photos

Super Bowl Photo Analysis

This page provides compositional analysis of photos from the 2013 NFL Super Bowl.

Great sports photos are great not just because they show key moments of action, but because they are framed — intentionally or intuitively — via classical metrics.  In major sporting events, photographers packed on the sidelines capture big plays from all angles, creating lasting images that live on to define the event. Coverage of the 2013 Super Bowl and NCAA championship game included many eye-catching plays, but a few stood out and were featured repeatedly in photographs by various news outlets.

Comparing images of the same plays reveals how mathematical proportions factor into the appeal of certain photos.  See below for an evaluation of two published Super Bowl photos of the same play.

Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin is shown leaping in the air to catch the first touchdown pass of the 2013 NFL Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin is shown leaping in the air to catch the first touchdown pass of the 2013 NFL Super Bowl. Several new outlets used a version of this photographs of this play in their Super Bowl.  The Baltimore Sun ran the vertical photo on the left, the Bleacher Report the horizontal version from the opposite angle on the right. See below for an analysis of these two photos.

What makes a photograph compelling?

Chad Neuman

Mona Lisa with the golden rectangle

THE GOLDEN RATIO — The compositional rules considered staples of good photography are based on natural inclinations.  Humans are attracted to images that follow the aesthetic guidelines of the “Golden Ratio,” the rule of thirds, and leading lines.  These elements of the golden ratio are based on mathematical proportions that appear frequently in the world.  Art enthusiasts can find the golden ratio in some of the world’s most famous paintings, as can everyday observers of the natural world.  Architecture, plants, and people all display these “golden” elements.

Chris 73

Nautilus shell with the golden rectangle

Professional photographers understand these compositional rules and use them instinctively.  Following these guidelines can make pictures more visually compelling — a consequence that has implications on the field of journalism.  Photojournalists have the ability to direct peoples’ attention to certain elements of a photo without viewers, or even the photographer, necessarily being aware of that direction.

Ravens receiver’s big catch makes a captivating photo 

It was one of the biggest plays of the game:  Anquan Boldin leaping in the air over the 49ers defense to reel in the game’s first touchdown and set up the Baltimore Ravens’ eventual 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFL Super Bowl.

While this “picture perfect” moment was captured by multiple photographers just as Boldin was catching the football, what makes the several photos of this moment so compelling is not only the touchdown play, but the aesthetics of the images — how the photos were framed and cropped.


BS sp-p8445-super-bowl-sweeney

Anquan Boldin catches a 13-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco in the first quarter.— Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun

To the left is the photo of the play as it appeared in the Baltimore Sun, and to the right is that photo overlaid with the lines of the golden ratio, the rule of thirds and several classic leading lines.

— Baltimore Sun

Golden Ratio #1: Click for larger image.

Immediately when looking at this photo with the compositional features on top, viewers see that the spiral of the golden ratio is directly over Boldin’s head and his upper torso and both his feet are at the intersections of the rule of thirds.  

Further one can see that Boldin’s body overall aligns with a key leading diagonal, while his head and the football align along another leading diagonal.


Anquan Boldin opens up the Ravens’ scoring with a first-quarter touchdown catch from Joe Flacco. – Bleacher Report

The second photo that appeared in the Bleacher Report is a photo of the same catch, taken at almost the same moment, but from a different angle. Instead of seeing Boldin’s face and a single 49ers defenseman going after him, a wider angle is seen, showing two 49ers defenders. While the photo still captured the same play, it reveals more of the touchdown pass and gives a viewer a broader perspective on the Georgia Dome crowd.

Golden Ratio #2: Click for larger image.

Golden Ratio #2: Click for larger image.

The photo, although taken from different angle, also aligns with  classic mathematical compositional rules. Similar to the first photo, a key intersection of the rule of thirds and the golden ratio’s tight spiral is almost centered on Boldin’s upper body.  

Boldin’s head and the football also align along a leading line, as does his torso and the bodies of the defenders.

The photos of the Mona Lisa and the Nautilus shell can be found on the website of Chad Neuman and Chris 73, respectively.