You're fighting several things here, most of which can be improved somewhat by throwing some money at the problem. This is even more the case for the early evening games than for the mid-day club soccer contests. It's going to take a LOT of money to get clear facial features from the stands at an early evening contest unless the field is lit a lot brighter than is typical for high school stadiums.
Throwing money at a photographic problem only works if the user has the knowledge, skill, and ability to take advantage of the improved equipment. Better gear doesn't make anyone a better photographer. But better gear does allow a skilled photographer to extend the limits of what can be done when compared to the same photographer using more limited gear.¹
Let's start with the lens you are currently using: EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III. It's not a very good lens. In fact many Canon shooters consider it the "worst" interchangeable lens in Canon's current catalog. There have been several variations of the 75-300mm f/4-5.6 that go all the way back to the early 1990s. The very first 75-300mm f/4-5.6 had 12 lens elements arranged in 9 groups. With one notable exception (more below), the rest all share the same optical formula with 13 lens elements in 9 groups. Especially on the long/telephoto end these lenses are just not that sharp. There's a reason Canon practically gives them away in two-lens "kits". For the purpose for which you intend, it is limited in almost every possible way:
- It only goes out to 300mm, which is still fairly short for capturing individual players from the stands of most high school stadiums.
- At the longest focal length, it is limited to f/6.3 as the maximum aperture. That's too "slow" for action/sports unless one is shooting in bright daylight conditions with little or no clouds in the sky.
- Its optical performance, which is not that great to begin with, is weakest at 300mm, where you are going to almost always want to use it due to your distance from your subject.
So the first thing you should consider is a better lens. You can go anywhere from fairly modest improvements with the same focal length range and narrow apertures all the way up to much longer, faster, and seriously expensive lenses.
The EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM introduced in 1995 was a completely different lens than all of the other 75-300mm lenses offered by Canon. It had 15 lens elements arranged in 10 groups. It was replaced in 2005 by the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS which had the same basic optical formula (and very similar overall lens design). That lens has now been supplanted by the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II which has a totally different design with 17 elements in 12 groups but there is not much, if any difference in the overall optical performance compared to the lens it replaced in the lineup. In the same "class" is the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM (which has noticeable improvements over the older EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II it replaced). Of course with the EF-S designation this lens can only be used on Canon's APS-C "crop bodies" such as your Rebel T3/1100D. It also has slightly less reach, at 55-250mm instead of 70-300mm, but the image quality is about the same and the price is more attractive.
The problem with anything that maxes out in the 250-300mm range is that it doesn't have enough reach, even with a "cropped" APS-C sensor, to get tight shots of single players from the stands. Those of us who shoot field sports from the sidelines find 70-200mm lenses with APS-C bodies to be the bare minimum. Even when shooting from the sidelines with a 70-200 on a crop body, I often need to crop the image further while editing. 300mm or 400mm is even more desirable, but also more expensive for the same maximum aperture.
This image was taken standing just behind the railing at the bottom of the stands. I was at the same height as the similar walkway you can see on the other side of the field. I had been up in the stands taking photos of the high school band when I was walking back down towards field level and saw this play developing. The original image was 5472x3648 pixels. It was cropped to 4780x3187 (or about 85% of the original linear dimensions) before being downsized for web viewing.
EOS 7D Mark II + EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II, ISO 2500, 200mm from the front of the stands and cropped moderately, f/2.8, 1/800 second. You can just see motion blur in his right foot as I was panning with the ball carrier's torso.
Unfortunately, f/2.8, which is what we need for night sports, is a lot more expensive at 300mm than at 200mm. The EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II runs over 3X the cost of the EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS III (currently $6,100 vs. $1,900). The new EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS III is 2X the price ($12,000) of the 300/2.8, while the older EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS II is a "bargain" at $8,000 until dealers run out of current stock.
You can sometimes find deals on older "Big Whites" (what many of us call the Canon Super Telephoto series of lenses), but they're relatively rare and the prices are still an appreciable chunk of the cost when it was new. Even the older ones are excellent and continue to be used for decades. I know a photojournalist who is in a staff position as the senior photographer for a newspaper in a town with major college sports that is still using the 1999 original version of the EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS. I also know several sports freelancers still using even older EF 300mm f/2.8 non-IS lenses. Most owners will use them until they break and can't be repaired. One concern with buying older lenses used is that it can be hard to find anyone willing to work on them. After about seven years Canon stops officially supporting lenses that have been replaced with newer models, and no one else, such as third party repair shops, can get parts for them unless they already have a copy of that lens they are parting out that still has the part your lens needs.
The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports is a fairly unique third party option that is more affordable than the Canon f/2.8 options above 200mm, but it's still pricey at $3,400. It's not quite as good optically at 300mm as the Canon Super Telephoto, but it's far better than anything cheaper that can reach 300mm. It's also large and heavy enough that it would be difficult to use sitting in stands. I wouldn't consider using it without a monopod to help support the weight for anything that was going to last more than a half hour or so. (There are previous versions of this lens that are pretty good, but not as good as the current 'Sports' model, which is part of Sigma's Global Lens series that include the ability to be updated and electronically calibrated/adjusted by the end user using Sigma's USB Dock.)
If one is willing to forgo the fast f/2.8 aperture, then there are other options available.
Sigma and Tamron have both introduced several 150-600mm f/5-6.3 optically stabilized zoom lenses. They're a little more affordable, being in the $1,000-$2,000 range, than 300mm+/$5,000+ fast primes. The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 Di VC USD G2 ('G2' is for 'generation two') seems to be slightly better optically than the Sigma offerings. Like the Sigma 120-300/2.8, they are heavy enough that I wouldn't use one for very long without a monopod to support the weight. Of course their maximum aperture is relatively slow which precludes using them for low light action shooting such as night sports. But if you are shooting in bright sunlight they do decently well for sports/action. They're not quite as sharp on the long end as they are in the 150mm to about 300 or 350mm range, but they are noticeably better than budget 70-300mm f/4-5.6 lenses in the overlapping focal length ranges between 150-300mm. Past 300mm they're still a bit less sharp than much higher priced "Super Telephoto" prime lenses with faster apertures such as the EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II or the EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS III. For "early evening" soccer that happens before sunset, a 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens would be near the edge of usability depending on whether the players were in the shade or still being directly illuminated by the setting sun. Once the sun goes down it's too slow.
Some very good photographers liked (as opposed to loved) the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS as a good compromise between absolute image quality and affordability. Others don't care for it. It is an older design that was replaced by the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II in 2014. The "II" is a better lens and the higher price reflects that. Like many of the lenses Canon introduced between 1987 and around 2005, the original EF 100-400mm was very good for the film era, but its shortcomings can be revealed by higher resolution digital sensors. The optical performance of most of Canon's telephoto lenses released since 2008 or so are a step above their predecessors. Unfortunately, so are the suggested retail prices.
The current EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS II performs better optically than the 150-600mm third party lenses from Sigma and Tamron, but also gives up the 400-600mm focal length range. You have to balance optical performance, maximum focal length, maximum aperture, and price when deciding between such lenses.
There are three older "budget" options from Canon that some folks like:
- The EF 400mm f/5.6 L is a non-IS design from 1993 that is still sold.
- The EF 300mm f/4 L is a non-IS design from 1991 that has been discontinued for several years.
- The EF 300mm f/4 IS is a stabilized design from 1997 that is still sold.
Especially if one is sitting in stands that are not rock solid due to movement of fans jumping up and down, the IS will come in very handy to deal with some of the camera movement caused by that. Keep in mind that IS does nothing for subject motion, only for camera movement. For this reason I would not recommend spending money on anything you plan to use in the stands that does not offer IS/OS/VC (whatever each manufacturer calls in-lens optical image stabilization).
Another approach is to use a very sharp lens, such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS III (or very similar "II") or the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2, and live with knowing one will need to crop the images. In the case of the "II" and "III" versions of Canon's 70-200/2.8, one can also consider adding an EF 1.4X III or EF 2X III extender. Those combos will set you back around $2,400, but that is still a far cry from the $5-10K for the Super Telephoto "II" series lenses.
For your money you get one of the best 70-200mm zooms in the world when used bare. When combined with the EF 1.4X III you have a 100-280mm f/4 lens. With the EF 2X III you still have a 140-400mm f/5.6 lens that can still focus fast enough to shoot sports (most lenses coupled with a 2X extender or teleconverter can not) and IQ that holds its own with the 100-400 and even the 300mm f/4 and the 400mm f/5.6. The "II" and "III" versions of the 70-200 are the only zoom lenses I would consider using a 2x extender with for any kind of sports/action.
This last approach is dependent on using a camera with enough resolution to spare for cropping. Which leads us to your camera. But before we move on, there's one more thing you should keep in mind:
Anytime you are considering a lens in this price range, it is always a good idea to rent one for a few days to see if it matches the need you have for it. If there's not a good rental house in your area, borrowlenses.com and lensrentals.com both have excellent reputations. Lensrentals will even let you buy the copy you're renting at a competitive price if you decide that you want it.
For that matter, you can look at the schedule for the upcoming season and see if there are a cluster of games in a short time period and consider renting one of the above mentioned lenses for a week. If you live near a large city, there may also be a local camera store that rents lenses, though the selection will probably be a bit more limited.
Although the lens is by far the biggest piece of the puzzle, let's also look at the camera you are using.
The EOS Rebel T3/1100D has a 12.2MP 1.6X "crop factor) sensor. It was introduced in 2011 as the budget entry level Canon EOS body. While it is perfectly capable of taking many very good photos, in regards to the use case indicated by the question it has a few shortcomings:
- 12.2 megapixels doesn't leave very much room for cropping when one is focal length limited by the lens they are using. On the other hand, the extra "reach" of the APS-C sensor gives the same pixel density as an approximately 30MP full frame camera would.
- A maximum setting of ISO 6400 probably means ISO 3200 or even ISO 1600 is the fastest usable ISO setting. That's not a concern during bright daylight hours when ISO 100 to ISO 400 will be usable, but it quickly starts to get in the way in the early evening as the sun begins to approach the horizon.
- It's 2011 technology in 2019, when better sensors are available. Canon didn't really improve their APS-C sensors in terms of high ISO performance from the late 2000s until the introduction of the 80D and 7D Mark II in 2016 and 2014, respectively. Some of the current lower level models still use sensors that are based on the older technology. Anything older than the
- Beyond the sensor and image quality, the EOS Rebel series does not offer in-camera lens calibration, called Autofocus Micro Adjustment (AFMA). As one uses longer focal lengths at wider apertures, AF inaccuracy can become a significant factor. AF near misses that aren't noticeable at shorter focal lengths and narrower apertures begin to stick out like sore thumbs at longer focal lengths and wider apertures. Bodies such as the Canon 80D, 7D Mark II, and most of Canon's full frame DSLRs offer AFMA to match manufacturing and calibration differences between a specific copy of a camera body and a specific copy of a lens. I consider it essential when shooting at 200mm or longer and f/4 or wider.
- The basic 9-point AF system of the T3 is okay if you tend to always use the center F point. But it is slower, much less configurable, and not as good at tracking moving subjects during high frame rate shooting as more sophisticated AF systems found in upper level bodies such as the 7D Mark II or 80D. A skilled photographer can overcome these obstacles for the most part and get usabel shots, but the more advanced AF systems will let the same photographer get much higher "hit to miss" ratio.
The current EOS 80D, 77D, and Rebel T7i/800D all share the same sensor and AF system. The EOS 7D Mark II has a better AF system (in several ways) and a different sensor that is slightly better than the others at high ISO (ISO 1600 and 3200 in particular), but doesn't do as well as the others at low ISO settings between ISO 100 and ISO 400. In real world practice, you probably would not notice any difference in sensor performance between any of them when shooting sports. If you are going to upgrade your body, I would consider the 7D Mark II or 80D, which both offer AFMA, over the 77D and Rebel T7i/800D which do not offer AFMA.
¹ For more regarding how better gear can (and can not) improve one's photography, please see:
How to know you've outgrown your equipment?
Does the camera matter?