July 2, 2008

Quick Tip #11

I love sports photography. It’s very rewarding, especially if you are a sports fan.

Here are a few quick tips to improve your sports shooting.

1) Study great sports photographers. Bill Frakes is a great place to start.

2) Shoot the warm ups. Not only might you get some great shots, you’ll become more familiar with the team and get a chance to iron out any equipment bugs before the game starts.

3) Shoot in Shutter Priority mode and try to get the fastest shutter speed you can to match your widest aperture and fastest clean ISO. Sports means action and for other than fine art stuff, that means fast shutter speeds.

4) Bring your longest lens and rent one, if you don’t have something at least 400mm long.

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This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. By 400mm do you mean 400mm focal length, or 250mm with a 1.6 crop factor?

  2. By 400mm do you mean 400mm focal length, or 250mm with a 1.6 crop factor?

  3. Do you have a aperture range that you like to stay within?

  4. The focal length obviously depends on the sport and your access. Diamond-side access to softball/baseball works great on a 70-300 with 1.6 crop; on a FF camera I’d want at least 400mm if not more. At the same time, I often need to pull back all the way so I get more than the first baseman’s feet or face (usually the shot is much more effective when you can tell what’s going on), and tend to “rest” at about 150, sometimes 100. A lot of that is also skill; I tend to miss shots if I’m more zoomed in than that, and I find it better to capture the play and crop down in post than to miss the shot altogether.

    I’d absolutely echo Scott’s advice about shooting warm-ups. Getting to know the individual players and what they are capable of allows you to anticipate plays and set them up before they happen.

    Aperture targets: it depends on the lens and your skill. If you find a lot of your shots in the heat of the game are out of focus (as opposed to blurred), target a smaller aperture: it requires skill to place the focus just right every time. Also take into account your lens’s static characteristics: where is the “peak” sharpness? How fast does it degrade going to wider and narrower apertures?

    I try to keep my shutter speeds above 500. At that speed, with a 300mm zoom on a 1.6 crop, a pitched ball from the side has a little blur but not enough to make it indistinct. Again, there’s no substitute for experience here (and some photographers value absolute stop-motion more than I do). With that, I set my aperture at the sharpest setting (approximately) for the focal length I’m targeting, and adjust ISO to get the right amount of light in. The first thing I will sacrifice to keep shutter speed is ISO; once it’s in the 800 range, though, I start sacrificing aperture (shoot wide open), then as lower the exposure setting (get a slightly darker photo that I can gain up with a little extra noise), then lower the shutter speed as low as 300, then go down to 1600 ISO, then and only then allow the speed to go below 300.

    Tips I’d add:

    1. Plan out a handful of target shots for a game, and make sure you are in position to catch those shots when they are most likely to occur. For instance: the smack of the ball, a slide into home plate, and a dive back to first are all ideally captured from the first base line; the mechanics of the pitch might best be captured from the same position or the third base line (depending on the handedness of the pitcher and what look you are seeking), but can also be captured stunningly from behind the catcher (generally you want to be as low as possible for that shot, and will run into obstacles like chicken wire and rubber padding, so that’s sometimes hard to get); a fly ball is best caught from the perspective of the batter; a slide into home can be caught from down the third base line or opposite home plate, or from the side down first base line; etc. Plan your goal shots. But at the same time, be ready for opportunities as they come.

    2. Get access. At non-pro events, you may not need anything official, but make sure you talk to the umps and coaches if you’re planning on taking pictures from inside the chainlink fences. If they object, it’s their loss, and you’ll have to shoot through the fences and likely won’t get many poster shots. Still, there are some shots that work best in “open access” areas and so you should be able to change your game plan to focus on those instead for that game.

    3. Know the players, know the sport, know the plays, know the field. Goes along with Scott’s tip to shoot the warmups, but I’d go more general in my advice. If you don’t know the field you won’t be able to plan out the best shots (seriously; a softball field with a deep “pocket” behind home plate is radically different to shoot in than one with a small pocket). If you don’t know the plays you won’t know a great play may be coming until after it’s done and the crowd erupts in cheers. If you don’t know the sport then you won’t know when to change your positions. If you don’t know the players then you won’t know the plays they are liable to make and you won’t catch the inter-personal moments between them.

    4. Position for clutter-free shots. A lot changes on the field of play very quickly. Still, you know that the angle showing the pitcher with the third baseman standing distractedly behind him is probably not the best shot (although if the third baseman is actively in the game that might be a positive framing). The more people captured in your frame the harder it will be to crop to the important action without cutting one of the surrounding players in disturbing ways. Outside the field matters too; if the field is set next to a auto junk yard, you probably want to plan things out so that it doesn’t appear in the backgrounds. If a parent is in the stands not really paying attention to the game (it happens!) you might want to try to keep them out of frame or sufficiently blurred.

    5. Move around, but keep orientation clear. Maybe not overly important for isolated “one great shot” type of shots but if you are publishing a slideshow of the game then you want a cohesive and non-repetitive story.

    Whew … I think that’s it. Take it all with a grain of salt, as I’m far from professional, and even further from expert.

  5. The focal length obviously depends on the sport and your access. Diamond-side access to softball/baseball works great on a 70-300 with 1.6 crop; on a FF camera I’d want at least 400mm if not more. At the same time, I often need to pull back all the way so I get more than the first baseman’s feet or face (usually the shot is much more effective when you can tell what’s going on), and tend to “rest” at about 150, sometimes 100. A lot of that is also skill; I tend to miss shots if I’m more zoomed in than that, and I find it better to capture the play and crop down in post than to miss the shot altogether.

    I’d absolutely echo Scott’s advice about shooting warm-ups. Getting to know the individual players and what they are capable of allows you to anticipate plays and set them up before they happen.

    Aperture targets: it depends on the lens and your skill. If you find a lot of your shots in the heat of the game are out of focus (as opposed to blurred), target a smaller aperture: it requires skill to place the focus just right every time. Also take into account your lens’s static characteristics: where is the “peak” sharpness? How fast does it degrade going to wider and narrower apertures?

    I try to keep my shutter speeds above 500. At that speed, with a 300mm zoom on a 1.6 crop, a pitched ball from the side has a little blur but not enough to make it indistinct. Again, there’s no substitute for experience here (and some photographers value absolute stop-motion more than I do). With that, I set my aperture at the sharpest setting (approximately) for the focal length I’m targeting, and adjust ISO to get the right amount of light in. The first thing I will sacrifice to keep shutter speed is ISO; once it’s in the 800 range, though, I start sacrificing aperture (shoot wide open), then as lower the exposure setting (get a slightly darker photo that I can gain up with a little extra noise), then lower the shutter speed as low as 300, then go down to 1600 ISO, then and only then allow the speed to go below 300.

    Tips I’d add:

    1. Plan out a handful of target shots for a game, and make sure you are in position to catch those shots when they are most likely to occur. For instance: the smack of the ball, a slide into home plate, and a dive back to first are all ideally captured from the first base line; the mechanics of the pitch might best be captured from the same position or the third base line (depending on the handedness of the pitcher and what look you are seeking), but can also be captured stunningly from behind the catcher (generally you want to be as low as possible for that shot, and will run into obstacles like chicken wire and rubber padding, so that’s sometimes hard to get); a fly ball is best caught from the perspective of the batter; a slide into home can be caught from down the third base line or opposite home plate, or from the side down first base line; etc. Plan your goal shots. But at the same time, be ready for opportunities as they come.

    2. Get access. At non-pro events, you may not need anything official, but make sure you talk to the umps and coaches if you’re planning on taking pictures from inside the chainlink fences. If they object, it’s their loss, and you’ll have to shoot through the fences and likely won’t get many poster shots. Still, there are some shots that work best in “open access” areas and so you should be able to change your game plan to focus on those instead for that game.

    3. Know the players, know the sport, know the plays, know the field. Goes along with Scott’s tip to shoot the warmups, but I’d go more general in my advice. If you don’t know the field you won’t be able to plan out the best shots (seriously; a softball field with a deep “pocket” behind home plate is radically different to shoot in than one with a small pocket). If you don’t know the plays you won’t know a great play may be coming until after it’s done and the crowd erupts in cheers. If you don’t know the sport then you won’t know when to change your positions. If you don’t know the players then you won’t know the plays they are liable to make and you won’t catch the inter-personal moments between them.

    4. Position for clutter-free shots. A lot changes on the field of play very quickly. Still, you know that the angle showing the pitcher with the third baseman standing distractedly behind him is probably not the best shot (although if the third baseman is actively in the game that might be a positive framing). The more people captured in your frame the harder it will be to crop to the important action without cutting one of the surrounding players in disturbing ways. Outside the field matters too; if the field is set next to a auto junk yard, you probably want to plan things out so that it doesn’t appear in the backgrounds. If a parent is in the stands not really paying attention to the game (it happens!) you might want to try to keep them out of frame or sufficiently blurred.

    5. Move around, but keep orientation clear. Maybe not overly important for isolated “one great shot” type of shots but if you are publishing a slideshow of the game then you want a cohesive and non-repetitive story.

    Whew … I think that’s it. Take it all with a grain of salt, as I’m far from professional, and even further from expert.

  6. Tom,

    Great tips. I am no expert either but another point is to watch the parents of the players [youth events especially]. Many times they are funnier to watch and photograph than the players. Some parents create tremendous photo opportunities with their reaction to the events of the game.

  7. Agreed great tips. A few additional thoughts:

    -Sometimes understanding where the next interesting play is going to be means taking your eye out of the view finder and watching how things are developing on the field
    -If the access rules are not restrictive move around and take advantage of it to get a different perspective just be respectful of the players (I had some fun conversations with a very protective fencing team captain at a meet a long time ago)
    -Don’t forget the coaches, they can provide some really nice moments especially during pre-game and post game

  8. Agreed great tips. A few additional thoughts:

    -Sometimes understanding where the next interesting play is going to be means taking your eye out of the view finder and watching how things are developing on the field
    -If the access rules are not restrictive move around and take advantage of it to get a different perspective just be respectful of the players (I had some fun conversations with a very protective fencing team captain at a meet a long time ago)
    -Don’t forget the coaches, they can provide some really nice moments especially during pre-game and post game

  9. I’m also no expert on this matter, but I’ve had some experience in indoor sport shooting.

    I definitely agree with the “know your sport” fact. If you don’t know the sport your shooting, you have to be a really good photographer and a fast learner to get anything out of it. Actually the better you know the sport the more likely you hit some good shots.

    For indoor sports I would recommend prime lenses, because there never is enough light. At the moment I use 135mm f2.0 with my 1.6 crop Canon. Sometimes I’m too far away, sometimes I’m too close, but again it helps to know the game. At least I’ve got all the available light for that focal length.

    Subjects. In addition to warm ups, I’ve found it interesting to catch feelings on breaks and after the bout. And not only those of winners, but also the losers, the audience (parents as above mentioned) and the refs or officials. The action shots tend to be more or less the same, but feelings vary a lot. A good tip, that I read somewhere was to shoot portraits orientation when landscape was expected and vice versa.

    Details. Sports related details are always interesting. Equipment, sweat, blood, trophies, medals, fan articles or details from the venue such as seats, signs and so on.

    Just a couple of ideas on this.

  10. I’m also no expert on this matter, but I’ve had some experience in indoor sport shooting.

    I definitely agree with the “know your sport” fact. If you don’t know the sport your shooting, you have to be a really good photographer and a fast learner to get anything out of it. Actually the better you know the sport the more likely you hit some good shots.

    For indoor sports I would recommend prime lenses, because there never is enough light. At the moment I use 135mm f2.0 with my 1.6 crop Canon. Sometimes I’m too far away, sometimes I’m too close, but again it helps to know the game. At least I’ve got all the available light for that focal length.

    Subjects. In addition to warm ups, I’ve found it interesting to catch feelings on breaks and after the bout. And not only those of winners, but also the losers, the audience (parents as above mentioned) and the refs or officials. The action shots tend to be more or less the same, but feelings vary a lot. A good tip, that I read somewhere was to shoot portraits orientation when landscape was expected and vice versa.

    Details. Sports related details are always interesting. Equipment, sweat, blood, trophies, medals, fan articles or details from the venue such as seats, signs and so on.

    Just a couple of ideas on this.

  11. I approach it a little differently. To achieve a decent bokeh and low light performance, I shoot in Aperture Priority, Continuous Focus (AI Servo on Cannon), and use ISO aggressively to ensure that I have adequate shutter speeds. In typical high school lighting, this ends up being F2.8 apertures and ISO of 1600 to 3200.

    The most important piece of gear is a good pair of shoes. Move, move, and move some more to position yourself for interesting angles.

  12. Thanks for the specifics Tom Dibble. Great to read everyone’s tips. Tom, do you shoot in AI Servo as well? I’ve made the mistake of experimenting with focus settings and then forget which one I’m in and miss shots because of it.

  13. Thanks for the specifics Tom Dibble. Great to read everyone’s tips. Tom, do you shoot in AI Servo as well? I’ve made the mistake of experimenting with focus settings and then forget which one I’m in and miss shots because of it.

  14. Just came across this website while doing a search for Think Tank reviews – bookmarked! A lot of good stuff here.

    And hey – ever tried shooting sports with a LensBaby 3G? I won’t lie – it’s REALLY tough. But it was a fun experiment.

    857E0681-Edit

  15. Just came across this website while doing a search for Think Tank reviews – bookmarked! A lot of good stuff here.

    And hey – ever tried shooting sports with a LensBaby 3G? I won’t lie – it’s REALLY tough. But it was a fun experiment.

    857E0681-Edit

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