09 January 2011

Sports photography tips

  1. You need to know the sport you're shooting. That means you want to be standing in the right location. For example, hockey is very different from baseball. In baseball, the athletes are mostly in fixed positions. So you point your camera at the pitcher/batter/baseman. In hockey, the players are constantly moving so you point the camera at either the attacking zone (stand at the end boards) or the defending zone (stand at the blue line). It helps to do research on the sport (reading the rules, watching footage), or even better: play the sport yourself.
  2. Put autofocus and shutter release on separate buttons, if your camera has this function. For Canon users, this is known as AF-on back button focusing. The idea is that you spend most of your time following a particular player or action and trying to maintain focus. So you should have a separate button for AF and only release the shutter when you have a good shot.
  3. People frequently recommend that you use the center AF point because it's usually the most sensitive. But sports are too fast. You'll have to keep the subject on the center AF point all the time, because you don't have time to focus and recompose. If the subject is always in the center, the composition will be off and you'll have to crop the photos. A friend of mine, who did professional sports photography, says that he recommends uses the AF-on back button focusing to establish a focus on the right ballpark (for instance, focus on a faceoff dot on the hockey rink). Then as the play happens, make minor adjustments in focus with the manual focus ring on the lens. If your lens has this option, you can manually focus while the AF is on.
  4. Practice right before the game starts. I learned this from listening to a pro sports photographer (Ron Wyatt) speak at B&H Eventspace. He said that he practices shooting before the event. Doing sports photography is a sport in itself. You should warmup first.
  5. Like any kind of event photography, you should have a shot list. When I shoot hockey, my list is something like this: wide angle shot of rink, skater shooting puck, goalie making save, closeup of puck on faceoff, players pushing each other in front of the net, referee escorting player to penalty box, closeup of player's face, players celebrating after a goal, crowd shots, players lining up for post-game handshake, etc. You would like to have a variety of shots planned. This is also helpful if you're having trouble getting a particular kind of shot, then you can move on to the next item on your list and come back to it later. In sports, people tend to take the same kind of shot over and over again. To avoid this problem, you want to think ahead of time and think creatively.
  6. Try to get the white balance right while you're shooting. It will be a nightmare to fix afterwards. For indoor sports, the lighting is usually fixed, so you can do a rough white balance (I like the Expodisc) and then set that as your custom white balance for the rest of the game.
  7. Use photo-processing software. After you come back from the sporting event, you will have hundreds of photos. Your life will be much easier if you use something like Lightroom to process them. The software will allow you to batch operations like adjusting white balance and quickly sort the good photos from the bad.
  8. Use a camera with a fast frame rate (at least 5 fps or higher) and a good auto-focusing system. That means don't try to take sports photos with a point-and-shoot camera. These types of cameras use contrast detection AF which is very slow. You need something like an SLR, which uses phase detection AF. Semi-pro and pro-level SLR cameras will have much better AF systems than entry-level ones.
  9. Use fast (large aperture) telephoto lenses. You want as fast a shutter speed as possible. It is pretty much impossible to shoot dark indoor sports without such a lens.
  10. Bring lots of memory cards and storage space (photo viewer or laptop). I recommend bringing an Epson P-3000/P-5000/P-7000 Multimedia Storage Viewer. It's possible to open the P-3000 case and upgrade the hard drive yourself. Between cards, you put a filled card into a slot on the viewer and dump all photos from the card into the viewer's hard drive. This is a good way to backup photos and also view them on a small screen. The Epson device is much smaller and easier to use than a laptop.
  11. Try using a monopod. Sometimes it can be useful if you know exactly where the shot is going to be. For example, photographing an Olympic archer from a fixed position. Other times, it can get in the way. I don't use a monopod for shooting hockey.

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