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How to Take Great Hockey and Basketball Photos

By NYIP Staff on November 14, 2010


To the sports enthusiast, basketball and hockey may seem like strange company. There are basketball fans and hockey fans. And never the twain shall meet!

But when it comes to photographing them, there are more similarities than differences because they are both indoor arena sports. For this reason, we find they offer similar challenges to us photographers.

How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures

Here's the type of picture to avoid. I guess a picture like this proves you attended the game - or, at least, the photographer did - but other than that, it really has little to say. And this is the problem if you try to take a picture from your seat "way up there" using your SLR's normal lens or with a point-and-shoot. Our opinion: Don't waste your time.

What type of picture are you looking for? A strong closeup action shot, like this, is much better:

How do you get such a picture? Well, of course you would like to get as close as you can to the action. But here's a problem. In Big League games, you're not likely to be able to be offered a spot on the sidelines. Your best chance to get close to the action will be at high-school and college games - not pro games.

How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures

What do you do if you're stuck in the stands at a pro game? Use a long lens like a 200mm or 400mm or longer. To hold it steady, use a monopod. But that's not all! If you're sitting in crowded stands, you probably won't be able to get the shot because whenever something happens that's worth photographing, chances are the person in front of you will jump up and block your lens. What to do? If possible, try to find a place in the stands where there's no one in the row or two in front of you. You may be able to get an unobstructed shot.

Even then, you may have a problem. You're pretty far back and your flash won't reach far enough to illuminate the rink or court. What's more, at most arenas flash is not permitted. No flash! One reason for this rule is that the strobe might blind the vision of the players, especially if you're shooting from under the basket, as in this next shot.

How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures

In fact, many arenas do not permit you to take pictures even without strobe. They have a simple rule: NO PHOTOGRAPHS PERMITTED. Period! If this is the case, you're completely out of luck. Put away your camera, and enjoy the game. But read on...we have a suggestion.

Anyway, if cameras are permitted but without flash — no matter where you are you positioned you have to shoot using the arena lights as your only lighting source. This means you should use a higher ISO setting on your digital camera or fast film. Very fast film. ISO 800 or faster. And since you are usually shooting action, you have to use a fast shutter speed. Keep in mind, that you don't want to push the ISO setting on your digital camera too high because the higher the ISO setting, the more digital noise the image will have. So play around with your settings to see what the lowest ISO is that you can use while still maintaining a fast shutter speed.

This is a tough combination. Consider this: If you're shooting from way up in the stands, will you be able to set a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action. Let's face it. Your 200mm or 400mm lens probably has a maximum aperture of f/4 or even slower. And you want to shoot at, at least, 1/125th or 1/250th to stop the action. So even wide open, your long lens may not be able to get sufficient exposure. We highly recommend that you check with your light meter before the game to see if you should bother to take any pictures. If the lighting is not sufficient for high-speed shots with your long lens, don't waste your time or film.

Now that we've outlined the problems, let's not give up so fast. There are a few solutions.

As we already mentioned, you have a better chance to get close to the action in a high-school or college game. Or a “Little League” game. Or a “Goodwill” game, like the picture below.

How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures

Okay, you've been able to get into one of these more accessible games and to set yourself up close to the action on the sidelines. Where should you position yourself?

Most of the action occurs under the basket. So, this is where you want to be to get the best basketball photos. But, beware! Those giant players often come barreling into the stands after a shot. If you're in their way, you're going to get clobbered! Our advice, position yourself behind the basket, but off to one side so you're not in their line of fire.

Hockey is different. Action occurs all over the rink, not just at the goal. In fact, if you position yourself behind the goal, you'll rarely get to see anything but the goalie's back. Our advice is to position yourself on the side, but toward one of the goals. From this position, you can get lots of action shots, like these:

How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures
How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures

Hockey has a problem you won't find in basketball - generally, a glass panel is between you and the action. How should you adjust for this? First, look carefully through your viewfinder to make sure you're not picking up much reflection. Since the arena is usually lighted more brilliantly than the stands, this may not be much of a problem. Second, however, if you are using autofocus, make sure your lens is focusing on the action and not on the glass. If it insists on focusing on the glass, turn it off and use manual focus. In this case, you are best off if you use a trick we describe in the Course, called "zone focusing" - that is, estimate your distance to most of the action you will be shooting, set your camera for this distance, and then don't adjust it when you shoot each picture. This works especially well if you are using a small aperture - ƒ/8 or smaller - which will increase your depth of field.

Whether you're at a basketball or hockey game, don't forget to look for reaction shots too. Yes, the action on the field during the battle may be intense. But many a great picture of tragedy and triumph occurs after play is over, like this:

How To Take Great Basketball and Hockey Pictures

Now, we promised you an idea if you are going to a professional arena where you can't get close to the action and you don't have a fast-enough long lens. Is all lost? Maybe not. A day or two before a game, call the Public Relations Department of the home team or the arena. Ask for permission to photograph from close up before the game begins. They may surprise you and say "Yes!" And if you're an NYIP student, be sure to mention your NYIP Press Pass. Some arenas will be pleased to honor it.

If the arena lets you in before the game, you may be able to get some great shots of your favorite basketball or hockey players, even if they're not in the heat of combat!