Photography for Hockey Fans, Part 1 [Updated]

Sports Photography 101

I've been asked by bigeugene to create a Fan Post about Photography for Hockey Fans, so here goes. I started typing a couple of hours ago, and got rather verbose, so the meat of the article is after the jump, for the sanity of our mobile users.

My own photography resume goes back ... a long time. My first photos were taken on a Kodak Instamatic camera using 126 cartridge film, way back in 1968 or thereabouts, of my parents' Ford Fairlaine 500. It was red; the film, however, was black-and-white, as color film and processing was still very expensive at the time. I was all of three years old when I first picked up a camera and got hooked.

At university - I attended Butler in Indianapolis, and no, I do NOT want the Bulldogs to win the NCAA championship, TYVM - I studied photojournalism, and kept the key to the darkroom (with Mr. Stalcup's permission) after the class ended; I could frequently be found in there processing my film and making prints at all hours.

While at Butler, I worked for about six months in 1985 or so as an intern for the New Palestine Press, a newspaper with a circulation of about 5,000 tops, and learned there that when photographing sports, one should use the entire roll of film. Why? I had a sports photographer that I supervised who would routinely write all his own cut-lines. As a result of spending so much time doing that, instead of taking pictures, I would get a roll of film back with four exposures shot and the rest blank. I'd get four beautifully-written cut-lines. And I would get maybe, MAYBE one usable shot. For a wrestling meet, one shot would be blurred, one would be of some guy's butt, one would have some guy's hand in his opponent's crotch, and maybe the fourth would be decent. If I was lucky.

My first foray into sports photography as the photographer, though, was not really until 1999-2000, when a friend asked me to photograph her horses. What do horses have to do with sports photography? Action! In order to photograph a moving horse - they can move at hockey player speeds and faster at a full gallop - you need a good camera, and the ability to anticipate the shot.

Today, 99% of cameras come with autofocus, but in 1999-2000 when I started photographing horses, the only camera I had was a Canon A1. It was manual focus; the EOS film camera line had just come out, but it was incredibly expensive, and with me being relatively poor at the time, I ended up borrowing a Minolta Maxxum 5 from my then-brother-in-law, because it had the autofocus feature I needed to keep up with a running horse.

There were several things I learned in that first year, most important of which is that backlighting a black horse will get you absolutely nowhere!

But I also learned to anticipate the shot: to point my camera where I knew the horse would be, and to snap the shot when the horse entered the frame. I learned to track the horse with my camera, so that I could keep him in frame for several shots in a row. And I learned first-hand what I already knew from my experience with the Press: the value of taking a ton of photos to get one good one.

That knowledge, of anticipating the shot, and tracking my target, has come in extremely handy when photographing hockey games and warm-ups.

There are several important things to remember when photographing a hockey game, and about photography in general. I'll cover "in general" first.

~ All cameras have two main settings to remember: 1) the aperture (how wide the lens opens) and 2) the shutter speed (how long the lens stays open) for the exposure.

~ Aperture is measured in something called f numbers, or f-stops. The lower the f number, the wider the aperture, and the smaller the range of "acceptable focus" for the image.

~~~ This "acceptable focus" thing... in reality, only one point is truly in focus. "Acceptable focus" means the part of the image that is "in focus" to the naked eye. With a low f number, say, f/1.8, the range of the image that is acceptably in focus can be measured in centimeters or less. A high f number, f/16 or 22, the acceptable focus range can be measured in miles.

Each f-stop doubles the amount of light the camera lets in while the aperture is open. Here's an example photo showing the difference between two f-numbers: f/32 on the top, and f/5 on the bottom.

~ Shutter speed indicates how long the lens stays open. It's measured in fractional or full or multiple seconds. Most modern cameras can go from somewhere around 1/2000-second to 30 seconds for an exposure. For stop-motion photography, you will want somewhere around 1/400 second minimum.

Shutter Speed vs. Focal Length of the Lens - A good rule of thumb is that the longer the shutter speed (the longer the lens stays open), the harder it is to hold the lens steady when hand-holding the camera. Even on a tripod, for extremely long shutter speeds, I will use a remote and a two-second delay, so that my hands are nowhere near the camera when the shutter opens and closes. Generally speaking, you don't want your shutter to stay open for longer than half the focal length of the lens in fractional seconds. In English, if you have a 200mm lens, your slowest shutter speed should be 1/100-second or faster, if you are hand-holding the lens, to avoid capturing lens shake in the image and causing it to blur or distort.

~ TIP: When holding your camera, keep your elbows in close to your body, and support the weight of the lens with the palm of your hand. This will help avoid camera shake distortion.

~ The majority of cameras these days have a dial somewhere on them with the letters P, Av, Tv, and M on it; some may have little icons for sports, portraits, night shooting, etc. Here's what those dials mean.

P - Full program mode. You can shift either aperture or shutter speed in program mode, and the other will shift to match.

Av - Aperture value mode. You set the aperture, and allow the camera to make the shutter speed decision.

Tv- Time value mode. You set the shutter speed, and allow the camera to make the aperture decision.

M - Manual mode. You set both the aperture and the shutter speed, and the camera has no say in the matter.

For outdoor sports, like baseball, or football, using "sports mode," if your camera has one, will generally work reasonably well, if you aren't shooting a night game. However, for indoor sports, like hockey or gymnastics, or for night games outdoors, I use Av mode. Here's why:

1) If I set the shutter speed to, for example, 1/400 second, and my ambient (existing) light is not good enough, the camera will compensate by opening the lens wider. This will reduce my acceptable focus range, sometimes to the point where if I am focused on the subject's body, his face will appear out of focus.

2) Using full manual mode means I can set both aperture and shutter speed, but I'm stuck with it, and adapting to changing conditions at hockey speeds is downright obnoxious. I don't have time for that.

3) If I set the aperture to f/11, that will generally give me enough acceptable focus range to capture my subject, and generally, my camera's shutter speed will still be fast enough to stop the action, if I am using ISO 400 or greater.


ISO is the term for the measurement standardized by the International Organization of Standards for how light-sensitive film is. Each ISO number - and I'll skip the physics lecture. Suffice it to say that the higher the ISO number, the more sensitive to light the "film" is, and the less light is required to produce an image. In the United States, ISO for film corresponds generally to the ASA (American Standards Association) number, which means that each jump in ISO speed requires 1/2 the light of the next-lower ISO number. (Example: ISO 100 requires 2x the light of ISO 200, which requires 2x the light of ISO 400 to create an image.) Correspondingly, the light sensitivity of film is increased by increasing the size of the grains of light-sensitive material. A similar system is used to measure the light sensitivity of digital imaging systems, and I refer you to any one of a number of scholastic articles on the topic for more information.

Most modern digital cameras can still produce acceptable images at ISO 400 or so, but anything higher than that, and the "grain" becomes visible in larger prints. Some professional models, mine included, have a setting that allows for higher ISO speeds without compensating by sacrificing quality, so the majority of my hockey photos have been done at ISO 2000+ (so far). I am still experimenting.

Now... hockey photography in specific.

1) Unless you are extremely lucky, and a member of the press, you will be shooting through glass.

~ Don't use a flash. Ever. Apart from being distracting to the guys you're photographing - potentially dangerously so - your onboard flash comes from the same angle as your lens. If you are shooting straight through the glass, that flash will bounce right back into your photo and spoil it. At an angle, the flash bounces off, but it is still distracting both to the guys on the ice and to other fans. Also, with a single flash, you will get a shadow, sometimes a very dark shadow, that can ruin an otherwise good shot.

At some arenas -- Giant Center comes to mind -- you may see flashes going off from the vicinity of the ceiling. These are synchronized to the press cameras by means of a wireless master-slave device (the camera is the master). Because of the distance to the ice, they are considerably less a distraction than the flash on someone's camera, and because there are multiple flashes, they serve to illuminate the subject without causing extra shadows, because they cancel each other out.

~ Try to minimize the amount of glass you are trying to shoot through. I could go into physics again right here, but it'd get really boring really fast. Bottom line: the glass will distort your shot. Ideally, you want only one pane of glass between you and your target, since you must shoot through glass, and you want that pane of glass to be as thin as possible, so you don't want to shoot "along" a pane of glass, because the more glass you're dealing with, the greater the distortion will be.

~ Try to be as close to the glass as you can. This will help to minimize the refraction effect that the glass causes. Also, some cameras are easily "distracted" by puck smears on the glass; if you are close enough to the glass, the puck smear will be too close for the camera to focus on it, and so you won't have to worry as much about tracking a shot and losing it because there's a streak on the glass right in front of where you push the shutter and the camera took a picture of the smear instead of the hockey player. The closer you are to the glass, the more chance you will have of finding a clean place to shoot through, with minimal damage. This isn't as big a concern early in the season, but as the season progresses, the glass gets progressively worse, and towards the end of the playoffs, it can be a real problem.

2) Anticipate the shot. You want to keep your camera half a step ahead of the hockey player, so to speak, and let him come to you. Don't try to "chase" the subject; you will not win the race, and you'll end up with some really weird shots.

3) Pick your spot carefully. Taking a photo of something running directly across your lens perpendicular to you is very difficult to time. If you can, increase the angle so that your subject is coming towards you, or moving away from you, at an angle greater than 90 degrees. This increases the amount of time you have to frame and expose the shot.

4) Shoot, shoot, shoot! If 5% of your shots turn out well when photographing a sporting event, you are doing very well. With digital photography, there is absolutely no excuse for not shooting 300+ images during a game. I typically shoot at least double that during warm-ups alone. There's no processing fee, and if the shot is terrible, you can delete it on the spot. If you have time. Don't look at every shot you take, but do check once in a while to make sure your exposure isn't horribly off. You'll kick yourself later if you don't.

In Part 2, I will cover framing and composition.

Hope folks find this useful information! If you have any questions, or if something isn't clear, either post it in the comments, or e-mail me at irockthered {at} gmail {dot} com, and I'll be sure to answer them for you!

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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