With winter quickly approaching, football season is all but over and basketball season is on the horizon. Whether you plan on capturing games at your local school or dream of photographing an NBA game, below are tips to make your images a slam dunk!
The first thing you’ve got to do to photograph basketball is get courtside. That’s easy for many middle and high school games, but the bigger the venue, the more likely you are to obtain permission. Maybe you can offer to trade pictures for access, especially if you’re photographing a team that doesn’t necessarily have a big budget for marketing and promotions, as is the case with many independent teams and smaller schools.
Location, location, location
Once you’re courtside, you’ve got to figure out precisely where to be. You can probably get some decent wide shots from up in the stands, but for the in-your-face action shots, you’ll want to be on the court. More often than not, you’ll find the baselines offer the best vantage point. The corner of the court is a good spot for photographing point guards and shooting guards at the periphery, but the best spot for action under the basket is right in the center of the baseline. By sitting a few feet off the baseline, you’ll be able to photograph the action with a wider lens when it’s at your end of the court, and far away with a zoom lens when it’s at the other end.
Lenses & light
The gym might look bright to you, but it doesn’t look bright to your camera. You can put it in sports mode, which tells the camera to prioritize high shutter speeds, but that still slows the camera down as it makes decisions about the exposure. Lighting varies by location so your best bet is to use the available ambient light (gym exposures are usually around 1/250th at f/2 and ISO 1600). Since there’s not a lot of light and you won’t be using flash (don’t sit courtside and fire your on-camera flash), you’ll want to choose fast lenses, f/2.8 or better, to allow for the fast shutter speeds necessary to freeze the action. A 50mm prime is a great lens for shooting from underneath the basket when the action is right in front of you, and 50mm primes are also often very fast and capable of autofocusing quickly. When the action is at the far end of the court, a 70-200mm telephoto zoom is useful for photographing wide shots of the action (at 70mm) and even some medium shots with the telephoto end of the zoom. A second camera body enables you to have one lens on each so you can quickly switch focal lengths as the action dictates.
Shoot with a crop sensor
A crop sensor has better reach because the lens is magnified by a factor of 1.6. Another bonus is that a crop sensor has a greater depth of field (which can create a nice blurred background while drawing the attention to the player).
Stop the action
A good shutter speed to freeze the action is around 1/500. A brightly lit gym may allow you to shoot at a smaller aperture or lower ISO, but remember, if you want to freeze the ball and the player, you will need fast shutter speeds. When it comes to setting the exposure, it helps to trade noise for sharpness by turning up the ISO in order to increase the shutter speed. 1/500th of a second is going to stop a lot of the action (in some cases you can drop to 1/250, but you shouldn’t go lower than that unless you’re capturing wide shots with wider lenses). You’ll probably find it’s better to have a noisy, “grainy” picture that has frozen the action crisply, than a low-noise shot that misses the moment due to motion blur.
Shoot in burst mode
There is definitely a ‘spray and pray’ aspect to sports photography. You don’t know when that magnificent play or expression is going to happen, so you have to keep shooting. Burst mode helps to make that happen by shooting multiple frames per second.
Shooting in RAW will fill the buffer on most cameras very quickly. Since you’re shooting in manual, and gyms usually avoid a lot of outside light, you shouldn’t need to recover information from a big RAW file. It also makes selecting and processing hundreds of images much faster.
Basketball is – in many aspects – a vertical game; you don’t want to lose the ball and basket in your images. Make sure to frame your images so you can capture the players, the ball and the hoop in the same shot.
Pick the center focus point
This is crucial for getting shots in focus. Using multiple focus points causes the camera to make a decision and it often decides on the closest subject (which doesn’t work on a crowded basketball court with a shallow depth of field), so set the camera to center focus instead.
Use continuous focus
This is called AI Servo on a Canon and AF-C on a Nikon. This is an important setting for sports because the players are often moving toward or away from the lens. Normal focus involves the camera setting the focus and then taking the shot, while continuous focus does just that – continues to focus.
Focus on the Drive, let go on the jumper
When a player is driving to the basket, the distance between you and the lens is changing. This is when you’ll want to hold down your focus button so the camera continues to adjust the focus. During a jump shot, the player’s distance to you is static. With practice, you can quickly get the player in focus, then let go of the button while the jumper is taking place.
Shoot the offensive side of the court
Whichever team you are trying to shoot, you’ll want to shoot on their offensive side of the court. You can also sneak in some interesting defensive plays when a team moves into a full court press. This scenario also tends to bring out a lot of emotion at the youth level, so keep your camera moving and looking for the shot.
Shoot from the player’s weak side
When shooting and dribbling, a player’s body and face gets blocked by their dominant hand as they open up to their weak side. You’ll want to shoot right-handed players from the left side (as if you were facing the basket) and left-handed players from the right side.
Sit or squat so you are shooting up at the players. It’ll make the players look bigger while providing a different perspective.
Know the game
Know the spots from which a guard might shoot, or the timing of a layup or a fast break. Try to time photos of jumpshots so a shooter is at the top of their arc rather than in mid-stride when motion blur is more likely to affect the photo. You can also look for open areas in the zone where a player is likely to step in and catch the ball (the top of the key, for example). Knowing that players consistently move to certain points on the floor makes pre-focusing where the action happens that much easier; your knowledge of basketball will make capturing great moments much more likely. An outside shooter calls for a longer lens; a post player may be right handed, but prefers to spin to their left; a certain player may be more expressive than others; some players are defensive specialists, while others drive and go to the ground often.
No matter what you are shooting, you’re always trying to tell a story. Find the story and the emotion in the game if you want to get the shot. Just because a basket was scored doesn’t mean the play is over. Players express emotion, pain, frustration, and determination after the play has happened. Don’t miss these moments.