When I was in high school, I shot pictures for the school paper and my first “picture coach” was my teacher Mr. Brown. What I didn’t know at the time was he knew nothing about photography but gave advice like he was on staff at the National Geographic. He once told me to always set my camera at F8 and 1/60th of a second. Daylight, nighttime, rain or shine. Didn’t matter–F8 at 1/60th was the answer. Luckily, my Uncle Tom was an amateur photographer and he corrected many of those early missteps.
Fast-forward 35 years and now I’m the uncle doing the picture coaching. My niece, Lilli is the photographer for her High School yearbook and I’ve been working with her on some of those questions we all had when we first picked up the camera. She lives 800 miles away so all of my coaching had been long distance, but that was before I made a road trip for the Christmas holiday.
It was great to be able to sit down in person with my niece and really look over the images she was shooting to make suggestions on how they might be improved. We talked about everything from software to lens selection. She had an assignment to shoot and I was well suited to be her coach. Her school was in a big holiday basketball tournament and this was a great chance to get some really good shots. Back in my newspapers days I shot tons of basketball and even covered the NBA finals a couple of times. Needless to say, I knew my way around the hardwood.
Before I jumped in and started giving suggestions I looked through some football and volleyball pictures she had shot in the fall. From the metadata I could see she had set her camera with a shutter speed that was too slow to really freeze motion.
Looking though the pages of Sports Illustrated you will see a theme to those great action photos. They use telephoto lens, they shoot those lens at the minimum apertures (F2.8) and use the fastest shutter speed possible. Say WHAT??? OK, I’ll put it in simple terms. A good sports shooter will set his camera at 1/500 of a sec and will set his telephoto lens at 2.8. A bad sports shooter would set up at 1/125 at F 5.6. Most shooters agree that you need to shoot at 1/500 of a sec or faster to capture a high percentage of sharp photos. Is it impossible to shoot sports at slow speeds? No, but it is much harder to get a sharp photo. In my early days as a photojournalist many a Friday night was spent at some dark cave of a high school football field. We were lucky to have enough light to shoot at 1/250 of a second. Almost every frame had some subject motion (because of the slow shutter speed) and often you got only one or two usable photo out of 100 images.
To wrap this baby up, I’d say: Don’t get discouraged if you’re trying to shoot basketball. The action is very fast, the arenas are dark and it takes several games to get into the flow of the action. In a controlled setting like a basketball game, move your camera to manual exposure, open your lens to its largest opening and set the shutter speed to the highest setting the lighting will allow. A good shooter will develop a sense of timing for the game and anticipate the action. It takes more than a fast motor drive.
I was really excited when I saw this photo that my teenage niece made at the game. For me, this photo just screams – GREAT TIMING. Both players are in the air and the blue players arm is straight across with his hand firmly planted on the ball. This is the full frame version of the picture made with a Canon Rebel XSi and a short zoom lens set at 28mm. This is a great example of peak action. Good work Lilli!
Here we have the same action photo but in this version I’ve cropped in to tighten up the picture. As a general rule: tighter is better. I felt the full frame version didn’t add anything to the pictures and just made it harder to read. “Teachable Moment Alert”– I’m not a huge fan of this shooting position. It leads to a lot of “arm pit” photos and haven’t we seen enough arm pits already? By choosing a wide lens you see way too much background and it’s really cluttered. How would I have shot the photo? I’d have used my 50-mm lens and shot wide open (F2) to blur the background. It would have minimized those pesky banners, I could have shot at a high shutter speed and that’s how I like to shoot sports.