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SnapShots | Photographing hockey in your local rink – A tutorial

SnapShots | Photographing hockey in your local rink – A tutorial

 

1/400th second, f/3.2, ISO 800. Shot from the bench, i.e., no glass. Captured in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom

The lighting conditions of your local rink may be great for playing hockey, but when it comes to “freezing” the action in photographs it’s not as bright as you may think. Unlike the powerful lighting systems in NHL arenas, local rinks are relatively dark, and require different camera settings to achieve great photos.

Over the course of this tutorial, I’ll be giving you a primer on the three main camera settings, lens tips, general shooting tips, recommended settings for beginners, advanced camera settings for more confident photographers, and a quick note about post-processing.

So If you’re looking for tips on getting better shots at your kid’s games, or just some photos of your friends and family during open-ice skates, keep on readin’!

1. Camera basics explained

If you’ve recently purchased a DSLR, or just haven’t had the chance to fully explore its capabilities, chances are you’re a bit overwhelmed by the array of settings and functions at your control – I know I was!  If this sounds like you keep reading as I review the three basic camera controls (Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) and how they relate to hockey.  Believe me – this section will help out later on in the post  because I mention them a lot!

Shutter Speed: Shutter speed is a measure of how long your camera’s digital sensor (or film) is exposed to the light coming in through the lens, i.e., how long it takes for the camera’s shutter to open and close.  The faster the shutter speed, the more likely you are to freeze movement in a photograph – which is extremely important when photographing hockey, or any sport for that matter.  Generally speaking, I’ve observed that the lower-limit of shutter speed needed to freeze moderately quick action is around 1/320 of a second. Anything faster is preferred, anything slower and you will begin to notice motion blur.

Aperture: The aperture is literally a hole in your lens through which light travels. Think of it as a mechanical pupil – just like the one in our eye.  This hole can change sizes and this change in size controls the volume of light that reaches your camera’s image sensor during an exposure –  much like when your pupil dilates in dark light, or contracts in bright light. In photography, we have the ability to manually change the cameras aperture to fit the shooting conditions.

The size of the aperture’s opening is measured in an f-stops, and are fractions of the lenses focal length. If you look at your lens, you may see something like this: “1:3.5-5.6″, or “1:2.8” (sometimes denoted as f/3.5-5.6, f/2.8, etc). These are your lenses f-stop numbers, and represent the largest possible aperture your lens can achieve.  If your lens has a double number, like 3.5-5.6, it means your widest maximum aperture changes throughout the zoom range. The larger the aperture (more light volume) the smaller the f-stop number. Conversely, the smaller the aperture (less light volume) the larger the f-stop number.

When shooting hockey, especially in a relatively dark conditons, the largest aperture possible is desired to achieve a proper exposure. However, since the aperture is a function of the lens you are using, and not the camera body, higher-quality lenses will usually give you a larger maximum aperture (more light).  In general, consumer and introductory grade lenses will have a maximum aperture from about f/3.5-5.6, while more advanced, and more expensive lenses will have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or larger.

Noise in an unprocessed JPEG. Minimal in-camera noise reduction applied (1/250th second, f/5.6, ISO 1250)

ISO: Your camera’s ISO setting determines how sensitive your image sensor is to light.  The higher the sensitivity, the less light or time is needed to make a properly exposed image.  There is a caveat however, the higher ISO settings are usually accompanied by camera “noise”.  Noise is a grainy appearance that lessens the overall image quality and decreases overall contrast (example at left).

Getting these settings to work in harmony to achieve a properly exposed image is the challenge of photography.  Here’s an example that sums up how all of these settings work together.  Say I’m at a hockey game and I take a picture of a player skating by using the following camera settings: 1/30 second exposure, aperture of f/5.6, and ISO 200. The exposure is nice and bright, but the player skating by blurry.  So I decide to take a second photo of the same subject with different settings: 1/4oo second exposure, aperture of f/5.6, and ISO 2500.  What do you think happens?  The photo exposure is about the same! However, in the second shot the player is sharp and frozen in place. Why? In the first example, my shutter speed was slow which allowed the image sensor, at a low-ISO setting (less sensitive) more time to gather light making the exposure perfect. But, during this 1/30 of a second, the player movement was captured and caused blur. In the second shot, my shutter speed was 1/400 of a second which froze the player’s motion, but the increased ISO level allowed the image sensor to gather the same amount of light as in the first shot to achieve the same exposure levels.

 

2. Wait! What about lenses?

Since the aperture setting is directly related to the lens, and not the camera body, coupled by the fact that a new lens purchase is usually a hard decision for a new camera owner, I though it natural to give a quick mention.

My personal bread and butter lens for hockey photography (any indoor sport really) is the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens. This set-up (70-200mm f/2.8)  is a relatively standard lens for all sports photographers and is produced by almost every major lens manufacturer. The zoom range is great for a rink, and with a wide maximum aperture of f/2.8, it can allow a high volume of light to reach the image sensor. That said, it is an expensive piece of glass, and I realize it probably isn’t a practical buy for the causal shooter.  Don’t worry though, there are other options!

Secondary lens manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron make 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses that are considerably less expensive than their major competitors, Nikon and Canon.  Their image quality might be slightly lower than their larger rivals, but the increase in light volume will still outperform just about any consumer zoom lens with a smaller maximum aperture.

You can also rent lenses online. LensRentals.com is a great resource for trying and testing out lenses you don’t own or are thinking about buying. Their selection is huge and encompass a wide range of camera brands and aftermarket lens manufacturers.  Lensgiant.com is another online rental retailer I use from time to time.  Their selection isn’t quite as comprehensive, but their rental rates are cheaper for the lenses supplied by both outlets. The lens is shipped to you with a return label, so all you have to do is drop it off at your local shipper when your rental period is up.

Remember this old adage if you’re in the market for a new camera or lens: A great lens on a bad camera body is better than a bad lens on a great camera body.

If you have questions about specific lenses, feel free to drop me a line at [email protected], or @ChiPhotoGuy on Twitter

 

3. General shooting tips

Whether your new to photography or an avid shooter, photographing sports indoors poses special challenges.  Below, I’ve highlighted a few general tips & suggestions specific to photographing hockey at your local rink.

Panning: Panning your camera is a photography technique that can help freeze the action and retain sharpness in your in-game shots. Panning is defined as “tracking your subject by rotating your camera on a horizontal plane while keeping the subject in the same position of the frame during the exposure.” This motion lessens the player’s horizontal movement (as the camera sees it), leads to sharper shots, and allows more effective burst mode shooting.  The key is a smooth, sweeping movement and a good follow through – don’t stop the movement until after your final frame.

Rink positioning:  One of the great parts about shooting hockey games at a local rink is that you can shoot from just about anywhere enabling you to get extremely close to the action.  Move around the rink during the game.  Get shots from different areas, vary your angles, and focus on different aspects of the sport from each shooting location.  This will help you capture more action and will make for a more exciting set of final photos.

Through-glass shot. Slight drop-off in contrast. Almost hazy, not quite as sharp. (1/320th Second, f/2.8, ISO 800)

About shooting through glass: Though grateful for the close-up action we’re able to capture in hockey photography, shooting through glass is never ideal.  No matter how good of a lens you use you’re also shooting through an extra piece of glass that was built for safety/containment purposes – not superior optical quality.

In the photo at right, I’ve posted an example of what through-glass shooting can do.  This image displays soft-focus, and the contrast is slightly low – even a bit hazy.  I was also shooting at an angle which can compound the problems of shooting through glass.  If these shortcomings in final photo quality are an issue for you, try shooting with your camera relatively parallel to the glass. This lessens the distance the light rays have to travel through a medium, which can minimizes possible distortions.  An even better fix is to avoid the glass entirely!  Talk to your rink, or a coach, to see if you can access the bench area during a team practice, or pre-game warm-ups.

Take a lot of photos: This is a somewhat basic tip, but also extremely important.  Simply put, the more photos you take, the more chances you have to capture a great shot.  Follow the play and take many photos in succession (burst mode).  When a play is closing in on the net and you’re focused on the goalie, start snapping away.  You may take 10-15 shots, but end up with only one of the goalie making a play without a mess of other players blocking the view or ruining the photos composition.  BUT with great power comes great responsibility! Just because you can take 500 photos, doesn’t mean you should post all 500 in succession.  Take some time to go through and pick out the best ones. Look for interesting compositions, sharp focus, good exposure, interesting angles, etc.  A small handful of great photos will be more interesting than those same great photos randomly mixed in with all the rest.

4. Setting recommendations for beginners

Simulated "Sports Mode" photo. Shot as JPEG. Minimally processed with Apple's "Preview" software** (1/250th second, f/5.6, ISO 1250)

If you have no interest in manually controlling your camera’s settings, I’ll keep this simple – set your camera to Sports Mode. On most cameras, the setting can be achieved by turning your camera’s mode selector dial to the symbol that looks like a sprinter.

In sports mode, the camera will automatically select the most conducive settings for freezing action. First, it will open up your aperture to the largest diameter possible – letting in the most light your lens allows.  Second, it will choose an appropriately fast shutter speed to help freeze the action.  Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, it increases the image sensor’s ISO levels (sensitivity) to allow optimum exposure at these faster shutter speeds.

Also, make sure your camera is capturing images at the largest size and highest quality possible*.  This will help minimize the appearance of noise at higher ISO levels, will allow for more intensive post-processing (if desired), and allow for larger photos to be printed.

The rest is up to you! Move around the rink, take plenty of photos, and incorporate the panning technique and you’ll start getting some great photos.

*Unless you are planning on post-processing/editing your images, shoot in the highest size & quality JPEG mode.  If your camera supports RAW mode, keep in mind this is a more appropriate setting for more advanced shooters and requires file conversion and a minimum level of processing to be viewed.

**Because I was using a lens with a large maximum aperture, I decided to simulate Sports Mode by manually setting the camera controls based on lenses more widely used by casual/beginner shooters.  Because my settings weren’t spot on, my original image was slightly underexposed so I ran this photo through Apple’s “Preview” software and slightly adjusted the brightness and exposure.  I suspect you will find Sports Mode should give you images similar to this one. However, if your photos are still coming out dark using this mode, you could give simple post-processing a try to bump them up. Using programs like Apple’s Preview, iPhoto, Microsoft’s Image Viewer, or online software like PikNik, you can access simple photo manipulation tools to adjust the image’s apparent brightness, exposure, and contrast.  


5. Advanced camera settings

1/400th second, f/3.2, ISO 800. Shot from the bench, i.e., no glass. Captured in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom

This section assumes you will be shooting in the RAW format, and have some experience in post-processing your photos.

If I haven’t hammered this home enough, to capture great hockey images, you want a fast shutter speed, a wide open aperture, and probably need a high ISO to compensate for the quick shutter.  Each rink will vary in light output and quality, so the following setting suggestions are merely a starting point for you to dial in the correct settings for your specific environment.

Shutter Speed: Fast shutter speeds are key to freezing the motion, but given the particular lighting conditions there are limits on how fast one can shoot indoors.  I’ve found that 1/320th of a second is about the slowest you can go to freeze moderately quick action. 1/400th is better, and 1/500+ is even more welcome.  However, because of the lighting limits placed upon us, the faster shutter speeds require higher ISO levels for a proper exposure.  Since high ISO levels can lead to noisy photos, the proper shutter speed must be balanced against the noise levels you are willing to accept under your particular shooting conditions.

When photographing goalies, you can sometimes get away with a slightly slower shutter speed than when shooting the other players on the ice due to their limited range of movement and general steadiness prior to making a save.

ISO:  If you’re afraid of using high ISO’s because of the noise, you’re going to have to go outside of your comfort zone if you want to capture great indoor sports photography shots.  With lower limits on shutter speeds, and a limit on maximum aperture, ISO is about the only setting we have real control over.  In most DSLR cameras, the biggest difference that separates a good one from a great one is the ability to mitigate noise at higher ISO levels.  For the particular camera I was using (Nikon D5000), I find that ISO 800 is about as high as I like to go.  With that I’m able to base the remaining settings.

Aperture: As aperture is a function of your lens, higher quality lenses will perform better in low-light conditions.  When I head to a rink of gym, my go to lenses are the 70-200 f/2.8, and 24-70 f/2.8.  In most cases you’ll probably want to shoot wide open, but this also gives you a relatively shallow depth of field (DOF).  With frantic movements towards and away from you, I usually stop down to f/3.2 so that the subject I’m focused on has a higher chance of staying in focus if that subject has moved fore or aft in these tiny moments .

Focus: I tend to go the auto-focus route when shooting action. With 3 caveats: 1) I use “single-point” focus – With this function selected I choose the active focus point, and I can help shape the photos composition.  2)  I use “Continuous Focus-AF” – When enabled, the lens continually adjusts its focus as your subject moves. This focusing option also assists in panning since you need to move your camera to follow the subject.  3) Use the AF-Lock button, particularly when shooting goalies. If a play is developing in front of the goal, I’ll partially depress my shutter to focus on the goalie and then depress the AF-Lock button.  This allows the camera/lens to lock its focus at its current position.  If players in the scrum skate between you and the goalie, the focus will remain on the goalie while AF-Lock is depressed.

Quick Guide: Shutter Speed: 1/400th second or more; Aperture: Widest possible (2.8-3.2); ISO: 800 (or highest you can shoot with at acceptable noise levels)

A note on post-processing:  In my day-to-day photo work, I always try and nail the settings in-camera so I don’t have to spend a lot of time post-processing my photos.  That said, when I’m shooting indoor sports, my priority is to freeze the action.  If this means I have to use a slightly faster shutter speed than the lighting conditions dictate, or bump my ISO higher than I like, I always know I can correct these issues in post-processing.  If you use Adobe Lightroom, or other comprehensive photo processing software, check out my detailed InGoal tutorial on Post Processing your hockey photos.

 

Have specific questions, or need more explanation? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll be glad to help!  You can also direct questions to me on Twitter @ChiPhotoGuy 

Many thanks to the Hough and Lapata families for allowing me to use shots of Conor and Leo in action.

About The Author

Nick Ulivieri

I'm a photographer with Chicago as my backdrop. Architecture, food, weather, and sports are some of the subjects I love shooting.

6 Comments

  1. Clint W

    Thank you for the tutorial and on your related post-processing article. I spend a lot of time at the rink with my kids and have been gradually trying to improve my photos with the gear I have. While I am approaching a bit of a wall with the setup I have, articles like this help me squeeze out a bit more quality in trying to preserve those hockey and ringette memories for a lifetime!

    Reply
    • NickU

      Thanks for the comment, Clint! I’m glad I can be of help. Shooting in tough conditions is all about “squeezing out quality” wherever you can. If you have any questions specific to your set-up, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected] and I’d be happy to help!

      Reply
  2. Craig

    People have told me to shoot +2 stops. I do this, but then have to adjust my settings in lightroom. What would be the purpose of that? (They also say shoot -2 when you have a dark background).

    Reply
  3. Kelly

    Thanks Nick! Your camera basics were very helpful to me. All I usually do for sports is set the camera to sport mode and click away, but that doesn’t work with hockey.

    Reply
  4. Ilona

    Thank you so much I am shooting kids hockey in some old rinks i hope this all will help me to be better!!

    Reply

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