Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Baseball Photography

I've mentioned before that my son is in the MVLA PONY baseball league this year (Mustang-1). This is a new one for me and my wife, because he's never been really that interested in participating in a sports league. He's doing well and learning quite a bit, but we really have to urge him to get the bat off his shoulder and not go for the walk!

Of course, for the photographer in me, this is an ideal time to get some hands-on sports photography practice.

Instead of a detailed post on where to stand, what settings to use, and how to get the best action, I'll point you to two good resources (these are some of the best of the many pages I found):

I recommend going right now and reading those two links first, then come back here to hear the few lessons I've learned. Also, I've posted a number of my best shots, so click to see them larger.

Just Another DWC

Cheap dSLRs have made the DWC (Dad With Camera) very common, but surprisingly, I'm really the only one that regularly tries to get pictures of my son's team. I have swapped photo tips with guys on other teams though! PONY League/Little League games are nice because there's not much of a crowd and there are few restrictions on where you can go. One thing I'm really sensitive about is posting photos of other people's kids; that's why all my images here of children besides my son have their face pixelated out.

A number of people have commented on the size of my lens (just my Canon 70-200mm f/4 USM with the hood on) and one woman asked what newspaper I worked for when I was shooting with a monopod in the outfield. I clumsily explained that I was just a DWC...

This is probably a good segue into a discussion of what hardware I use. I tend to rely on my Canon 70-200mm the most, and during the last game I added the Tamron-F 1.4x teleconverter to it. Sometimes it is hard to frame action on the near side of the field well, but it is great for picking off action across the field. I've also experimented with my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 behind home base and for dugout shots, but it really doesn't have the reach I'd like. Finally, last game I tried my Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror from the outfield, and was actually really surprised how well it worked.

Two Key 'P's: Position and Patience

I tend to enjoy action shots the most so I focus most of my attention on getting good action shots. Since it is a baseball game, good action doesn't happen that often and me hitting the shutter at the right time even rarer still. Baseball is a game of patience, and so is the photography relating to it.

Obviously, positioning is very important, and I often do test motions (like how can I re-frame and focus on third base if the runner on second steals). I have missed so many good shots I can't even count them. Luckily, there's enough action in one game to fill a memory card, if you are in the right place at the right time.

I should mention you can get some great 'safety' shots if you shoot at the point of anticipation: right before the pitch.

This works for batters, fielders, and base-runners; pretty much everyone. Heck, you could probably get the best shots of the crowd right before the pitch. You'll notice that pretty much all the shots of my son on this page are of the anticipation type -- if you have to get a shot of a particular player, go for anticipation to guarantee you'll have something to go home with.

But, again, it all comes back to positioning. My favorite positions are:
  • Just past the fence near first base (70-200mm). Gives me a good angle for action at third, plays at home, and for right handed batters. Second is decent, but in my son's bracket, most teams don't bother trying to pick off steals at second anyway. And, although my lens can't cover first base, first base usually just has a bunch of run thrus, so I don't miss much. The image that began this section was shot from next to first base.
  • Just past the fence near third base (70-200mm). While I lose a little of the ability to catch plays at third (although you can do great closeups of slides at third) I can catch left handed batters well, good shots of the pitcher's windup, and action on second and first. In any given game, I usually favor the first/third base side that isn't shooting into the sun.
  • Behind home plate (70-200mm for pitchers, 17-50mm for batters). All of the fields my son plays have a chain fence behind home plate which I can shoot through. I'll take my hood off, hold the end of the lens (to get it close to the fence but prevent the lens from getting scratched) and shoot our pitchers right as they release the ball. With a short shutter speed I've gotten some really good 'pitching faces' with the ball in the frame. It helps to focus on the ground a little in front of the mound. I'll also use a wider lens to get the batter, catcher, and ump as the ball comes across the plate. Be extra careful to not include the fence in your composition, or use holes in the fence to frame your subject (like the closeup of my son early in this post which was shot through the dugout fence).
  • From the outfield (600mm). Shooting from behind the outfield is really not even possible without a really long lens -- a 300mm won't cut it. But a 500mm or 600mm lens (assuming a crop body, so a 900mm equivalent) will let you do one of those long, TV-like shots including the pitcher, batter, catcher, and ump, all in one shot. Actually, with the 600mm, I found I needed to back up quite a bit! I would not be able to get these shots as reliably if I didn't have a monopod, and I expect I'd be pretty successful using the same setup from the stands at a major league game (if I could even get in carrying a camera).

A Few More Tips
  • Carry extra batteries and memory cards. An obvious thing, but one guy shooting last game had his battery die. He was telling me how he can get nearly 1000 shots on one charge, but that doesn't help when you don't have a spare and you forget to charge your battery!
  • Know your focus modes. Most sports photography happens at large apertures (often wide-open, f/4, on my 70-200mm) and if you miss the focus you'll miss the shot. Oddly enough, I've gotten the best results using just the center focus target in single shot mode. The automatic, special modes often seem to focus on the wrong thing, but I honestly need to experiment with them more. For now, if a play develops at third, I'll swing over, focus on the ground where the action will be, then re-frame and wait for the action to come to me.
  • Stay out of the way. Make sure you don't set up shop right in front of spectators or in an area which will be distracting to the players.
  • Use your motor drive. My 20D has 5 fps shooting capability. I use it whenever I can (usually trying to time the first or second shot to the peak of the action).
  • Shoot RAW. Many sites say to shoot JPEG to keep from filling up your camera buffer on long plays, but I usually shoot RAW because I'm a little more spare with my shooting (I don't usually crank beyond a 3-4 frame burst) and it gives me a lot more latitude on exposure. With JPEG, especially if you switch directions quickly, the auto-exposure can get confused and blow your highlights, which you'll never get back. Plus, the white uniforms have a lot of dynamic range!
  • Shoot Manual? This is something else I've been experimenting with after reading about it on another site. Locking in your exposure ahead of time in manual mode should keep the camera from screwing up exposure, and it seemed to help a bit for me.

Finally, I'll leave you with my favorite shot so far -- in this play, a kid on our team knocked the helmet off a kid on the other team during a tag at third. This was the first game, and amazingly, I was able to get the shot!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A three step stool is a pain to carry to the games but I find it very useful when the coaches and umpires are in the way.