It takes years of practice to become good at sports photography. Basketball, for example, is fast-paced, with frequent turnovers. When covering a game, you need to be attentive to all of the action happening on the court. But even if you photograph all of the crucial plays, something may be missing from your coverage. This article will help you understand the variety of potential shots at a basketball game and what you need to do to ensure that you capture them properly.
To gain some insight into the world of basketball photography, I spoke to Nate Edwards, photography manager at Brigham Young University. In addition to photographing a variety of events at the school, ranging from international research trips to dinners and banquets, Nate mentors student photographers. These students are given photo assignments in the same manner that working photographers are assigned jobs by Getty Images or The Associated Press. Nate is the team photographer for 18 Division I teams at BYU and specializes in basketball. He has covered well over 100 basketball games in the past 9 years and has a good understanding of the types of photographs one is expected to create when assigned game coverage. As he will explain, the goal is to tell a story. Action shots are fun and necessary, but they make up only part of the story. When covering the game, your goal should be to create photographs to flow together as a narrative that tells the story of the game.
The pre-game refers to the 90 minutes before the game starts right up until the tip-off to signal the official start of the game:
I try to figure out the team's routine, their stretches, their warm-ups, and when they call the starting five. I'm looking for photos of the players' personalities and the interaction between them before the game starts. So, it's just something to kind of tell the story of what's going on before the game. What is their preparation? What are they focused on? What is their team dynamic?
Because I'm the team photographer, I have a lot more freedom than if I were shooting for a news outlet or anything like that. So, I'm wandering all over the place. I'm on the court, by the baseline, over by the team bench, and up in the stands. Sometimes, I am in the locker room, or documenting them coming down the hallway, or entering the arena. I'm looking for some nice feature shots that show the personality of the players.
Nate’s camera of choice is the Canon EOS R3. “In pregame, a lot of times I'm using the Canon 28-70mm f/2 lens. It’s just a nice all-around lens. It’s super fast with a super shallow depth of field. Just a really, really nice lens to use. I'm also using 70-200mm, and sometimes 11-24mm. I have an 8-15mm that I sometimes use. To me, it’s important to switch it up every game to get visual variety and see things in a different way,” he said.
The atmosphere photographs comprise everything that is happening around the game. These photographs help convey what it feels like to be at the game, the things you see as you look around the arena in between plays, and scenes you might not have access to from your vantage point as a spectator. The crucial shot to capture here is the establishing shot. “This is the one photograph that communicates that every other photo that you are going to see from this series is happening in this particular environment. It's your scene-setter. But also along with environmental shots, I'm looking at the fans and the mascot. If it's an NCAA game, I'm looking at the student section and the cheer and dance teams, just to kind of get a feel for the energy and the whole environment of the state of the arena outside of just the gameplay,” said Nate.
Gameplay or action shots are the images that you would instinctively look for, even if you had not previously covered a basketball game. Blocked shots, steals, shots, dunks, and turnovers are the moments to look for:
Basketball is a vertical sport. You have to make sure to move your camera up with the play, anticipating that motion upward, or you're just going to cut everybody's arms off in fram,e and you won't even see the ball. So, I think that's probably the hardest part of it: making sure you're anticipating the action. For gameplay, when I’m shooting defense, I’m on the opposite end of the court using a 300mm lens. So, the trickiest thing is you have no idea when those steals or blocks are going to happen. You have to anticipate. It's important to shoot more rather than less. You can't react fast enough to capture a steal. You can't react fast enough to capture a block if you're not anticipating it. And so, a lot of times, I'm taking shots in anticipation of those things happening, and when they don't, I just throw those images away. But if they do, at least I was ready and anticipating it and was able to get it.
Because of the distance at which Nate is photographing the far hoop, the 300mm focal length is a vital part of his kit. “It gives you a little bit more reach to the opposite end of the court. So you can get more isolated shots of the players, as opposed to just using your 70-200mm. Sometimes, I'll use a 400mm, and it's even tighter. So, it becomes a matter of making sure I am following the game and always anticipating when they will go up,” said Nate.
The gear is different when photographing the near side of the court:
When I'm shooting on the offensive side of the court for our team my go-to lenses are the 70-200mm and a 24-70mm (or the 28-70mm f/2). I'm looking for tight isolated shots of the players. But then, in bigger games or in nice environments, I want to shoot wider as well. And if a game is getting close, and it's close to the end of the game, I want a wider shot to help people experience the environment in context. If it is a game-winning shot, and you shoot a tight photo of that player shooting a three-pointer, then that could have happened at any time during the game. But if you photograph it a little bit wider and you show the arena and you show the rest of the players and fans, it gives context for that shot.
Using proper settings for shutter, aperture, and autofocus helps ensure the photographs are sharp.
To freeze motion in basketball, you want to shoot at least 1/1,000 s. I often shoot at 1/1,250 s. I typically want my aperture at f/2.8 to let in more light and to isolate the players with a shallow depth of field. Your ISO setting depends on the arena that you're in. So, I'll set my shutter speed and my aperture first. My ISO is set last to compensate for the brightness or darkness of the arena that I'm in. Some arenas are super dark, and because you don’t want to lower your shutter speed, you’ll have to bump your ISO to 10,000 maybe depending on how bright or dark it is, especially if you're not using strobes.
For autofocus, I have my buttons set up two different ways. The AF button on the back is set for standard spot focusing. I set the star (AE Lock) button to face tracking. And so, I jump back and forth depending on the situation in the game. I use face tracking when the player is a little more isolated in the frame. But when I'm shooting wider, face tracking often doesn't work exactly how I want it to and doesn’t know which face I'm trying to focus on. So, that's when I'll switch to the spot focusing. It’s nice to be able to have that kind of control.
Reactions and Celebrations
As was the case with the aforementioned atmosphere shots, the reaction and celebration shots can occur outside the court and are a necessary component of comprehensive coverage of the game. The key principle here is that the potential for a great photograph is not over just because the play is over:
The moment isn’t over until the celebration is over. And so, just because they make a great shot, don't make the mistake of looking down at your camera to see if you got it when you're missing the celebration with either that individual player or with the bench or the fans. My process is to first focus on the player, and if he's not giving me what I want, maybe I'll go to the bench and see what they're doing. If they're not giving me what I want, I'll go to the crowd. It’s not an exact formula, but I'm looking at all of those different elements within seconds.
One noteworthy aspect of the reaction shot is that it might be the opportunity to save your skin if you missed the shot of a big basket. “Sometimes, the ref gets in your way, or another player is in the way, or your camera is out of focus. Whatever it is, you can at least partially redeem yourself by getting the reaction shot. A lot of times, that shot is even more important than the actual photograph of them making the basket,” said Nate.
The In-between Moments
The gameplay is an intense period for both the players and the photographers, with players running back and forth across the area almost non-stop. It is fast, hectic, and unpredictable. A skilled photographer will be on the lookout for the fleeting, quiet moments that are taking place just alongside the action. If a timeout is called, the gameplay may have ceased, but the photo opportunities are still there. Look for the moment when a player is on the bench, in the zone, thinking about what he adjustments he needs to make to bring home a win. What is the dynamic between the coach and players? Look to capture what it feels like to be a team member being addressed by the coach. The mood might be tense and angry, or it could be supportive and encouraging. This feeling is part of the story of the game that you are telling through your photographs. Pay attention to the dynamic of the game and not just the interaction between players on their own team, but the interaction between players on the opposite team as well.
How a photographer handles post-production is important if he wants to have free time after the game:
Part of the workflow happens during the game, making my job a lot easier immediately after the game. We send photos wirelessly to an FTP site, live during the game for our social media team and sports information director to pull from. They can post photographs immediately after a play has happened. So imagine a timeout happens, and the game goes to commercial. People are checking Twitter, and they see a photo of that play that just occurred a few seconds earlier.
I’m logged in to the Wi-Fi of our arena and this wireless transmission is done by the built-in Wi-Fi within the camera. We've put in our FTP login information, and it sends right there. I'm reviewing images on the back of my camera during a break and I push one button, and it immediately sends it to our website within seconds.
So, I'm done after the game. That's beautiful. I don't have to go back and essentially make edits and send out everything. They already have what they need right at the moment. So then, the next day, I'll go into the office and process my photos. I use Photo Mechanic to go through and cull my photos. And depending on if I'm shooting with remotes or how many remotes, especially with the electronic shutter of the R3, sometimes I'm shooting 30 frames a second. So, I may come back with 12,000 images from a single basketball game.
Photo Mechanic is a vital part of my own workflow. It is rare that I make as many captures as Nate in a single day, but want to spend as little time as possible naming image files, captioning photographs, tagging photographs, and selecting the good images from the full take. These tasks can be done in Lightroom, but Photo Mechanic is specifically designed for these tasks, and I have yet to find another program that performs these tasks as efficiently as it does.
It probably takes me a total of one to two hours to go through all of my photos, make selects, edit my favorites, and deliver them. I'm shooting raw and JPEG. I'm shooting raw for myself, and I'm shooting JPEG to send it to our FTP site. I have a preset that I've created for our particular venue. And I just batch-process the images in Adobe Camera Raw. If I have 12,000 shots, I narrow it down to maybe about 1,500 selects. And then from those selects, I deliver around 100 processed images. They still have access to all of the unedited photos, but I have gone through and picked the ones that I feel tell the story.
For detailed instructions on setting up your camera in this manner, be sure to check the BYU Photo YouTube channel, where Nate has made videos detailing the process for several different camera bodies. Other topics covered include understanding the importance of flash duration to setting up your image-processing workflow.
Images used with permission of Nate Edwards.
I am capturing all kinds of sports professional but for me Basketball is the most challenging sport to photograph. (speed/mostly dark gyms,...). Great article and work!
Appreciate the kind words. I've tried to photograph teenagers playing ball in a local gym a couple of times and my hit rate is zero. I never come away with anything good...
Sounds like the shotlist for any sporting event and not just basketball. I have never photographed a sporting event where the client don´t want all of those shots.
Agreed. This shot list could be applied to other sports as well.