Ten Tips For Better Basketball Photos

I have enjoyed putting these 10 tips posts together. These are great for me because they are a refresher, and they are also a way for me to share some things that I have learned. Some things you learn the hard way, and some you just stumble upon. Basketball is a fairly easy sport to shoot from an action perspective. The court is fairly small, and most of what you want to shoot will be right in front of you. What makes it difficult is the lighting in most venues that you will shoot in. I shoot mainly at the college and high school level, but I am writing this with the shooter who is covering the local high school in mind. Some gyms have really improved their lighting, but some are still dark as can be. This is where you will be tested the most. With all that said it is a fun and fast paced sport to shoot. Here are ten tips to help make your experience even better.

  1. Use the right equipment – This one is hard to write, but if you want to make photos like you see in the magazines then you need similar equipment to the pros. Part of this equation is your camera body. You will want a body that is capable of shooting in low light, and has a high rate of frames per second. Since you will be shooting in dimly lit gyms if you have a camera that can handle a high ISO you will be better off. You also want some fast glass. Realistically for a wide angle you can get away with a lower aperture, but for your main body you will want a camera with a aperture of 2.8 or higher. If you look at the pros they are shooting lenses with an aperture of 2.8 or 2.0 on the sideline. This allows them to get a faster shutter speed to freeze the action. It is not a popular answer, but to shoot sports you have to spend a lot of money. A landscape shooter can get away with using some lesser equipment, but in sports photography you really need to spend the money. There is a saying that I like to tell people who ask about the money in sports photography. That is to make a small fortune in sports photography you need to start with a large fortune. That is about right.
  2. Get low, but sometimes as high as you can – There is a reason that each baseline is filled with photographers sitting down. They are not lazy, but rather you want to be as low as you can be. A lower angle makes the athletes look bigger, and their jumps higher. For most action this is where I want to be. There are exceptions of course to this rule. Sometimes you will want to get as high as you can to make a photo that shows the entire scene. A wide angle view of a packed arena is tough to beat. While shooting women’s basketball I have also found that I prefer to stand some of the time. A lot of the action occurs right under the hoop, and the players are looking straight up. A higher point of view helps me capture their faces a little better. As with all photography there are times to break the rules, but for the most part you want to be low.
  3. Freeze the action – This is where the expensive equipment comes into play. For sports I always try and be above 1/1,00oth of a second. That is not always possible in basketball. In fact I rarely can shoot that high. I end up shooting as high as I can without maxing out the ISO on my camera. It is a fine line that you have to walk between having a crisp photo, but with as little noise as you can. I do this by shooting in manual mode. I like having control over everything with my camera. In manual mode you can set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Most of the time I walk into a gym, and I can guess a pretty good starting point. Unlike outdoor sports where the light conditions may change basketball is played indoors so once you set up your camera you will not have to change anything. If you are not comfortable in manual mode then you have a couple of options. Aperture priority mode (AV mode on a Canon) is a mode where you set the aperture and ISO that you want to shoot at, and the camera will pick the shutter speed to make the best exposure. This mode is one that you can use to get yourself in the ballpark. You can use this mode, but watch so that your shutter speed does not get too slow. Shutter priority mode (TV mode on a Canon) lets you set your ISO and shutter speed, and the camera will select the aperture for you. These are both good modes to get into as a beginner, but once you get to know your camera you will like the constancy that shooting in full manual mode will get you when the conditions are not changing.
  4. Avoid the referees – This is one that if you have shot on the baseline you may laugh at. The referees are doing their job, and probably don’t even know the photographers are there. That is why they can camp out in front of you for so long. When I am shooting a college game I don’t have the ability to move from side to side so a ref in front of you can make you miss the shot. At a high school game I am usually the only photographer on the baseline so it is even more infuriating when the ref camps in front of you. Moving just makes them move as well. There are some ways to get out of the way of the refs. One of them is to shoot centered on the basket, or next to the TV guy at a game with TV. The refs seem to know here the TV camera is, and they will not block it. If you sit next to that camera you have a better chance of not getting blocked. The far end of the baseline is usually safe as well. You don’t get the dynamic photos from under the basket, but you will not get blocked. During a big moment in a game you can also stand up to make sure that you can get your shot. One last tip is to set up a remote camera away from your body. This will make sure that you capture the action if you are blocked. With all of this in mind you will still find a time when you are blocked. You just have to remember that even the best photographers do not get every shot.
  5. Capture the peak action – The shots that make the most impact are the shots that feature peak action. If you want to make the best photos that you can you have to time your shots. In the age of motor driving this is a novel concept. I am not saying to never motor drive, but pick your spots. I hear shutters firing the length of the floor as the ball is being brought up. I like a shot of the player bringing the ball up, but I like the ball up high. The ball flat on the floor looks interesting, but the player does not have control of the ball. I like the ball in the players hand. The player making the shot is one where you time your shot, and then motor drive a couple of images. It is like the ball on the bat in baseball. You get that by timing, and not relying on the motor drive. In basketball the peak action can be many things that can happen anywhere. This is not an easy one to follow through on. If you are shooting for parents then peak action is not always necessary, but for an image that will last it is.
  6. Keep an eye out for things happening away from the ball – Of course in almost direct contrast to the previous point sometimes things happen away from the ball that is photo worthy. If you follow my blog and photography you have probably seen that almost since day one of shooting basketball from the baseline I quit photographing the person shooting the free throw. I shoot the players jockeying for position for the possible rebound. That to me is the moment. Another obvious choice is a coach performing his job. That can mean many things, but of course the coach melting down is the shot that you look for. It is easy to just get sucked into the action during a game, but keep your other eye looking for the other things that make up the gameday experience. Overall shots of the stadium fall into this category as well.
  7. Shoot in RAW – I know some photographers that still don’t shoot in RAW. You can shoot a longer burst in jpeg mode, but in reality you should not fill your buffer in basketball. The RAW format gives you so much more than a jpeg can. Along with that is to use a custom white balance. It is an easy step at the arena that will save you processing time later.
  8. Use back button focus and AI Servo mode – Back button focus is a must for sports photography. It allows you to focus separately from your shutter release. Along with that is using the continuous focus mode. On my Canon that is the AI Servo mode. That helps me track the player that is moving towards me. You can pump the focus button, but the servo does a much better job for you.
  9. Shoot vertical – Basketball is a sport that is played in a way that makes vertical photos look better. You want the long nature of the players and the hoop to be in your photos. This is the one sport where I rarely shoot a horizontal image. That being said you still can break this rule to make some interesting photos.
  10. Know your teams – This is an important rule. If you are shooting at the high school level you can move around wherever you want on the baseline. If your star is a righty, then you want to stay on the right side of the hoop. When he/she shoots they will open up to you. Knowing tendencies can also help you anticipate the action, and capture it at its peak. The more you know about your team and the sport the better your photos will be.

Well that is the end of my ten tips. They are ten that I think helps the beginner make better basketball photos. Do you have a tip that I missed here? If you do leave it in the comments section.

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About Pinola Photo

I am a sports and lifestyle photographer based in West Lafayette, IN home of Purdue University. I cover sports for Big Ten teams as well as other colleges. You can follow me on twitter @pinolaphoto. You can also view my website at www.davewegielphoto.net

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