The relentless, end-to-end action of basketball makes it a fantastic sport to photograph. The opportunities come thick and fast all over the court. However, for these very reasons it can be extremely tough to get winning shots. So I thought I would share with you some of my top tips, based on my own experiences. They won’t guarantee you keepers every time, but will hopefully improve your hit rate! If you have any tips of your own, please share in the comments section below.
1) You can’t cheat the need for shutter speed
Basketball is a very quick sport, so if you want to freeze your action completely I find that shooting at 1/500s is a good baseline to work from. But don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re shooting down the court, head-on with your subject, then you might be able to get away with slowing down the shutter speed a fraction. However, if you are standing on the halfway line and shooting square-on to the court, then I would recommend keeping it at 1/500s, if not faster.
As for which shooting mode to set your camera to, I use Shutter Priority the vast majority of time and occasionally turn to Manual if the lighting is particularly awkward or I want a little more control over my depth of field. Which leads me onto my next tip…
2) Stop down a little, if you can
Fast glass for any sport is nearly always a must. With basketball, the combination of rapid action and often inconsistent/downright awful indoor lighting means that you will likely need to get your hands on a fixed f/2.8 or f/1.8 lens. The wide open aperture will help you achieve those fast shutter speeds and maintain a good exposure. However, be aware of just how shallow your depth of field will be when shooting at f/2.8 or wider.
In the UK, a regulation court is 28m long. Imagine you are shooting from under the basket and your subject is approaching the three point line (10m away, give or take). Using a focal length of 150mm at f/2.8 your depth of field is just 50cm (and even less on a cropped sensor body). This doesn’t give you a lot of room for error. So if the conditions permit you to stop down even a little bit, try it. You will lose some subject isolation but increase the chances of getting the shot in acceptable focus.
3) Frame with the player: go portrait
When I first started shooting basketball I chose landscape orientation by force of habit. However, even with some of my favourite shots, I always felt that there was something missing. It was only when I flipped the camera to portrait that it dawned on me what the issue was. Basketball is a game where the action typically centres on two or maybe three players at any one time; it is not too common where you will have a shot with four or more players in the frame, except perhaps rebounds. Shooting in landscape can therefore leave a lot of negative space around your subject(s) and result in a flat image.
By shooting in portrait orientation, the framing is tighter around the player and allows for full body compositions. This is really effective when shooting head-on into a point guard who is dribble up court; they might not have anyone challenging them at this point so landscape orientation will leave a lot of dead space either side of the player. Of course there are times when landscape is preferable, such as when under the basket and the action is happening right in front of you. Otherwise, go portrait and tighten up the framing to make the viewer really feel part of the action.
4) Unleash AF-On mode
There has to be a pretty exceptional circumstance for me not to use autofocus during a game. On top of this, I utilise the AF-On function. A lot has been written about this on the web so I’ll keep my definition short: it separates the action of focusing from the shutter release, so the user can control each independently. It’s a device that can save you a fraction of a second per shot but, as any sports photographer will tell you this, this can be the difference between capturing the perfect moment and missing it entirely.
So what does this mean in practice? Well, you keep your finger pressed on the AF-On button (or if your camera does not have a dedicated button you can assign it to the AE-L/AF-L button) and the camera will continue to adjust focus automatically as soon as a subject passes across one of the focus points. It happens quickly and smoothly, leaving your trigger finger ready to hit the shutter release, knowing that you won’t lose precious milliseconds waiting for it to adjust the focus. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you try it, it’s hard to go back! Without any doubt, my hit rate has gone up noticeably since using the AF-On mode.
5) Keep an eye on the lighting (or lack of it)
There is one thing that will significantly influence how you shoot any game: the lighting. Depending on the competition level and the sport centre’s own facilities, the quality of lighting will vary considerably. Regardless, I always set my white balance manually, dialling in the best setting on the Kelvin scale and using live-view for guidance. Fluorescent bulbs are notoriously inconsistent in the light they emit so shoot in RAW and any colour imbalances can be easily corrected.
Crucially, look up into the rafters to see if any of the lights are not working. You might not think that one bulb can make a huge difference, but you’d be surprised. There’s a fair distance between those lights and the court floor and ‘dark’ patches can form which can potentially throw your exposures about. If you see that a bulb is out, make a mental note of where on the court will be affected and work around it. Hopefully it will be in the corner and not under the basket…
6) Track the player, not the ball
When you first photograph a basketball game, it can be instinctive to follow the ball through the viewfinder. Don’t. It will result in you frantically jerking the camera back and forth in a desperate attempt to keep up with the action and you’ll be an endless source of amusement for the spectators! Whilst it can be tempting to follow the game, detach yourself from it and try to predict the moves. Identify the players and their roles. Will they be backing down in the post? Are they regularly driving to the hoop? Or are they constantly putting up threes from their preferred spot on the other side of the court? The more you know about each player’s strengths and habits, the more chance you have of being in the right place at the right time – which let’s not forget, plays a big part in sports photography.
One method I adopt is to dedicate time periods for a particular player. How long is up to you, but I often devote, say, 30 seconds to one player. During this time I remain entirely focused on them, whether they have the ball or not, and this leaves me perfectly placed to capture the moment when they are involved in the action. When the time is up, I move onto another player. You might be thinking that this leaves open the risk of missing action elsewhere, and you’d be right – it does. But remember, it is impossible to capture everything that happens; this tip will merely hedge the bets a little more in your favour. If you chase the ball you are chasing the game and this means you will rarely get that great shot, as you will inevitably always be arriving a fraction too late.
7) And as an overtime bonus…
…here are some final quick-fire tips:
- Don’t forget about the reactions of the coach and players on the bench.
- Blurred feet/hands are unlikely to ruin a shot, but a blurred face almost certainly will.
- If you’re going to include the ball, make sure you get the whole thing in the frame.
- Watch out for kits which lack contrast as this might throw your autofocus off.
- Don’t worry about high ISO noise; with all the inherent difficulties of shooting indoor action it should be the least of your concerns.
- Use a battery grip, if only for the portrait orientated shutter release, as it will help to prevent your hand cramping up into a claw.
- Offence is exciting, but don’t overlook the simple pleasures of a hard-hitting defence.
- Free throws are a good opportunity to capture pre-shot routines. And post-shot frustration.
- Spot meter, as there can often be a great deal of distracting colours and contrasts in the background.
- A lens hood might just save your expensive gear from a misdirected pass…