Hockey Photography: A How-To Guide

Hockey Action Photography Guide
Your son, daughter or grandchild plays hockey. You gotcha a camera and are fixin’ to take some great hockey pictures of him tearing up the ice. Boy are you going to be disappointed. If you don’t end up with a bunch of blinding flash reflections off the glass, then you’ll probably score some really nice shots of the safety netting. And even in a best case scenario, you’ll get a memory card full of very dark blurry images of what looks like might be a hockey player, but could just as easily be Sasquatch.
Been there, my friends. And it ain’t pretty. But if you’re really determined to take good hockey action photos, listen up. I’m gonna tell you exactly what you need to do to make it happen.
TIGHTEN YOUR LACES: You could pick a much easier hobby
First, let me say, you shouldn’t feel too bad that you failed so miserably in your initial attempts at taking hockey photos. What you are trying to do is one of, if not the hardest of all sports to photograph. Heck, photographing any sport is hard enough. Most of the time they just won’t stop moving around. I say ‘most of the time’ because golfers move so little you can often use time-lapse photography. But hockey photography presents the ultimate challenge – trying to stop lightning fast action in dimly lit rinks, often through scratched and scuffed plexiglass. That’s a combination that sends even pros, possessing the best cameras and lenses money can buy, into fits of frustration.

BREAKOUT: How I got my start

In my case, it all started with my stubborn attempts to take some nice photographs of my son playing hockey. I’m sure you all already know how that went. Fortunately, during my career as a design director for a newspaper I’ve worked with some fantastic photographers that generously answered my onslaught of questions and got me going in the right direction. With their help and the proper equipment, it wasn’t long before I was taking acceptable hockey action shots. I soon parlayed that into a money-making venture that has allowed me to not only pay for my photographic equipment, but much of my son’s hockey expenses. For three years, I operated a successful action hockey photography business through my website, eBrushDesign.com.

FACEOFF: It all starts here

I could drone on endlessly about all the different things that will help you take great action hockey photographs, and I will. But I’m going to give you the biggest secret right up front. If you ask most folks why they can’t get good shots of their kids playing hockey they’ll say it’s because they don’t have a good enough camera. The truth is, you could have the best camera made and still not be able to take good hockey photographs. If you don’t remember anything else you read here, remember this. The single most important factor in photographing good hockey action is the lens. Yes, you will certainly need an SLR camera – you know, one of those cameras that you can change the lenses on. The better the camera, the more features, the faster the auto-focus works and more frames you can shoot per second. So the camera you use can certainly make a difference. But without the right glass, nothing else matters.

THE HAT TRICK: The three key camera settings and what it takes to get them

First off, if your camera has a ‘Sports mode’, forget about it!  It may be fine for baseball but it ain’t gonna cut it for hockey. We’re talking Manual mode here, folks. You can try TV mode (shutter priority), but I highly recommend finding the right settings in Manual mode (M) and making adjustments from there.

Photography is all about light. As you probably already know, the size of your aperture determines how much light gets to your sensor. The shutter speed determines how long it gets in. You balance those two factors for the desired effect – stopping action or depth-of-field. Obviously, stopping action is most critical in getting good hockey action shots. So, let’s start there. If you’re subject is 8-years-old, you can probably get away with setting your shutter speed at 1/250 of a second. If you are trying to shoot an 18-year-old, they skate a lot faster – hopefully. You are probably going to need to use at least 1/320 of a second.

OK. You’ve got your shutter speed set. Open up your aperture as far as it will go (the lower the number, the bigger the hole). If you’re using the lens that came with your SLR, you’re going to find that your photos are way too dark. This is because the lenses that usually come with the cameras aren’t very fast. In other words, they don’t have apertures wide enough to let the amount of light in that you’ll need in that 1/320th of a second.

This is the point where we separate those of you that really want to take these photos yourselves and those of you that should probably just buy them from someone like me – the wheat from the chaff, if you will. I shoot with Canon, so I’m going to talk about specific Canon lenses here. If you shoot with Nikon or something else, rest assured that there are equivalent lenses for almost all camera makers, and third party lens makers like Sigma and Tamron that make lenses for them all. The key here, however, is finding a lens with a very large aperture and the right focal length for shooting hockey. To keep things simple, I’m only going to recommend two lenses. There are others that might work for you in different situations but I can personally recommend these two. The important thing to keep in mind is that, no matter what, you are going to need something that has a aperture of f2.8 or lower to take good hockey photos. Here is the easy part: buy a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens or a Canon 135mm f/2.0 prime lens (here are excellent reviews of these lenses: 70-200 f/2.8 and 135 f/2.0 ).  And now the hard part: expect to spend $1,350 for the 70-200 zoom (there is also a version of this lens with Image Stabilization for around $1,900 – a great feature, but of no use when shooting moving objects) or around $1,100 for the 135mm prime. See what I meant by separating the wheat from the chaff? OK, for those of you that have decided to continue reading, the primary difference is that the 70-200mm is a zoom lens. I’m assuming you know what that means. The aperture can open up to f/2.8 all the way through the focal range. This is very important, and why this lens is so expensive. This is the lens you’ll most commonly see being used by professionals shooting hockey. It’s much bigger and heavier than the 135mm I mentioned. But it does give you the advantage of the zoom, so you can better frame the action that is closer to you as well as further away. The 135mm is a fixed focal length, or what is referred to as a ‘prime’ lens. It doesn’t zoom. It is fixed at 135mm. But it is faster, at f/2.0, than the 70-200 and the images are sharper – amazingly sharp. It is also much smaller and lighter, which starts to matter when you’ve had to hold your lens pointed at the action for any period of time. Because the focal length is only 135mm, you are only going to be able to fill the frame on about half the rink. However, if your camera shoots at a large megapixel size, you can tighten your compositions later in an image editing program.

The third setting that can help is the ISO. This used to refer to a particular film’s sensitivity to light and could bring more light to your images. In digital cameras it works a little different but the results are basically the same. To simplify, let’s just say that the higher you set this, the more light you get. But the grain or ‘noise’ in your image will also increase. It’s a trade-off. And each camera is different. You’ll have to experiment with this one. But figure on being able to set your ISO to around 800 with acceptable results.

LIGHT THE LAMP?: What about flash?

What about using a flash?, you may ask. Well, first off, a flash won’t reach all that far and won’t recharge fast enough to keep up with the frames-per-second speed of your camera shutter’s potential. You can’t use them to shoot through glass because all you’ll get is a big white reflection of the flash. Not to mention, it’s really annoying to the players. Ask any goalie how he feels about strobes going off in his eyes when he’s trying to glove a slapshot from the point. Some professionals set up strobes in the rafters that are synchronized to their cameras. This can produce fantastic results, but most likely, you will never have that luxury.

SHOTS ON GOAL:  Where should I stand to get the best shots?

Ah, your shooting location. Kind of an important factor, no? Depends. Obviously, if you can talk your way onto the bench or the penalty box, do it. Anytime you can avoid having to shoot through glass or netting, you are in a much better situation. Shooting through the glass can work. In fact, sometimes you can get great shots you can’t get any other way. Behind the goalie, with a skater driving right at you and lifting one just past the goalies glove. You’re not going to get that angle from the bench. But when you shoot through the glass you have to first find a clean area – not always easy to do. You must also keep your lens perpendicular, and as close to the glass as possible, to cut down on reflections. And even with all that, you’re still going to lose a full stop in your exposure. So that fast lens you bought just got a little bit slower. Shooting through the safety netting is equally tricky. Depth-of-field will blur the netting and almost make it seem to disappear – almost.

STICK TAPE: A few more equipment details.

Here are a few more settings for you to dial in. Remember, with many of the pro-sumer camera models, you can save all of these settings so you can bring ’em all back after they’ve been changed to take pictures of your dog.

Set your auto focus to the ‘AI Servo’ setting on a Canon camera or ‘Continuous Focus’ for Nikons. This makes your camera continuously refocus on a subject that is moving towards or away from you.

Set your drive mode to High-speed Continuous shooting. Depending on your camera, this will let you shoot several frames per second, or a entire sequence of shots as the action is occurring.

And finally, I want to touch briefly on rink lighting. Every rink is different. In fact, even on the same rink the lighting changes from spot to spot. You can’t always see it with your eyes, but the camera does. Often the type of lights used can throw a cast on your images. I’m not going to go into detail here, but reading up on how to use your camera’s white balance adjustment can be a big help in this area.

SHOOT-OUT: Now go out there and make it happen!

So, there you go. You now know all you need to know in order to go out and get acceptable action hockey photographs. I say ‘acceptable’ because to get ‘great’ ones will take practice, timing, opportunity and mastering your camera. It also helps greatly to know the game of hockey so you can anticipate where the action is going to happen. Now go out there and capture these moments. They will never happen again.

© Mark Buzek
eBrush Design

Please stop by and see my custom design work at Hockey Shirt Shop – the place to find that unique hockey gift for the hockey player in your life!

MarkHockey Photography: A How-To Guide

19 Comments on “Hockey Photography: A How-To Guide”

  1. Bob

    Wow! Finally, an easy-to-understand walk-through of how to shoot hockey photos! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for, a no-bs-here’s-what-you-need-to-do-this explanation in layman’s terms.

    Thank you so much!

  2. Alicia

    Your site has been very helpful – as hockey and photographer “want to be” it has enlightened me on a couple things – 1 – the lens – I have to bite the bullet and get the right lens instead of continuing to be frustrated with my cheapo! Darnit anyway – if I would have done that in the first place i probably would have saved myself alot of time and frustrations!!!!! Thanks again for the great pointers! Any thoughts on how I should set the metering? Evaluative, Partial, or Center Weighted?????

  3. Mark

    Thanks for the nice comment, Alicia. Glad I could be of some help.
    You also ask a great question about metering. I would actually love to hear some other opinions on that topic. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I do. . .

    I use Evaluative metering and then overexpose by one stop to compensate for the bright white ice. I basically try to get the best exposure of the players’ faces as possible. With this in mind, I also use a single autofocus point (top center) so that I am zeroing my focus in on the player’s face. Because of the very narrow depth-of-field you get at around f/2, this helps me get their faces in focus.

    Mark

  4. Chris

    Thanks for the thoughts. I have been shooting in a variety of rinks and finally hit upon the correct White Balance and speed settings to make the pictures acceptable. Normally the setting is somewhere between 3500 and 4000 k if your camera can adjust K value.

    My next challenge is to figure out how to mount a camera inside the goal. I have all of the necessary remote equipment, but I looking for a box to protect the camera. They are used in the NHL, but I cannot find one on line. Any one have an idea before I build one myself.

    Chris

  5. Mark

    Thanks so much for contributing, Chris. You are far more ambitious than I with the goal mounted camera. You would most definitely get some awesome shots if you can work that out. Hopefully someone will pitch in some advice on the topic. I’d love to know more about it myself. Good luck!

  6. Andy

    Nice little article. I didn’t personally learn much from it beyond what I already know, but it’s always nice to get another person’s perspective on things, especially when it comes to stuff like lenses.

    I know the most recent comments are 6 months old, but I have a few thoughts. For WB, I usually take a custom reading off the ice. The lighting is actually pretty even at the local rinks, so this seems to work well. Even if the light varies a bit, it should stay close enough to fix it up in post-processing.

    As for exposure settings, probably the best option is to expose off of a gray card and leave it at that. Again, your mileage may vary depending on the lighting at your rink. It takes a lot of practice, and some intuition to get it right and much of the time the exposure just isn’t going to be right anyway.

    If you don’t have a gray card, try exposing off of a player’s face (that’s really what you’re after anyway — there’s so much emotion in hockey, and the expression on a player’s face is hands down the best way to capture that), or use your hand. My hand is about two stops over the gray card exposure.

    If I may make a recommendation, a place called lensrentals.com provides rentals for numerous lenses, cameras, and accessories, so that may be a good way to go to try things out. Better to spend $40 to rent a Canon 70-200 for four days than $1200+ to buy one to find out you hate shooting hockey. They have a huge inventory (or so they claim), good customer service, and fast turnaround. Just make sure you pay the extra few bucks for the damage waiver!

  7. Pingback: Hockey photos « Click Whirr

  8. KKH

    Great article. I am also a Canon shooter, and will def change my focus point – I use center normally, but what a simple, yet smart idea. Love that you recognized Meg Handy and her Hockey Mom Blog. I agree – she is very funny and insightful.

  9. SMB

    Loved the article!! I’m ready to invest in a better lens but have a question – can you provide some more insight as to which direction I should go 70-200 f/2.8 or 135 f/2.0?? I have a Nikon. Am not near professional photography and just started playing w/ the manual settings based on your article and have received good results from that alone. Which lens is a better fit for me (need less maintenance w/ good results). I usual take from glass view or bench.

  10. Mark

    Thanks, SMB

    I’m not sure I can say much more on the choice between these two great lenses. Also, I’m afraid I’m not even sure if Nikon has exact equivalents. I’m assuming that they do. But the choice between them is a bit of a compromise. And you just have to determine which factors are more important to you and your particular situation.

    The 135 is much lighter, faster and sharper – all of which will help you shooting hockey. It also brings simplicity in that you don’t have to work the zoom, you just focus and shoot – which as you already know, is hard enough. On the other hand, you do not have the ability to zoom in on the action and more tightly frame your shots. The 135 also has a shorter focal length than the 200mm that the other lens gives you. So there will be parts of the rink that you simply won’t be able to get close enough to with the 135mm prime.

    With all of that said, I shoot with the 135mm prime. The extra stop to f/2.0 is just huge in some of the rinks I shoot in. And I get to take a break when the action is out of my range 😉 But I do, unfortunately, miss some great shots because of this. Also, I used to shoot 3 or 4 games in a row and I’m not sure if I could have done that hand-holding the heavy 70-200. I’m comfortable with the compromise I made for my situation. You may be different, of course.

    Either way, you’ll get what you want. And hey, if you can afford it, just get ’em both 😉

  11. Rob Rasmussen

    This is a great article, thank you for writing it and sharing it. Do you have any suggestions on white balance? How about on the metering mode? And I do have a Canon, but I can’t seem to find AI Servo in the settings. Any thoughts? Again, great article, thank you!

  12. Mark

    Thanks, Rob.

    White balance is the weakest part of my game. I’m sure there are folks that can give you better advice than me on that subject. I tend to do all of my color adjustment in Photoshop. This is less than ideal, but I am very comfortable with Photoshop, so it works for me.

    On my camera the AI Servo setting can be acquired by pressing the AF-DRIVE button on top of the camera and turning the dial through the ONE SHOT, and AI FOCUS modes to the AI SERVO mode. Make sense?

    I use Evaluative metering and cheat down one stop from where my meter centers up. I’m sure that’s not ideal either. I would think the Partial metering mode may work as well, but somewhere in my past tinkering I settled on my approach for a reason I no longer even remember. Ha!

    If you find a combination of these settings that works better I would welcome the advice. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m sure there is someone out there that knows a better way 😉

  13. Steve

    I shoot hockey with a Canon 50D and a Canon 70-200 f/2.8L.

    I always set my white balance using the “custom white balance”, and shoot it off the ice before a game, and then pop a couple test shots to see how things look. If it’s not quite right, editing the pictures at home can fix that easily. It’s usually pretty darn close, and certainly close enough not to worry about during the game.

    I shoot college hockey in a very dreary arena, so I have little light to work with, and some very fast players to try to freeze in a shot. The lens stays at f/2.8, and I have my shutter speed set to 1/800 and ISO at 1600. I like to try to freeze the puck in motion, so my settings might be off from what others use. And again, this is a dark arena, so it can be tricky.

    I am fortunate in that this arena has what I call “photographer’s seats” at one end – they’re about 7 feet tall and get you up above the glass.

    From experience, I agree 100% with your recommendation of the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L lens. I shoot hockey exclusively with that lens, and I like the versatility of a zoom because things change so quickly during a game.

    As you said, every arena is different with its lighting, so people should use your great recommended settings as a base, get to the game early, shoot some test shots, and adjust things from there. Above all, have fun!

  14. Steve

    Good grief, I forgot to mention what I think is a very important setting: burst mode. I always shoot with the highest burst mode, to give myself the most shots to choose from, and the best chance to get that “keeper” shot that you won’t get by shooting single frames.

  15. Mark

    Excellent advice, Steve. Thanks for contributing!
    I hope everyone gets a chance at a ‘photographer’s seat’. Whether from the bench, through a hole in the glass, or above the glass, it sure makes a big difference if you don’t have to shoot through the glass.

  16. Stacie

    WOW!!!! Your site was amazing and so helpful. You made it easy to understand and fun. Thanks so muc!!

  17. Kirsten Bishop

    I really appreciate finding this advice. I’m excited to try out this advice at my sons’ next games. Looks like I’ll be saving up for a new lens too. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!!!

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