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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
How to Photograph Baseball - from Little League to Big League
While it's fun to look at baseball photos in newspapers and magazines, you don't have to be a world-famous photojournalist to take exciting sports pictures of your favorite team, its players, and the drama and elegance that is baseball. You can do it too. All you need is some knowhow.
What about equipment? The good news is that you don't need a 600mm lens and a ten-frame-per-second motordrive SLR like the "Hot Shots" have. Of course, heavy artillery like this can help, but you can take great baseball pictures with just about any camera. Here's how...
The Inverse-Access Law.
There's one fundamental principle we made up, that we call the Inverse Access Law. It relates to what you have to expect when you go to the game. Simply stated, the "Law" is this: The bigger the league, the farther you'll probably be from the action. Don't be discouraged. This "law" applies equally to professional photographers as well as amateurs. In a Major League game, when the umpire cries "Play Ball," no one is allowed on the field. No one. Period. End of story.
Realize, the professional photographer with the right Press Pass and the big lens can be on the sidelines at a football or basketball game...but not at a baseball game. With America's "National Pastime," everybody - professional and amateur alike — shoots from the stands though there are press boxes in a few key locations for the pros. However you still have a lot of photo opportunities even from the stands.
And, there's the rub - even for the professional. The bigger the stadium, the greater the distance from the playing field to the stands. So be prepared: Major League games will give you minimum opportunity for great shots - especially if your seats are way out in the bleachers. But don't despair just yet - we've got some hints later in this article that can get you closer even in Major League stadiums.
In any event, at the local little league field or humble sandlot diamond, you won't have any problem positioning yourself close to the action. Usually, you can walk right up to the backstop behind home plate, and stick your camera through the fence for an over-the-umpire's-shoulder view. Only the catcher will have a better view. And if there are some seats along the first-base side of the diamond, you may be able to claim the front row and make it your personal press box!
What does this all mean? Simply that you've got to be realistic and realize that you'll get closer to the action and get better shots at the small ballfield. But, as we just said, don't give up on the BIG stadium yet.
First, let's go over some tips for handling the action at all types of baseball fields. We call these tips, the Six Commandments.
1. Get as close to the action as you can.
Wherever possible - in big stadium or sandlot seats - try to nearly fill the frame with your subject rather than have him or her show up as a distant speck. (If you're not clear as to what the intended subject of your photo is, review the Picture of the Month Review and NYI's Three Guidelines elsewhere on this Website.)
How close is close enough? The closer the better. Following our "Inverse Access Law," you know that you probably can get right on the sidelines - or in the first row of seats - at a sandlot, Little League, or high-school game. For college games, semi-pro, or spring-training Big League games, you can usually get pretty close - especially if you apply some added charm or "weight." If you're an NYI student, your NYI Press Pass can provide this added "weight." With or without the pass, if you have any trouble getting close to the action at these games, we advise that you call ahead for a later game and speak with the press or public relations office. Explain that you're a serious photographer (if you have any exotic equipment, here's a good place to name-drop) and you'd like to get access to the press box for the game. If this fails, ask for permission to photograph the pregame warm ups.
What about the regular season Big League game? You probably won't get really close to the action. (As we said a moment ago, no one does!) But this doesn't mean you're out of luck.
It simply means that you'll have to use a longer lens to fill the frame. How long a lens? This, of course, depends upon where you sit. From most seats in the stands, a 200mm lens (or an 80-200mm zoom) will probably do fine. But realize this: The maximum aperture of your 200mm lens is probably around ƒ/4.5. It's not very fast. This means that you may not be able to shoot at a fast-enough shutter speed to stop the action, especially when your subject is in a shaded area of the field. It should, however, be fine for action in sunny areas - so concentrate on those. (At the end of this article, we discuss the equipment brought by the big-time pros. What we've said here may give you an inkling of why he or she probably uses a 300mm lens with an ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture.)
Another point, it's all well and good to sit in the bleachers and have your 200mm ready to catch the action, but.... Be realistic. What happens when that home run is hit out of the park or there's a close play at home? Right. Everybody stands up! This means that your 200mm will get an out-of-focus view of the back of the shirt of the person in front of you, but little else.
How can you avoid this? By planning your position in advance. If possible, try to get seated in a front row where your view will be unobstructed. You can't get such a seat? OK. How about going to a game when the stands aren't crowded, and sitting where there's no one in front of you. Sit in the last row in the stands if necessary. But get an unobstructed view!
Still, there are more opportunities for you to get close at the Big League ballpark. Pre-game and postgame activities can be ideal for access to your favorite players. Get to the stadium early, an hour or more before game time, and don't be surprised if you can walk down to the first row with your camera. Frequently, you'll be able to shoot closeups of players taking batting practice, standing around waiting for their turn at bat, practicing fielding, signing autographs, or just talking with fans in the stands. You should be able to get some great shots!
Lots of players are also generous with their time when they're leaving the stadium after the game as well. In a large professional ballpark, you won't have a hard time finding the players' entrance; it's generally crowded with fans waiting for their favorite heroes to emerge.
To boil all this down: Try to get as close to the action as you can. Use a long lens if you're seated way back. Make sure your view is unobstructed. And consider pre-game and post-game photo ops when all else fails.
2. Show the ball in the picture.
When you shoot an action photo, whether it's the batter taking a mighty swing or a close play at first base, the picture is much more effective if it shows the ball too. Or, if you're shooting the outfielder circling under a fly ball, try to capture the ball in the same picture so that we see the subject of the fielder's concentration.
Of course, not every shot can show the ball. For example, the photo showing the kids in the "dugout" while their team is at bat can't show the ball. And there are some action shots that work fine without the ball: The runner sliding into third, for example, may make a great shot even if the ball is still on its way from the outfield. That means this is a "Commandment" that has to be used with intelligence.
3. Use fast film.
ISO 400 is good, 800 is better, and 1000 or 3200 is often even better - or absolutely necessary. You want fast film because you want to use the fastest possible shutter speed to stop the action. But what about graininess?
For years photographers worried about excess grain the way mothers worried about polio. Science has made both ills a thing of the past.
Yes, you can still find some photographers who dither on about grain in a photo, but they probably haven't dusted their specs in years. Graininess in photos, or rather the perception of excess grain, has been virtually eliminated from today's films - fast ones and slow ones. You want to use fast film so you can "stop" the action even in shaded areas of the field.
On some cameras - especially older models - you have to "tell" the camera the film speed. On most cameras today, when you load in fast film, the camera automatically reads its speed - the DX Coding on the canister "tells" the camera the film speed. Accordingly, when the camera calculates proper exposure for the faster film, it automatically uses a higher shutter-speed with a given aperture. And, as we've said, a fast shutter speed is the key to catching peak action without a blur.
4. Show the player's facial expression, if possible.
In photojournalism, they call this a "reaction shot." It's the look of triumph or tragedy written indelibly on the player's face. It's what every good photo editor looks for in pictures that will make tomorrow's sports section. And reaction shots - facial expressions - will make your baseball pictures too.What types of facial expressions? We've already referred to the look of triumph or tragedy - on television, what they refer to as the look of "agony or ecstasy." That's what you want to capture in your picture: The joyous grin of the batter as he watches the ball sail over the fence. The exultation of the pitcher after he throws a third strike. The look of disgust as the batter slams his bat down after striking out. The cheers - or dejection - of the waiting players in the dugout as they watch their teammate get a crucial hit...or strike out. The grimace of distress on the pitcher's face as the umpire calls "Ball Four." And, of course, the angry look of the coach as he argues with the umpire.
But, don't forget, all reaction shots are not on the field. Turn around and take pictures of the fans in the stands whose faces reflect the action on the field. There's human action everywhere you look - on the field and in the stands. And good reaction photos are winners!
Realize this: You can't always capture the critical moment of the action. Sometimes it takes place out of your camera range. Sometimes you just plain miss it. But you can, and should, try to get great reaction shots at every game.
5. Anticipate where the action will be.
We've just referred to the "critical moment." Those of you familiar with the works of Henri Cartier Bresson know he thought that every great photo resulted from capturing, what he called, the decisive moment. Let's refer to it in baseball as the critical moment. While we've said you can't always capture the critical moment, you certainly should try. And this means anticipating where the action is likely to occur.
If you want to photograph a runner who's on first, either set yourself up near first base (to get shots of pick-off attempts) or near third base (to get the runner if there's a hit). If your subject is the batter, either get as close as you can to the batter's box (so you can have a good angle to record the mighty swing) or close to first base (where you can grab a shot after he or she connects with the ball...or strikes out). What about that "over-the-umpire's-shoulder" shot from behind home plate that we mentioned earlier? It's a great position for using a long lens to capture the pitcher's grimacing facial expressions as he delivers the ball (or watches it sail over his head), but not a great position to capture the batter's face. A bit off to the side (toward first base) is better for this.
What do we mean by anticipate? We mean that you should aim your camera at the point where you expect the action to be, and preset the focus for that area. (If you're using a quick-reacting autofocus camera, you may not have to deal with this.) Let's say there are runners on second and third. The big play is most likely to be at the plate, so it makes sense to train your camera on the plate, set focus (and, as we explain in a moment, exposure)...and wait for the action to unfold. If you're right, and there is a play at home, you're ready to capture the critical moment. But don't take your eye away from the camera after you shoot the first shot. Be ready to shoot a second...and a third. Anything can happen. The ball might be dropped by the catcher. The runner may exchange a photogenic "high-five" with the on-deck batter. The manager may come storming out to protest the call. Be ready!
One other advantage of anticipating where the action will be, involves exposure. (If your camera offers quick-acting autoexposure, you may be able to rely on it when you shoot.) Typically, one thing you have to consider during day games is that one part of the field may be in bright sun while the rest is in shadow. If you anticipate the action at home plate which is in bright sun, you can set your exposure for the bright home-plate area in advance. If you don't anticipate - and your camera does not offer quick-acting autoexposure - your exposure may be way off.
Where you have a choice of shooting action in a sunny area or a shadow area, opt for the sun. You want to shoot at the fastest possible shutter-speed to freeze the action. Deep shadows may call for a slower shutter-speed that won't stop the action. Of course, if you have no choice the first rule is: Go where the action is!
6. And finally, be prepared for the unexpected.
While it's great to be able to follow all five of the prior Commandments, they're not a straitjacket. Be alert for the possibility of something that makes a good picture, even though it's elsewhere on the field and you couldn't possibly anticipate it. In the words of the Boy Scouts, "Be prepared."
(We should point out that these Six Commandments are valid for just about any action team sport - be it football, soccer, hockey, basketball, volleyball, or cricket.)
What the pros use.
We can't leave this topic without discussing what the pro uses at a baseball game. We noted earlier, that the typical professional sports photographer probably uses a lens like an ƒ/2.8 300mm. Why? He or she wants to be able to stop the action wherever it happens, whether in the shade or bright sun. Your ƒ/4.5 200mm may stop the action in bright sun, but it may not be fast enough to stop the action in shady areas. That's why we advise you to use fast film. The faster the film, the less light you need to stop the action with your ƒ/4.5.
As an alternative, you can run out and buy an ƒ/2.8 300mm or some other long and fast lens like the pros. Very impressive artillery. But should you rush out and buy one? Not unless money means nothing to you. Longer lenses are available at higher prices!
But that's not the only equipment the pro uses at a baseball game.
Naturally, pros carry more than one camera body. Plus an assortment of long lenses. Plus a monopod or tripod to steady those heavy telephoto lenses. And their cameras are usually equipped with motor drives so they can shoot multiple frames without having to advance the film manually. They also bring lots of film and spare batteries with them, along with tele-extenders to beef up the focal length of their long lenses, plus a light meter for checking critical exposure, and a flash for close-up work before and after the game.
Having noted that pros bring lots of film to a baseball game. Let's qualify that. Today, more and more newspaper and magazine sports photographers use no film at all. How? They use a high-end digital camera that can take regular interchangeable lenses, with a CCD chip in place of the film. These cameras are quite expensive - costing thousands of dollars for the complete system. The cost is worth it to a newspaper because it enables them get sports pictures transmitted and ready for publication in a matter of minutes. In fact, today, digital cameras are becoming more and more the standard for photojournalist sports photography, rather than the exception. However, you can also take photos at a baseball game using the more affordable digital point-and-shoot cameras provided you understand the limitations that many of them have.
(The way digital pictures are captured by newspaper sports photographers, transmitted by phone or satellite uplink, and put on the printed page within minutes is a fascinating story that is described in detail in the NYI Lessons on Photojournalism.)The moral of all this is that you don't need the pro's heavy artillery to take outstanding baseball pictures. Just combine your existing camera with some "smarts" - apply some of the knowhow we've presented in this article - and the next time you go to the ballpark, you'll come home with some really great pictures.