How to take ice hockey pictures ?

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This article has been written by DJ Dunzie

The reason I will often shoot aperture priority and dial in positive EC is because the lighting in most amateur hockey arenas is anything BUT static. There are hot spots all over the ice. Shooting full manual is a great option in the very odd arena - usually only in rinks that NHL teams play, or where banks of TV lighting is added. The sad truth is that I can have a range of exposures anywhere from 1/250th to 1/1000th on the same ice surface, depending on the location on the ice, and the cycle of the lights. Maybe this old photo will help illustrate that:


Point being you can see where the lighting is anything but static.

I realize some are suggesting spot metering and less EC, but the difficulty is that it's also very affected by the zoom you have in on the player, and the fact that one team's jerseys are dark (often black) and the others the polar opposite (white). And because jerseys are usually the largest non-ice surface taken account in metering, it really does fluctuate the exposure you get to where you want it - the faces. It isn't an exact science that way unfortunately. While I certainly understand what you're saying here John, and in theory I agree with it for basically most things, it doesn't necessarily translate to hockey where you need to get ideal exposure to faces and not everything else, when the face is usually a very small part of the overall image and could be surrounded by a pitch black or blazing white helmet and jersey. The camera is SO easily fooled, and wants to make that ice GREY instead of the white we ultimately want in the photos.

At any rate... I have saved a "hockey help" file that I'll paste and tweak a little here, hopefully there's something useful in here...

I have spent a lot of time trying to improve consistency and infinitely adjusting settings, and asking a lot of top hockey shooters their methods along the way, and what I am down to at this point is this...

(1) I shoot RAW, unless the photos are going to a tournament photo booth for immediate sale. The WB shifts under cycling lights are killer and so I...

(2) Set a custom WB. I've played around with this endlessly and STILL don't know if I've got it right. What you are aiming for is the best compromise, because perfect WB is impossible with the pink-blue shifting that is going on, often in the same frame. So I take an OOF WB shot off the ice, about 1/2 way through my intended shooting zone, with no blue or red lines or advertisements in it, and a longer shutter that will take into account a whole cycle of the lights. Also, I do this before the zamboni hits the ice, because once the ice is freshly wet, WB is much harder to get set right. When I'm done I will fire off a lot of test shots and check the RGB histo to make sure the highlights (ie the ice) is coming off white, and not too cool or warm (the red and blue channels should line up fairly close). Speaking of highlights...

(3) Whether you shoot spot metering or matrix, you want the ice to be clipping in the histogram when setting your exposure. I've shot full manual, I've shot aperture priority (which I do more often than not now). I've shot spot metering, I've shot center-weighted, and I've shot matrix. I'm finding now my best consistency comes from center-weighted, although I'm still not necessarily 100% convinced. The trouble is that sometimes shots have a lot of ice in them:


... and sometimes a little less:


... so that's why I tend to like center-weighted a little more. I dial in +1-1/3 to +1-2/3 EC if shooting aperture priority and generally in this mode and this EC I get 80% or more of my shots accurately just starting to clip the ice highlights. The idea is I want exposure to what counts - the faces - not the ice highlights. Beyond that, it's also because anyone who shoots regularly at very high ISO will tell you that underexposure corrected in post is a recipe for disaster. The number one mistake people shooting hockey for the first time make - by a mile - is that they don't get enough exposure, and when it's corrected in post, it looks noisy. Speaking of high ISO...

(4) Don't be afraid to jack up that ISO. Ideally you want to get at least 1/400th on the shutter, even for little guys. For the smallest slowest players you can make 1/250th work, but even those little guys can get motion blur in skates and hands at 1/250th. For the older / adult players, 1/500th is my minimum with today's bodies, but 1/640th and 1/800th would be great. With the D700/D3 I am comfortable starting at ISO3200 and tweaking from there, and the D3s at ISO6400. Having said that, I have some great shots with the D700 at ISO6400, and the D3s at ISO12800.

D700, ISO5000:


D3s, ISO12800:


... but again, to do this you need to get exposure right in-cam. I didn't add anything to these in post, which means you need to make sure you're getting the ice highlights clipping off the right edge in-cam, no matter what metering / EC setup you use. Adding exposure to high ISO shots as Guy is already well aware makes for grainy results, and lack of detail. Speaking of details...

(5) Camera settings... I usually use STANDARD or D2X MODE III for my hockey stuff. I set high ISO NR to low or normal, but low normally is better if you get exposure right. I don't do any NR in post any more. I'm an old dog for AF settings so I use a simple setup that lets the camera track its best, which for me is (gasp!) 11-point single area, and I manually move the AF target when I go from portrait to landscape grip. I try to get the AF point right on the helmet as I track a player, and because it's often a very small target in the VF, I set my AF lock-on to LONG to avoid board ads, other players, ice ads, etc from stealing focus away from my target when my AF point slips momentarily off track.

(6) For gear, my best combo is an FX body with a 300mm lens, although I will also use an FX body with a 70-200VR2. I no longer have a DX pro body, but the 70-200 range is excellent on DX. I find it maybe just a smidge too short for FX unless I shoot from the corners. The 300 is fantastic from mid-ice (in the boxes or the benches) and I can shoot both goalies very nicely with it from there on FX.

(7) From the corners, you're aiming for the players coming into the attacking zone with the puck, reactions to goals, etc. From mid-ice, you're looking more at defending players and goalies, unless the attacking players curl back out towards you. I believe the whole "get faces not backs" theory - although I have sold the odd player back shot if there's something interesting about it.

From mid-ice, player passes across:


From mid-ice, player coming out of zone:


From mid-ice, defending player:


From corner, player coming in:


From corner, player curling:


From corner, collision towards mid-ice:


Anyway, it's nice to mix things up.

(8) PLEXI! If you have to shoot through plexi - which we all know can rob contrast and detail because of glare - here's what I have found works best... Use the lens hood, and find the cleanest spot on the plexiglass you can find. Get the hood right up to and touching the glass, and use your support hand to cup the hood and hold it steady, and also to shield any light from getting between the lens and the glass when you need to shoot at anything but completely perpendicular. In post, you sometimes have to play with levels a little to bring back all the color and "pop".

(9) Speaking of post, all I do is check my WB using NX2 (set grey point, marquee sample, and use something either black or the white ice around the player). Then I may play with the levels curve just a little (spread it out to full range if necessary), add a little USM, and re-save as a JPG. That's it. I don't like NR in post because it smears details, and heck today's cameras are so good at high ISO that even printed large they look great. With the D2H and D200 and previous bodies, I used NR software, but that's because they didn't do ISO1600+ so well.

(10) Mix it up! I need to learn to do this more. I get stuck with single-player isolation shots a lot with my FX/300 combo. Those tend to sell well so there's a reason for it, but I love getting new or different angles or compositions too.


Look for expressions between play too. Sometimes it isn't the big hit or shot that sells, it's the shot of the expressions on the faces or excitement after a goal.

Plus, if you're selling, DON'T FORGET THE GOALIES. I don't know what it is, but goalie parents either make too much money or just are suckers for shots of their kids with wide eyes.


Anyway, I'm certainly not THE authority on the game or how to shoot it, but I know there have been a lot of guys that have really helped me when I started improving at this game, so I pass along what I have learned works for me, and hopefully that's some help.

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