"Keep your head down and always know where the ball is. It hurts when you get hit." And with that, I was off and running. Here's what it was like stepping out of portraits and events and into the world of professional sports photography.
I'm a baseball fanatic. I wanted to be a pro player until an unfortunate injury cut that childhood dream short. Nowadays, I just go to a ton of games and annoy my friends with my incessant fandom. However, my photography work generally consists of portraits and events, with an aerial hobby on the side. So, while I know the game of baseball very well, I don't have the experience of shooting it.
So, when Robert Wagner of Man Overboard Images invited me to Toledo to shoot a Mud Hens and Clippers game, I was both excited and extremely nervous. The Mud Hens and Clippers are Triple A affiliates of the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, one step below the major leagues. In fact, many of the players in the dugout next to me were people I had seen playing for the Indians at some point this season. It was quite a first game to step into!
1. You're Always Paying Attention
Baseball is a quirky game full of starts and stops. It's easy to get lulled into thinking nothing of note is about to happen, but there's always the potential for something spectacular or strange. With the ball routinely moving at about 90-100 mph, if you're not constantly at the ready, you'll miss action. On the same token, the photographers in the bay are some of the most likely non-players to have an errant ball head their direction, so there's no time to stop paying attention, even for a single pitch.
2. You Have to Love and Know the Game
Baseball is a game where numerical trends meet managerial intuition and raw athletic talent. Understanding the flow of the game and its strategy is crucial to setting yourself up to get workable shots.
I'm not saying you need to carry around spray charts (though if they made a convenient app for that, I would totally use that). But if there's a right-handed hitter known to pull at the plate with a man on second, you know the action is likely going to be on the left side of the infield. Being trained on the shortstop in advance and playing the odds gives you a better chance of payoff than trying to wildly frame up, focus, and shoot an image with an unwieldy 400mm lens as the ball goes darting across the grass.
4. Gear Matters
Anyone who tries to tell you gear doesn't matter in sports photography is a liar. You're far away from the action, things happen very quickly, and it's often dark. All this adds up to needing long, fast lenses and modern bodies with great high ISO performance, stellar autofocus, and snappy frame rates. In fact, for this game, here was my list of gear:
- Canon 1D X Mark II
- Canon 5D Mark IV
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens
- Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Lens
- Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM Lens
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM Lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens
My ISO varied anywhere between 250 and 25,600 during the game. My shutter speed was always between 1/2,000 s and 1/3,200 s to freeze the ball. The shot you see above was 1/2,000 s, 300mm, f/2.8, ISO 4000, and that was only in the 5th inning. I'm not saying you can't shoot with lesser gear and a good sense of timing, but being far from the action, needing good autofocus, and not having a choice of backgrounds all makes for a real argument for gear definitely making a difference.
5. AFMA Is Your Friend
While we're on the subject of fast, long lenses, it's good to note that with that thin depth of field, a good autofocus microadjustment is in order. The day before the game, I lugged all my heavy lenses into the courtyard, fired up FoCal on my laptop, and sat there for two hours while it did its thing and my neighbors leered at me through parted curtains, wondering what on earth the weird guy from apartment 2B was doing. Then it rained on me. I'm pretty sure my neighbors cheered when that happened. Anyway, the AFMA was definitely worth it and made a noticeable difference in my keeper rate. If you've never done it before, it's also easy to do by hand; check out my article on the process here.
The two images above were taken about .07 s apart from each other, and you can see that both the white balance and exposures are different, even though they were both shot at 1/2,000 s, f/2.8, 193mm, ISO 10,000. Stadium lights typically work on a dark/light cycle that's normally too fast for anyone to notice. On the other hand, when you're shooting at fast shutter speeds and frame rates, it becomes rather obvious. Modern higher end cameras come with a flicker warning and reduction system, but that typically reduces the frame rate a bit. In this case, I chose to deal with it so I could keep shooting at 14 fps.
7. There's Room for Art"Come back behind home plate and watch the shadows," Scott Grau, a Toledo sports photographer, told me. Sure enough, as the shadow of the stadium crept toward the pitcher's mound, a gorgeous play between light and dark emerged, perfectly framing the pitcher for about a minute before he was fully engulfed. There's definitely room to inject your own personal style or show off something that's photographically interesting.
8. Differentiation Is Tough
We've all seen players swinging bats and pitchers throwing balls. Finding something unique, whether it be capturing a spectacular play, a unique angle, or the personality of a player is crucial to developing a memorable style and creating interesting images.
9. The Light Is Horrible and GreatI spent four hours alternating between loving and cursing the light. Sometimes, it's harsh stadium lighting that makes everything look sterile and gross. Other times, it's a gorgeous late-afternoon glow that bathes the mound and naturally spotlights the pitcher. I quickly learned to take advantage of those moments.
10. Baseball Is Its Own Culture
Part of the reason baseball nuts like me love the game is its quirky culture. It's awash in unwritten rules, superstitions, traditions, and behavior that ranges from bizarre to passionate to hilarious. Getting good shots is about more than showing off athletic prowess; it's also about conveying what it is that makes baseball baseball.
11. It's Still the Best Game on the PlanetThat's not open for debate.
Special thanks to Robert Wagner and Scott Grau for inviting me to the game and showing me the ropes!