Baseball has been described as a game of hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror. Capturing those moments of intense action is the rewarding challenge of baseball photography.
Baseball has also been called a game of inches--the difference between a strike and a ball, a fair ball or a foul ball, a home run and a double. Baseball photography is a game of millimeters--the focal length of the lens, and narrow depth of field--and timing--choosing fast shutter speeds and aiming at the right place at the right time.
One of the advantages of digital SLRs (most of them, anyway) is that if they have a smaller-than-35mm-format sensor, they effectively turn modest telephoto lenses and tele zooms into longer ones. That may not be so good if you like to shoot lots of wide-angle shots, but if you're shooting sports--such as baseball--it's a wonderful thing.
The other advantage of DSLRs over compact digital cameras is there is virtually no lag time. In a game where split-second timing can spell the difference between a winning and losing photograph, no lag time is essential.
It doesn't really matter if you're shooting in a major league ballpark, a minor-league stadium, or a local sandlot. The way you position yourself for the shot, your choice of focal lengths, exposure, and timing are all basically the same.
Let's take your camera out to the ballgame!
Faceplant! Sometimes (especially in pee-wee leagues) slides can go awry. If there's a runner on first, and you know Coach encourages the kids to slide, focus on second. You might get a successful slide, or a happy accident like this one. (What's the follow-up shot? A closeup of this kid's dirty face!) Photo © iStockphoto.com/Nicholas Moore
Before we get into shooting technique, let's do a reality check. Until you've built up a portfolio of baseball action pictures that will knock the socks off an editor of a major metropolitan newspaper or magazine, the chances of your getting access to the photographer's box in a major league stadium are, frankly, very small. And the rest of the seats are either out of most mortals' price range or just too far away for meaningful photos.
(Minor league games are slightly more reasonable, since front row seats are often affordable and available. Make sure your seat is between home plate and either first or third--not in the outfield--and isn't blocked by the backstop!)
Keep your eye on the ball: Everyone playing the game is doing it, and so should you. Wherever the ball is there's sure to be something interesting to photograph. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Bill Grove
Start in the bush leagues
How do you build a portfolio of great baseball shots? Practice, kid. Practice.
Start locally. Approach your neighborhood Little League or Senior league and tell them you want to take pictures. The coaches and players would love the attention of a professionally-equipped photographer and if you give away some prints you'll get plenty of access. Here's where you get to work on your timing, make your mistakes, and hone your skill. (And if you do make a mistake, don't worry, the players are making plenty of their own, and will hopefully be forgiving if you miss a shot here and there.)
As you build your collection and gain confidence in your abilities, try approaching a community newspaper editor with samples of your work. Offer to work for free--they like that and you will end up with a bunch of clips. Make sure to include names of players, team names, and the final score when you submit shots.
If you are simply interested in the local angle, this may be enough. But if you seriously want to work your way up to the big leagues (and it is work) after some time you will have a collection of shots that you can use to gain credentials for area minor league games via local daily papers or web sites. The rest is a matter of even more hard work –and a lot of luck. (Did I just hear a Sports Illustrated stringer sneeze?)
Know the game
If you're reading this article, you probably have at least a passing interest in baseball. More likely, you're a fan. That's good, because a thorough knowledge of the game, and what happens (or might happen) and when, is essential to catching the action. For instance, early in the game watch to see how the batters are hitting. If there are a lot of ground balls, you can focus on infielders and wait for the ball to be hit to them with reasonable confidence that you'll get some good shots of them fielding the ball and firing it off to the first baseman.
If there are runners on base, move over to the third base side: there will likely be a play at third base or home plate so you want to capture the runners either head-on or sideways. If you know a player on first or second is likely to slide into third, focus on third base. Eventually you may be rewarded with a stopper. If not, try again tomorrow.
Safe at home! To get a sliding shot like this shot, focus on the base (or in this case, home plate) and wait. Sometimes there won't be a play, but when there is, you'll be ready. A focus limiter is very helpful for catching this kind of shot. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Nicole Kilpatrick
Covering all the bases
Most of the action takes place in and around the batter's box, so let's start there. Avoid shooting through the backstop--the chain link fence will create a distracting pattern. To cover the most action, position yourself between home plate and first or third base. If there's a fence protecting spectators, kneel just at the end of the fence.
As soon as you're in position, prefocus on one of your three most important targets: Home plate, the pitcher, and first base. If you have a focus limiter on your lens, now's the time to put it into use. A focus limiter limits the lens range of focus. So if home plate is 60 feet away and first base is 30 feet away, you can limit the focus range to 30-60 feet. The lens can more quickly and accurately snap into focus in the heat of action.
Focus limiters are mostly found on prosumer and pro lenses. If you don't have a focus limiter on your lens, focus on one base, or home plate, or the pitcher's mound), autofocus on the base, switch to manual focus, and wait for the action to come into the frame.
Make contact: The moment batters make contact with the ball (or try to) is one of intensity and concentration…and timing! Keep practicing until you are able to catch the moment. (No cheating--don't use your burst mode until you know how to do this!) Photo © iStockphoto.com/Dave Herriman
As the batters work on making contact with the ball, you can work on your timing too. Aim for the moment bat and ball meet (or just miss!). Show the batter's face, because his or her intense effort to whack the ball with great velocity may result in a grimace or facial contortion that'll make the photo.
Here's the pitch: Study the pitcher's windup and timing so you can capture the peak moment. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Steve Engelmann
Pictures of pitchers
It's always good to get a shot of the pitcher. If you want to shoot him or her head-on, move behind the backstop and get right up to the chain-link fencing, and shoot through an opening as best you can. Choose the widest aperture and a fast shutter speed. Watch the pitcher wind up and throw a few times before taking pictures so you can get the timing right, and shoot for the most intense moment in the pitching motion.
To avoid shooting through the backstop, move to either side of the mound. Shoot righties from the right-field side, and southpaws from behind the left-field foul line. Again, study their pitching motion and capture the moment when you can see their face clearly.
Less challenging but just as dynamic are pictures staring at their catchers reading their signs. The intense look (Okay, maybe not so intense in little league) can say a lot about the pitcher.
Who's on first (or second, or third...)?
Typically, if you're standing near first base you won't need a long lens. A modest focal length should be fine. Sliding into first is a rarity except when the pitcher tries to pick off a player. So if nobody's on first, have a short focal length lens ready to catch the action--usually a runner trying to beat a throw.
If there's a runner on first and he looks like he might try to steal second, zoom in, and focus on the first-base bag, leaving room for the action in the upper half of the frame. If there's a pickoff attempt, you're all set to catch him diving back to avoid being tagged out.
Fielder's choice: Anticipation is part of the game, so capture it. Here's an Senior Leaguer in the ready position. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Glenda Powers
While you could shoot from the first base side, you will end up getting a lot of shots of fielders making plays, but the runners will always be running away from you. Since it's always better to see their faces, shoot some of the game from the third base side.
Since the middle infield covers a wide range, you'll want a tele zoom to get a better chance at catching the action. Keep an eye on the shortstop. Even before you try shooting him in action you can get him crouching and ready to make a play. You'll have plenty of opportunities to do this, since he needs to be in this position for every pitch.
Hey, slugger: You can see by the look in his eye that this kid is ready to go out there and do some damage. This is a photo his mom or dad would love to buy! When photographing the action, don't forget to look on the bench for players' expressions. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Andrew Rich
The seventh inning stretch
Reaction shots of fans and players are another aspect of the game. Be aware of what the fans are doing! (This is especially true if you are at a major league game: While you are unlikely to get a good shot of the game itself, fans can be a fun subject.) And if you've gained the trust of the players, you may get them to pose for you and you can then sell prints to them or (if little leaguers) their parents to help support your habit.
Fans are fun: Sitting up in the left field nosebleed section at Shea Stadium watching the New York Mets in the 2006 playoffs, this was as close to the action as I could get. So, I focused on the fans. Photo © 2006 Mason Resnick
Now, about that gear...
Minimally, you should have a telephoto zoom lens on a digital SLR, and that lens should have a 35mm equivalent range of around 70-300mm. This will cover most of the field (except the outfield) as well as the batter's box. An upgrade would be to have a longer zoom range, possibly as much as 400-500mm. Image Stabilization is a great idea for handheld shots, but at this focal length a monopod is essential. When shopping for a more advanced lens, look for a zoom range lock.
The wider the lens's aperture the better, as you will need the fastest shutter speed available to freeze both camera shake and subject motion. Also, a wide-open lens gives you dramatically narrow depth-of-field, throwing possibly distracting backgrounds out of focus. However, if you have a lower-cost lens, you can still get good quality images by boosting the ISO. Don't overdo this--you may find the grain at a high ISO setting (say 1000 or higher) may yield unacceptable grain. Shoot some practice frames and see how much grain each ISO produces, and how much you're willing to live with to stop action.
For more about choosing a lens, read our Sports Lens Buying Guide
When choosing a camera body, consider your budget (more money gets you a heavier, more durable camera that will have a faster burst rate; less dough buys a light, mobile unit that might not be as durable or reactive). Since you'll likely be working at a higher ISO so you can catch action, refer to our Best Low Light/High ISO DSLRs guide, or compare the models you're interested in at DxOMark's valuable image quality test site .
I do not recommend EVF cameras (Self-contained cameras with a built-in superzoom in the 20x to 30x range and an electronic viewfinder) because image quality won't be anywhere near as good as you can get with any DSLR, and because most suffer from lag time, preventing you from getting the split second moment of truth.
Want to shoot like a pro? This is not the way to do it! Instead, get physically as close to the game as possible, and learn your craft by practicing on amateur players with the right equipment and not with compact cameras. You'll get unlimited access to the action on a sandlot that you won't get in the majors. Photo: Mason Resnick