Shootin’ amateur hoops like a pro

Low light? No flash? Get creative!

Here I am again, courtside in Madison Square Garden. I’ve got a remote-controlled camera gaffer-taped to the top of each backboard...

I sit right behind the basket, $10,000 worth of camera gear in my hands, as ten players taller than my ceiling come to within feet of where I sit, vying for a big orange ball, lit by banks of radio-controlled potato-masher flash units that my assistant mounted to the arena’s scaffolding before the game so I can freeze action and every skin pour is tack-sharp. I have split-second timing--and just in case, I also have a 10fps burst rate.

It’s time to rock, and I’m ready to make the cover of Sports Illustrated again...

(Mason wakes from his dream.)

Welcome to the real world, where my daughter, a fifth grader, has joined a girl’s basketball league that is part of the local school system’s athletic program. I’ve “volunteered” (had my arm twisted) to be the official photographer, and I’m up against some technical difficulties. If I can overcome them, I might not make the cover of SI, but I would make a bunch of picture sales to the girls’ parents and raise some funds for the program.

And right now, that’s more than enough for me.

While my dream may be an ideal, you are more likely to come across situations like mine. Here’s what I did, and what you need to know, to shoot indoor arena basketball shots like a pro.

First and foremost, there’s lighting. Most parents bring compact cameras and shoot the action from the stands with the flash on. Big mistake, for three reasons.

1. The flash only illuminates about 10-15 feet; the light won’t reach the players;
2. A compact camera’s reaction time is too slow; and
3. Without flash, when using a typical compact digital camera, you need to boost the ISO beyond the point where you would get a useable photo.

Low light and no flash means you need to think creatively as well as finding technical solutions. Here I stood facing center court and used a slow shutter speed (1/8 sec) while paning with the players to enhance the feeling of action. I shot all of the pictures in this article at ISO 1600 with my Canon EOS 20D and 18-55mm f/3.5-4.5 Canon kit lens.

Move up to courtside and use flash? Well, yes that might help you if the players are right there, but the flash could be momentarily blinding and affect the game, and you would be told to sit down in the stands.

So, forget about using a compact camera, and don’t even think about using a flash. You’re going to have to work with the existing light, and that means you absolutely need the higher image quality and responsiveness that a DSLR can provide.

Get as close as possible to the court. Here I was crouching almost directly under the basket and shooting up to capture the girls trying to catch the ball on the rebound. You need quick reflexes and a fast-reacting camera to pull this off successfully.

Here is what you will need:
1. A Digital SLR camera, preferably one with good high-ISO performance. Read Best Low Light/High ISO DSLRs to find out what's current.
2. A midrange zoom lens. A kit lens is good, but a lens with a constant f/2.8 max. aperture is better. Read Sports Lens Buying Guide.
3. A big memory card to hold all the pictures that has a fast transfer speed.

A DSLR reacts immediately when you press the shutter release, and most cameras offer a burst rate of at least 3fps, which is adequate for this kind of photography.

Standing under the basket (just off the court, of course!), I shot in burst mode to capture the rebound action. This is one of six shots.

The lighting in a school gym may range from dingy to moderately bright. If I boost the ISO on my DSLR to 3200, I am able to get shutter speeds of 1/200-1/800 second (depending on light and maximum aperture), which will stop much of the action. Yes, there will be grain, which is a tradeoff, but it will be a usable image if kept under 8x10. Most parents will only want 4x6-inch prints, so you should be fine.

At ISO 1600, I was able to get an action-stopping 1/350 sec here. I used a wide-angle lens to minimize the effect of the low depth of field.

Where to stand

Unlike a pro or college game, you will most likely be allowed to stand anywhere you want as long as it’s not in the court itself. I position myself right under the basket, and am ready to scoot out of the way if the players or referee run towards me. I’ve tried crouching and standing on my tiptoes to get different angles, and both have yielded great shots.

Get a long shot, but compose it well. I wanted to include the American flag, so I shot this free throw from the other end of the court. At 1/250 second, I caught her jump at the apex.

When under the basket, I almost always keep my 18-55mm kit lens zoomed to its widest setting. This lets me use the widest aperture and maintain fairly reasonable depth of field. Under the basket lets me capture rebounds, fighting for the ball, and attempts to score. There is a lot of intensity here, even among the 10-12 year old players I’m photographing. Just make sure that if players don’t stop as they barrel towards you, you can get out of the way—fast!

While positioning yourself on either end of the court and under (or almost under) the basket will almost guarantee intense action, try shooting with a moderate telephoto around center court and pan as the players are running from one end of the court to the other. A somewhat slower shutter speed is OK here because the background will be blurred but the players you pan with will be relatively sharp.

Key moments

Free throws are good (crouch and angle the camera so you can see the entire arc of the ball as it’s heading towards the basket). The second shot ends with the players jumping up to grab the rebound, and the expressions of anticipation just before the ball hits (or misses) the basket are often outstanding. It’s also a good time to get clear shots of a lot of kids—which could lead to print orders by more parents.

Hands up! If a team is practicing good defense, show 'em trying to block shots and passes.

Any time someone runs down the court dribbling the ball, try to anticipate where they’ll end up, and move as close you can.

Don’t forget to shoot the bench! As kids are rotated onto the court, others take a break and this can be a good moment to choose a slower shutter speed and get the young athletes in repose. Also, hover around as the coach gives the team a pep talk and instructions: you might get some good moments there as well. The more your pictures tell the story about the game, the better.

With exactly five players on her team and no breaks for the entire game, this girl was overheated and exhausted, and was using her cold water bottle to cool off. By paying attention to the bench, I was able to get this shot, which showed another aspect of the game.

How to get the prints to the parents

Upload your photos to an online photoprocessing service such as Publicize your portfolio’s URL to the parents by either distributing a flyer to each of the players, or if your team has an email list, make sure the organizers know and include it in their announcements. You can write something like: “Photos for this game will be available starting tomorrow at (add URL). You can order unlimited prints of your child’s athletic prowess!”

Do a test run first so when it’s really time, you can set up the upload quickly.

Follow these basketball photography suggestions and you’ll be scoring points with the parents big time!


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