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How to photograph basketball games
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How to photograph basketball games

Make your hoops shots a slam-dunk

Like most things in life, there is good news and bad news when it comes to shooting basketball. First, let’s talk about the good news.

First, the good news

Basketball is perhaps the easiest sport to shoot. You have a strictly defined area of 100X50 feet, and know exactly where the ball is supposed to end up. You also know where all of the coaches and players who are watching the game are as well. Getting emotional shots in basketball isn’t difficult either because you generally have excellent access to the people who are important to the game, even if you’re sitting in the stands. Another plus to shooting basketball is that no matter if it’s an NBA game or high school girls, the basics are exactly the same.

The equipment required to shoot basketball is also minimal. On a digital camera that has a crop factor, a fast 50mm lens will often perform quite nicely in basketball from courtside and a fast 200mm is ideal from the stands. This in comparison to the thousands of dollars needed to invest in a high quality, fast supertelephoto required for football. Another great aspect of shooting basketball is that it’s also predictable.  The ball is passed and moved toward the basket, the referees stand in the same locations and even though this is very fast-paced, there’s a rhythm to the action, and once you’re plugged into it, it really becomes easy to shoot.

When you shoot basketball, be on the lookout for anything other than the typical, dribble down the court or jump shot photo. A scramble for the ball by the teams can be dramatic. Look for those moments where you see reaction in your images too because they narrate the story much more fully.

Now, the bad news

Basketball is the hardest sport to shoot. Why? Lighting. Even the professional venues have bad lighting for still photography because most are lit for television. Television lighting and still photo lighting are similar, but not equal. As a result, the arenas are lit for television because they pay for the rights to broadcast the game. Lighting in a normal gymnasium is also generally poor. At the old Central High School here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (which has since been torn down and rebuilt) the lighting was so poor that an exposure of 1/125th of a second at F1.4 with an ISO of 3200 would often give underexposed images. The gym was very old, had dark wood floors, dark gray walls and half the lights weren’t working correctly. This is typical and what you should consider “normal” in most gyms.

How do you make these poor conditions work to give you the best possible images under the lighting situation you’re given? This depends on several factors, such as how much time, equipment and money you want to invest in your images. If you’re a pro shooting for a newspaper or to sell the prints, you’ll want to invest in lighting and wireless triggers. If you’re a novice, a good flash or two,  or available light may work for you.

This is a shot that I made for The Winter Haven News-Chief several years ago. It is a film shot, but illustrates timing and reaction in one image. Note too that by cropping the frame (this image is almost full-frame on the negative) that you reduce the “clutter” and allow your viewer to know exactly what this shot is about. Simplicity is always better in photos.



Before we go any further, let’s talk about strobes at sporting events. If you don’t absolutely have to use an on-camera strobe, don’t. Most high school, college and pro sporting events won’t allow the use of on-camera strobes because they are distracting to the players and in some instances, such as a gymnast on the balance beam or uneven bars, it can be a distraction that can seriously injure the person as well. The bottom line is don’t use on-camera strobes unless you must, and it is cleared with the officials.

Generally, it’s easier to gain access to smaller events- your kids’ league or a high school game. If you intend to shoot multiple games, it’s a good idea to talk to the event organizers in advance about access. Often times, you’ll be able to gain a greater level of freedom at courtside and may be given the opportunity to sell or publish your images.

Peak action and a reaction in one shot. Note too that the ball has just left his hands and illustrates the action in progress. In basketball, action can be more difficult to illustrate simply because if the ball is in their hand, it can look like they’re holding the ball.


 Another film shot made for the Talladega Daily Home moments after the Sylacauga, Alabama girl’s basketball team lost the state championship game. Look for the emotional moments and shoot them. Reaction is always an excellent way to illustrate your story of the game.

Tips for newbies

I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you successfully shoot your first basketball images. Remember that like any other shooting situation, experience will be your best teacher. Keep a notebook and take notes about the lighting conditions, the lenses you used, the exposure you are shooting with and positions that you’ve shot from. Go over these notes while reviewing your images after the game and make notes for the next game to improve your good shot count. By taking the time to make these notes while the event is fresh in your mind, you’ll make improvements more quickly.

•    If you do use strobes, hanging them from the ceiling, or setting them up in the highest corner of the bleachers is the least distracting setup. If you’re placing the lights onto the bleachers, point the strobes either directly at the ceiling or the walls to bounce and diffuse the light. Conducting a quick browse of E-Bay shows wireless 16-channel remote triggers for as low as $10 and shipping. These are no-frills, remotes however, and if there’s more than one person shooting the game with strobes or a remote trigger, you may run into some issues. Still, with a couple of standard flash units and one of these triggers and a slave, you can light like the pro’s very cheaply.

•    Remember to use a custom white balance. Lighting in a gym is often mixed tungsten and mercury vapor lighting, and a custom white balance with an Expodisc or plain white coffee filter will give your images accurate color without major adjustments in post-processing. If you’re using a strobe, point the camera at the (strobe)light source while making your custom white balance.

•    If you have more than one camera body, you can shoot both offense and defense at the same time and from one court-level position. A 200mm lens on a digital camera works very well for far-court action and swapping to close-court action is a matter of setting one camera down and picking another up. For near-court action, focal lengths from super-wide angle to 100mm work best for near-court shots. Remember though that this convenience comes at a price and will require twice as much lighting and strobe triggers in comparison to shooting only half the court.  But both then need to be triggering the wired strobes, right?

•    If you don’t have court-side access, you can still shoot some amazing pictures from the stands. If you can maneuver to a side-view of the basket, you can often shoot some interesting “dunk” shots that not only show the action, but the face of the player as well.  To do this, pick your position, zoom in and focus on the far side of the rim. This will ensure that the face of the person doing the dunking will be sharp. After setting up, simply wait for the action to come to you!

•    Shooting in a RAW mode will allow you greater adjustment options for your images and give you a higher image quality. Most image processing software can also open a RAW file with few exceptions, but check your camera/software combination for RAW processing abilities BEFORE the game.  

•    Shooting from the left side of the basket will let you avoid getting the backs of referees from ruining your photos. Generally, the referees will stand in the middle, half court area and in the area directly to the right of the basket.

•    If knowing the numbers of the players is important, remember that none of the digits will be over the number 5. So, you will see a jersey number “15” but not a “19”. Referees use one hand to show numbers of players who have made an infraction because they are also holding the ball and so are limited to five fingers to do this. Grab a photo of the roster from the scorekeeper to compare names and numbers, too.

Another shot that illustrates both action and reaction. Also notice that you don’t need to have the full body in the shot to still show the action well. I tend to prefer tighter cropping simply because it shows that reaction very well. The bigger the face, the better!

With repetition, anything becomes easier, and shooting basketball is no exception. Remember the “5 P’s” of sports photography- planning, practice, patience, position and persistence and keep detailed notes about your shooting conditions, settings, lighting and any other information that is relevant to the event and you’ll advance your skills with each and every frame you shoot.

Again, a shot that’s tightly cropped and the ball has just left the hands of this University of Alabama Woman’s basketball team member. Action during the making of the image is always more appealing. Look for action and reaction in the same image, and you’ll be shooting like the pros.

Situations you’ll encounter in a basketball game

The “Fast Break” Usually a ball-steal and the play travels down court very rapidly. If you’re at the edge of the court, near the left side of the basket, you can often get a great head-on of the action going down the court toward you. Keep in mind too that these plays will often result in a “dunk” shot, so a wider lens may work well too.

A Jump Shot/Tipoff If two players have possession of the ball, a referee will call for a “jump ball”, which will be thrown up into the air and the players will attempt to take possession of the ball. In most cases, this isn’t an attractive shot simply because it tends to show more armpits than action. Occasionally, the jump can be an interesting shot though and it’s worth the frame or two that you’ll shoot for “insurance”. The tipoff also looks like the jump shot and is the first possession of the game. In many leagues, the jump ball isn’t used, and the possession will be given to whichever team is in the “bonus” mode.

The pass If shot correctly, the pass can be a great personal study of an individual player. If you have good timing, try shooting the ball as it’s leaving their hands. Typically, there’s more expression and muscle tone in their body at this point, which makes the image not only more interesting, but “athletic” as well.

I rarely shoot full-body shots in basketball, but sometimes, the shot dictates this. The size match-up, expressions and stances all lend themselves to the full body crop. Peak action and narrative expressions make this shot different from the run-of-the-mill basketball photo.

1-on-1 A situation where two players on offense and defense are dueling for the ball or are attempting to make a goal. This action can be highly intense and can be difficult to shoot, depending on how quickly the play is moving.

The “Dunk” Shooting a good dunk-shot is often more a study in preparation than good shooting. Everyone KNOWS  that pro, college and in most high school games, there’s going to be at least one or two dunk-shots. Find your position, focus on the basket and wait for the action. A mid-range telephoto will work best in these situations, particularly from the bench-side of the court.


Shoot the Bench! Coaches are often quite animated during basketball games. Position yourself across the court from them and shoot waist-up shots of their animated reactions to good and bad play. Be focused and be ready because reaction shots are fleeting moments and are gone in the time it takes to make one or two frames.

Perhaps one of my favorite “coach” shots, this image illustrates the story without showing you a single play in the game. Note the plain background caused by a shallow depth-of-field and the focus of this shot is on her eyes, which are highly expressive. These shots aren’t as difficult as they might first seem. Position yourself across the court from the coach and keep a focus on them and shoot when they react. Honestly, it’s really that simple.

One of the most elusive shots is “the Scrum”. This is when two players are on the ground, fighting for possession of a loose ball. Look for the expressions and the physical strength each player shows when fighting for possession of the ball. The Scrum is one of the most natural horizontal images made in basketball.

Defensive fouling can also be intense images because of the expressions on each player’s face. Look for the charge toward the goal and the defensive block. In most situations, you’ll get either one player’s face or the other, but look for angles that will allow both to show in your shots.

Vertical grips are a must-have for basketball photography and allow you to keep a more comfortable hold on your equipment. Being comfortable translates to less shake and sharper images. So, even if you don’t think you’ll want to use one, get one. Much like GPS, you’ll wonder why you’ve gone this long without it.

Always remember too that you are the guest and that shooting any event is a privilege to photograph a game, so remember, even if the referee does make a bad call, it’s not your job to correct or comment. Good manners are also needed during free-throws and you shouldn’t use strobes during free-throws.

I like this shot because the only facial features you see are the reaction of the girl who’s getting fouled. Note though that those two elements, action and reaction are once again in the same image and that the crop is very tight, allowing you to focus-in on these two elements.


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