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How a Sports Illustrated Photographer Shoots his Kid's Games

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Photographing Sports Indoors and Out

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How a Sports Illustrated Photographer Shoots his Kid's Games

Robert Beck is a Sports Illustrated contract photographer with over 25 years experience shooting all manner of sports events. He's as comfortable applying his skills to his son's flag football game as he is to prowling the sidelines at the Super Bowl. We recently asked him to share some tips from his A-list of sports shooting advice.

  • The first thing I look at is the background. Whatever the action is, the background will complete the picture. I don't want a busy background—a lot of fences or light glaring off a fence. A lot of people in the stands are okay, but I don't want one person walking by or just standing around. Some sports are good with the bench as background, like lacrosse or football, with coaches and players behind the action. Shooting Little League is trickier. The field is an odd shape, and I try to crop out distractions. I shoot the batter so the bench is in the background as opposed to two parents and otherwise empty aluminum stands reflecting light. The rule of thumb: real clean or real real.
  • The first lens in my kit is the 70-200mm zoom lens [AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED]. Very sharp, very fast, and if I have to shoot through a fence, I shoot wide open and the fence won't even show. It also offers me a lot of flexibility in composing; too tight, I zoom out, too loose, zoom in. My next lens is the 200-400mm [AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED]; fabulous for any sport, just perfect.
  • I'm shooting D3 right now almost exclusively. I also have a D700 and a D300. Focusing is quick on all, but the D3 is a little faster in its burst. But I suggest you don't get caught up in shooting sequences. In reality the high point of action is really one or two frames, especially in sports where a ball is struck. The ball is only going to be in there for one frame, and if a kid is fielding the ball, the ball's only there for three frames. Generally, five frames per second is fast enough.
  • The truth is that professional sports are almost easier to shoot. The younger the kids, the less you can anticipate—they don't have a sense of timing like the pros or older kids; the young kids are all a little bit off the timing. Be prepared.
  • Some parents go to a game and just follow their kid. In soccer or football, that's kind of hard because it means they are not in tune with the game. Just follow the game and shoot the ball and the flow of the game; you'll get more good pictures, and when the ball gets to your kid, you'll be on it.
  • When people see a great pro sports shot in a magazine, they don't realize that picture was culled from 600 or 700 images. You may not get a good shot of your kid in one game; think in terms of a season and hope for ten or 12 good images. If you get one or two good images from a game, you're in there. And don't give up because you didn't get one—referees get in the way of pros, too. Keep shooting.
  • Check the schedule of the games. You're going to get the best light in the early morning or late afternoon. Shoot more at those games. In the middle of the day the light is harsher. But if you have to shoot mid-day, use your Nikon's Active D-Lighting. Turn it on in your camera menu; there are several levels of it, but all of them work very well to open up shadows. If your son is playing a baseball game in the middle of the day and you properly expose it, you'll lose his face because of the shadow of his hat; Active D-Lighting will keep that detail open.
  • I shoot in manual. Over the years I've learned what the settings are for various situations. I’m always within a little bit—and now with the preview on the back of the camera, it's a no-brainer. If I were to use an auto setting, I'd go with shutter-priority and then move my ISO up or down accordingly. I'd try to keep the shutter speed at 1/1000 or 1/2000 second. I like to shoot wide open because it makes the subject stand out. If you're shooting your kid, keep a very shallow depth of field—it'll make your kid pop out from everyone else. Most pros shoot wide open for that pop out factor.
  • With any lens from a 400mm on up—including the 200-400mm—I'm using a monopod; 300mm and down I can hand hold—and I prefer to be mobile.
  • On my D3 I can change the focus tracking setting so that the camera will hold focus longer on a moving subject even if someone else crosses in front. In football if I'm following a running back and players cross in front of him, I don't want the focus to change too quickly, to lock on to the other players. But in swimming or in water polo I want the focus to change quickly. In the camera's menu I have the ability to change the time the camera will hold the focus.
  • Frankly, I don't worry a lot about exposure. The [RAW] files are amazing on the Nikons. I can be a stop-and-a-half to two stops underexposed and still get detail. If you're going to make an error, underexpose, don't overexpose. I use Matrix metering when I'm shooting wider pictures—a group shot, a field shot; otherwise I use spot metering. And when I meter, if I can't meter off a uniform, if there's no gray spot, I meter off the grass. That'll give a good reading of what the overall exposure is going to be.

And there you have it—Robert's rules of keeping sports orderly.

Robert Beck has been an NPS member since 1989.

To see more of Robert's action sports images, as well as his evocative and often surprising portraits of athletes, visit his website.

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