How to shoot baseball and softball
Mark M. Hancock / © The Beaumont Enterprise
Keri Burnside (No. 11, right) of the Stockton, Calif. Runnin' Rebels slides safely across home plate as Beaumont Blast's Amanda Hill (No. 12, left) moves for the tag during the American Fastpitch Association national softball tournament at Ford Park in Beaumont on Saturday, July 30, 2005.
Baseball and softball are very similar games. I'll talk generally about the games in terms of baseball. However, I've included a section about softball to explain the variances.
Baseball is a visual feast or famine game. If the pitcher is really great, there's nothing to shoot. If both teams are better at offence than defense, a PJ winds through a lot of frames rapidly.
By PJ standards, these are slow games. The majority of most games are as visually exciting as watching grass grow. However, there are brief moments of amazing athletic ability and severe collisions. Because this window is so tight (and the extremely-hard, fast-moving balls [and bats] seem to have PJ magnets in them), it's important to pay close attention during the entire game. Otherwise the PJ misses the shot and/or wakes up in the hospital covered in blood.
Why concentrate on baseball?
A significant reason to get good at shooting baseball is the frequency of the game. During a normal baseball season, many games are played. A quality baseball shooter has gigs from March through October.
Additionally, because baseball isn't as hard on the players' bodies as heavy contact sports, back-to-back games (called double headers) are common. Likewise, some pro teams may have three or four home games in a given week.
Even at smaller papers, Tuesday means high school softball, Friday is high school baseball and Saturday is high school or college baseball and/or softball. If a freelancer does the math, they'd understand the importance of getting really good at this particular sport.
Before the game
First and foremost, make sure to have all access and parking passes before the event for major league and international baseball games. If the passes aren't already in hand, call around before game day to find the person who has them. If the promoter promises to have them at the game, insist on a contact name and cell phone number as well as a back-up person and cell number.
The people at the ticket booth and security don't know what they haven't been told, so their first impulse is to deny access. Having a name and cell number guarantees access - even if the contact wrecks on the way to the game.
To save a lot of walking with heavy equipment, know where media parking and the media gate are located.
For games in small stadiums, park far away from the field. Those foul balls go somewhere. Make sure it doesn't go through a PJ's windshield.
PJs must keep their eyes open at all times when covering these games. Although ball control and accuracy tends to increase as speeds increase, someone can always miss. It's called an error during the game. It's called a concussion or broken ankle during the warm-up period before the game.
In the pros, imagine any part of your body being hit by a 100mph rock. If a bat breaks, it's a 100mph wooden stake. Softballs hurt less, but they leave a serious sting wherever they hit.
If a PJ is concerned, there is no shame to wear a batting helmet while covering a game. If not, at least wear a hat. Likewise, it's logical to use a monopod while shooting with long glass, but make sure it stays between your knees. It's not much of a hiding place, but it may deflect the ball enough to break a leg instead of ...
For daytime games, take at least one bottle of water. In addition to aforementioned safety hazards, noontime sun, humidity and a windless field are a dangerous combination. Don't dehydrate, cause a ruckus and make it even more difficult for other PJs in the future.
Don't shoot a single frame of a low level game until you have a roster with first name, last name and number. If a team is losing horribly after a few innings, they may refuse names.
If the roster is hand written, have a coach or player check it for spelling accuracy. Even if it's from the team's official Web site, it's good to ask the coach to verify the names are spelled correctly and numbers are accurate.
Typically, full rosters are available in the media rooms at pro games. They are located in the press box at minor league and college games. They are at the gate for high school playoff games. They are in the press box for most high school games with announcers. The coach has them for other games. They're in the heads of the coaches for little league games.
Work the fans
Arrive early and work the parking lot for anything interesting. Look for tailgate parties, face painting, herds of pee-wee league teams or vendors. Shoot folks with the giveaway items at pro games (Bobbleheads, mini bats, etc.).
Also work the crowd in the stands for painted faces, costumes or anything else interesting. Don't forget to take a look at the vendors for additional images (freelancers need to give them biz cards to make after-market sales).
Before most college and pro games, a dignitary of some sort throws out the first ball. Shoot it for the archive and get proper cutline info also get the name and some shots of whomever sings the national anthem (both singers if it's an international game).
At high school and lower games, get some CYA shots of the players warming up. In particular, get some decent shots of the outfielders with the longest glass you've got.
At minor league games, the players normally sign autographs and have mild interactions with fans. The easy way to work it is either with a long lens from the side where the fans blend together and the player is isolated. Otherwise, shoot with a wide angle lens from behind the player to show the faces of the fans. The point is to easily identify the player while avoiding the need to identify every fan getting autographs. However, if some cool interaction happens, work it and get names.
Many pro teams typically have mascots as well. Get some shots of the mascots in the beginning of the season. Get the mascot's official name and the name of the person inside the costume.
At college level and below, if the PJ is there early enough, introduce yourself to the umpire(s) and get their names and hometowns. Of particular importance is the home plate ump. Sometimes the umpires refuse their names (due to overzealous parents). It's not a big deal. Just list the person as "umpire" in the cutlines where the unnamed umpire appears.
When the players are introduced, they normally line up along the first and third baselines. Get shots of each team (shoot four or five players wide). This helps match shoes, hair and body type with jersey numbers for cutline identification later. Note where the front numbers are located for follow shots during the game. Some college teams and many lower level teams have no front numbers. It's important to note this before the game.
Where to locate
Please take a look at a standard baseball diamond to understand the locations.
Now let's consider the best places for PJs to locate. Obviously, sun direction and the umpires play a huge role in where PJs finally end up, but these suggestions are almost guaranteed for a little league game.
Each level of play has different access rules. Typically, at pro games, PJs get to cover from one to four pits located on both sides of the dugout near the infield. Different shooters prefer different locations. However, make sure to be in one of them before the game starts. Otherwise, no movement is allowed until the half-inning exchange.
For lower level games, the best location for the top of the 1st inning is in the stands behind the backstop to get the pitcher. Next, move to the 1st base side, directly to the side of the pitcher and in front of the dugout or behind the on-deck circle. From here, PJs can shoot the pitcher, shortstop, all three bases and home plate.
If someone makes it to 1st, line up on the base for dives back. The alternative is to align the base with the pitcher for a sideview of the dive, which also includes the pitcher. However, note that if the 1st baseman misses the ball while the mirror is up on the SLR camera.... well, just expect some lens repair costs, a nasty bruise and possible concussion.
Once PJs have enough safe shots, do the same from the 3rd base side. This allows for 400mm views of the 1st base dive, better shots of 2nd base, 200mm slides into third and catcher-oriented collisions at home plate.
At coach- or machine- pitched little league games, PJs are able to move around the field as well. Most parents are happy to see the newspaper and are willing to suspend this rule to get their kids in the newspaper. Don't forget to look for very young kids drawing in the dirt, facing the wrong direction or doing the things which make kids cute.
Although speed and timing are factors in almost all sports, it's paramount in baseball and softball. Balls often travel at nearly 100mph. Bats swing at similar speeds. To stop both objects traveling in opposite directions requires PJs to know exactly which 2000th of a second to shoot.
It's normal to shoot with long glass at very high speeds when covering baseball. This stops the ball, the bat and keeps players sharp although they may be moving in more than one direction simultaneously.
Even though it's nice to say this should be shot at 1/2000, we must understand exactly which 1/2000th of a second to choose. We can't simply wind through a play and expect to nail it. Instead, we must nail it with the first shot at precisely the right moment and wind through the remainder of the play.
To get the right fraction of a second, we must factor in shutter lag. It's not bad on pro dit cameras, but it's still enough to cause problems. Typically anticipating the play and keeping both eyes open is enough.
I'm beating this dead horse because we must understand the best digital pro cameras only yield about four frames per second. At 1/2000th, it means the PJ absolutely misses 1,996 fractions of the same second. The difference between frames is enough for the ball to vanish from the frame. So, pick only the perfect 1/2000th of a second as the first shot in a series - then wind through some extra frames.
Additionally, since the ball is small and typically completely engulfed in a ball glove, it's critical to shoot before the glove closes around the ball. This way, the ball can be seen inside the glove or slightly separated from the glove. Likewise, PJs are much more likely to get a sharp ball at the end of the pitch rather than shortly after it's hit by a bat (momentum and inertia).
What's the difference
Softball is slightly different than baseball. Primarily, baseballs hurt a lot more. :-)
Moreover, softball fields are smaller. Both the distances between bases and the distance to the wall are less. A softball game can be shot with a 200 or 300mm lens.
The ball is pitched underhanded. The ball is obviously larger and often bright yellow.
Softball doesn't allow leading off the base like baseball. However, once the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, they can capitalize on errors to steal a base.
First base is wider to allow the runner to pass without a collision.
Some games may have a "five-run rule." This means a team's at bat ends once they score five runs during the inning. This rule keeps mis-matched games from lasting forever and ending with a 250-1 score.
Another mismatch control seen in softball tournaments is timed games. The game is played as normal (no five-run rule), but the ump notifies the teams at the end of a specified time (it varies) and the game finishes after this particular full inning.
Shoot the game
For simplicity, we only have one local team playing this game. For new PJs, editors only want shots with a home-team focus unless otherwise stated (wire piggy-backs). It doesn't matter how great the visitors are, focus on the home team. Better images show both teams' faces, but focus on the home team's eyes first.
Like other contact sports, PJs want to capture conflict between the players of opposing teams. Shots with only the home team could be made during practice. The importance of shooting the game is to show the battle between two teams.
Like most other sports, watch the players not the ball. If a PJ tracks the ball, all the players can blur (not in a good way). However, understand the ball must be in almost every shot, and it should also be very close to the players to be successful. Timing is critical in this sport (measured in 1000ths of a second) and PJs must be comfortable with the shutter lag of their particular cameras to nail the plays.
It's really important to shoot baseball and softball with both eyes open. Watch the game and what's in the viewfinder at the same time. Again, timing is critical because the ball moves so fast and changes hands often, so PJs need to watch the ball outside of the frame to shoot when it precisely nears a player.
PJs who don't do a lot of this long-lens, double-eye stuff need to practice on a flock of birds or some other randomly occurring event to get accustomed to seeing long through one eye and normal through another.
Like football and soccer, it's best to shoot from one knee (lower level in pit for pro games) because the players are close to the ground during most major plays. This is how PJs get tight shots of the players' faces as they dive back to first base or makes a tag. Additionally, the PJ becomes a smaller baseball magnet closer to the ground.
Know the deadline to deliver game images. Typically, a PJ should have a "winner" shot and a "loser" shot as well as the safe shots and at least one good action shot of the same team by the end of the 3rd inning. This is normally about the time most deadlines hit.
At pro and college games, transmit the two option shots as well as any good action shots. Then, shoot the remainder of the game for file.
Since most folks covering Major League Baseball are familiar with the game, I'm going to drop this down to college and lower level games. These fields typically don't have pits and place PJs slightly closer to the field of play than MLB and minor league games.
Get the starting pitcher
If the entire town catches on fire, but the PJ has a shot of the starting pitcher throwing a ball, s/he can leave and still be OK for the paper. Most baseball stories are about how well or poorly the pitcher did.
Often, the PJ should start shooting in the stands directly behind the batter. This is a direct shot at the pitcher. The movement of the pitcher is less severe from this angle. During daylight games, the grip on the ball can be captured at f/2.8 if the PJ has great timing.
The reason I suggest often in the previous paragraph is due to a recent trend. For the last few years, umps have gotten wired about where PJs stand. Some umps are really cool and if the PJ gets killed, it's his/her own fault. Others want to protect us from ourselves.
Unfortunately, the ump gets to decide this. So, play along with it. If it gets too restrictive, bring it up with the coaches later and they'll normally work to keep that particular ump from officiating their games so their kids get in the paper.
With this stated, if the PJ is stuck on the sides, the most important shot is still of the starting pitcher, but it becomes more important to see if the starting pitcher is right or left handed. The PJ wants to be on the opposite side to be able to see the pitchers face as the ball is released off their fingers.
In other words, for a right-handed pitcher, PJs should be on the 1st base side and on 3rd for a lefty.
A 400mm on a dit camera is normally fine for the pitcher. If the PJ has a prime location during a day game, use a doubler on a 300 or 400mm for a nice, tight shot of the pitcher. Then, the PJ is super covered.
With a 400mm, shoot the shortstop from the 1st base line. A great shortstop makes the pitcher seem perfect. The shortstop is located between 2nd and 3rd base. S/he gets most fast right-handed ground balls and line drives, then throws to 1st base. In other words, if the shortstop is good enough, nobody makes it to 1st base.
The 2nd baseman holds the same importance when a left-handed batter is at the plate. The 2nd baseman plays between 2nd and 1st base if nobody is on those bases.
The 1st baseman is actually one of the key players in the game because the whole point of the game is to keep players from making it to first base. Consequently, the first base player must catch many balls throughout the game. The better ones are capable of full splits to make a play.
Unless the ball goes deep into the outfield, the 1st baseman will be the end point for the ball after a hit. As a result, the 1st baseman tends to leave a foot on the bag at all times during play. To make sure focus is sharp, either set the camera focus to manual or single servo and lock onto the first base.
It's important to shoot the ball as close to the 1st baseman's open glove as possible - preferably with the opposing team's player in the frame as well.
The 3rd baseman picks up several groundballs if the pitcher throws off-speed pitches. Otherwise they are the last chance to stop a speedy runner before the runner could possibly score.
Although the catcher is the 2nd most important player on the team, don't spend too much time on the catcher until a play at home is expected. The most important issue near the beginning of the game is to make sure to get a clear shot of the catcher's number (front number is covered by a chest plate) for later identification.
Like the shortstop, great outfielders can keep the pitcher's honor. As long as they pull balls out of the air, nobody gets to 1st base. Make sure and have a decent shot of the key infielders before concentrating on the outfield. If someone is on base, don't miss a play at the plate to get the outfielders.
Expect poor light
Although many games are played during the day and major league games are played in well-lit ballparks, some high school games are played on fields with so little light it's hard to see and harder to photograph. If possible, avoid flash, but be ready to use flash if necessary (preferably on a flash bracket to minimize red-eye).
Yes, the ump might come unglued, but they may not mind if the light is obviously too poor to shoot (it often is). Unlike other sports where flash isn't a huge issue, it's a potential hazard in baseball. So, use it sparingly and make sure you have the shot (focus, timing, action) before you light up the play.
Work shots for publication first. Often these won't be published because they're a stepped-up version of safe shots. Each sport has its own variation of average shots (think a "C" on a college exam). These images might be great, but PJs are merely covering their rumps.
Get the coach
Coaches are positioned in the coaches boxes at 1st and 3rd base while their team is at bat. When their team is on the field, they're in the dugout.
The coaches use non-verbal signals to tell batters and runners what to do. These can often make entertaining visuals at lower level games when players aren't entirely familiar with the codes and the coaches show frustration.
When a player is on base, the coach directs them to move forward, dive back, steal or hold. After several pick off attempts, it's safe to focus on the coach to see her/his instructions to players (particularly after a batter hits a double).
Get the batter
These are the ultimate safe shot. Admittedly, the really good shots come from the pro level games because they still use wooden bats (which sometimes break). However, even in lower level games a batter gets hit by the ball and displays interesting facial expressions.
Otherwise, it's a nice exercise in timing to try to get the ball as it makes connection with the bat or an interesting strike (miss). This can be done with a 400mm from the far end of the dugout or a 200mm from behind the on-deck circle. It can be shot horizontally if loose or vertically if tight (batters tend to swing slightly down to lift the ball off the bat).
To get these, set focus on the batter's face. Then watch the ball as it's delivered. It takes some practice, but eventually PJs learn the perfect location to counter the shutter lag (typically as the ball leaves the grass).
Get the players
Always focus on the player's eyes instead of the ball. Each team has 9 players on the field plus a designated hitter/runner in some leagues. Try to get one clear shot of each player controlling the ball or making some play at a base. These can be used throughout the season. Tight face shots will work if nothing much is happening.
PJs want the player facing the camera and in good light if possible. By working both the 1st and 3rd baselines, PJs should have a shot of every batter after three innings (right-handers from 1st and left-handers from 3rd.
After some bad pitches or an error, the coach, pitcher or catcher might stop the game to talk with another player. Get these meetings. Although it's nothing most of the time, it's better than a photo of the player's back as they get pulled from the game. On a rare instance, there might be some serious emotion happening and those make great shots.
Taking this one step further, get any confrontations of the umps and the coaches or players. When a coach or manager gets in the face of an ump, emotions can get really hot. The exchange can become so hot that an ump might eject a coach. This will be a water cooler story for the next few days, so this shot is important for follow-up stories - even if it's not the deadline shot.
Now it becomes important to understand the game. Roughly, teams try to run players from base to base until they get to home plate to score. Some teams steal bases because they have fast players and count on the opponent to make errors (or don't trust their batters much). Other teams play fairly close to the bases and prefer batters to make consistent singles to load up the bases.
In the first case, the plays are at the bases. In the second case, the plays are in the outfield.
In baseball, once a player is on base, they can steal an additional base. This leads to a tension between the base runner and the pitcher. If the runner torments the pitcher enough, the pitcher makes mistakes and might walk a batter or balk. Either way, it's to the running team's advantage to irritate the pitcher.
Meanwhile, it's to the pitcher's advantage to pick off a runner by throwing them out at 1st base or another base if they steal.
To get this shot, focus on the base where the runner would return. Until the ball is thrown or the runner commits to run, this is where the action will take place. If the player tries to steal, immediately swing to the advancing base, focus and be ready to shoot.
Teams which load the bases with singles typically hit the ball to drop between the infield and outfield players. To catch these balls, the outfielders will typically sprint toward the ball and may leap to make the catch.
With a 400mm or longer lens, focus on the running outfielder in continuous focus mode (or manually) and track them as they move. PJs are hoping for a diving catch. Ideally, this will happen mid-air. Wind through some extra frames in case the outfielder misses the ball or drops the ball on impact.
After a home run is hit, the team is allowed to go onto the field to welcome home the running players. Typically a few hugs, jumps or helmet patting takes place. It makes for nice "our team won" shots. If the opposing teams pitcher is particularly good or bad, this is all the PJ might get (because each ball thrown is a homerun or there was only one hit in the entire game).
On important or evenly-matched games, watch the home dugout for tension and reactions. These can either be shot wide from inside the dugout area or long from the opposite side of the field.
On finals games, be ready to run. The editors want to see a dejected player in the foreground with the jubilant team celebrating in the background. This means the PJ must circle around the losing players and align the winning team behind them. This lasts about 10 seconds.
In baseball, there tends to be a lifting of a key player followed by a pileup on the key player at the end of significant games.
Although we're all trained to get the fast, sharp shots, remember to get a few f/22 panning shots with motion and blur might make interesting results. These are "artsy" shots to show the game's speed and motion. A pan with the player ensures the main torso and head are sharp while the rest is blurred. This shot works particularly well during home run trots.
Don't forget to spend a little time shooting down from the stands or on top of the dugout as well. This gives PJs clean backgrounds behind the players. However, this angle limits PJs to primarily pop flies where the players look up instead of down. The roof of the dugout is a particularly good position for interesting alternative shots.
An interesting shot (although becoming somewhat cliché now) is to zone focus where the ball is the only point of focus as a pitcher delivers the ball. This is shot from behind the batter. A point of focus is determined close to the batter to make the pitcher extremely out of focus when the aperture is set at f/2.8.
The PJ shoots as the ball enters this narrow zone of focus. Although it looks interesting, it's simply a matter of timing the ball to the point of focus. This shot salvages a deadly-boring, low-scoring game.
These images are either high risk or predictable but rare. If luck and planning are with the PJ, the PJ looks brilliant at the editing desk. These are the "A" grade shots. Again, I stress not to try most of these until some publishable shots are already accomplished.
Home plate collisions
This is "The shot" editors want. The runner has a chance to win the game if s/he can make it to the plate. The armor-clad catcher can save the game by preventing the runner from making it to the plate. Typically, these plays are also close to the umpire to complete the package in one frame.
Although this shot is important from either direction, it tends work best from the 3rd base angle. The catcher is braced for impact and typically has a look of fierce determination on his/her face.
Focus on the catcher's face and wind through the entire collision and aftermath including the ump's call. Expect this to take 10 or more frames.
A squeeze play occurs when a runner tries to steal a base or tries to get one more base than s/he should have. If properly executed, the play actually involves five players (one runner and four defenders).
This play often happens between 1st and 2nd base. However, it's particularly dramatic when it happens between 3rd and home plate because it takes a lot of guts to steal home.
PJs want to get a shot where the ball is clearly visible slightly before the actual tag or while the player is in the air after the tag (they normally "tag" the runner hard with the ball).
In continuous focus mode, follow the actions of the runner.
Break out the longest glass and double or quadruple it. This makes outfield shots easier if PJs can spot the outfielder fast enough. For infield players, it allows the intensity of the play to be captured (although possibly not the play, pitch or hit itself). Because the glass is so long and light is lost with the extensions, it's possible to be too tight and/or have depth-of-field issues. Consequently, monitor focus closely when the lens is this tight. Keep the lead eye in focus at all times.
If PJs have enough glass (600mm or better with a double or quad extension), shoot from the outfield wall toward the infield or plate. Unless the field has perfect light, this can only be done during daylight games.
Some stadiums allow for nearly overhead views (with long glass), these make interesting shots when light is raking across the field and making long shadows.
Although I don't know what all was involved, I recall a cool shot taken from inside a base with a fiber optic lens. If y'all have the equipment and techno know-how, go for it.
Other alternative ideas
Try layering some images. It's hard to accomplish at f/2.8, but it's entirely possible for daylight games. Shoot from the stands to have the batter in the lower foreground with the pitcher in the upper midground. Work signs, mascots or flags in the background or as foreground frames.
Also try some of the "cool" things. Look around for anything reflective or surreal shots. Look for broken patterns (within repetitious patterns) in the stands or on the field. Try a slow-shutter, double-action zoom as the players watches a homerun ball fly.
Daylight games allow silhouettes and other options. It's up to the PJ's imagination and technical prowess. If time isn't an issue, don't leave the game until absolutely every trick has been attempted.
If PJs have the time during a tournament, experiment with new techniques. A cool shot is a cool shot no matter what the assignment says.
Enough for now,