Saturday, November 06, 2004

How to shoot basketball

Instead of scattering example images within the text, please look at the last 20 images labeled basketball. Hit "back" on your browser to return to this page after viewing the examples.

Again, I'll avoid talking about remote strobes. So, we'll assume the game is played in an average-lit gym.

Basketball, like volleyball, will again show a PJ's technical weaknesses. Basketball is a game of speed, strategy, timing and physical action. Advanced teams will misdirect opponents (and PJs). Fast, long glass as well as a fast medium-to-wide angle lens are required as well as a monopod.

Basketball is a medium-contact sport. Bone-crushing images are rare. However, there is some tough physical action and hard hits onto the floor. It's fast, but players slow down while in the air, looking for a pass and during collisions.

At the same time, it's often played in poor light. At least the light is constant (if all the gym lights are working), so set the camera to manual mode metered for ambient light. Do whatever EV changes are required to get at least 1/250 shutter speed (if possible).

The game is played in a standard basketball gymnasium. Refs let PJs stand/sit/crouch along the bold exterior stripe of the basketball court. Some refs prefer to keep the padded wall directly behind the free throw lane (called the "paint") clear to allow players some room to fall. At professional games, this area is often reserved for television cameras as well.

Get the standard safe shots before the game begins.

For simplicity, we only have one local team playing this game. I'll refer to the subject team as "home" and the opponents as "visitors."

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.

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.

The tip-off
This shot is important and easy, but can be easily ruined. Each game begins with a tip-off. Generally, the tallest player from each team meets with the referee in the court's center circle. The ref throws the ball in the air, the players jump and ball control is immediately established.

To get this shot, PJs move to center court opposite scorekeeper and use a 200mm or other medium telephoto lens. PJs also switch to single-servo or manual focus. From a standing position, focus is placed on one of the two players about to jump. Then recompose the frame so the players' heads are in the frame's lowest portion. This is done to avoid the focus sensor locking on a fan in the stands while the action takes place on the frame's sides. Shoot slightly before the first hand hits the ball.

Get the coach
Switch back to continuous focus and move along the sideline to a point across from the home team's coach. As the game begins, energy levels are high for both teams. From a sitting or kneeling position, get some shots of the coach while s/he shouts instructions to her/his team and reacts to game action.

If the home team loses, these images still show a positive rather than a deflated coach. There's no reason to burn a local high school coach because his team was trounced by last year's national champions or an exhibition team.

Get the players
Always focus on the player's eyes instead of the ball. Each team has only five players on the court. There are, at most, 20 players on the whole team. They switch around a lot, but there's no excuse to miss a single player. These images can be used throughout the season if a player does something significant on or off the court.

Use a 200mm or 300mm lens from a sitting or kneeling position (because they tend to lean down). Get a tight shot of each player's face and shoulders – preferably with some action or emotion.

Stay on the sideline to shoot defenders as they face outward from the basket. Also get players as they bring the ball into play after being scored upon. Make sure to shoot from both sidecourts to get all the players.

Work free throws
After a foul, there's a free throw. The safest shot is of the free thrower (hopefully a home-team player). While standing under the goal (or to the side of the paint lines), use a long lens to shoot the player while s/he lines up the shot. The ball is chest high and the player looks up toward the lights. This allows a tight record shot with some tension. It has the ball, a clean background, better light and no armpits (a big problem in basketball).

When the home team defends, move outside the paint zone. Get low and shoot across the paint as the defenders initially block and then rebound after the final free throw.

Work passes
As the offense moves across center court, they tend to pass around the field goal (3-point) line. PJs position themselves near the corner to get these passes as they come toward the PJ. Because the ball moves toward the PJ and the passer is stationary, these are typically sharper images with less blur inside poorly-lit gyms.

A caution: not all basketball players catch the ball. PJs may get bonked in the lens/head. At least it's not a hockey puck.

Winners get the net
When a team wins important championships, it cuts down a net for its trophy case. PJs spot (or hide) an empty chair or ladder to get higher than the crowd (also see some of the advanced techniques for this shot). This allows PJs to get players cutting with the crowd in the background.

This "ceremony" may last a few seconds or be drawn out with each player cutting an individual cord and the coach making the final cut. If it's the latter, make sure to get each important player for future use, but the coach will be the critical image for today's paper.

Now it becomes important to understand the game. Roughly, teams try to get the ball into the opponent's hoop and prevent the opponent from doing the same. Some teams have good "outside shooters," who can make field goals. Other teams power inside for layups or dunks. Each type of team and player requires a different shooting position and lens choice. Quickly assess which is most likely with the home team to get the best shots.

It's important to have the ball in the frame. In both cases, get the ball on players' fingertips to make tighter frames. Capture the frame while players' wrists are strait or bent backward rather than after the ball has left their hands. Players typically put a backspin on the ball and will look – well – let's say the wrist won't look right if shot a millisecond too late. :-)

Additionally, one or two players on each team tend to score the most points. Know if they are right or left handed and how they prefer to approach the net. PJs want the player facing the camera. PJs line up on the hoop from the correct sidecourt. From a standing position, PJs use a long lens to get breakaway layups, dunks and outside shots from the center.

Even if the scorer's sideline is full, the PJ can get these players during the second half when everything is reversed.

Go wide for inside
Move to the baseline where the home team scores. Switch to a 50mm (medium) or wider lens and pan shots with inside plays as the home team tries to get to the hoop.

Unlike most other shots, these can be accomplished by hand-holding the camera from a standing position. Pan with (follow) the player with the ball while the camera is set on continuous focus. Because the lens is wider, exposures can be slower -- particularly in dark gyms.

Focus on the two home-team players nearest to the paint. Their backs are toward the camera but will quickly turn, fight forward to the net or suddenly fade back and shoot. Be ready for either. This often involves some physical play inside and often an attempt to pass around a defender.

Go long for outside
If the team shoots from the outside, use a long lens and be positioned on the baseline near the 3-point line to get a clear shot. These shots tend to be cleaner than most other images because the distance is greatest between the subject and the background. However, still be cautious about background elements.

Get some overhead views as well. These images depend on gym design. Some have catwalks (always leave camera vests/bags behind and tape the camera onto your hand with gaffer's tape). Some have observation decks over the basketball hoops (great for net shots). Most only have bleachers.

From the bleachers, align on the basket high enough to see inside the hoop. This shot also tends to be clean if the PJ is high enough. Since players look toward the basket, they also look at the PJ if the PJ is in the right location. Another advantage is this shot includes the players, the ball and the goal. This is the complete package shot – without armpits.

Sideline emotions
On important or evenly-matched games, skip the last point and focus on the home sideline for reactions. Before the game ends, move to the sidecourt and watch the teammates on the bench from a sitting or kneeling position. They'll ride an emotional roller coaster as the final points are scored. At a big game's end, they'll either jump or collapse.

On finals games, be ready to run. The editors (and competition judges) 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.

These images are high risk. The likelihood of anything useful is minimal, but if it happens, the PJ looks brilliant at the editing desk. These are the “A” grade shots. Again, I stress not to try these until some publishable shots are already accomplished.

Shoot long, crosscourt
Break out the 300mm or 400mm. Sit on the visitor's backline corner. Shoot action at the opposite end of the court – particularly rebounds and reverse dunks. PJs have a camera with a 200mm in their lap to get the return action as well.

A really great shot has a player diving to keep the ball in play. Again, a PJ could shoot 100 games before even seeing this happen – much less catching it on film/CCD.

Get a steal
PJs sit at the center line position on the sidecourt and wait for an intercepted pass or outright steal. There's a split second of emotion on both players faces when this happens. PJs look for this emotional outburst rather than where the ball is located. The ball position looks the same as a standard game shot, the emotion tells the real story.

Shoot horizontal
Let's face it, basketball is a game of tall, skinny folks jumping up and down. As such, it's a vertical game. Most of the safe shots are vertical. This also allows the PJ to keep both eyes open to anticipate plays.

To kick everything up a notch, try to get tight horizontal shots, particularly on or near the floor. This is where the real fights for the ball take place. In tight games, look for one player to seize the ball and motion for a time out to retain ball control.

Remote cameras
Many pro PJs attach a remotely fired camera with a wide angle lens behind the backboard or long glass looking directly down on the hoop to get action as it comes to the net. These must be set up long before the game begins and be secured so thoroughly that it would be the only thing remaining after a major earthquake. Shake it, hit it, pound on the goal. If it moves at all, remove it. No shot is worth injuring the players or fellow PJs under the goal.

Pre-focus the lens slightly below the hoop, attach a Pocket Wizard or an internal FM remote and use it when a big play comes to the net.

An alternate, but less effective, way to accomplish a similar shot is to mount the camera on a monopod with a long plunger, electronic shutter release cord, or use an infrared or FM remote. PJs pre-focus and test the camera angles (with digital cameras and a ball head on the monopod). Then, they place the monopod base on their shoulders and follow action. This approach allows a slightly longer lens (50mm can occasionally work) to get a tighter shot. However, remember the PJ is shooting completely blind and may get nothing.

Other visual variety
Try layering some images. It's hard to accomplish at f/2.8, but it's possible. Shoot through people arms find other foreground objects in the stands or along the sidecourt to add some visual variety. Work murals or flags in the background.

Go into the catwalk with long glass and get super-tight shots as players approach the net. Again, take all safety precautions.

Next, try some of the "cool" things. Try a few panning blurs (slow-rear synch them if you can). Look around for anything reflective for surreal shots. Try a slow-shutter, double-action zoom as they move down the lane.

Outdoor, daylight games (3-on-3 tournaments particularly) allow silhouettes and other options most indoor games don't allow. It's up to the PJ's imagination and technical prowess.

Enough for now,


Anonymous said...

Hey Mark. This is a great guide. I've shot about five games for the college newspaper and think I'm doing okay, but I've had one issue. How do I keep the focus from shifting to the fans? All of the shots I have with the most dramatic action are always out of focus. I'm using a pretty quick 50mm prime. What do ya think?


Mark M. Hancock said...

The most sure way is to focus manually. Only use one finger to track focus. If you use your thumb and index finger, you're likely to jerk the focus too far.
If you insist on shooting auto, change to a single sensor and keep the indicator on a specific player's chest. The numbers often contrast the jersey color and provide enough contrast for AF sensors.

Anonymous said...

AH thanks Mark! You reply so quick! Thanks for having such great info for those of us starting out. You rock!


Mark M. Hancock said...

De nada.

Unknown said...

Great information! Thanks so much, but one problem I have is grain. I'm shooting with a digital at ISO800, 50mm 1.8, 1/250 or so. My camera is relatively old and doesn't give me many options in ISO, basically 400, 800, 1600. How can I reduce the grain?

Mark M. Hancock said...

If the gym has good enough light to handle 400, go for that. Most gyms can handle 800. Some (barns) require 3200.
When available light is really low, it's best to light the gym to keep the ISO low. However, it requires a major investment.
You might want to read the posts about ISO and exposure values.