Shooting Tips on Capturing Hockey Moments

Sports photography could be considered one of the hardest but most rewarding kinds of photography available to all levels of shooters.  Modern cameras, with super-fast auto focus and 10 frame-per-second motor drives offer photographers the ability to capture images like never before.  But there is still a significant amount of skill, planning, and strategy involved.  Timing is absolutely critical. No matter how fast your camera is, if you miss the moment, it's gone forever.  

Ice hockey is one of the most intense, and challenging, sports to shoot.  Rarely does one have a large, thick, often dirty and scuffed piece of glass between them and their subject.  However, shooting this sport can be a lot of fun, and yield some great results.  As a photographer, I have never really been a hockey fan.  Going to a college with Division 1 hockey meant shooting lots of it.  I quickly learned to enjoy the sport, and developed the necessary skills to photograph it.  I will be honest and say that I still do not have a complete understanding of the game, but with the right techniques and a lot of practice, I was able to capture many successful images over four years of covering the team.  

Lighting & Lenses: 

The first thing to be aware of is that the light in hockey rinks is awful.  They are dark and poorly color balanced.  One advantage of shooting this sport is that there is a built in fill-card pushing light onto the players: a white sheet of ice.  Do not be worried if the ice is slightly over-exposed, it helps to add to the drama and excitement of the images.  Be more concerned about the exposure of the athletes and their faces.  Often, I set my camera at ISO1600 or above, depending on your equipment, you will want to find a setting that is optimal.  It is important to get the fastest shutter speed possible.  I would never want to shoot slower than a 1/400th of a second shutter speed.  Often times getting that fast requires both shooting at a high ISO, and opening my aperture up as wide as possible.  Using high-end lenses shoot at F2.8 or faster.  With slower zoom lenses, set your camera to aperture priority, and set the widest aperture (lowest number) you can.  With sports photography, I always want the least amount of depth of field possible, to best isolate my subject against a busy background of fans, mascots, bleachers, etc.  

My favorite combinations of lenses for hockey are: 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and 300mm.  The shorter zoom lens is great for when up close against the glass, getting wide-angle shots of players skating right in front of you.  The 70-200mm lens is by far the most used lens; it is great for goal-action shots, and mid-ice shots.  The 300mm lens is hardest to use, but it works well for shooting down ice, or when you have an above-ice position and really want to get in tight on the athletes.  

Position:

After you have established your camera and lens combination, there are two primary places where professionals position themselves to shoot hockey.  They would be above the ice, near a goal, around the blue line, or from ice-level, shooting through the glass.  I spend most of my time there, moving from the four corners, to directly behind the goal for down-ice or penalty shots.  

Shooting from above entails using a longer lens like the 70-200mm.  A big advantage is that there is no glass in between you and the action.  A downside is that it is much harder to get the faces of players.  Attempt to get high up, but as close to the ice as possible, so you are looking straight-down.  This will help keep the ice behind the players, making for a clean background.  

Some hockey rinks are judicious in keeping the glass clean, others, you might as well be shooting through rice paper.  If the glass is clean, consider it a blessing, you will lose about ½ stop of light through it.  If the glass is filthy, you can lose almost one whole stop.  The major advantage of this shooting position is that the players skate towards you, and you are much closer to the action.  This can make for intense, compelling images.  I frequently carry two cameras, often with a wide-angle lens on one, ready to shoot a player getting checked into the glass in front of me.  

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The result of shooting through the glass at ice-level.  Shot with a Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm F2.8 lens, 1/640 second, F3.2, ISO3200

Another dilemma of shooting through the glass is that as you angle the camera, you get a lot of flare from reflections.  To minimize this, I use a rubber screw-on lens hood.  Professional hockey shooters often build specialized lens hoods from gaffer tape and cardboard.  The idea is to "seal" the lens up against the glass, so that as you angle yourself, there is less light bouncing off the glass and into your lens.  

During the game, watch the puck, but be ready for anything.  Big hits can sometimes occur away from the puck, as can unique, non-action shots.  Try switching between vertical and horizontal, especially when using a longer lens such as a 300mm.  Remember that you want to keep your shutter speed as fast as possible, to freeze the action.  If this means bumping up your ISO, it is better to have grainy images then blurry ones.  No amount of post-processing can remove blur from a slow shutter speed.  

By following these guidelines, and shooting as much as possible, you can get hockey images that will be levels above what average, crazed, hockey parents are capable of.  Start by shooting younger athletes, even high school, to get a feel for the game, as players get older they become significantly faster and harder to follow.  Be sure to get to the game early, at least an hour, so you have time to scout out locations for shooting.  Get permission if needed before trying to shoot at ice-level, especially at college level games.  I always have a rag handy in case the outside of the glass has smudges or fingerprints.  Be ready to shoot a lot of images, so have plenty of memory cards handy.  And always remember: do not rely on a high-end camera to do the work for you, persistence and practice can make for superb images regardless of equipment.


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jf.gifJoshua Lehrer | Website
Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant.  He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer.  He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.

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