Home How-To Tip Of The Week How To Photograph Baseball—04/23/12
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Monday, April 23, 2012

How To Photograph Baseball—04/23/12

Advice from a pro for making pictures worthy of baseball cards

This Article Features Photo Zoom

As a ten-year-old boy I had two passions: photography and baseball cards. My dream job for as long as I can remember was baseball card photographer. So when I learned that's what Gregg Forwerck does for a living I was suitably envious. I still haven't convinced him to let me shoot a baseball card on his behalf, but Gregg was kind enough to answer my questions about photographing the American Pastime. So here, straight from the pro's mouth, are ten tips to improve your pictures of the boys of summer.

1. Start with good gear.
You don't need to break the bank to get started in sports photography, but Gregg points out that good gear not only performs better, but once you outgrow it or decide you don't need it, you'll have a much easier time selling it to the next photographer. "I started out buying really inexpensive gear," he says, "and I bought a lot of it before I realized that was a bad way to go. You can always get rid of the good stuff, but you can't get rid of the bad stuff: it becomes a paperweight. Use the best gear you can get your hands on because you can always sell it if you need. You can always throw a 400mm ƒ/2.8 on Craigslist and sell it. Always." Don't forget that you, too, can shop for used gear to keep your costs down, or consider renting from a local shop or online vendors such as borrowlenses.com and lensrentals.com.

2. Use your autofocus.
When autofocus was new, professional sports shooters resisted. But these days, it's the industry standard. It's another reason why Gregg suggests investing in good gear: because it's got fast, reliable autofocus. "I was probably one of the first shooters I knew who went autofocus. I met a guy who went autofocus and he said try it, and I loved it, so I went and bought it. It increased the rate of pictures that I make substantially, and I can concentrate more on exposures and content rather than focus. As a professional, you can't not autofocus. Not and be competitive." So free up your eyes to concentrate on light and composition, and let your equipment help you how it can.

3. You don't need a huge lens.
Speaking of good equipment, it might be easy to believe that if you want to emulate the pros you need massive telephoto lenses. While this may have been true in the film era, today's sports shooters are able to get away with shorter glass because their camera resolutions are so large. "You need a 300mm ƒ/2.8, in my opinion," Gregg says. "And since nowadays we shoot cameras with really good high ISOs, a 300mm ƒ/4 is pretty good too. I use the 400mm ƒ/2.8 almost exclusively for baseball and football. There's a lot you can do with Photoshop, to crop in and it still looks really good. The 600mm lenses, they're kind of antiquated because they're such big glass. I rarely see a 600. The game I'm shooting tonight, there won't be a 600." Don't forget that shooting baseball isn't all about action shots. For portraiture, Gregg suggests a 70-200 or 27-70 zoom—something that you can use when you're up close and personal with your subject.

4. Choose Every Shot.
Sports shooters tend to use professional cameras capable of rattling off many frames per second. But the good ones, Gregg says, don't just point and shoot—they choose their shots carefully. "If I'm shooting action," he explains, "I'm shooting eight frames-per-second or faster. Not because I want to shoot eight frames, but because I want to go 1-2-3, hold, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. I'm not machine-gunning. I've seen guys shoot like that, and in 20 frames 15 of them are going to be sharp but the best one might be the one they tried to motor blast through. I'd rather choose my pictures. I always call it making pictures, not taking pictures. I've seen a lot of guys come in the last few years and just point the camera and motor the heck out of it. Those guys make some good pictures, but they have no control so they're going to miss some shots that are going to be soft."

5. Anticipate the Shot.
You can't simply sit there and wait for something exciting to happen—like a stolen base or a double play—and expect to grab the shot on the fly. It's important to anticipate where the next shot may come from, and that's a result of understanding the game. "I'm anticipating things," Gregg says. "The best shooters anticipate the shot. It comes from liking sports. You anticipate the shot because you know the sport. If somebody sent me out to shoot Polo, I'd say it's probably an awesome sport but I know nothing about it. So I wouldn't know where to be for the game."

6. Arrive Early.
Not only does showing up well before game-time help you find shots during warm-ups you might otherwise have no chance of making (getting closer to the playing surface and photographing portraits or athletes interacting), it's the perfect time to plan your attack. The less you know about a game, the more important this early approach can be. It will help you determine where to be and when, based on who's playing and how the light is changing. "Get there early," Gregg says, "to set yourself up for success. Figure out where the light is, talk to the right people, and know what you're getting ready to do."

7. Find the Right Light.
"The first thing you do when you get to the stadium is figure out where the light is," Gregg says, "because it's all about the light. Set yourself up for success in terms of where the light is." If it's a day game, no doubt the sun is going to be high in the sky. But still, you can pre-plan for how it will transit the sky and what it will do to the playing field. You'll definitely want to position yourself where the sun provides a backlight or sidelight—never full frontal or you'll risk creating images that are flat and lifeless. For a night game you've got the advantage of a potential sunset background or warm, golden light—but to make the most of such beautiful illumination you have to plan ahead.

8. Don't use Full Sun.
The right light is almost never full frontal sunlight. Notice in the previous tip that Gregg's recommendation was to position the sun behind or to the side of an athlete? That's because those angles enhance texture and depth, while frontal light is flat and boring. "None of us shoot full straight with the sun unless it's really low light," he says. "We always shoot backlit. Unless the light's really low, because there's nothing like really clean, beautiful low light in the face. When I can get front light at sunset, I want it." In both cases, the light isn't as bright as full midday sun, so you'll have to work a little harder to freeze fast action. Higher ISOs and faster lenses help, so you can open up to ƒ/2.8 and get your shutter speed up above 1/500th of a second—ideally even faster.

9. Find the Right Guy.
Knowing who's who is important—not only on the field, but at the ballpark as well. If you want to get into the perfect position, whether it's at a major league stadium or your local American Legion field, you'll likely need some sort of permission. That means you have to know who to ask, and how to ask, to put yourself where you need to be to get the shot. "Find out who is in charge of photography at the venue," Gregg says, "and find out where he'll let you go. If you give him a lot of respect and listen to him he'll usually put you in a great spot for a couple of innings so you can make a real gem."

10. Watch the Pros.
If you're unsure about any of these tips—which lenses, what positions, who to speak to, or how to anticipate what's going to happen next—there's one surefire tip that will help bail you out of any tricky situation: watch what the pros do. "I used to always look at the guys I knew were Sports Illustrated photographers or team photographers," Gregg says, "because those are the guys that know where to be. And they do it naturally—it's second nature to them. So that's what I did." Even if there's no high profile national coverage of your local high school game, there's bound to be some shooters from the local paper who know what they're doing. Keep an eye on them and do what they do—until they break one of these rules, of course!

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