Start With the Ideal Equipment
It used to be that to photograph baseball like the pros you needed an ultra-expensive, ultra-long telephoto lens—like a 600mm or even longer prime with a fast aperture and a monthly payment equivalent to a used car. Thankfully, one of the biggest benefits of high-resolution, big-megapixel cameras is the crop factor—you can use a shorter lens and, because the resolution of the image is so high, you can easily crop in to make a shorter focal length (like 400mm, for instance) behave a lot more like a super telephoto (like the aforementioned 600mm). Want to really expand on that cropping capability? Get a camera with a sub-full-frame sensor, like the DX format Nikon D500 with its APS-C sensor. Then, multiply the actual focal length of your lens (say, 400mm) by 1.5 and just like that you’re working with a lens that’s actually behaving like it’s 600mm. That’s important if you’re near first base and want to make a great shot of the center fielder diving for the ball or if you’re down the third base line hoping to make a close-up of the batter. It also helps when shooting through a fence or protective netting; just position your camera as close to the barrier as you can to obscure the obstacle as much as possible. When you get right down to it, you can’t fake focal length—but resolution sure helps. Speaking of that Nikon D500, it’s got another benefit going for it when it comes to shooting sports—a high frame rate. At 10 frames per second, you can click and capture a handful of shots at every peak moment of action, rather than having to try to cherry-pick individual exposures—an incredibly difficult task best left to professionals with years of experience. For the rest of us, a 10 fps frame rate is a great way to shoot a lot of exposures in a burst while being more likely to catch the perfect peak moment in the sequence. Sony’s mirrorless A9, with its electronic shutter, can capture a whopping 20 fps with JPEGs or compressed RAW files, making it a real viable option for folks who are just getting started shooting sports such as baseball, as well as for those who make their living doing it.
Find the Right Light
It’s a sunny day, you say? Well then you’re all set, right? Not necessarily. If you’re not careful, you could get hard shadows and too much contrast to make an ideal image. Instead of simply putting the sun at your back and shooting with everything flatly illuminated, position yourself where you’re shooting somewhat into the sun, and be sure to open up for the shadow side exposure. This will create backlighting that adds to the illusion of depth and, depending on the angle of the sun, might actually put a rim light on the players, helping them to practically pop off the background. Obviously, you’re somewhat limited by the arrangement of the field and your access, but to the extent that you’re able to position yourself relative to the sun, you should definitely do so. If you’ve got your choice of games, choose one in the evening that will put the sun at a low angle and considerably increase the odds of beautiful illumination—especially compared to boring midday sun. The other thing to look for is the edges of light. Any place where a large shadow meets a brightly illuminated area is an opportunity for an interesting image. For instance, if shadows are creeping in from the outfield toward second base, look for opportunities to capture a play at second base in a way that might put a fully illuminated player in sunlight against a dark, shaded outfield background. If you’re able to get up to a high vantage point—from the top of the stands, for instance—look for opportunities to use those same intersections of light and shadow to create visual patterns or graphic shapes that take your pictures to the next level.
Learn to Anticipate the Action
You’re interested in photographing baseball, so hopefully, that means you’re interested in the sport and understand it, too. If not, start by learning the ins and outs of any sport you’re going to photograph. There’s a rhythm to a baseball game. Understanding what the action is building toward, and where and how dramatic plays will unfold, is the first step to getting a great shot. Something as simple as understanding you need to be on the first-base side to photograph the face of a right-handed batter and the third-base side to see a lefty is a great way to keep you from wasting your time by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, you can’t exactly move around the field in an instant. If you’re not ready, you’re not going to get the shot. Knowledge of the sport means you’ll know when it’s time for a play at the plate or when a pitcher is likely to make his patented pick-off move to first. These skills have nothing to do with photography per se, yet they’re crucial if you hope to get pictures of actual baseball action rather than a bunch of shots of people standing around spitting and scratching.
Dial in Your Exposure
You don’t need to worry much about depth of field, but you might want to shoot a little bit stopped down from wide open just to give yourself a sharper aperture, as well as a hint more depth of field. Mostly, you want to be near wide open because that will enable you to use the fastest shutter speed possible. I’d certainly use nothing slower than the focal length of the long lens I’m using and even faster if possible. To really ensure you eliminate motion blur, here’s a suggestion: Set the shutter speed to 1/1000th or even faster, the aperture to a stop or two from wide open and let the ISO go as high as necessary to ensure the correct exposure. A little noise never hurt anybody, and it’s certainly preferable to an image that’s unusable due to motion blur. Remember, too, that if you’re shooting into the sun you’re going to need to open up from the indicated meter reading—maybe a full stop or even two—in order to correctly expose for the shadow side of the subject that’s facing the camera.