How to Photograph Ice Hockey
As we move through August, you can’t help but think about the coming Fall. Everyone is bombarded by “back to school” advertising, and I’ve heard some whispers of pumpkin spiced coffee.
I know hockey is a winter sport, but the local youth hockey program begins the day after Labor Day! It’s time to get prepared to shoot in all those dark ice rinks.
I grew up playing hockey, and my son plays as well. While he was growing up, I coached the teams he played on, so I didn’t shoot much. Now that he’s in high school, I don’t coach the team, so I’m free to photograph.
The Technical Stuff
I’ve found that most rinks present some of the most challenging conditions to shoot in, and when you add in the speed of an ice hockey game, it’s down right hard. Before we even get to the speed of the game, we need to evaluate the environment. Local high school and youth teams do not play in NHL arenas. The first thing you notice when you walk in is that its DARK. Sure, there’s plenty of light to play the game, but remember, hockey is an extremely fast game. Can I get shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster? The speed of the game demands it if I want anything sharp. That’s my starting point to figure out how to set my camera.
Before I can really determine anything, I need to figure out where I’ll be shooting from. Ideally, I want to have a clear view of the ice surface, and not shoot through any netting or glass. Unless you can get on the bench (rare), unfortunately, there are few rinks where this is possible. Where necessary, I will shoot through the glass. This works if I can stand right against the glass, and try to avoid the scuff marks on the glass. I also need to be mindful of any reflections. Standing with a lot of lights behind you will certainly put hot spot reflections in the shot.
Once I have a position (or 2) scoped out, I can work out the camera setup. You may think that Shutter Priority would be the way to go, and it could work, but I’ve always preferred to shoot in Aperture Priority. Most of the rinks are not pretty, and even if they are, I like to control the depth of field to keep the focal point clear in the images. That means my f number is small, usually between f2.8, and if I’m really lucky, f4, but f3.2-3.5 is typical. Manual shooting is just not practical with the speed of the game.
OK, so I have no absolutes, but I know I want a shutter speed of at least 1/1000. That means I need to set an ISO that will allow that speed, with the aperture I’ve chosen. The speed of play, again, is a consideration here. Even with fast autofocus, it’s hard to nail down the focus where you want. If the shot is relatively close to you, and you’re shooting at f/2.8, the depth of field might only be a few inches. f3.5 or f4, if I can get away with it is preferable. I find that is a little more forgiving. The determining factor is the light. I’m shooting with a full-frame camera, and it handles noise at high ISO pretty well, so I can shoot at ISO6400 if necessary. The noise is tolerable, especially after a bit of cleanup in Lightroom. Of course, some rinks are brighter, and I can get down to ISO 3200, or even ISO2500 in the brightest of them, which just makes the files a bit cleaner.
My go-to lens is my 70-200mm f/2.8, and I generally limit my shooting to the end of the rink I’m shooting from. The 200mm reach really isn’t enough to shoot the length of the rink, plus, too much can get in the way when shooting that distance. I find I have more success keeping it to the one end. Having said that, you may think that standing near the middle is best. I will tell you that it is not. Shooting from the middle of the ice only makes all of your shots far away, except maybe a few neutral ice shots, because the action in hockey happens at the ends! Choose an end, shoot from there.
The first thing to remember is that each game is a story that starts long before puck drop. High school players have dedicated significant time and effort playing this game, most since they were toddlers. I look around the rink, near the locker room (inside if possible), and anywhere I might get a glimpse of player emotion.
OK, it’s just about time. I’ve picked my spot(s) and evaluated the light. I probably fired off a few frames of the Zamboni driver, at a few distances. I’ve tried a few angles to see if the light is consistent in the corners (rarely). I’m confident my settings are good for the light. Now it’s just time to wait for the players to take the ice.
There are several decisions to make at this point, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to discuss the general technique of shooting the action of an ice hockey game. My goal is to create a series of images that take the viewer to the game. The best comment I can receive is “I really felt like I was there.”
Hockey is incredibly fast, at almost any level. Knowledge of the game, as with any event or activity, will greatly increase the chances of getting great images. I need to be ready before the action starts to have any chance of catching a frame. Having said that, rarely do I take photos during any stoppage of play. A hockey player standing still tells no story. Making player portraits is sometimes necessary, but doing that off the ice with controlled lighting is always better.
I am constantly anticipating the action, and often focus away from the puck in the expectation the action will come that way. Shooting the action as it happens is always late. A photo of the puck in the net is not nearly as interesting or exciting as an image of the player releasing the puck, with the puck in travel, toward the net. The first image is not bad, but different. It is a display of the emotions of victory (or defeat), where hopefully the image is of the player’s face, to fully show that emotion. It doesn’t have the same feeling of speed and anticipation of the “in-flight” puck.
I said I don’t shoot during a stoppage, but that really refers to players setting up for a face-off. Hockey is a contact sport, and most often I’m shooting high school-age boys. As you might expect, it can get a little rough at times. While I’m certainly not encouraging or condoning aggressive actions, it can be a raw display of emotion that I will try to capture. These skirmishes rarely amount to much, as the referees are right there to stop it, but getting a photo of the sheer intensity of competition is often very compelling.
The last point I’ll make may seem to fly in the face of everything I’ve said so far, but I am very cautious of trying not to be repetitive. Hockey, as with any sport, is a game of rules. That means that players do similar things in similar ways during the game. If I stick to shooting the same area of the ice or anticipate the same actions, I will get similar photos. I still shoot all those situations, because it’s the one instance where something unexpected happens that will produce the best photo, and there is no way to know beforehand when, or if, that will happen.
In an average game, I shoot 200-400 frames. That gets culled down to maybe 100, and I’ll process 40-50 of those, of which maybe half are truly compelling (if I’m lucky!). You just keep shooting and hoping for the next great shot.