It's hard to believe that I am at the halfway mark of my 16th season as a NHL photographer. I actually started my career shooting hockey (having only shot a handful of games) over 17 years ago with the newly founded San Jose Sharks. It was while I was shooting a football game at Stanford that Sacramento-based photographer, Rocky Widner, approached me with the idea of forming a partnership and I eagerly accepted. At the time, both of us had shot only a few games each as the winter sport had not yet taken hold of Northern California. I was a baseball and football shooter and Rocky was team photographer for the NBA's Sacramento Kings.
We were on a short list of shooters that the Sharks were looking at and were given the assignment of shooting the unveiling of their new jersey at a local ice rink. Gordy Howe did the honors; we shot anything and everything involved with the event and a week later were given the job.
Call it baptism by fire, but it was definitely an on-the-job learning experience. I can honestly say today - all these years later - I am still learning. As with any genre of photography, staying creative and looking at the sport from a different perspective is what will keep one sharp and evolving.
As with any learning experience, one finds out quickly what will and will not work. I eliminate what doesn't work from my repertoire and try to build on what does work. Here are ten things that I have learned over the years of shooting this fast-moving sport that should help your hockey photos look their best.
- SCOUT A SHOOTING LOCATION AHEAD OF TIME: This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but there are some considerations you will need to make when scouting where you will shoot. At most local rinks, there will be no on-ice locations. Most rinks use thick plexiglass which will be scuffed by repeated hits of the puck. Even a new sheet of plex will cause distortion. Thus, if you want to shoot ice-level, try to get into the bench area (consider wearing a helmet). Overhead positions will allow you to shoot the entire ice but a longer lens will be required. Most rinks have safety-netting which will distort your images. See if the rink will allow you to stand on a ladder so you can place your lens close to the netting thus rendering it out-of-focus.
- EQUIPMENT: As for the proper camera, try to use one with a motor-drive speed of at least five-frames-per second. Hockey is one of the fastest moving sports I have ever tried to capture. You need a camera that can provide quick burst of frame capture when the action is at its peak. As for lens selection, an 80-200mm and a 300mm are imperative! If your budget allows, purchase the fast f2.8 lenses as the lighting in most local rinks is spotty and not very bright.
- USE THE CUSTOM WHITE BALANCE FEATURE: The next consideration for digital shooters is how to set the white balance properly on their cameras. I get asked this question a lot - even from other pros not used to shooting in smaller rinks. Avoid AWB at all costs. Most lighting in smaller arenas is some sort of gas-vapor and will pulse. Our eyes cannot detect this pulsing affect but the camera sensor does. A better option is bring a white card or use a product that I have found extremely useful called the Expo-Disc. Either way, set a custom white balance (consult your camera instruction book) and your colors will not vary.
- SET PROPER EXPOSURE: Even with today's sophisticated light meters, white ice will cause underexposure. The best way to set an exposure is to either take an incident light reading (by actually getting on to the ice prior to the game) or use your camera's histogram. I opt for using the histogram and shoot a full frame of the ice. I try to open the exposure until the histogram's graph is to the far right-hand side but not touching the edge as this would indicate clipping. I also turn on the highlight alert to make sure I am not blowing out any portion of the ice. Expect to use high ISO's (1600-3200). I will usually batch the selects through a program like Noise Ninja once the shooting is done. I have shot games with a shutter as slow as 1/250 second. This will stop action of most youth and adult league games. If it is NHL players, this shutter speed will work as long as the action is moving towards me and not laterally.
- STOCK vs. EDITORIAL SHOOTING STYLE: I would consider "stock" shooting as framing tightly (either vertical or horizontal) on a single player. I do this a lot - especially when working on a cover shoot or when shooting stock for my agency. Editorial is more "catching an important moment of the game." This can include a game winning goal, a big hit, and player(s) emotions. Personally, I'll take great emotion any time I can get it. Keep the camera to your eye after the action has finished and wait for the reaction.
- USING STROBES: I get asked this question a lot. As I mentioned earlier, small rinks are usually lit poorly with direct overhead lighting. What are your options if you want to improve on the existing lighting? As I see it you have only two. The first would be to add an on-camera flash and use it as a fill light (to supplement and clean-up the artificial light) in the arena. Large arenas tend to have a more even light distribution as the light is stronger and further away thus allowing it to wrap-around the player. The next option would be to mount strobes in the rafters. This takes some knowledge of studio lighting and will always require permission from the rink's management. One word of caution before attempting either, make sure that your flashing strobes are not interfering with the players ability to see. In large arenas this is generally not a problem if all the existing artificial lights are up to full power. I have had complaints at HP Pavilion (home of the San Jose Sharks) when all the lights were less than full power - the strobes become very obnoxious. Each rink and lighting arrangement will be different, so tests will be needed. If you do decide to strobe the entire arena, use monoheads and wire them together with zip cord so only your system can fire them. Remember at this point it is the duration of the flash itself which freezes the action, not your actual shutter speed. Just make sure you set a fast enough shutter speed to avoid ghosting.
- SET REMOTES WHERE POSSIBLE: Creative angles will always enhance your coverage of a hockey game. If you can gain access to overhead positions then utilize them for a different perspective of the action. If not, think about setting up a remote camera/lens combination and fire it with a remote (Pocket Wizards are the staple of the industry). A common but effective remote location is directly over the goal. As the goalie begins to get peppered with a barrage of shots, fire away. Not all goalies play a Dominic Hasek style (I call him the human octopus) but usually a goalie will get stretched-out into some sort of contorted position. Once in a while you might get lucky and catch a great glove or pad save. Another remote possibility is directly above the center face-off circle - though you'll only get a handful of opportunities per game for this shot. Also think of placing your camera for a shot at the bench area for coach/player interaction or reaction.
- LATERAL vs. DIRECT ACTION: If I had my preference, I would opt for an end zone shooting position as opposed to a position where the action moves laterally. I would try to stay just to the side of the goal. Why? Because the action has to come towards you. The object is to put the puck in the net so why not position yourself where the puck is being fired. If you are lucky, you might get that great slap shot with the puck exploding off the face of the stick. Scrums in front of the net also will look more interesting. In the NHL, the hardest checks are usually in the corners. A player goes in to dig the puck out making himself a human target for a hard-charging defensive player.
- GREAT GOALIE PHOTOS: Most great goalie photos happen either just laterally (just ahead of the red line) or shooting directly down-ice (seeing the goalie from the view of the opposing player). I try to pre-focus on the goalie and then wait until I see an inflection of his knees then I start firing. If you wait until you see the reaction you will miss the shot (unless it is Midget or Pee Wee hockey). At a higher level (especially the NHL) the action is happening too quickly. Try to anticipate the action just before it happens. Stay a bit looser with the framing as sometimes the offensive players will crash the net - if your framing is too tight on the goalie you'll accidentally cut these other players out of the frame.
- THE GRETZKY TIP: I saved this one for last. It is a tip I took from "The Great One's" autobiography. He was asked what made him better than his peers. He summed it up as saying he had an innate ability to know where the puck was going to come out on a rebound and then he used his quickness and agility to be the first one there. I thought about that in regards to hockey photography and tried to study where the puck would come out especially on dump-ins. As the puck was shot in, I would point my lens at where I thought it would come out and quickly set the focus. I then just had to wait for players to arrive and fire away. It doesn't work all the time but every once in a while I capture a great image. Call it anticipation - it's no different than what the athletes are doing while they are on the ice.
So there you have it. Remember these are guidelines not rules. The main thing is to concentrate and try to relax. There are times you can find your "zone" just as the athletes do. I know when I'm in my zone because the action almost seems to be in slow-motion. It's as if I'm in-sync with the game itself - my motions seem effortless. This is not going to happen immediately. Be prepared. Know your equipment like the back of your hand and let things happen. Practice and experience will breed confidence. Above all have fun - remember it's still just a game!
Visit Don Smith's website:www.donsmithphotography.com