FanPost

A fan's guide to baseball photography

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via Red Hot Mama

I'm often asked what equipment I use to photograph baseball games. It's kind of long and complicated to explain in a comment, especially repeatedly, so I thought I'd devote a post to it. There's a lot of info out there on how to photograph sports, but most of it directed toward the pro, not the fan. Consider this a fan's guide to baseball photography.

I'm not going into too much detail about photography terms, full frame vs. crop-frame, how many megapixels, and other photo neepery, because it would take too long, and there's lot of other sites with that kind of information. (But if you have any particular questions, I'll do my best to answer them.)

Gear

The most common question I get is, "What camera do you use?" Actually, the camera doesn't matter that much. It's the glass (the shutterbug's term for lenses) that makes the difference. Smart photographers on a budget will save money on the camera, and spend the big bucks on a lens. Camera snobs may laugh at you for having a pricey professional "L" lens on a consumer Digital Rebel, but those with more brains than money will totally understand.

I have two camera bodies: the Canon Digital Rebel XTi, and the Canon 40D. They are both not the newest models in their respective lines, and hence much cheaper. The 40D was bought used.

The Digital Rebels in general give you great bang for your buck. Though they are aimed at non-professionals, they accept pro lenses. They have just about all the features you could want, for a fraction of the cost of a pro camera.

The Canon 40D is sort of a prosumer camera, I guess. It's heavier and more durable than the Rebels, with more metal and less plastic. (This is not necessarily an advantage. Lighter is better if you're going to be hiking all day with it hanging around your neck.) I like it because it can do 6.5 frames per second (as compared to 3 fps for the Rebel). Pro cameras can do 10 fps, but you can expect to pay $3,000 or more for one of those.

Now comes the hard part: what lens? The ideal sports lens would be fast (have a large aperture), with a good zoom range, and have strong telephoto power. Unfortunately, a lens that has all that would cost as much as a car, and weigh as much, too. Compromises must be made.

I chose to sacrifice zoom power. Like many pro sports photographers, I use mostly fixed lenses at the ballpark. Fixed lenses are sharper than zoom lenses, as well as lighter and cheaper (compared to zoom lenses of similar focal length, aperture, and quality).

The drawback, of course, is that you must "zoom with your feet" - move closer or further away from the subject if it doesn't fit in the viewfinder. Alternately, you can crop your photos later, using Photoshop or something similar. This works fine for images you plan to post on the web or make normal prints from, but you probably don't want to crop a photo too much if you're planning to make it into a large poster or mural.

And you won't be able to photograph the entire field or stadium with a 300mm fixed lens (or most telephoto zoom lenses, either). You need a wide-angle lens for that. You can bring one, or you can tuck a point-and-shoot camera in your pocket for situations where your fixed lens doesn't cut it.

One advantage zoom lenses have is that it's easier to find your subject. If you can frame the entire outfield, then zoom in on Jay Bruce sprinting to make a catch...that's a lot easier than trying to track a speeding outfielder with a fixed telephoto lens. When you first start, you'll find yourself frequently lost in the outfield, focusing mostly on grass. A little practice, and you'll be fine.

What I won't sacrifice is speed. I like fast lenses; that's what lets you freeze the action. I don't like using any lens slower than f/2.8 for sports. But f/4 is lighter and more affordable, and fine for bright daylight. It will be noticeably slow for night games. Rather than using sports mode, put the camera in aperture-priority mode, set the aperture wide open, and crank up the ISO. The images will be a bit grainy, but not as blurry.

Some comments on specific lenses...

The classic sport photographer's lens is the 400mm f/2.8. That may be lens Mr, Dunn is using above. (Though it could be the 500mm f/4.) It's a great lens, but too large (not to mention expensive) for the average fan. It's too heavy to use without a tripod or monopod, and it's so long it's likely to annoy your neighbors if you use it in the stands.

The 300mm f/2.8 is a more reasonable choice for a fan. It costs half as much as the 400mm f/2.8, and weighs half as much, too. It's still heavy enough that you need a monopod, and still wicked expensive. For spring training and minor league games, using this lens with a monopod usually isn't a problem. They won't allow monopods at Yankee Stadium (and probably many other major league parks).

The 200mm f/2 is a relatively new lens, and it is excellent. The f/2 means it's very fast, and thus a great choice for night games or indoor games. With a 1.4 extender, it becomes roughly equivalent to the 300mm f/2.8. (You gain some focal length but lose some speed with an extender.) This lens is smaller than the 300mm f/2.8, but just as heavy. You will still need a monopod to photograph a 3-hour baseball game.

The 200mm f/2.8 is something of a forgotten lens, but it's probably the one I use most often. It's not as fast as the 200mm f/2, not as long as the 300mm f/2.8, and it doesn't have image stabilization. But it's relatively light and cheap. You can use this lens without a monopod, making it an excellent choice for major league games.

If you'd rather have a zoom lens (and they are more versatile), here are a few:

70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM (3.2 lbs) - The favorite general purpose lens of many a pro, but a little too heavy to use handheld for a 3-hour baseball game.

70-200mm f/2.8L USM (2.9 lbs) - The same as the above lens, only without image stabilization. That saves you some weight, and a few hundred bucks.

EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM (1.7 lbs) - Not fast as the f/2.8s, but much lighter and cheaper.

EF 70-200mm f/4L USM (1.6 lbs) - The same as the above, only without image stabilization. Light enough to hand-hold, and much cheaper than the IS version. Good general-purpose lens.

EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM (1.8 lbs) - I see a lot of fans using this lens at the ballpark. It's got a lot of zoom range, and is relatively cheap and not too heavy. However, it's a little too slow for my taste, and the image quality isn't as good.

Do I actually own all these lenses? No. I'm not made of money. But I've used most of them. Your local camera store will let you try lenses. You can also rent them, from a local store or on the Internet. Some I've borrowed from friends, and some I've bought, used for awhile, then sold. (The good thing about Canon lenses is that they hold their value well. You'll be able to get almost what you paid for them if you decide to sell them, as long as they're in good condition and you have the original packaging. The bad thing is that buying used doesn't really save you a lot of money.)

There are also lenses made for Canon cameras made by third parties, like Sigma and Tamron. I'm afraid I don't know much about those. They are cheaper, and might be worth a look.

Ballpark hazards

Stadium security: Minor league parks generally treat fans very well, and won't bother you much about what you bring in. They're starting to crack down at spring training, and they can be real Nazis at major league parks. If you want to avoid any hassle, make sure your camera bag is soft-sided and no larger than 16"x8"x8". As mentioned above, minor league and spring training games usually don't mind if you have a monopod, but major league parks often do. Occasionally they'll get on your case just because they think your lens is too long. Offering to move somewhere out of the way will usually appease them.

The net: The netting that protects the people behind home plate from foul balls can be a pain to a photographer. If you're far enough away from it, it will be visible in your photos, but won't bother your autofocus too much (the netting and the players will both be in focus). If you're sitting very close to the net, you can usually set your camera or lens so the autofocus ignores the net, because it's too close. But if you're in the scout seats or thereabouts, your camera will focus on the net, leaving the players blurry.

The solution is to focus manually. One pro sports photographer taught himself to quickly focus manually by going out to a nearby highway and practicing by focusing on the cars speeding by at 70 mph. That's probably a bit much for the average fan, but you can use your knowledge of the game to your advantage, by focusing in advance where you expect the action to be.

Weather: Be prepared for rain, even if the forecast doesn't call for it. Bring a clean garbage bag you can use to protect your camera from rain, or, better yet, buy a rain cover.

Tips

Where to sit: It depends on what kind of photos you want. Action photos are often best taken from higher up in the stands. Those seats are usually less crowded, too, so you have more room to swing a lens.

If you want portrait-type photos of the players, you need to be in the box seats. Any higher, and their faces will be shaded by their hats. Right above the dugout, midway between home plate and first or third base is pretty good. You'll get good shots of the players as they enter the dugout, or look toward the coaches. Sitting in the fourth or fifth row is better than sitting in the front row. Being a little above the field gives you a better view.

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A lot of the most desirable seats in the park aren't that great for photographers. The premium seats behind home plate offer a great angle to photograph the pitchers, but mostly I try to avoid sitting behind the plate. You only see the backs of the batters, and the players and umpires often block your line of sight to plays at the plate or at first base. And of course, there's the darn net.

Sitting in the box seats by first or third base has similar problems. The umpire or first or third base coach often blocks your view of the action. And the players usually have their backs turned to you, since they're looking in toward the batter or pitcher. Pictures of people's backs aren't terribly compelling.

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Of course the ideal situation is to be able to move around the park and photograph the game from different angles. I often do this late in the game, after people start leaving.

Lighting: Bright light is better for freezing action, but overcast days or late afternoon light are better for portraits of the players. Midday sun is too harsh and contrasty. Sunny day games are great times to photograph the ballpark, though. With the sun directly overhead, you'll avoid the shadows on the field you get later in the day.

My top tip: Work with what you've got. If you can't afford pricey camera gear, use what you have. Get down to the box seats so you're close enough, or take pictures during quieter moments during the game. Maybe you can't freeze a 94mph fastball in flight, but you can still take interesting photos. Some seats are better than others, but there's usually something you can photograph from any seat. If you get stuck out in the outfield bleachers, photograph the outfielders.

This photo of Ray Olmedo fielding the game-ending grounder is one of my favorites. I was behind the plate for the game, which was pretty lousy. My view of home plate and 1B was blocked, and I was tired of taking pictures of the pitcher, so I focused on 2B. Which is where it was hit.

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And I love the photo of oranges and the stadium lights Daedalus posted here. Really captures the essence of Florida spring training.

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