How to Photograph Hockey
I am sorry for the title, as if I am some hockey shooting pro but you all have no idea how often I have googled these four words! Maybe, this title will help some other frustrated photographer who just needs a little bit of help to up his/her game.
Of all of the things that I point a camera at, hockey is by far the hardest and if someone tries to tell you that it's just the photographer that makes the photos not the gear than they are up in the night. I am not going to sugar coat how important your gear is when it comes to shooting fast action sports. Of course, the person behind the camera needs to have a solid understanding of their equipment, a good eye, some talent and a knowledge of the game but having a fast lens is paramount to consistent photos.
Photographers are facing a major uphill battle when it comes to hockey. Unless, you get lucky enough to sit on the bench during an outdoor game, you will usually be shooting indoors, behind dirty glass or a net and under horrible lights. You will also be trying to shoot subjects who are continually moving at top speeds while turning, falling, jumping or slamming other players. Not quite ideal conditions to take beautiful photos but the ultimate sport to capture. Ice hockey is seriously the best team sport to sit front and center and watch, camera or no camera!
When I first started taking photos of my boys at the rink, I was using a very decent, intermediate Canon T2 with an 18-270mm (I believe) kit lens. A few years ago I crawled up the ladder to a Pentax K3 and started shooting hockey with a Tamron 70-200mm. This combo provided me with several years of decent shots and glorious portraits (off ice). I stopped shooting on the "running man" as I like to call it (on my Canon) and had to start actually using my K3 beyond the convenient green stop. I started shooting hockey on aperture (AV) mode where I tend to be most comfortable and adjusting my ISO and F-Stop until my photos were relatively decent. I found myself almost always shooting hockey at 3200 ISO's which as you know, are going to be slightly grainy but that was where I landed.
As I began getting more comfortable with my gear and developing what you might call a slight addiction, I started looking for the next best thing. It just so happened, that the Pentax Full Frame was just on the horizon with a much faster Pentax HD FA 2.8 70-200mm lens. Lucky for me (and my husband's bank account), I was able to get my hands on one of the very first cameras released in Utah. I shipped my beloved Tamron off to some ho-dunk town in the wilds of Georgia (I say this because it literally cost me $45.00 to do so!!!) and have never looked back. This lens is a game changer and whether mounted on the K1 or the K3 (which is actually better for sports as it has an APS-C sized sensor resulting in a longer focal length), my photos are getting better. While there is plenty of room for improvement and still much learning to do, I think I have a good enough idea of how I should be shooting to yield decent results and I am happy to share with you.
So here goes, first and foremost, get yourself a FAST lens! A 70-200mm is a perfect focal length for hockey. This lens will also give you A LOT more than action shots if you are considering a purchase. The 70-200mm is my bread and butter. Well, that's not entirely true, my bread and butter comes from my husband but you get what I mean. I use it all the time but back to the subject at hand. You will find yourself mostly shooting about 1/3 of the way down the ice. Any longer and you will miss a lot of action. You will need a shorter focal length if you want close-ups on the boards where you are standing. The Sigma 1.4 35mm Art is a great choice or for ease of use, the trusted, 24-70mm.
Next, you should use a monopod! I used to just sit and snap until my neck was about to fall off and three Advil could barely reduce the pain. I am not a tripod person, I move around way too much for them. I own one, I barely use it. I have a Vanguard Veo Monopod which is excellent, affordable and easy to use. I can quickly move around as needed and I can rest my camera on it (with the strap around my neck that is), I love it!
Alright, alright, here is the money, the inside scoop, the settings that work for me. You may need to adjust for your equipment but here goes. Set you camera to MANUAL (M). I like to set my F-Stop as wide as possible because I like the subject focused and a shallower depth of field. If you want a sharper image edge to edge, adjust up to where you like it and adjust the ISO's up if needed. On my Pentax K1 with a fast 70-200mm, my go-to settings are as follows: Shutter speed 1/1000, ISO 1600, F2.8, Exposure set +.5, White Balance should be set to auto. While this may not be perfect for you, I am liking this setup currently. One thing that I am also learning to do is to use the back AF button on the camera. There is a bit of a learning curve here but, I am liking the results as far as my portrait sessions go. Look into it and see if it helps you out. Now, go out and shoot some hockey players...with a camera that is. Here are a few photos from the Aspen Fall Face Off from our Bantam Elite and PeeWee Elite teams. Enjoy.