Photographing the sport of ice hockey can be one of the most challenging sports a photographer will ever shoot. On the pro level, the game moves at unimaginable speeds. It’s hard to believe the players can make such great plays in the blink of an eye.
As a photographer, you have to worry about keeping up with such fast paced action. You also have to be able to predict where things are going to happen next. If you wait for them to happen in this game, it’s already too late.
When shooting for the media, you will sometimes have the ability to shoot through a small opening along the glass about the size of a camera lens. When using the opening (placed there for the media by the NHL) there is the ever present danger of having your lens hit (when I say hit, I really mean smashed) by a puck. More on that later.
On an amateur and even semi-professional level, the game doesn’t move nearly as fast, and often the main challenge is lighting. Sounds fun right? Well, it really is!
I have shot hockey in the smallest of rinks and shoot on the pro level. I have made my fair share of mistakes so hopefully, after you have read this, you won’t have to. I will share what I bring to a game, where I shoot from and what settings I use. I won’t get too technical. Rather than explain why I use certain settings with all sorts of technical language, I will just tell you what settings I use.
You will have to experiment because the lighting in every rink will be different. If you are shooting little kids, the game will be at a much different pace than at the high school level. So will the lighting because local rinks tend to shut off some lights when local leagues are playing to save money. They tend to turn all the lights on when high school or college teams are playing. Also camera settings will vary depending on what camera and lens combo you use.
Know the Game
The first step to photographing great hockey is to have a basic understanding of the game of hockey. Knowing the rules and the flow of the game will help you get better shots. I have played ice hockey most of my life (I still play) and a have very good understanding of the game. Knowledge of the sport helps you point your lens in the right place ahead of time. This is critical when shooting hockey.
If you are not familiar with hockey, turn on the TV and start watching games. Notice how the players will often dump a puck into the offensive zone and then chase it down. Notice how the puck whips around the boards! Having this knowledge will help you keep your lens out of harms way when shooting for the media.
Most NHL games start at about 7:00 or 7:30 PM. This gives me plenty of time on game day to make sure my batteries are charged for my camera, my compact flash cards are cleared, my flash batteries are charged and my lenses are free of any debris. It’s also a good idea to go over your camera settings to make sure you haven’t left on any settings from your last shoot that would prevent you from getting great shots on game night.
Also take a look at the game match up. Who are the stars on each team? Who is on a scoring streak? Is there bad blood between these teams? Knowing the teams and the main players helps get great shots. Most teams send out an email game day with up to the minute stats for you to review. Make sure you are on the email list.
Camera and Settings
So about that camera… Shooting hockey is just not going to be possible right now without a DSLR camera. Really just about any one will do but the more recent the better. A 70-200 mm zoom lens or similar is a must as well.
I shoot with a Nikon D3S and use a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens. They don’t make the D3S anymore so if you were looking to buy a high end DSLR, go for the Nikon D5 20.8 MP FX-Format Digital SLR Camera Body (XQD Version) or a Nikon D500 DX-Format Digital SLR. Keep in mind the D5 is expensive, at about $6500, and meant for pro shooters. The D500 is much more affordable and is under $2000. Also serious cameras to consider are the Sony a9 at about $4500 and the Sony a6500 at about $1400.
I typically do not shoot at f2.8, so if you do not have an f2.8 lens, don’t worry, you can still get great shots. I will typically shot in manual mode at ISO 2000 and a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second at f/4. Do not use a flash when shooting ice hockey.
You may be thinking, why you would do that if you have a lens that can shoot as fast as f/2.8. The reason is depth of field. I want most of my shot to be in focus and f/4 to f/5.6 give me the speed and depth of field I am looking for. Shooting at a slightly higher f stop will help you avoid having the camera focus on a stick and have a players face become out of focus due to shallow depth of field.
If you camera doesn’t shoot clean enough to use a high ISO like 2000 then feel free to use a faster setting like f2.8 if you can but remember, you have been warned ;-). The minimum ISO you will probably be able to get away with will be around ISO 1600.
I also use Auto Focus Area mode on my camera and the Continuous Focus mode on my lens because the action is constantly moving. I like the 70-200 mm lens because it allows me to get some wide shots or zoom tight in on a players face. The Sigma is a sharp, fast and versatile lens. I highly recommend it.
Once the game is about to begin, all the main lights are turned on in the arena. This is usually as the home team comes out and before the national anthem. I usually take this time to set my white balance. I use a custom white balance setting metered off the ice or the stairs (the stairs are usually cement and a nice neutral gray color) and never let my camera automatically set the white balance.
I have found that the auto white balance will sometimes change between shots and give a series of game shots that look a bit off in color. I have often noticed that the auto mode is too warm for my tastes giving the ice a darker color, almost grayish color, which it shouldn’t have. After some experimentation I have settled on a white balance of 4000K which gives me the balance that I am looking for. It’s important to note that the white balance in the arena you are shooting at may be significantly different.
To get a better understanding of white balance and how it affects photos take a look at this article. If you are not sure on how to set your white balance, do a quick search on Google for your particular make and model camera. Remember to take your reading from a neutral gray or white color in the light you are shooting in. Often lens cleaning clothes are made neutral gray and are great to meter off of.
Where to Shoot From
The NHL has predetermined where the press can shoot from by placing removable cut outs in the glass for a photographer’s camera lens. These cut outs are located by each goal line. There are usually six of these openings.
I prefer to shoot from just a few feet in front of the goal line on ice level. From this angle you should be able to get good shots of the goal, players celebrating after scoring, and behind the net where you can look for some great hits when players are battling for the puck.
Angling your camera will also get you shots along the boards as players make their way into the offensive zone. This gives you those cool shots that look like you were on the ice when you took them (but you’re not that crazy, right?).
In major markets there are more media than there are spaces to shoot. In that case, just shoot through the glass on ice level. The plus side to this is that you do not have to worry about your lens being hit by a fast moving puck.
It’s also very important to remember that when the play is along the boards in the corners there are likely to be big hits. The boards and glass are made to flex. If there is a hit by the glass that you are shooting through make sure you pull yourself back to avoid getting hit by the flexing boards and glass. Having a camera to your eye when these boards flex can lead to a broken lens, a black eye and defiantly a bruised ego!
Remember that often teams will dump in the puck by whipping it around the boards as they cross the blue line. This is the time where a camera lens is in the most danger of getting hit by a puck. Make sure to pull your camera back out of the glass when players “dump” in the puck!
I also like to change things up and shoot from center ice at the top of the second level (often where the TV cameras are). This is just above the glass and gives a great view of the entire rink. From here you will get the opportunity to shoot at both goals. This is a plus because you can catch action on both sides of the net, rather than limiting yourself to just one side.
You will need at least a 400 mm lens from here. If you cannot afford one, consider a 2x Teleconverter for your 200 mm lens. Make sure it matches your lens’ make and model for compatibility!
Hockey Photography Tips…
So how do I get that shot of the puck in the air just as the goalie makes a great save? These are trained athletes with amazing reflexes. A slap shot in the pros hits over 100 mph! You may think you will never be able to get the shot, but you will if you know this one secret.
Remember, about a sentence ago when I said these are trained athletes with amazing reflexes? We can use that to our advantage.
For a goalie to stop a shot traveling at speeds of over 100 mph he has to react before the shot reaches him. Typically, he will go down on both knees to cover the low ice.
This is where you, as the photographer have a window of opportunity. It’s a small one, but one that will help you get great shots consistently. When the play is in the offensive zone, aim you camera at the goalie.
Zoom in (or out) wide enough to get about 8 feet in front of the goalie and focus. This is to capture any action around the net. Watch the goalies knees. A hockey goalie has trained his reflexes to be some of the fastest in any pro sport. Once his knees start to bend, hit the shutter release on your camera and hold it. Keep firing away as fast as your camera can take pictures. If the puck makes it to the net, odds are, you got the shot!
How do I get a player taking a slap shot? This is similar to how to get the goalie save shot. Your best bet is to point your camera at a defenseman whose team is currently attacking. He should be by the blue line.
During a power play is probably your best time to accomplish this. To have motion in the stick set your camera’s shutter speed to about 1/350 of a second at the pro level. To freeze the stick in mid bend set your shutter speed to about 1/1000th of a second. Wait for the attacking team to pass to your defense man and start firing away as soon as he raises his stick to shoot.
Don’t Stop Shooting When the home team scores a goal you may feel the urge to join in on the celebration. A horn sounds, spot lights on the players, crowd jumping up screaming! You may be tempted to join in… Don’t 🙂 Now is the time for you to get some great shots of the players celebrating. A great hockey shot doesn’t have to be action, often its emotion. So look for these shots just after a goal.
If you have questions, please feel free to ask. I am also open to suggestions for this article.
Get the new Amazon eBook – How To Photograph Ice Hockey: Tips From a Pro Hockey Photographer. Find the details here: http://shutterspeak.net/how-to-photograph-ice-hockey-amazon-ebook/
Editor’s note: I have added a new article on shooting from above the net. Check it out here: http://shutterspeak.net/photographing-hockey-from-above-the-net/
1/17/14 – Check out another new article on Post-Processing Hockey Photos.
3/2/14 – Want to see what it is like to shoot an NHL game? Check out my YouTube video shot using a Go Pro as I photograph an NHL game:
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