Get Action-Packed Images with These Basketball Photography Tips
Sports photography is far from easy, and getting accredidation to shoot major sporting events like the NBA Japan Games is even more challening. Once you get in the door, use these basketball photography tips, and you’ll be capturing incredible, fast-action images in no time!
My primary focus is event photography, but I began photographing basketball games a couple years ago (2018) to broaden my experience. Growing up I played some recreational basketball, so I understand the flow of the game. “At first, I didn’t realize how hard it would be, but I quickly learned to nail great shots at every game. Now I love sports photography!”
Read on to learn some tips and techniques…
You can’t shoot sports without the right gear! I use professional Nikon bodies (the D3s and D4s). The 24-70mm f/2.8 lens sits on my D3s and the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is on my D4s. I use a BlackRapid Dual Camera Shoulder Strap to quickly switch between cameras—depending on where the action is on the basketball court.
The 70-200mm f/2.8 is my preferred lens, but it really isn’t long enough to get great photos of players on the other end of the basketball court. However, anything longer, and you risk some serious camera shake—not to mention the wear and tear on your body, as it is HEAVY!
I prefer manual mode. First, I use the lowest possible ISO to get both a fast-enough shutter speed to stop any motion blur and an f-stop that will still provide a sharp image. For me, this usually looks like ISO 4000-6400, 1/500th shutter speed, and an f-stop no smaller than f/3.2. (Wide open apertures make it hard to nail your focus.)
Next, I set my camera’s custom white balance using a white wall or piece of paper in the gym. This white balance setting changes from gym to gym. I prefer RAW so that I can easily adjust the images in Lightroom.
Light & Shutter Speed
Due to recycle times of gym lights and influences from other light sources such as big TV displays, the frame-to-frame color temperature may not be consistent, even with a custom white balance. Watch for other things at play, like the yellow tones from the court and reflections off-colored jerseys and walls that may affect the skin tones and facial expressions in your basketball photography.
I also use a shutter speed that’s fast and allows me to shoot in burst mode. Burst mode lets me capture things like a player making a breakaway dunk. You don’t want to miss those shots!
#2: Establish the Setting
Part of telling the story of basketball for sports photographers is capturing the fans, fanfare, and traditions of the event. Capture what is going on in the gym before the basketball game. This is a great way to take test shots to make sure your camera and photography settings are where they should be.
#3: Find the Best Camera Angles
For the tip-off I make sure I find a spot that sets center court in the center of my camera viewfinder. Depending on whether I am capturing the basketball game for one team or both determines where I’d be generally doing the rest of the basketball game.
If I’m working for one team, I place myself right outside of the key to try and capture the team on offense. (The refs don’t like you to stand right under the basket, plus it’s a great way to get pummeled). Thus, I change positions at every half.
If I’m capturing BOTH teams, I change every quarter in order to capture both teams on offense and defense equally.
Shoot from Above
If there is a deck or a place for shooting the game from above, I’ll move around and capture the entire scene with a fisheye, or I’ll use a long lens to focus on a play from a new angle. But truthfully, my favorite place for photographing basketball is right under the basket!
Identify which is the player’s preferred hand for layups, and that will also help you to know where to be. It is very common to get a player’s arm covering their own facial expressions if you aren’t on the correct side of the basket.
I shoot two ways:
- Standing, with my feet firmly planted, while I keep my arms close to support my camera lens and avoid camera shake. (A fast shutter speed helps, too!)
- Sitting on the ground (with my back braced against a wall, when possible) or kneeling.
In both cases, I do whatever I can to keep my camera body and camera lens stable as I press the shutter button. Some professional sports photographers use a special chair that supports them while sitting. Just be aware and stay ready to jump out of the way at a moment’s notice—especially when using a longer camera lens for your photography. The basketball players in your camera lens are closer than they appear!
Stay alert and follow the game! I equate shooting basketball with shooting ballet photography. Anticipation and timing are key!
I basically watch the entire basketball game through my camera viewfinder and focus on every shot. In other words, I don’t just set my camera on auto-focus then “spray and pray.” I actually hold the shutter button down half-way for every shot.
#ShogunmasterPhoto Pro Tip: Fear Not!
Don’t be surprised if half of your basketball photos are garbage. Mine still are—even after photographing high school basketball for years! Capturing players at the peak of the action, while still in-focus, with the ball, isn’t easy. A little motion blur is okay; but out-of-focus shots just aren’t. Don’t be afraid to liberally hit the delete key while culling!
What makes a good shot? Should I shoot vertical or horizontal?
I think it’s easier to go vertical, as you are more likely to get the ball in your pictures as your hold the shutter button and more likely to get your shot in focus as you are less zoomed-in. However, coaches and sports agencies like balls in photos. I’ve found that horizontal images are preferred, as they like to share these images on T.V. screens, on social media, and in their news feeds—most of which require a horizontal or square image. Shoot both.
Get close and zoom in. A bunch of pictures showing the entire court aren’t very interesting. Try to freeze the action of one or two players up-close.
Know the Game
One of the best ways to be successful photographing basketball is to know the game. Anticipate what is going to happen next. Keep your camera focused on the player all the way through shooting the ball. Some of the best defensive shots occur after the ball has left a player’s hands when they are getting mauled by the opposing team!
In my opinion, the more fast-paced and physical the basketball game, the better the action photos—but it also takes more skill to shoot.
#4: Rules are Meant to be Broken
- Move the subject around in your frame. Don’t center every shot!
- Follow a player as they run past you down the court, and use a slow shutter speed. A slow shutter speed will help you create a little motion blur.
- Use super-wide open angles and closeups to capture the details of the event. These detailed action shots help to tell a story.
After a while, every basketball game does start to feel the same, so get creative and mix it up!
Talk with the athletic director or head basketball coach before the game. You may need a press pass or permission from the high school to be down on the court shooting.
There are often other people photographing in the same areas you are, so be mindful not to walk in front of other people’s camera lens. They are there to do a job, too.
Ensure that you aren’t blocking the view of the fans in the stands.
Be respectful, but don’t be a wallflower. Don’t be afraid to get in the mix and get the action shots you need!
#5: Plan Ahead
Be prepared for other photography requests while at the basketball games. Often, I’m asked for a quick team photo, a senior night with parents, or the younger kids’ team to share on social media.
Sometimes this requires additional photography gear or technique changes, such as:
- a flash on your camera to compensate for horrid gym low light
- higher f-stops to get more in focus
- Use a wide-angle lens to get everyone in the frame
These are some areas where you may be able to gain added revenue!
If the team has had a good season, it’s common to shoot events like “cutting down the nets” and team portraits with trophies. Be ready! Parents, players and coaches will want these celebratory shots.
Make sure you have a very wide, fast lens on one of your cameras for the action at these important end-of-season games. As soon as that buzzer goes off, I guarantee: the players (and sometimes the fans) will rush the court. Be prepared to rush out there with them to capture the excitement! (You might want to set the auto-focus and hold down the shutter!)
#6: Share the Pictures
There are many platforms out there that allow you to successfully share pictures. I prefer ShootProof, as it allows me to set up different permissions for different uses.
- Coaches get unlimited access to download and use the images throughout the season.
- I allow parents and players to purchase both digital files and prints.
At the beginning of the season I set up an online gallery for each team, and I continue to add optimized images as the season progresses. The players and their families automatically know where to go to find images after each game.
#ShogunmasterPhoto Pro Tip: Maximize Your Web Traffic
Rather than send out the direct gallery link, however, I send players and families through my website to access their online gallery. Sports photography offers the potential for hundreds of new people to see my work. Perhaps they’ll even spend a few minutes browsing my portfolio and choose to hire me for commercial photography, senior portraits, family photos.
#7: Have Fun!
Sports photography is fun! I love being down on the floor as close as possible to the action. I get excited when I capture an amazing play—especially when shooting a basketball team I care about. You are right there celebrating their victories and defeats while preserving some very special memories that you just can’t get with a cell phone. So get out there and have a blast!