I got my first chance to shoot ice hockey a few days ago. A friend of mine has a son who plays and I finally pestered him enough that he told me that I could come and shoot at a regional tournament being held at the rink where his son plays. Before going, I knew 3 things:
- Rinks are dark. Yes, it’s light enough to see, but our eyes are much better than camera sensors, so relatively speaking rinks are dark.
- Hockey moves fast. It’s not Nascar, and I wasn’t shooting pros, but even at this level kids skate faster than they run, and good players will pass the puck quickly, often as soon as it touches their stick. Catching the action would be a challenge.
- I would be shooting through dirty glass. For the protection of spectators and to keep the action moving, hockey rinks are surrounded by large sheets of plexiglass.
All of that meant that I would be pushing the limits of both my skill and my equipment. Photographers in the audience will recognize that a fast sport in a dark rink means fast shutter speeds and high ISO to compensate. (Hang on, non-photographers. I’ll be with you in just a minute.) That means noisy pictures. I shoot with a Nikon D7100, which I love, but it has its limitations when it comes to noise in low light. Most of my shots were taken with a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, so that helped, but the limitations are still a part of the challenge.
Here’s what I learned a few minutes after I arrived. 1, 2, and 3 of the points above were all true, to one degree or another. The rinks were not as dark as I expected them to be, and one was actually brighter than the other. I wound up shooting between ISO 1000-1250, which is not as high as I thought I might be. Higher than I would have preferred, but not that bad, all things considered.
Having played some hockey as a child, and still a fan of the sport, I was able to keep up with the action relatively well. I found that shooting with both eyes open helped. With my right eye to the viewfinder, my left eye helped me follow the flow of the game, allowing me to capture more of the action at and around the puck.
Don’t get me wrong. There was still plenty that I missed. I have dozens of shots that were taken just a split second after the critical moment. But happily, I have some others that froze the action in time:
The best shots, in my opinion, are the ones that tell a story. Even though hockey moves fast and a single image rarely is able to capture a particular play, or move, on the ice, a photo can communicate the emotion of the moment. Notice the eyes of the three players below. They tell you everything you need to know.
As for the third point, the glass was dirtier than I expected. Sometimes the greatest challenge was just finding a spot clean enough to shoot through. In the NHL there are actually small holes cut into the glass in the corners of the rink, just large enough for a photographer to place his lens. Amateur rinks, of course, don’t offer us that kind of luxury, so you make do.
The glass not only creates visibility issues, it actually creates a loss of light of about a half to a full stop. Not enough that anyone in the crowd would notice, but enough to demand an adjustment for photographers. In one of the rinks, I was able to get above the glass and place the front of my lens right on the protective netting. As long the net was literally touching the lens, it created no focus issues and was essentially invisible in the shot. However, I found that being behind the glass offered a better perspective, putting the viewer right on the ice with the players.
That shot, like most of them, was made with my 70-200. With my cropped-sensor camera, that lens effectively reaches 300mm, allowing me to nearly reach from one end of the rink to the other. Occasionally, I reached for the 24-70, to allow me to catch some of the action around the near goal.
You can see the effects of the dirty glass here, creating reflections and smudges. Somehow, it adds to the grit of the game, I suppose.
I began the day at ISO 1600, but soon found that I could shoot between 1000 and 1250, which made a significant difference in the quality of the images. Shutter speed was between 1/400 and 1/500 for most shots. I was always at f2.8.
You can see a small gallery of my favorite images of the tournament here, at my site. I hope to have more opportunities soon to begin to develop my hockey portfolio. If you are looking for someone to shoot for your team, or even capture images of your child on the ice, contact me.