How to Photograph Baseball and Softball

Whether you're shooting tonight's MLB All-Star Game or your kid's little league outing, these tips will help your images turn into home runs.

Summer is in full-effect, which means it's the perfect time to get out and grab some frames of America's favorite pastime. No matter the level, the challenges to shooting games are the same: There's a pitcher, a batter, and infielders and outfielders to capture, and umpires and base coaches to get in the way of your shots. Although it can be challenging, with the right tools and some real-world advice, you'll soon be on your way to making strong action shots of your favorite team.

Cameras For Softball And Baseball

If you want to make the strongest baseball images possible, use a digital SLR. Some very high-end EVFs may come close to DSLR-type performance, but this article is SLR-specific. Much of the advice is the same for the EVF or compact camera photographer, but to make great sports images, you're far better off using a DSLR. We're using a pro-level Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN and a "prosumer" Canon EOS 20D, but even an entry-level DSLR can produce winning images. The biggest advantage DSLRs offer the sports photographer is one of speed: faster autofocus and a dramatic increase in frames per second. (There's more to it than that, but for our purposes, those are the big ones.)

Lenses For Softball And Baseball

Long glass is a necessity for sports photography. There's no option of getting closer and shooting wide on a play at second base. You're on the sidelines, in the stands, or in a photo well, so a telephoto lens is your best friend. For 60-foot diamonds (most little league and softball), a 300mm lens may be enough. (And when we say 300mm we mean either a prime 300mm or a zoom that reaches this far, or a 200mm lens with a 1.4x extender). On a 90-foot baseball diamond, you might feel a little under-lensed even with a 300mm. A lens in the neighborhood of 400mm is good to have in your on-deck circle. (We're talking actual focal lengths here, not effective focal length due to sensor size factors. Even with a 1.3 or 1.6 sensor, these are good baseline focal lengths.)

Don't be discouraged if your longest lens only reaches to 200mm. Shoot the action as best you can, knowing there will be a lot of dead space, and crop in, but realize severe crops will drop your resolution and final output size. If you're serious about getting the best shots, you'll probably want to start saving up for the best telephoto lens you can justify paying. Briefly, the faster the aperture, and the longer the lens, the more the lens will weigh (and cost). The Canon 400 f/5.6L weighs in at about 3 pounds and costs $1,100, while the 400 f/2.8L IS weighs in at a whopping 12 pounds for $6,500. Why would anyone pay so much more for two f/stops and a hernia?To be able to shoot two full stops faster in the same light: 1/1000 @ f/2.8 equals 1/250 @ f/5.6, and one of these will freeze a player diving headfirst into second, while the other will probably show subject blur. (And remember, Image Stabilization can diminish camera shake, but it cannot stop subject movement at slow shutter speeds.) If you're shooting with a variable aperture zoom with an f/stop of f/5.6 at the long end, you'll have to crank up your ISO to get shutter speeds over 1/800 second, which should be the minimum shutter speed for day games.For night games you'll have to crank up the ISO even higher, slow the shutter speed down, and hope that motion blur is mostly contained, regardless of maximum aperture. Yankees' Pitcher Mariano Rivera from the 2006 All-Star Game. Photo from Kenji Takabayashi's Flickr account.

To Summarize Lens Choices: Long fast glass costs more and weighs more, but allows for significantly faster action-stopping shutter speeds at lower ISOs. Compact, slower aperture lenses weigh considerably less, cost significantly less, but you lose several stops of action-freezing, light-gathering power.

Above photo and below photo courtesy of Cory Schwartz's Flickr page.

It's going to happen. There's going to be a great play, but someone, be it the umpire, a base coach, or a fielder is going to obstruct your view. If possible, quickly move a foot or so in either direction and try to re-frame the photo. It happens all the time, and it is just part of the game. Our advice: don't worry about the shots you miss! Do the best you can with the shots you've captured! If you notice that the umpire or base coach continually gets in your line of sight, change your position to accommodate for this, and hope for a cleaner view on the next play.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball!

A line drive or a pop-up, even in youth leagues, has some serious power behind it. Don't get so wrapped up in your shots that you don't have time to react to protect yourself or your camera. Reviewing shots for exposure and timing is one of the great advantages of digital, but do not get so engrossed in the shots you've just taken to possibly miss a great jubilation or dejection moment after the play, or worse, not be paying attention as the next batter drives a foul right in your direction. Never argue an umpire's call, even if you think you've got proof it was wrong -- that's not your job, and it is a good way to get yourself ejected from the field. Pay attention for little moments and interesting off-action images, such as players in the dugout watching anxiously during a rally, celebrating a home run, or looking downhearted as the long ball is caught deep in center field. Don't be afraid to experiment and try your own angles and impress your own style on the game: give a Lensbaby a shot to add a funky twist to your action shots. Slow down the shutter and stop down the aperture to try some panning as a baserunner rounds the bases. Try framing both the batter and pitcher from position 2 and try to focus on the ball, halfway between the two.

Most importantly, get out there, have fun, and play ball

For Animated Moments, Look Away from the Action Children's sports are full of animation, and little league baseball is a perfect illustration of this. The boys and girls who spend their weekends on the baseball diamond are very illustrated, not only from behind the plate or on the mound but also away from the action. While it's easy to focus in on the pitcher or batter, don't forget about the little girl in the outfield picking wildflowers, the player using their dad's glove that's three sizes too big or the second baseman patiently waiting for the pitch but can't hold off the yawn. It's easy to forget about these moments because they are often dominated by the action. I like the image of the five-year-old girl dragging her bat to the batter's box that's taller than she is. I like the picture of the first base coach on the edge of anticipation watching his son at bat. Away from the action shots aren't limited to baseball. With basketball, look to the benches for animation such as kids sitting on the edge of their seats as a player attempts a foul shot. At the foul line, look for players lining up for the rebound. Photographs are the best means to preserve childhood memories in my opinion. In looking for those away from the action shots, you capture memorable moments that illustrate the fun and enjoyment of youth sports. It captures the kid in the player really well and at times puts things into perspective much better than an action shot ever could.

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