If you're like many Canadians, you or a member of your family plays recreational hockey. Capturing your son or daughter's moves on the ice with professional results is within reach by following a few pointers on game day. The very same techniques used by the pros to capture top-quality NHL action can be easily adapted to your local arena.
First, let's talk about lighting and exposure.
Number one, leave your flash in the bag. If you have a camera that is set to flash automatically you should turn this feature off. Please refer to your manual on how to do this. You will need to use a high shutter speed to freeze the action, higher than the maximum allowable shutter speed when using flash. The overall results will also look much better without flash.
An advantage that NHL hockey has over minor hockey is modern, brightly lit arenas. This allows photographers to use settings that achieve the best results. In most community arenas, however, lighting is usually supplied by what is known as mercury vapour illumination. Although this light often provides enough brightness, the phase cycles that are invisible to the human eye can cause colour shifts from one frame to another.
Most DSLRs are set to auto white balance or AWB. The human eye adjusts to different light sources but the actual colour of the light is much more pronounced in a digital photo. So you (or the camera) must determine what setting best matches your environment or to make white look white.
Using AWB in these cases will cause colour shifts in your photos. You can fix this later but it's always best to get it right from the start. One way to overcome this problem is by manually setting your white balance. Most modern DSLR cameras allow you to do this but again, please check your manual for the how-to since each camera varies from model to model. Don't forget to set it back to auto after the game so your next shoot away from the arena is the right colour.
Next, it's time to determine the exposure. Since the light from one end of the rink to the other is pretty much the same you should avoid using auto exposure. Set it manually and forget it. Also the large amounts of white ice in your frame will constantly be trying to fool your light meter in thinking it is brighter than it actually is.
You'll want to use the highest possible shutter speed so set your lens to its widest opening. This will let the maximum amount of light in at all times. It will stay at this setting for the rest of the game. Next set your ISO to at least 1600. If your camera allows you to use 2500 or 3200 go right ahead. Then, using your zoom lens, frame one of the players so they fill at least one half of the frame. This is where you'll want to get your meter reading. With luck you should be able to match a shutter speed at 1/500 or higher. If you can only go as high as 1/250, that's fine, but anything slower will cause blurring with fast action.
Shoot a few test shots to zero in on the best exposure and adjust your ISO or shutter speed as needed but leave your lens at its widest opening at all times. Refer to your LCD screen to make sure that the level is not too bright or too dark. You should then write down these settings so when you return to the same arena you will already have done your testing and be ready to go.
One advantage to community arenas over pro arenas is that you can shoot from pretty much anywhere you want. But remember not to block other spectators. That said try to avoid shooting through the glass, as it is generally smudged, scratched or dirty. If you don't have a choice, a little Windex and paper towel before the game starts can help as long as you stay in the same spot and don't get a blast of ice during the action. Another good option is to shoot from the stands, high enough to point your lens just over the glass. The best spot for this is at the blue line on the side your family hockey star will be trying to score.
The best lens to use is a telephoto zoom. This will allow you to zero in on the action while eliminating too much background or dead space, a 70-200mm or similar works very well here. Don't be scared to get in tight - you could easily keep your zoom at the full 200mm for the entire game.
Last but certainly not least is what to look for when pressing the shutter. Common sense is to follow the puck and this pretty much works for any level of hockey, including the NHL. Most hockey action occurs when players are fighting for the puck or trying to score. By following the puck you¹ll always have your lens pointed in the general area where things are happening or about to happening.
Your camera's motor drive can be very useful when shooting sports action. It is common for photographers to shoot a blast of photos when players are bumping, checking or handling the puck. You can do this by setting your motor drive to high or continuous. Don't worry about shooting too many frames, the more you shoot the better your odds will be in getting 'the' shot.
Don't expect every frame you shoot to work out. Most pro hockey photographers will shoot many hundreds of frames only to select a dozen that they are happy with.
And when your team does score don't forget the action doesn't stop there: some of the best moments in hockey are the celebrations. Remember Sidney Crosby's game winner at the Winter Olympics or Paul Henderson's famous '72 Team Canada goal? Follow the players as they celebrate with their teammates.
Hopefully these tips will help you improve your hockey photography and you'll be shooting like a pro in no time.