What are the best camera settings for hockey photography?

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Have you ever tried to shoot hockey with your camera set to “Auto” or “Sport” and been disappointed with the results?

Cameras are getting smarter every day, but it’s still a huge challenge for them to figure out how to deal with the challenges that come with photographing hockey. For example, the massive white ice surface often tricks the camera into shooting pictures that are too dark.

The good news is that with just a little bit of planning you can quickly learn to set up your camera in manual mode and make the most of your time at rink.

The extra good news is that lighting in an arena is often consistent. Sure, it may be consistently horrible lighting, but the fact that it isn’t changing means that once we find our ideal settings for shooting the action then we don’t need to change anything. No need to fiddle with settings every 5 minutes during the game.

Here’s what we’re going to talk about in this article:

Shoot RAW
How to build your shot
Shutter Speed
Aperture
ISO
Making Compromises
Focus
Back Button Focus
White Balance
Shoot!

Read more in the Hockey Photography Series:

What is the Best Lens for Ice Hockey Photography?

What is the Best Lens for Ice Hockey Photography?Read more in the Hockey Photography Series: Introduction Aperture Shutter Speed ISO FocusWhat Lens to UseWelcome to the world of hockey photography! You’re up against low light and fast action. Without a little bit of...

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Your Guide to Hitting Your Focus for Hockey Photography Read more in the Hockey Photography Series: Introduction Aperture Shutter Speed ISO FocusWhat Lens to UseHitting your focus is quite possible the hardest part of hockey photography. Even if you have the greatest...

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Your Guide to Using Aperture for Hockey Photography Read more in the Hockey Photography Series: Introduction Aperture Shutter Speed ISO FocusWhat Lens to UseSo now that you have a sense for your shutter speed let’s take the next step and figure out our aperture....

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Shoot RAW

In case you’re not familiar with it, RAW is a shooting mode offered on most cameras that offers more flexibility for editing afterwards.

When you shoot in JPG, your camera compresses the image, throwing away information in order to make the file as small as possible. But when you’re shooting in a demanding environment like a hockey arena, you’re going to want to keep all that data.

Shooting in RAW gives you greater ability to edit exposure and white balance after the fact. You’re very limited with what you can edit with a JPG before the image starts losing quality and looking unnatural.

The drawback is that RAW files are much larger, often double or even triple the size of a JPG. So invest in a large memory card to make sure you room have for all those shots!

How to build your shot

Every picture a camera takes depends on three settings: Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO.

You get the shot you want by balancing these settings. Adjusting each one will make the picture either brighter or darker, so you’ll have to adjust the settings on another in order to bring the final shot back into balance.

Depending on how challenging the light conditions are, you sometimes need to compromise on what you’d choose as ideal camera settings, just because there simply isn’t enough available light.

When I take hockey photos, here’s how I prioritize these “Big Three” settings:

  1. Shutter Speed
  2. Aperture
  3. ISO

Let’s take a deep dive into each to see what we need to consider for each of these settings as we flip our camera over to “Manual”.

 

1/250, 3.2, ISO 2000

Step 1: Shutter Speed

The reason I think about shutter speed first is because I don’t want to come home with a card full of blurry photos.

Hockey is a fast sport. Unless you’re photographing a game with kids who are still learning to skate, you’re going to need a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.

On your camera, shutter speed is displayed in fractions of a second — for example, 1/25, 1/100 or 1/500.

There’s no hard and fast rule on what shutter speed you should select; it depends entirely on how fast the game is. The important thing to note here is that the faster the shutter speed, the darker the picture.

If you’re photographing a speedy NHL winger on a breakaway, you’re going to need 1/500 at a minimum, and even then you’re likely to see some blur.

If you’re photographing the game at a local rink, you might be able to get away with 1/200 or maybe even lower.

We’re going to get into how we can use our aperture and ISO to counterbalance a fast shutter speed, but it’s important to be aware of this when choosing a shutter speed.

Now bear in mind that you won’t need a super fast shutter speed if the play is stopped for a face-off or if you’re photographing players on the bench.

Also, if you want to use blur creatively to show the speed of the game, you can also slow down the shutter speed and try using panning techniques to give a cool sense of the speed.

 

By selecting a shutter speed of 1/640 the players (and the puck) are frozen in the picture, even though they are moving up the ice at full speed.

Step 2: Aperture

Alright, you’ve got your shutter speed selected. Next up is choosing your aperture.

Your aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that allows light into the camera. Aperture also controls the depth-of-field, which is the amount of background blur behind the picture’s focus point.

On your camera aperture is displayed with numbers like 2.8, 5.6 or 8. The lower the number, the wider the aperture and the brighter the picture.

Lenses all have different maximum apertures. Typically cheaper lenses can’t open as wide, so they can’t collect as much light. Or the maximum aperture may adjust as you zoom, so the settings that were good when you are zoomed out become too dark when you zoom in. The more expensive lenses have wider aperture to collect more light, and can maintain that same aperture as they zoom so that you have consistent settings.

Ultimately, there isn’t usually much flexibility with aperture at a hockey rink. You will want the lens to bring in as much light as possible, simply because there isn’t much available light to begin with.

Start with the widest aperture your lens offers, regardless of whether this is 1.8, 2.8 or higher.

Prime lenses (lenses that don’t zoom) often offer a wider aperture, which makes them an intriguing option for hockey photography.

You’ll quickly find that shooting a fast sport at 1.8 is tricky because of depth-of-field. Like I mentioned above, DOF controls how quickly the image becomes blurry behind the focus point.

If your camera can’t keep up with a fast moving player, you’ll come home with a whole bunch of out-of-focus pictures.

Usually it’s best to aim for an aperture around 2.8, to collect a lot of light, and then see if the pictures you take are in focus.

 

Using an aperture of 3.2 for this shot blurs the faces in the crowd so they don’t distract from focal point of the image. The wide aperture also collects lots of light so we can keep the shutter speed high enough to capture the action in front of the net.

Step 3: ISO

And just like that we’ve come to the last of the “Big Three” is ISO.

ISO is the sensitivity of your camera sensor to light. It is expressed in numbers like 200, 800 and 1600. The higher the number, the brighter the picture but at the cost of more noise and lower picture quality.

I leave ISO for last because it can be used to balance the decisions you made with your shutter speed and aperture.

Unless you’re playing outdoors or in the brightest hockey rink in the world, you’re going to need a high ISO of something like 1600 or 3200 in order to get the right exposure.

Again, it depends on how much light you’re working with, so there is no “perfect” setting.

Expensive cameras can handle higher ISOs without much loss of image quality — but starter cameras can really struggle even at ISO 1600.

So without further ado, let’s go to the next important step in choosing the right camera settings for hockey.

This shot uses an ISO of 2000, which helps collect as much light as possible from the dimly lit arena. By keeping the ISO high we are able to select a shutter speed of 1/500 and an aperture of 3.2.

Step 4: Making Compromises

It was all so easy up until this point.

You wanted a super fast shutter speed, a wide aperture and a low ISO for great picture quality, but the resulting image is completely dark.

Not enough light.

So now we have to make compromises and balance our settings until we get the right exposure.

If my ISO is through the roof then I might have to turn the shutter speed down a bit and accept a little more blur. Or open up the aperture a little wider and maybe end up with more out-of-focus images.

If I’m already at my max aperture with my lens, I’m kind of stuck. If I’m serious about ice hockey photography then it might be time to invest in a lens more suited for the conditions.

It’s a balancing act and nobody likes making compromises, but unless you have the option to add a whole lot more lighting to the arena then you have to deal with what you’ve got.

 

It can be a real challenge to deal with mixed lighting but that just makes it extra rewarding when you get the celebration shot!
1/500, 3.2, ISO 2000

Focus

Alright, you’ve got your exposure figured out. Good job!

Next up is selecting the right focus settings on your camera so you give yourself the best possible chance to get the shot.

First you want to select AI Servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon). This is a focus mode that continues tracking the subject, as opposed to locking the focus.

This is important for moving subjects. If your focus locks, they could be far past that focus point once you take the picture.

In addition to this, your camera focuses using many different focus points — the amount varies depending on what kind of camera you have.

The challenge with relying on all of these focus points at the same time is that your camera won’t necessarily focus exactly on what you wanted it to. When players are criss-crossing and zig-zagging then you can miss a great shot because your camera locked on the advertisements on the boards in the background.

Fortunately you can select zone focus, which relies on only several focus points, or even single point focus, which uses only one focus point, in order to focus as accurately as possible.

The more precise you get with your focus points, the more precise you will need to be as a photographer when it comes to tracking the action.

Find the focus mode that works for you! If you’re missing your shots then switch back to zone focus or even just stay on all focus points until you feel that you can track the action.

All this talk about focus brings me to what I consider to be one of the most important secrets for how to get great sports photos.

Back Button Focus.

Selectively focusing on the goalie here is possible because of single point focus. If it was up to the camera to decide what to focus on, it might have chosen the players at the face-off dot and completely changed the final image.
1/640, 3.2, ISO 2500

Back Button Focus

This is an option that should be available on most, if not all DSLRs.

With back button focus, you focus using a button on the back of the camera using your thumb instead of by holding the shutter button half down.

This separates the action of focusing and taking the picture, which ultimately gives you more control over both.

Use your camera manual to find out how to switch to back button focus and give it a try!

White Balance

Remember back when I was talking about RAW? Well, if you took that advice and made the switch then this section won’t be as important.

With RAW you can adjust your white balance when editing without losing any quality.

If you shot JPG then it’s incredibly important to get white balance right when you’re shooting, as there is very little flexibility when editing afterwards.

For many events in life, Auto White Balance does an admirable job. At an old hockey arena with outdated, flickering lights, however, you’ll get a lot of shots tinted with too much yellow, blue or green.

White balance on your camera is shown in Kelvin, with numbers on a sliding scale like 3200, 6000, 7800. The lower the number, the more blue the picture will be. The higher the number, the more yellow the picture will be.

There is also a sliding scale between green and magenta.

Take time before the game starts to adjust your white balance so that the ice and boards look like they do in real life — not too yellow or blue.

The challenge is when you have a colour temperature shift. This is when there are inconsistent types of lighting used in the arena, leading to one section of the ice appearing more blue than the rest.

There isn’t really a cure for that, unfortunately, except perhaps to donate enough money for the rink to update their terrible lighting system.

Keeping the ice white and making sure skin tones look natural can be a bit of battle. By correcting RAW images later or by taking time to select the right white balance in camera when shooting JPG we can make sure that the final shot looks like it did in real life.

Shoot!

Your exposure is locked and your focus is set. All that’s left to do is to shoot!

Getting the settings right is half the battle. Now you’re going to need to position yourself so you are in the right places to capture the action, and learn how to anticipate the big moments so that you don’t miss a moment.

Hockey photography is a real challenge, but also a fun way to improve your skills as a photographer.

Good luck!

If you have any questions, simply let me know in the comments!

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