I’ve recently had the opportunity to photograph an ice hockey match between my local team, Altrincham Black Bears, and the Grimsby Lightning. I’ve always fancied trying my hand at sports photography but because I play and watch it myself, I’ve generally used football as a mental benchmark - which has put me off a little. It’s put me off because photographing a football match requires some serious fast telephoto lenses! The 300mm to 400mm range is generally the norm’ and a minimum requirement due to the size of the playing surface and these sorts of lenses can start around the £4K mark. Ice hockey however is a bit of a different animal. Most importantly, end to end, the average ice hockey rink is just over half the size of your average football pitch and therefore not a great deal of anything that happens is going to be too out of reach of my standard telephoto 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. In most cases I image that focal length to be ideal for ice hockey. I’m also lucky enough to own a Nikon D3s, which is essentially a camera built for sport photographers – as well as being a fantastic wedding camera due to its high speed and low light abilities. So, I’ve got the equipment for ice hockey photography, no doubt - I just have to learn how to use it.
Not wanting to go in completely cold I went along to a couple of practice sessions first, to get my eye in and settle on what group of settings I would use. I’ve never seen ice hockey played live in front of my actual eyeballs and not via a screen before and the first thing that really hit me is the speed factor. The speed of everything; the speed of the players, the speed of their turns, the speed they hit the puck, the speed the players can see the puck coming, control it and pass it on, the speed of the goalie’s reactions... you see where this is going? It’s all quite fast, basically.
The first dilemma was where to stand and shoot from. There were two basic options open to me; at rink level or on the first tier – in summary – to shoot through the glass or over it. There are pro’s and con’s to both options as I saw it. My way of thinking was that the better photographs in terms of content and framing would be had at ice level, through the glass, but the better photographs in terms of clarity and sharpness would be had over the glass. The glass is generally all beat up, marked and dirty so would have a detrimental effect on any images taken through it. I decided to start on the first tier shooting over the glass but eventually found myself at ice level behind the goal, which I came to prefer.
A couple of practice sessions later I was happy and settled on a group of settings. The lighting in an ice rink is deceptively poor, and bearing in mind the action is very fast, the shutter speeds would need to be fast too if I wanted to freeze the action, anywhere up from 1/500th of a second to 1/1000th of a second, minimum. In order to keep the ISO down and noise levels to a minimum I decided to shoot wide open at f/2.8 – this will be one of the things I’ll look to change next time. Focus settings wise, I used back button focusing with continuous servo, single point (top dead centre) which I would try to point at the players head whilst holding the focus button down. Not easy, but I managed to keep up often enough.
Aside from the high ISO settings and noise level, which I could maybe have gotten away with being lower, I’m quite happy with the results. I decided to shoot straight to JPG too, so I could maybe clean the images some more from RAW.
I’m now keen to build on the experience and am looking forward to the next opportunity, which shouldn’t be too long with a game in June and two in July. I plan to have a bit more play and change the focus settings, to give 3D tracking and auto area settings (with a reduced 11 points) a go and to try and have 3200 as an absolute high ISO ceiling to get cleaner images, if I could get the ISO down to 2000 that would be ideal.
The experience of watching a few games now and building a basic understanding of tactics has also helped and I’ll be trying to plan a few shots ahead next time, we’ll see how that gets on.
A very big thank you goes out to Altrincham Black Bears IHC for the chance and I’d urge anyone local to follow them on Facebook, to keep up with their news, fixtures and to get along to a game. It is certainly entertaining. I for one have really enjoyed it.
I also have plenty more photographs from the match on my Facebook page. Please pop over to 'Like' and follow me there, here.