On Saturday, Bob Wong made a good point when he said:

New, updated (2012) PDF version.

Back when I wanted to shoot my son’s hockey games I scoured the net for some recommendations and came up empty handed. I even looked looked for basketball info figuring it was close enough to hockey, again no luck. Now that I have some experience with hockey I realize how valuable that experience could be for others (It’s not as straight forward as one would think). Someone needs to get this sports photo experience thing written down.

So, here are my opinions and experiences as to what works for photographing basketball.

Basketball is a fast paced game. There’s action all over the court and, like most sports, it moves left-right-diagonally and up and down. There is the potential to make some very interesting shots, but also a greater potential to miss them if you are not prepared, so let’s start first with equipment:

You’ve heard that tired old expression: “The camera doesn’t matter. It’s the photographer” Well, let me tell you that in sports photography, the camera matters! It matters a lot! Get a slow-focusing, cheap camera and you are going to be severely disappointed.

The need for speed
One of the most important considerations for photographing basketball, in my opinion, is speed. Not shutter speed, but frames per second, or FPS. You can get by, barely, with 2.5 FPS, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you can find a camera having an FPS of 4 or better, I’d say that would be a good bet. Basketball is very fast moving and you need the frame rate to be able to catch those important moments. If you can afford it, 5 – 8 FPS is even better.
Pre-focus. Don’t auto Focus
Auto focus can be the Achilles heel of photographing basketball. If your camera doesn’t have nearly instantaneous focus capabilities, the moments will certainly be lost while the camera seeks to focus, and seeks, and seeks. The auto focus problem is further exacerbated by being closer to the action because then players are changing position faster due to the limited field of view. So, rather than trying to get a super fast focusing camera, get one that has manual focus capabilities. This is the fastest way to take pictures.

  • Find the location where you’d like to stand.
  • Set your camera to manual focus.
  • Pre-focus where you expect the action (usually there’s a lot right under the basket), and
  • wait for the action to come your way.

Now, the camera will not need to try to auto focus and you’ll get maximum throughput. Don’t forget to refocus if you change locations!
Quantity Counts
Some may disagree because they prefer to shoot everything in RAW; however, in sports photography, RAW is NOT your friend. The reason is that RAW files are so large that the number of shots that can be held in the buffer is significantly smaller than say, a medium sized JPEG. You’ll find your camera doing more pausing than anything else as it tries to keep up with the frame rate. Here, you’ve taken measures to increase your throughput to make sure you get that important shot. You’ve gotten a 4 FPS camera, manually focused, and then gone and shot yourself in the foot by shooting RAW. My suggestion, medium size JPG with moderate compression (1:8). This is how I shoot all of my basketball games. This is not to say that you should blaze away indiscriminately, but it sure is nice to be able to have that throughput and to catch that precious shot instead of having your finger on the shutter and hearing … silence as it tries to write the buffer.

These 6.8 megapixel shots enlarge all the up to 12 x 18 and look really nice. Also, as you are likely to be banging out several hundreds, if not thousands of shots, in one game, you will need to have a lot of CF cards with you if you intend to shoot RAW. Also, you’ll be missing out on some action while you are changing cards, unless your shooting 8 or 16 GB. I generally only use one 2 GB card as I can get about 1,600 on a single card, instead of the 98 that I would in RAW. Please, no RAW vs. JPG wars. If you want to use RAW, by all means, go ahead.
Lens selection
There are two considerations:

  • Distance to action: This is usually not a problem. Getting access to the sidelines or even baselines of a high school basketball game is very easy. At least where I live. As long as you don’t get in the way of the referee, you’ve got no problems. My preferred lens of choice is the Nikon 50mm f/1.8. This lens has a nice large aperture and lets in plenty of light (you’ll need it) and has a wide enough angle of view so that you catch all of the action when you are up close. A 35mm lens also works well, too.
  • Available light: This is usually the problem with gymnasiums. They are pretty dim. Regarding lenses, unless you have a really high ISO camera, I would say get a lens capable of f/2.8 or better (2.0, 1.8, etc). This will allow you to capture action at a decent shutter speed. I find that 1/125 works well and a decent ISO, like 800. This also results in less graininess for the image.

This is dependent upon how much light is available in the gym. I prefer to set my camera to auto ISO. Here, the camera will choose the lowest possible ISO for the given f/stop and shutter speed selected.
Shutter Priority or Time Value
This is my favorite mode. I set the shutter speed to about 1/125 of second and let the camera figure out the best ISO and aperture.

Location. Location. Location
That’s a familiar real estate mantra, but it works for basketball as well. Get to know the game. Look at where most of the action happens and then be there! I prefer either sideline right in line with the basket, or at the baseline right underneath the basket; however, be careful here. I’ve been hit with a ball right in the head more than once. It’s not for the weak of heart! Keep that camera on a neck strap!!! You don’t want the ball to knock it out of your hands!

Maintain context
If at all possible, keep the ball in the frame! For those actions shots under the basket, try to make sure that you can see part of the goal, or at least the net! It makes the story that much better.
Other parts of the story
Remember, some parts of the story may not be action filled, but are no less intense. Look to the bench, look to the crowd, the cheerleaders, the foul line, the coach! They are all part of the story.


  • Camera with high FPS rate: 3 FPS or better
  • Manually pre-focus and wait for the action
  • Shoot JPG. Faster throughput. Less time spent writing to the card
  • Fast, short focal length (35mm, 50mm) lens with f/2.0 or better f/1.8, f/1.4
  • Shutter Priority or TV 1/125 second
  • Auto ISO: Let the camera choose the lowest ISO for the situation if you have this feature. Otherwise, shoot at the lowest ISO that will support 1/125 second.
  • Find a good location, sometimes this may be in the stands. If it is in the stands, then a longer lens will be needed. I prefer Nikon’s 80-200mm f/2.8. It’s a bit heavy, but that f/2.8 is invaluable
  • Have a look around for other parts of the story

Well, I hope that helps! Happy shooting! BTW, all of these shots came from one game. Look around!

SoFoBoMo: Frustrations
The end is near