Tips for shooting Youth Baseball

After spending the weekend helping out Scott Oldford photograph the Bantam AAA Atlantic finals, I thought I'd share with you some of the things that I picked up in order to maximize my "batting average" or keeper count.  I'll first discuss settings, some of the equipment and finally some basic techniques I used to make the best of my weekend outing.

Settings

I found myself using manual mode on the camera the whole weekend.  This isn't to make things harder on myself, it allowed me to choose my shutter speed and aperture and put them in the back of my mind.  

Shutter Speed: 

This should be as fast as you can get.  I spent the bulk of the time in daylight hours shooting at 1/2000th of a second to freeze action.  1/500th might cut it if you're facing the right angle and you will likely freeze some of the movement but there is virtually no camera shake at the higher shutter speeds and the ball will hang in the air.  As the sun creeps down and the big lights come on, you'll have to lower your shutter speed to help let more light in, but I tried not to get below 1/800, even though my ISO was creeping up.  
f4, ISO400, 1/2000 allowed me to freeze the ball just about on the bat.

Aperture:

Low is best.  f4 or f2.8 are ideal, as this allows you to open up your shutter speed, and helps to isolate the players from the background.  This has a side effect though, you have to keep your focus in the right place otherwise you will inevitably wind up with blurry shots.
A wide open aperture lets you pick where your focus is, in this case I chose the batter, cather and umpire.

ISO:

Today's cameras have incredible ISO performance.  I use a lowly Canon T2i, and find usable shots at ISO3200.  Even in broad daylight, I used an ISO that varied between 200 and 800 to keep my shutter speed high.  In fact, until the sun crept down, I used Auto ISO as I found I was getting pretty consistent results.  The advantage to this strategy is that your camera selects the best ISO for the exposure, which sometimes is an abnormal value you can't normally select in the menus (ISO500 or 640 for example).  

Don't be afraid of noise.  Be afraid of blurry pictures!  As far as I'm concerned, ISO3200 is perfectly acceptable if you got a fantastic action shot.  The quality of the subject and overall image will trump the quality of the pixels.  

f4, ISO2000, 1/800 made sure I froze this runner sliding into home.  

Back-button Autofocus

Use AI Servo or Continuous autofocus, but with a twist.  Baseball is a game where plays can be somewhat predicted, and also very unexpected.  Using a feature on the camera known as back-button autofocus can really help you to use your shutter as a shutter and not a focus button.  It also puts your camera in a sort of Hybrid mode where you select your focus with a button on the back of the camera, and as long as you don't refocus with that same button, it stays locked in position.  This is a huge help when you're on the first base line, for example, waiting for the pitcher to check up on his runner.  You focus once on the bag, then wait for the play to come to you.  

Equipment

Body:

Almost any body will do, but if you have a camera with a high frame rate (say 4+ frames per second) you'll likely wind up working less hard than the other photographers with 2-4 frames per second.  The thing is, your FPS doesn't tell the whole story.  Timing is absolutely everything.  After about 30 or 40 shots of a batter, I was starting to find the right moment where I could freeze the bat, ball and swing all in one frame on a consistent basis.  

Lenses:

Two lenses are really important, the first of which is a 200mm+ zoom lens.  Faster glass is better, but not completely necessary.  If you can get a 70-200mm F4 or F2.8 you'll do quite well, as long as you have a body with a crop sensor and can get pretty close to the action.  We were allowed on the field, a rare occurrence with most umpires.  I made sure to keep my distance from the batter and jump out of the way when a play was coming at me just to be safe.

Positioned right on the edge of the third base line, I was able to snag this with my 70-200mm zoom.  I was as far away as most ball fields would place the fence.
The second lens you'll likely want is a wide to normal angle zoom.  This will give you a different vantage point, especially when you want to get some shots that are outside of the normal action photos, such as celebrations or crowd reactions.

Celebration shots almost always tell more of the story that just game/action shots.



If you're requested to do a team photo, be sure to pack this lens. It really sucks to be the only person 60 feet back from the team as they pile up for the team photo, while you try to yell at them "Hey, look over here!!" only to hear the echo of your words, and capturing all the players with a slightly bewildered look on their faces as they try to make out where that noise just came from.  

Food, water and other Provisions

This may seem trivial, but the thing that I usually forget to pack in my bag is food and water.  If you're shooting a single game, this is probably not as important, but a whole day event requires you to eat at some point.  Water is also essential for those unrealistically hot days, when you're sitting in a big dustbowl and there's no wind.  

Add to your bag a bottle of sunscreen and some insect repellent for that matter.  I'm a huge advocate of getting loads of sunshine in the summertime but sunburns just plain suck.  As for the bug spray, well, just imagine that you swatted a mosquito just as the winning run slides into home plate.  If you're busy warding off swarms of hungry insects you'll likely miss the shot.  

In my experience, wearing a ballcap is fairly pointless, unless you feel comfortable wearing it backwards while you're shooting.  If you're supporting your local team, by all means, but if you're just there to shoot what happens, it might be best left in the bag. 

Have fun!

Baseball is a great sport, so have some fun while you're out there. Be sure to show parents the photos you're taking so that they get involved with the process (and maybe purchase some images!).

Sometimes the best moments aren't always the successful ones.  I bet the other team's pitcher would love to have a copy of this image, however!