Matt: Frozen Field-Frozen Shutter

BLFS listener Andrew Carlin wrote in and asked if I would discuss how I shoot hockey and suggest ways to shoot it in less well lit arenas. We like requests, so I’m going to address Andrew’s questions here. Feel free to write in if you have similar questions or topic suggestions for either the blog or the podcast.

Of course the main obstacle to shooting hockey at any level (the glass) is the same thing that allows spectators and photographers to leave at the end of the game without needing the kind of plastic surgery the players sometimes do. So in the likely event that your name isn’t David Klutho, your options are shoot through a hole in the glass, shoot from above with a long lens, or shoot through the glass itself.

The only hockey I shoot is at HP Pavilion, home of the San Jose Sharks. There are five 6″ holes in the glass just above the boards at various intervals around the ice. Since there are generally 7-10 photographers at any given game, this means my shooting time is split between shooting 24-70/70-200mm through one of the holes1 and 400mm from the second level2. I’ve never shot through the glass3, but people who do generally use one of these to control reflections.

1Shooting through the boards gets you closer to the action, but is limiting in many ways. Photo holes generally face across the ice because facing down ice would make them targets for errant slapshots. So sitting at a hole means that you’re writing off action that takes place from the red line to the other end because of the distance and the fact that you won’t be able to get an angle. You’re also at about waist-height which isn’t an interesting angle. Still, it’s great for face-offs, battles for the puck, dramatic saves, and scrums in the crease. You might also get lucky and catch a fight.

2 Shooting from the stands with a long lens means more pictures, but you have to work a bit harder to make them look interesting and not like they were taken by a fan. You’re also limited by the netting behind each goal, which means shooting from the side, which takes the near boards out of the equation. If you’re patient, you can catch slapshots, breakaways, flying ice chips, and again fights.

3 I am intrigued with the idea of using a Lens Skirt and shooting from one of the corners, looking for players coming right at me, but I haven’t figured out how to make it work at HP Pavilion yet.

Beyond shooting positions, obviously lighting is a concern. HP is lit for TV so it’s not something I worry about, but I have been a spectator at high school games where the lighting was barely sufficient to see the players. As with everything else, but even more important with hockey because of the ice and white boards, getting the exposure and white balance right is critical. I take a custom WB reading and adjust my exposure at each new position to make sure I’m where I need to be. Keep in mind that you want to expose for the players faces, and that the white mass of ice and boards in the fore/background will fool the camera’s meter every time, so be careful to set it to get the skin right and let the ice be a bit overexposed. If your arena is poorly lit, my advice is the same as it always is: do what you can because you can’t fight physics. If one small part of the ice is better lit than the rest, shoot there. If you can get overhead, shoot with the lights and catch some of the reflected light. Or you can be Dave Black.

Once you have figured out your settings and shooting position, you have to figure out how to shoot the game. With so many players in so small a space, there will always be someone skating in front of your subject, so you have to be patient and find the little gaps when you have a clear view. Remember that hockey is a collision sport, and whether it’s against the boards or on open ice, players will crash into each other, and every time this happens, sweat and ice will fly, strange faces will be made, and other interesting things could happen. If you’re sitting across from the benches remember that scoring in hockey is rare enough that players on the bench usually jump up for goals, and pictures of a bunch of players celebrating are there for the making.

There’s also the decision you need to make when you’re tracking a player attacking the goal. Do you stick with him for the shot knowing that you might only get his back, or do you pivot to the goal and try to either get the save or the puck going into the goal? If you’re shooting from above, do you follow the player with the puck, or the star player skating to free ice? These are all choices you need to make for yourself, but with practice your coordination will start allowing you to get the pictures you want.

Hopefully this answers Andrew’s questions, and was of some use to our other readers/listeners who shoot hockey. If not, please follow up in the comments, and I will do my best to answer. And again, feel free to send in topics you want us to cover, we’re all ears.


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10 thoughts on “Matt: Frozen Field-Frozen Shutter

  1. good article- each rinks lighting is different- i set my white balance off the ice before the zamboni comes out to cut the ice- get that histogram over to the right as far as possible- im usually at iso 3200 and in and around 320 th to 400th of a sec shooting in full manual mode. i believe its very important to expose faces correctly and then you can live with blown out ice- there has not been one parent who purchased a photo from myself complaining that the ice is blown out- great article- great site- great podcasts love it all- johnny

  2. A well written and very timely post, Matt, with winter HS sports season starting here in the USA. I could have used some of those tips for my first hockey photo experience this past May. Lighting was certainly my biggest issue because the small rinks are not lit for TV or spectator comfort. One thing I had going for me was the coach is a friend of mine and they let me shoot from the far end of the team bench. I caught decent action between the blue lines with better light but it was a bit long and dim to shoot toward action at the far goal. Also you have to be on your toes when shooting from there as the pucks can come at you without warning. I ducked quickly below the boards a few times. I’m looking forward to shooting hockey again this season and the lens skirt looks like a cool idea. I didn’t see any photo holes in the glass anyway at our local rinks used by the high school or club hockey teams.

    Side note, Matt… it sucks that you didn’t get to shoot Sid when the Pens were on the west coast trip. His first game back tonight and already has two goals and two assists. The Kid is truly a magician.


  3. Arenas (city or other) with holes in the plexiglass are few and far between. The reason NHL rinks have them is because there are sufficient amount of ushers and security officials to ensure no drunk bozo sticks his arm through on a dare. The fact each hole is usually occupied throughout the game by a protog also helps. I was also told that most modern plexiglass also requires the hole to be molded in rather than cut, which is costly.

    I shoot at the AHL level and the rink here does not have holes to shoot from unfortunately. It does however have almost tint free plexiglas. The older and cheaper stuff used in city rinks have light to significant greenish tint to them. Like shooting in a dirty fish tank.

    A couple of tips I give moms and dads taking pics: (1) don’t use a flash…lighting issues aside, just because it’s annoying to players and fans alike. (2) wear dark clothes if shooting through the glass to cut on reflections. (3) Don’t chase the shot…find the light, plan and shoot. (4) Shoot from a spot mid pt between corner and net…shooting players coming towards you – allows you the benefits of reducing the shutter speed somewhat because they aren’t panning across but coming towards you + better to get the faces behind the grills. (5) Use step ladders to get up and over the glass. (6) if shooting through the glass, get low where the glass meets the board. By experience, it tends to be not as dirty with puck marks and DNA. (7) Don’t worry about the different tints (pink, green, white, yellow, etc.) of consecutive rapid fire shots caused by the light flicker (sodium vapor or other.) Easily fixed with split toning features in post prod. (8) don’t bother shooting anything outside the zone in which you are located….unless you have the best and biggest telephoto lenses. Stick to subjects within 20-30 feet when you are shooting up against the glass, with consumer grade cameras.

    I have great success shooting through the glass, standing some 20 feet away from it with a 70-200 / 2.8 The smudges, puck marks, scratches and distortion caused by irregular plexiglass become very imperceptible.


    (PS: my pet peeve…to many – most that I have met – pro sport photogs out there…share your knowledge and experience with parents, amateurs and aspiring professionals, young and old. You were once in their new green shoes and it’s not because you have the battle scars earned through hard work, blood, sweat and broken equipment that you have to be an ogre. With or without your assistance, If those amateurs do become proficient enough to rival your work and maybe even eat your lunch, then maybe that’s a sign you need to learn some more and/or you’ve been fooling many with average work passed off as “professional.” Just saying… )

  4. john: 320-400th? what age group are you shooting?

    ken: i used to watch HS hockey around Western PA, so I know what you’re going through. Also, I was able to catch the Pens game tonight. Wow.


    “The reason NHL rinks have them is because there are sufficient amount of ushers and security officials to ensure no drunk bozo sticks his arm through on a dare. ”

    No. The holes have locks on them, and in most arenas are not easily reached by fans.

    You have some decent tips in there, but ditching the flash to avoid distracting the players is not advice we give here. Players don’t notice flashes unless you’re trying to make a portrait of them while they are playing.

    To your PS pet peeve, what exactly do you think this site is all about?

    1. matt im shooting bantam divison 13 14 year olds. i cant really raise the d90s iso over 3200-that gives me the shutters i listed, otherwise the the image is to underexposed. i really want the d700- clean images up to iso 6400. sometimes i have to do post in cs5, other than that it is what it is

  5. Matt:

    10-4 on the locks. I look forward to the day I get the opportunity to borrow a key and shoot NHL hockey. Until then, I am one with crappy lighting and dirty plexiglass!

    Re: flash…my view : you want to learn how to shoot hockey, shoot it without a flash. Frustrating at first for sure…but if you can master shooting hockey in a poorly lit arena without a flash, you can pat yourself on the back and know that you’ve achieved a level of sports photography that not many have achieved or even ventured into. At the pro/photojournalist level, the use of strobes in the rafters or banks of flashes is the ultimate set up and a necessity for the job. Most of us amateurs and semi-pros just don’t have access to that type of equipment unfortunately. And to use a flash in a public rink, when shooting minor or major junior hockey…I’ve not tried it, nor will I…because I want to be allowed back in to shoot another day. To each his own, right?

    Re: my rant… eh, my apologies for the blast. Yours and Ryu’s efforts in sharing your experiences and imparting your knowledge are second to none. And my rant was in no way aimed at you guys…but rather to the guys and gals who may be reading and to whom the hat fits perfectly. Believe me, they are out there. This 40 yr old biz exec, with a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind, has run into several who could benefit from eating a bit of humble pie. I look forward to serving it to them in the not too distant future. Again, my apologies for using your site to post my rant.


  6. Hey Matt!

    A general question – when you’re shooting something as fast as hockey (or any other sport for that matter), do you fiddle with your camera’s AF points in real time to get added AF precision for any reason? Or do you set just one and work with that?



  7. sorry for the delay.

    i change AF points quite a bit, but usually between plays and not while a play is happening. i will probably do a post on this as there seems to be confusion about AF points and modes.

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