Shooting sports video is as exciting as the event, but each sport or venue calls for a different approach. Shooting for one player or one team can also change your focus.
Last year my friend Lorraine phoned to say that I should fly out and see her roller derby team play. I'd never done any sports videography and this seemed like a good chance to learn.
I packed up a DSLR and a couple of lenses and headed out. The action was furious as skaters circled the track, knocking one another down and it was incredibly difficult to keep up. The skaters were either too far away or right on top of me, and it all happened in a split second. On top of that, the lighting was horrible. My resulting video was understandably unremarkable.
Trying to figure out where I might have gone wrong, I talked to Dave Wruck, the videographer and co-producer of Derby Baby an indie documentary about the sport which came out in 2012, about his gear, his shooting style and how to capture sports on video.
When it comes to gear for shooting sports you typically want something with a long telephoto range and a wide aperture that will let in lots of light. Games like baseball, football, and soccer can have action taking place dozens of yards away from you. Roller derby's a bit different, the players can get right up in the audience, in fact, the areas closest to the track are called "suicide seating" because you may end up with a couple of players crashing into you.
When it came to sports video equipment Dave Wruck maintained a really simple kit while shooting his movie "I used a Panasonic HVX200 , with the stock lens on it - the reason it didn't evolve is that roller derby is really hard to shoot. I spent two or three or four games just trying to figure out what to shoot, so it was a lot of trial and error for a long time - the action is always moving all the time and the little Leica lens on the [HVX200] was forgiving when you were trying to figure out what was going on.
"As we went along I would talk with the various camera guys that were involved in roller derby because there are millions of them and they all had their different ways of doing stuff and even the broadcast people were saying 'we're still trying to figure out how to shoot this sport.' and most of the broadcasters were also shooting the [HVX200] and I figured ‘If it's good enough for them and they're getting stuff, then it's good enough for me.' Another good thing about that camera is we ended up going out of the country many many times and on an airplane weight is everything and that [HVX] is a lot lighter because I didn't have to bring a lot of glass with me, so that made a huge difference."
Keeping an eye on what the pro sports television productions are using can give you a really good idea of what's needed to capture the game properly. But if you don't have the equipment, you can still find plenty of things to capture - think of the capabilities of your gear and how you can best tell a story with what you have. If you don't have any long lenses, for instance, maybe you want to do interviews with players instead.
Also, keep in mind that there is no list of definitive gear - the equipment that's perfect for pro football isn't necessarily what a videographer would use to shoot snowboarding or surfing.
Types of Sports Videography
There are lots of different reasons for shooting sports; stock footage, documentary, news, broadcast and analysis by the team are just a few. These all fall into two categories, the first being records of the game, a video that shows, from beginning to end, how the game was played - this type can be viewed by people who can't physically be at the game or to be reviewed by someone after the game. The second type is focused not on portraying an exact record of the event, but either highlights or a mood instead, and the requirements are different for both.
But what if you do want to capture all the action? Getting up high is a good idea, that way players and fans aren't obstacles and you have good coverage - nearly all professional sports have multiple cameras up high for an overview of the field. The down side of this is that with an overview, it's hard to get in close on the action and capture details. While you can stick a camera at the top of the bleachers and let it run for the duration of the game, to make it interesting, you'll want more cameras.
The "anchor" camera in most sporting events sits at mid field, up high and moves back and forth with the action (if it's a sport with the ball, typically this camera follows the ball).
Secondary cameras are usually given specific areas to cover, often in fixed positions but sometimes also handheld. If you've watched a professional football game you've seen sports videographers with shoulder mounted cameras right up on the sideline action. You couldn't cover the whole game from here, but cutting away to a sideline camera that is right up on the action can show much more detail than simply relying on the anchor camera. In a production like this you want to make sure that the cameras are always rolling on the action, if a play is happening, you need to be covering it.
Shooting Documentary Style
In making the documentary Derby Baby, Wruck wasn't really concerned with creating a record of what happened. "My primary concern is not the overall picture," he says, "and I know that sounds funny, but I'm not interested in the game because my documentary was about giving information to people who don't know about the sport - so I didn't really care which teams were playing, for me it was getting really personal with something there, whether it was a referee, an audience member or one of the skaters. Those first few times I went and shot a game that's what I was trying to figure out because there was so much to shoot, and I had to do this with one camera because we couldn't afford to have six cameras every time and actually capture all the action."
Every professional videographer knows the importance of B-roll - shots away from the action that can be used as cutaways and to cover edits. Be sure to get them for your sports shooting as well - closeups of team logos, players working out or chatting with one another or fans before the game, autograph signings - all these things can help set the mood of your piece.
For this type of shooting you can spend time close to the field, tight in on the action and some time up high or further back - you can spend time photographing fans, the concession stands, the parking lot - the goal is to capture the essence of the game rather than the events of a game. Shoot a lot, pick the best bits.
Stay in Front of the Action
Most sports involve motion in two directions across a field - this is true in games like football, basketball, and hockey and many track and field events. In order to get the most interesting video, you need to be in a position where the action is coming towards you because you want to capture the faces of the athletes, not their backs. When shooting football this means picking up your camera and moving every play if you're shooting from the sidelines, so you're always in front of the ball. In a game like basketball where the action is fast, it means that in order to get the best views, you'll need to shoot with two cameras on the at the athlete's level. Typically, most coverage of sports like these means using three cameras - two on the playing field and a third in the stands covering the entire action.
The 180-Degree Rule
For games that have specific sides that are important to scoring - football, soccer, tennis, the videographer needs to make sure that action is shot from the same side of the field. If you shoot a quarterback throwing a ball from right to left and then switch to a camera on the other side of the field to show his teammate catching it, the ball is suddenly traveling left to right and it will look like an interception. Not breaking the 180-degree rule helps your viewers understand who's on which team and which way the ball is going.
Sports video editing can be some of the most difficult to do - matching fast action at precise moments calls for single frame accuracy. While most conventional sports movies and documentaries are edited with ordinary editing equipment, you may be surprised to discover that there is specific sports editing software made by companies like Hudl and CompuSports, Inc. Most of these have powerful indexing systems that allow footage to be coded with metadata and then used by coaches to help players improve, manage large archives of footage and even quickly produce a players greatest highlights to send to scouts.
Watch sporting events on television with a critical eye towards deconstructing their setup. Where are the cameras placed? How frequently do they cut? Do they use more wide angles than telephotos? Are the cameras handheld or is there a support device? Whether you're shooting an old sport like soccer or baseball , or something like motocross, wakeboarding, or Ultimate Frisbee, find other videographers who have been working on it and learn from them.
Sidebar: If You Need Something, Ask
When Derby Baby was filming, the producers specifically chose teams that played in professional arenas that could afford to hire lighting companies. This assured them that their footage would be dramatic and well lit. It dawned on me that if some teams hired lighting companies, then maybe the team I was shooting would let me light the arena specifically for my video. I asked. They mulled it over a bit and said "sure." I used a series of heavy back lights for a pronounced rim and a slightly dimmer fill around the corners to darken the spectators and bring out the players.
Remember that with smaller sports teams you have a symbiotic relationship - they want to see themselves looking good and you want good video. If there's something that can make your video better - a roped off area, access to a place in the venue, permission to put a tiny little camera on the pitcher's mound, it never hurts to ask, if they look good, you look good.
To find out more about Dave Wruck’s film Derby Baby check out www.derbybabythefilm.com
Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.