Racquetball: Double Donut Studios | Racquetball Action Photography



The Definitive Guide for Racquetball Photography

February 28th, 2007 by Geoff Thomsen

Article and Photos – Geoff Thomsen

Background

Of all the sports I have photographed, I would have to say that racquetball is probably the most challenging from both the technical and artistic standpoint. To capture the action, a photographer usually has to deal with very dim lighting, thick (and always dirty / scuffed) glass between himself and the subjects, and a limited number of shooting locations. Combine these factors with one of the fastest sports on the planet, and you quickly realize why good racquetball photos are a rarity!

Gear

Camera

With current state of digital camera technology, it doesn’t cost an arm and leg to break into racquetball photography. The first essential item is a Digital-SLR camera (I’ve never shot film, so I’m not even going to attempt that discussion). If you want a solid technical background of exactly what an “SLR” camera is, you can read the Wiki. A simplistic explanation is a digital camera that you detach / attach different lenses to, and that has a mechanical shutter. Examples would include: Canon Digital Rebel, Canon Digital Rebel XT, Canon Digital Rebel XTi, Canon 10D, Canon 20D, Canon 30D, Nikon D50, Nikon D70, Nikon D80, Nikon D200, etc., etc. This is by far an incomplete list, but you probably get the point. When spending more money, you get more and more features in the camera, but rest assured, the cheapest SLR from any of the manufacturers can provide EXCELLENT results once you get a little practice, and of course read this tutorial ;) .

Lens

Once you get your shiny new camera all picked out, the next item you will NEED for racquetball photography is a new lens. I’ll get into a detailed explanation of this a little later, but for now you’re going to have to trust me. The stock lens that came with your camera will absolutely NOT provide good results for racquetball. The reason for this is referred to as the “speed” of the lens. A faster lens is one that can provide higher shutter speeds, which means it is capable of higher apertures. A trade off for these “faster” lenses is that they typically do not zoom (lenses that do not zoom are called “primes”). You have to choose a lens with a focal length that will work for the location you are shooting from. The table below gives a summary of the prime lenses I use for different shooting locations.

Focal Length –> Shooting Location
14mm, 28mm, 35mm –> Back Wall or Side Wall
50mm –> Side Wall or Front Wall
85mm (or higher) –> Front Wall

One thing you can use your “stock” or “kit” lens for, is determining how pictures will look for different focal lengths. Even though the pictures are going to look bad from a “sports action” perspective, just take your stock lens and try shooting with different focal lengths (zoom settings). See how much of the frame the players take up. Are they too small (you’ve got two small players and A LOT of empty court)? Are they too big (you can’t fit even a single player in the frame)? Once you have the “right” focal length for your shooting desires, it’s time to decide on a prime to buy. Unless you’re a professional photographer, I’m going to assume that a $1000 lens might be a bit of overkill. The table below includes some good recommendations below that price point (although there are some sweet sweet lenses in the $1000 – $2000 range ;) ) Examples include:

Canon

  • Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye ~$575
  • Canon EF 35mm f/2 ~$225
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 ~ $80
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM ~ $300
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM ~ $330

Nikon

  • Nikon 16mm f/2.8D AF Fisheye-Nikkor ~$440
  • Nikon 35mm f/2D AF Nikkor ~$240
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor ~$100
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.4D AF Nikkor ~$275
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor ~$335

Sigma

  • Sigma 20mm f/1.8 EX DG Aspherical RF ~$330
  • Sigma 15mm f2.8 EX Diagonal Fisheye ~$360
  • Sigma 28mm f1.8 EX DG Aspherical Macro ~$230

Technical Shooting Info

Exposure Settings

Ok, so you’ve got the camera, and a “fast” lens. Now what? Head to the club! The amount of light at different facilities varies greatly. Luckily, finding a good setting for your court is quick and easy. The first thing you want to do is find out how to turn on the “review” mode on your camera so that you can look at the pictures on the screen after you take them. It will also be a BIG help if you can turn on the “shooting info” with the picture. The shooting info will tell you what shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and other settings that were used when taking the picture. Once you have this figured out, you’re ready to start shooting. Generally speaking, a lower ISO is preferred so that you don’t have excess digital noise in your pictures, but this isn’t really an option for racquetball. Set your ISO on the highest value, which is usually ISO 1600. Then, follow this procedure:

  1. Set your camera to “Manual” exposure mode (usually the big M on the dial).
  2. Set your aperture to the highest possible value – which is the LOWEST number (confusing, I know :) ) With your new lens, this should be F/1.8, F/2.0, etc.
  3. Set your shutter speed to 1/500
  4. Take a picture (this can even be of someone just standing on the court at this point)
  5. Hit the playback button on your camera
  6. If you are shooting on a WELL lit court, the picture looks nice and bright!
  7. If you are shooting on a TYPICAL court, the picture will be too dark :(
  8. If the shot is too dark, you need to lower your shutter speed (bump it down one notch from 1/500 to 1/400 or 1/320).
  9. Go to step #4.

Simply repeat this procedure until you are getting well exposed photos. But what if I’ve gone through the list, and at ISO1600, F/1.8 and a shutter of 1/200, my shots are still dark? Well, tough beans, but it looks like you need to find a new court to shoot at. As you lower the shutter speed more and more, you’ll significantly increase the amount of motion blur in the photos. This will start as a blurry racquet, and then include blurry arms, legs, etc. For racquetball, I usually give up on the courts when my shutter speed drops below 1/320. There are, of course, times when having ANY picture is better than no picture, in which case you just have to live with some blurry shots.

Focus Settings

Anyone who has ever used a point-and-shoot type digital camera is probably aware of a “single shot” focusing system. You press and hold the shutter half way down, and the camera locks in a focus. When you’re ready to take the picture, you press the shutter all the way down, and viola! That’s all nice and well, but what if your subjects are constantly moving around? This is where “AI-Servo” or “constant focus” comes into play. As you press and hold the shutter half way down, the camera locks focus onto your subject BUT as the subject moves closer or further from you, the camera continuously changes the focus to keep them locked in. This is VERY useful (dare I say mandatory) for racquetball. With AI-Servo (continuous) focus mode active, you can constantly track the players, and then snap a shot off EXACLTY when you want, without have to wait for the camera to focus.

Shutter Settings

As you spend larger amounts of money on your digital camera, one feature you’ll notice improving is the ‘burst” speed of the camera. On the Canon Digital Rebel, it is 3FPS (frames per second). On the Canon 20D, it’s 5FPS. When shooting racquetball, I think there is a big misconception that the best method is to enable the burst mode, and then just hold the shutter down for every swing of the racquet. This will result in bad pictures almost ALWAYS (not to mention a memory card filling up after the first 10 rallies). The swing of the racquet is simply too fast to accurately capture “peak action” at these frame rates (more about peak action below). I seem to always have WORSE results when using burst mode than I do just practicing my timing and taking single shots. This is even true with my Canon 1D that can do an amazing 8FPS (or 10 FPS on the version soon to be released).

Artsy Fartsy Stuff

So you’ve got the new gear and figured out how to get properly exposed, well focused shots. You are now on your way to getting some keepers on the racquetball court. Normally when I am sorting through all my shots to find these “keepers”, I’m looking for some key elements. Ideally, you want to have both players in the shot, the ball in the shot, and PEAK action (bonus if you can see the player’s faces). There are many instances where the shot doesn’t lend itself to having both players in frame, but I would say this occurs a minority of the time.

The main goal here regardless of the positions of the players, is to capture the PEAK action. For someone swinging their racquet at a ball, I would classify this as one of the three scenarios: the racquet “prep” (where the player winds up for the shot, at the highest point of wind-up); the ball contacting the strings of the racquet; and the follow through of the swing (the end of the swing where the racquet has been fully extended). For a dive, this would be the point where NO part of the player is touching the floor, including one little toe or hand. For a jumping shot, this would include the player fully in the air, with the ball passing underneath. Piece of cake, right? ;) WRONG! It is very difficult to capture these exact moments! I’d say that it took me ~30,000 shots before I started to figure this all out (of course I had to learn everything above by trial and error, as there was no handy guide on a website ;) )

Obviously the guidelines above do NOT apply to all situations. I’ve taken some shots I considered “keepers” that didn’t adhere to the rules. However, I would say that 90% (or more) of the shots that make it to my website do fall into one of the categories above.

Tips

  • When taking shots, stay LOW to the ground! Sit or kneel by the glass. Standing while taking the shots is a no-no!
  • To avoid glare, hold the camera as close as possible to the glass (if you have a lens hood, you can even rest it against the glass). If you’re still getting reflections, you can drape a dark colored towel or sheet over yourself and the camera
  • Clean the glass in front of your shooting location (inside and out).

Once you’ve tried all this out, share your photos! Set up a free account at Flickr, and then post your photos to the Racquetball Group – www.flickr.com/groups/racquetball .

Happy Shooting! Questions? Comments? Leave a message below ..
All Content (c) 2007 Geoff Thomsen – No Reproductions without written consent

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5 Comments.

  • 1. Double Donut Studios &raq&hellip | February 28th, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    [...] The Definitive Guide for Racquetball Photography A great how-to for capturing one of the fastest sports on the planet in pictures (tags: racquetball photography how-to tutorial) [...]

  • 2. Joe Delgado | March 1st, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Hey Geoff,

    Awesome article! I don’t have a Digital SLR yet, but will definetely bring this with me when I save enough for one.

    Take care,
    –Joe.

  • 3. shawn davis | March 6th, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    Geoff -good info for folks
    I’d add the lowdown on why you’d still get blurry pictures while shooting even with the Image Stabilization turned on (remember the guy at Best Buy will sell people on how you’ll no longer get blurrry photos-and it works cause folks want to believe it!!!!) It is so hard to drive home the importance of using fast lenses.

  • 4. Joe Delgado | March 21st, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Hey Geoff,

    What do you think of Nikon D50 w/18-55mm lens SLR? I’m a beginneer so I have no idea about almost all the settings in your article, but I would like to get something that’s cheap yet expandable later. I know the stock lens is probably no good for racquetball as you wrote.

    Thanks,
    –Joe.

  • 5. Geoff Thomsen | March 21st, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Joe – As mentioned above, I think a Nikon D50 would be a great camera. The kit lens will definitely be the limiting factor for racquetball photography, so take a look at some of my suggestions. The the 50mm F/1.8 would be a great start.

    Have fun!

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