Basketball is one of the most dynamic sports to photograph, because the action is fast, close and the players’ faces aren’t encumbered by any elements of their uniforms. As most don’t have the opportunity to photograph the NBA, many people will photograph local teams.
Use a Wide Aperture
Since you are normally placed in an assigned seat at games, your choice of lens is important as well as your choice of composition. Don’t be afraid to use a wide-angle lens at a basketball game, especially if it is a full arena. To shoot a perfectly sharp, well exposed image in an indoor and low-light environment, choose the widest aperture possible (f/2.8-f/4) and use a monopod or a chair that you can rest your camera on. A stable rest is important to avoid blurring.
Zoom in on the Subject
If you are sitting far from the action, then a zoom lens of 70-300mm set wide open should do the job for you. Don’t forget to fill the frame with the player, and try to capture his facial expressions. Set the lens focus mode to AF (Autofocus) and select continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) mode to automatically re-focus the image on the moving player. Another technique is to pre-focus on a fixed object (in this case the net) and wait for the action.
Capture the Action
Provided that you are in a bright arena, set the mode dial to M (Manual), and use a shutter speed of 1/200s or faster to freeze the action. Open the aperture wide (f/1.8-f/2.8 is ideal) and increase the ISO to 800 or higher if necessary. Try to capture interesting parts of the action, like when the ball is in midair or when a player dunks the ball. For multiple shots use the burst shooting mode and hold down the shutter button as long as desired. Each DSLR has its own frame rate and burst-mode capture rate, which sets your camera’s abilities for rapid, multiple shot photography.
Choose a Slow Shutter Speed
To create motion blur during a basketball game, choose a slow shutter speed (1/15 - 1/60th of a second), place your camera on a tripod or hold it still while pointing at the moving players and take the shot. This will make the players look blurred while keeping the rest of the photo sharp. You can also try using the panning technique - pre-focus on a player and follow him with your lens in a smooth horizontal motion while pressing the shutter button.
Use Dramatic Angles
Check out high school gyms to spot local talent and ask for permission to photograph them. You might tell them that you’ll compensate them with free images for their college recruiting efforts. Position yourself in extreme positions for dramatic compositions, set the shutter speed to 1/250th of a second or faster and the aperture to f/5.6 or f/8 - these settings will freeze the explosive action, and give you a shallow depth of field to isolate the events on the court. If you want some memorable shots, stand on a large, sturdy ladder behind the backboard. Remember, if you want to use a flash, get permission from the coach and players first.
Most basketball arenas are well lit, but smaller high school gymnasiums use artificial lights that may have some flicker to them, and which can cause color shifts in your photographs. Therefore you can either leave your camera on Auto WB (White Balance) or use the Custom WB setting by metering off of a white or grey card. For action shots choose a fast shutter speed of 1/500s and a large aperture of f/2.8-f/4. If you want to capture movement, then lower the speed to around 1/15s - 1/60s.
If you are seated very far back from the action, you need a telephoto lens of around 300mm. However, the more versatile 70mm-200mm zoom lens would be useful if sitting closer. The 70mm-200mm zoom, and good seats, would allow you to take portrait shots but also take wider images showing some context. As always, use a good quality DSLR camera body that allows you to preview images, so you can change camera settings if necessary.
Basketball is one of the most dynamic sports and you can get some magnificent shots of world-class athletes performing at their peak. The basketball court is filled with many colors and dynamic characters in action. Composition and timing are most important in photographing basketball games. Most professional sports photographers use a 300mm lens (zoom or prime) to get nice and close. Be sure to capture the emotions of the players during the game - that’s especially where the zoom is useful. It’s important to check your white balance because of the varying color temperature of the overhead lighting. And one thing you must do is get explicit permission from the teams to take photographs of the players and the game.