Figure skating is a wonderful sport which exemplifies grace and beauty. People love to watch the sport, and it is not surprising that many dream of being a skater. Photographing the sport is not without its challenges; on one hand there is only one focal point - the skater. On the other hand, there will be quick bursts of movement and the possibility of low light situations.
Freeze the Action
Figure skaters naturally weave their bodies in ballet-like maneuvers, providing many opportunities for the photographer. Use a fairly high shutter speed of 1/500th of a second and a zoom lens to sufficiently fill the frame with your subject. Of course close-up opportunity depends on where you are sitting! Try to capture moments when the figure skater is balancing and holding a pose. Set your lens to its widest aperture and don’t be afraid to raise the ISO to 800 or more. An IS (image stabilizing) lens is very useful for avoiding blur in low light conditions.
Zoom in Close
Using a zoom lens is ideal, and the best ones (with constant f/stops) are costly, not to mention heavy and may require additional support. If you are sitting far from the action then a telephoto zoom lens of 70-400mm with the aperture set to the widest setting (smallest number) possible should do the job for you. Remember to fill the frame with your subject! 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 lens on the moving skater.
Use a Wide Aperture
To shoot a perfectly sharp, well-exposed image in an indoor and low-light environment, you would typically choose the widest aperture possible (f/2.8-f/4). However, when photographing figure skaters a small aperture of f/16 will give you a well-focused image, so consider using a larger aperture to blur out the background and keep the attention on the skater. To avoid camera shake use a monopod or a chair that you can rest your camera on and raise the ISO up to 400 or higher if necessary.
Capture the Subject's Face
Figure skaters in their costumes, usually look great so why not take the opportunity to use your telephoto zoom lens to shoot some portraits. A good time is when the skaters are on the podiums, since flash would be allowed at this time. A closely cropped image with even lighting is what you are aiming for. Turn the mode dial to AV (Aperture Priority) mode and use a wide aperture (f/1.8-f/4) for a blurred background. Feel free to push the ISO up if the indoor light is not very bright. Spot meter on the skater's face and focus on the skater's eyes.
Use Blur to Show Motion
To create motion blur in an indoor or low-light situation, choose a slow shutter speed (1/10-1/60s) and rest your camera on a monopod to avoid camera shake. This will make the skater look blurred while keeping the rest of the photo sharp. You can also try using the panning technique - pre-focus on the skater and follow her with your lens in a smooth horizontal motion while pressing the shutter button. The resulting image should have a sharp skater with a blurred background, showing off the sense of movement.
In a figure skating performance there may be various times where the lights are dimmed for a dance. Using flash can be an option as long as you have a separate powerful flash device; most on-camera flashes reach 10-15 feet only, leaving a bizarre half-lit image. Not every stadium will allow flash, especially when the performance is on because it can distract the skaters. If this is the case, try using a wide-angle lens and opening the aperture to the widest setting. Use a tripod or a monopod and raise the ISO to 800 or more.
In low-light conditions, use an ISO of at least 800, or higher if you want a faster shutter speed. Use a wide-angle lens and open the aperture as wide as possible to around f/2.8 (so you can avoid using flash). Remember a telephoto lens requires more light than a wide-angle lens, so you may need to push the ISO up to 1600 or even 3200.
Use fast lenses whenever possible. A telephoto lens of around 300-400mm focal length is useful in a stadium, and allows you to zoom in close on the subjects. A bean bag or monopod is useful for support since you probably won’t be able to use flash.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful sports, figure skating is not something most people get to see very often, so make the most of the opportunity. A skater may only dance for a few minutes so err on the side of caution – take too many photos, rather than none at all. Plan ahead; perhaps watch some videos and see how film crews choose their angles and images. Take this knowledge to make the most of the situation.