Lens Guides

Hockey Photography: 120-300mm F2.8 DG HSM | Sports

Having been an ice hockey goalie for the last 30 years, my passion for hockey photography runs deeper than any other sport. The speed of the action along with the close quarters of the action relative to the camera create a challenging environment to shoot in. Throw in frozen fingers, pucks whizzing by your face and the occasional stick in your ear and the task becomes downright treacherous. Here are some tips to not only get better hockey images, but to also keep your equipment safe and yourself out of the emergency room.

First, let’s assume your warm and comfortable and not in fear for your life so we can focus on the photography end of things. Shooting with a fast lens such as Sigma’s 120-300 f2.8 Sport lens or the 70-200 f2.8 HSM is a necessity. Unlike many of the field sports, shooting with a wide angle with hockey can also yield some great results when the action is within inches of you if you’re against the glass.

The first thing to look at before you shoot is the lighting system at the rink. Some rinks have LED lights shining down on the ice which is the ideal situation since they light the ice surface evenly with a consistent color temperature. Some rinks have lights that shine up toward the ceiling resulting a softer reflective light that isn’t as bright. Unfortunately, most rinks have mercury vapor lights that create hot spots on the ice surface and inconsistent color temperatures. The lights pulse in intensity that isn’t visible to the naked eye but show up in every image which can cause you to pull your hair out chasing white balance.

© 2014 Steve Chesler | Inconsistent color temperatures can be a problem when shooting under mercury vapor lighting. This image shows how the subject is well lit the moment this was shot and the lights further back where at a different color temperature in their light cycle.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | Inconsistent color temperatures can be a problem when shooting under mercury vapor lighting. This image shows how the subject is well lit the moment this was shot and the lights further back where at a different color temperature in their light cycle.

Shooting on ice is a lot like shooting a snowy winter scene. If you don’t over expose slightly, the camera will try to turn the white ice 18% grey which will have a dramatic underexposure effect on the players, especially on their faces if they’re wearing full cage masks. I typically over expose by dialing in + .7 to 1.0 exposure compensation in aperture priority mode. If I’m shooting along the ice from the penalty box or through the glass (if it’s clean enough) I will usually be at +.7. If I’m shooting from an elevated vantage point such as a ladder above the glass or from a balcony above the rink, the ice will have more real estate in the image and require + 1.0 or more compensation.

© 2014 Steve Chesler | Shooting from overhead requires a greater amount of positive exposure compensation to over power the camera’s desire to make the white ice grey. The higher up you are the more the surface of the ice will have a darkening effect on your photo requiring increased exposure.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | Shooting from overhead requires a greater amount of positive exposure compensation to over power the camera’s desire to make the white ice grey. The higher up you are the more the surface of the ice will have a darkening effect on your photo requiring increased exposure.

If the rink has clean, distortion free glass, I prefer to shoot the action coming toward the camera. It creates a cool depth perspective, especially at wider apertures. The problem is that most rinks have a ton of puck and tape marks on the glass making this very difficult to find a good spot. The glass is also quite thick, so shooting straight on will yield much better results than trying to shoot at too sharp of an angle. Glare is also an issue that has to be dealt with. Shooting through the glass with the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 Sport was great at a recent hockey tournament in Watertown, NY. I lost very little in the way of sharpness and contrast when shooting straight on. At professional hockey games there is usually a hole cut in the glass for the pro photographers to shoot through, but you rarely ever find that at your local rink.

© 2014 Steve Chesler | If the rink glass is clean and distortion free, dramatic shots of the players coming toward you are able to be captured with a high quality lens such as the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | If the rink glass is clean and distortion free, dramatic shots of the players coming toward you are able to be captured with a high quality lens such as the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens.
© 2014 Steve Chesler
© 2014 Steve Chesler

Shooting from above the glass will increase your percentage of keeper photos dramatically at the expense of less dynamic two dimensional images. Whether you’re shooting above or through the glass, having the luxury of a high speed zoom is a great asset for hockey photos. The action quickly goes from too far away to too close with a fixed focal length lens and most zooms are just too slow to stop the action. The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens is the perfect companion for hockey games, allowing you to zoom with the action without losing any of the necessary lens speed.

© 2014 Steve Chesler | Having a high quality, fast zoom lens like the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 will allow your to track the images as they come closer without sacrificing lens speed. The photo above shows the benefit of having a lens that can zoom out as the action approaches the near face off circle.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | Having a high quality, fast zoom lens like the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 will allow your to track the images as they come closer without sacrificing lens speed. The photo above shows the benefit of having a lens that can zoom out as the action approaches the near face off circle.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | The same lens zoomed all the way in can catch dramatic images across the rink without losing speed with the constant f2.8 aperture of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | The same lens zoomed all the way in can catch dramatic images across the rink without losing speed with the constant f2.8 aperture of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Sport lens.

Now that you’ve selected the right lens for the situation, adjusted your exposure for the lighting and ice surface and selected your vantage point, lets talk about safety. As a goalie with full protective gear, I know how fast a puck is traveling around the rink and the power it packs behind it when it hits you. Trust me when I say you don’t want it hitting you without any protection. Shooting from the penalty box seems like a great idea until you take one off the noggin. If you do shoot from the box, I highly recommend wearing a hockey helmet with protective ear flaps.

Shooting from a ladder with just your head and the camera above the glass leads to a false sense of security. The dangers of that are when the puck or a stick does clip you, not only do you have to deal with the initial impact, you also face the likely risk of falling off the ladder.

© 2014 Steve Chesler | Even a goalie with full protective gear will sometimes wince at an approaching shot, so imagine getting hit without any gear except your lens to protect you.
© 2014 Steve Chesler | Even a goalie with full protective gear will sometimes wince at an approaching shot, so imagine getting hit without any gear except your lens to protect you.

As I stated previously in my blog on football photography, knowing the sport you are shooting will help dramatically increase the quality of your photographs. With the fast pace of hockey, being able to anticipate the play before it happens will improve your images tremendously. Study the game as if you’re playing the game, even if you can’t skate.

One of my favorite things to do at my local rink is “On Ice” Portrait Sessions where we do action shots with me on the ice shooting from angles not possible during games along with an edgey style of harsh side lighting from multiple flash sources. You can also get some great shots placing a super wide angle lens in the back of the goal such as Sigma’s 10mm F2.8 EX DC Fisheye HSM lens to get really cool “goal cam” shots without the fear of breaking your equipment. Just make sure no one shoots and get some cool stretching action of the goalie.

With a little bit of scouting out the rink ahead of time, careful consideration to your safety and of course quality Sigma lenses, great hockey photos are within reach. Add in a little creativity and a generous rink manager and you can come away with some unique action portraits.

Comments (1)
  1. I love this lens. I shot some hockey with it this year fro the first time.

    http://www.newmarketsports.ca/photos/hockey/2014_lauren/jan_04/index.html

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