A professional sports videographer may have better equipment and more experience than the casual home shooter, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to shoot good sports video with your consumer camcorder.
In these next few pages, we'll give you some tips on how to shoot the big four in sports: basketball, baseball, soccer and football. All four sports are shot differently, but the basics are the same. Shooting sports highlights is an art. Want to know how the pros do it? Read on.
Before we get into the specifics of shooting the big four, let's discuss some basic rules of sports videography that apply no matter what the game.
First of all, the buzzword for most sports video is highlights. Chances are, your audience will just want to see the best parts of the game--the home runs, three-pointers and sacked quarterbacks. This means you'll have to keep the camera rolling during every play, in position to capture the action when it happens. Then, when you go back to edit your footage later, you can select only the most interesting parts for your final program. If you're editing in-camera, try to start the camera just before the beginning of each play. Then, when the action is over, turn it off briefly while the players are milling around on the field preparing for the next play.
Get there early, about an hour before the game starts, to scout out the best shooting locations. You may have to alter your shooting plan if a group of cheerleaders or the setting sun will ruin your pre-game plan. As with any event, it pays to talk about logistics with someone who is in charge. This person can tell you where the players will enter the playing field, when the band will play and if there are any special events that will take place at half time.
For your own safety, avoid setting up too close to the sidelines, as this may result in your being run down by a sprinting athlete. Once you have your position, it's important to remember two things: 1) if in doubt, go wide (zoom out to a wide-angle setting), and 2) use both eyes. Why both eyes? Because this will help you follow the plays as well as avoid being run down by enthusiastic players. The play may look far away in the eyepiece, but next thing you know, you're on the bottom of a pile and everyone in the stands is saying, "did you see the camera guy get nailed?"
Whether you're shooting in-camera or planning to edit, be sure to get plenty of cutaways (shots other than the sporting event itself). This can establish the venue and provide a visual break from the action. Often, viewers get desensitized to sports video because when you watch for more than a few minutes at a time, it all looks the same. Good sports cutaways include fans, signs, coaches on the sideline, cute babies and the scoreboard. In fact, it's a good idea to get a shot of the scoreboard after every significant play, because it tells inning (quarter, period or whatever), score and sometimes the name of the person who made the play.
When shooting sports highlights, shots from ground level generally look better than footage from the top of the bleachers. From ground level, the action moves faster and your viewers will feel like they are part of the game. If you are shooting an entire game for a coaching staff to review, a high-angle bleacher shot is preferred.
In most instances, it's best to shoot with a tripod whenever you can. Sports video is the exception. Because the action moves so fast, a tripod can be more of a hassle than a benefit. The less gear you have to lug around the field, the better. So this time, leave that tripod in the car and practice your hand-held techniques.
Now that we've covered most of the basics of sports video, let's cover each of the four most popular sports one at a time.
The Spot Behind home plate. This position allows you to shoot everything: the pitch, the hit, the double-play and the scoring run. It's all right in front of you. Some people shoot from along the 1st and 3rd base lines, but that's only good for isolating a player on half of the field, and following the ball is more difficult.
The Shot Medium/wide (showing players from head to toe.) If you're too tight, it's easy to get lost and wind up with blurry camera whips instead of interesting game highlights. Get tighter once you've gained some confidence in your work.
The pitcher should be in the center of your shot, with the batter to the right or left. From this position, the catcher and the umpire should fall into place alongside the batter.
The Game Plan Before the first pitch is thrown, make sure to establish a pitcher/batter relationship. When the pitch is thrown, the ball should look like it's coming right at you, or at least in your direction. Pay attention to audio as well as video; if you're close enough, you'll be able to hear the crack of the bat or the umpire's "steee-rike!" With any sport, avoid the urge to cheer aloud as you shoot. A whooping camera-op will drown out the cheers of the crowd.
Shooting the actual action is the toughest part. Here's a basic example: a runner is on second base, and the batter hits the ball into right field; a routine base hit. But the runner on second is rounding third and heading home. While keeping the shot on the ball in right field, use your left eye to monitor where the base runner is. Once he steps on third, pan over to the runner for the play at the plate.
It's easy to get lost. If you lose the action in the viewfinder, get wide until you find the ball. One thing that will help is using both eyes--one on your viewfinder, the other on the ball.
The Spot If you are concentrating on a particular team, set up under the basket on the side of the court where they're playing offense. If you're neutral, and you just want the best highlights, set up near center court. The hardest part of getting into position in a basketball game is finding a place out of the way of people who are watching the game.
The Shot Medium/wide. Too tight and you'll get confused by all the passing. Instead, shoot medium/wide and get ready to use the zoom. The goal is to keep the size of the players consistent in the shots.
The Game Plan Basketball is probably the easiest sport to shoot out of the big four.
Shooting the action is simple: just follow the ball until someone shoots it, and immediately get to the hoop. If the basket is good, you're already there. The hardest part of basketball comes after the basket is made. Getting the "runback" of the person who made the shot is a nice touch, because it shows the emotion of the player's face.
The Spot Midfield or behind the goalie. When you are behind the goal, the shots come right at you. For a particular team, stay at the end where they're shooting the ball. For a particular player, set up near midfield so you can follow the player's action on both ends.
The Shot Medium/wide. Just like in basketball, there's a lot of movement. Again, keep the size of the players the same throughout. If a player is on the other side of the field, zoom in to keep the consistency of the medium/wide shot. What you don't want to do is have the players look big one minute, and small the next.
The Game Plan The same concepts that apply to shooting basketball apply to soccer as well. Just follow the ball and use both eyes so you don't lose the action. Get runbacks of the players who just attempted a goal as well as shots of the goalie after an attempt to block a shot (whether successful or not.)
The Spot On the sideline in front of the offense. Ideally, you should be 15-25 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage so the action comes toward you. Shooting from the sidelines lets you capture the emotion and intensity of the game. Just remember to keep a safe distance between your camera and the action.
The Shot Tight to medium before the snap, then wider as the play progresses. To start, focus on the quarterback, center and guards. When the ball is snapped, zoom out to follow the play.
The Game Plan Football takes a steady hand, a quick trigger and guts. Following the game is tough. Play action and misdirection plays can make things a nightmare on a cameraperson. So to make things easy, on the snap of the ball, zoom out slowly until you're certain where the play is going.
Running plays are fairly easy to follow. Stay on the ball. If the play goes away from you, zoom in. If it comes right at you, zoom out.
Passing plays are significantly harder. There are two types of passes: lobs and bullets. Lobs are easier to shoot. When the pass is in the air, stay wide on the shot. Once it reaches the player, zoom back into your medium shot.
Bullet passes are a whole lot tougher to follow, especially if they're thrown across the middle. It's easy to overshoot a bullet pass. If you see the play develop, get wide enough so you won't lose it, and once the receiver catches the ball, zoom back in. Let the play happen in the camera; don't make the play happen in the camera.
Football is one of the most video-friendly sports, but it's also one of the most demanding. You're constantly moving around to get ahead of the offense, and the action can be tough to shoot. The only way to get good is practice.
Hit the Showers
As you develop your skills, you'll develop your own style of shooting sports. No professional camera person does it the same; everyone has his or her own style. With experience, you too can become a great sports videographer and storyteller.
Sidebar: Finding the Big Plays
If you're planning to edit, then you'll need some way to locate the good plays on your source tapes without spending hours looking through unwanted footage. Ball three in baseball, the one-yard run in football, the missed free throw in basketball--all of these will probably wind up on the cutting room floor.
To separate the good from the bad and the ugly, use a visual signal. Whoever invented this technique was a genius. After a great play, pop the lens cap on and record several seconds of black. It makes finding the great play a lot easier. When you're reviewing the tape, the black scenes will identify important plays.
Sidebar: Six Quick Tips for Shooting Sports
Play Your Position Know where to set up for the best highlights.
Use Both Eyes One eye to shoot, the other to help follow the action.
When in Doubt, Get Wide If you lose the play in the eyepiece, zoom out to wide-angle until you find the play, then zoom back in.
Size Matters Use your zoom to keep players the same size throughout the video.
Experiment Take chances, make mistakes and move all around the court or playing field to get different shots.
Practice This is probably the most important tip. The more you shoot, the better you'll become.
Sidebar: Shooting for Coaches
Often times, coaches and trainers will use a camcorder as a training tool, videotaping games and sometimes even practice sessions to critique the team's performance.
Instructional videographers often set up a camera on a tripod high in the stands or in the rafters. The shot is typically wide so coaches can see all of the players and all of the action. Cutaways of the scoreboard are still useful, as are a time/date stamp and a pencil and paper to take notes as the game progresses. As the tape rolls, the coach or trainer (if he or she is shooting the video) can use the camera's onboard microphone to make comments.
Since the intent of this type of videography is not to entertain but to provide an informative record of the game, aesthetic concerns are less important. It's a good idea to shoot with a high-speed shutter setting so that when the coach or trainer plays the tape back frame-by-frame, the action is frozen solid without any motion blur.
Since your goal is to shoot the entire game, be sure to bring along plenty of batteries and anticipate battery depletion before it occurs. You certainly wouldn't want to have your camcorder go dead in the middle of the most important play of the game. Most sporting events run over two hours, which is longer than most batteries can handle. The same thing goes for blank tape. Keep plenty of supplies on hand, and you should be prepared for any eventuality.