Every photographic situation brings it’s own challenges and squash photography is certainly no exception. Poor lighting and fast moving subjects – particularly towards and away from the camera, means that you will have to make balanced compromises to get pictures worth publishing.
The good news is that you will be able to do this even with an old 6mp camera, and with ever improving sensor design your success rate will improve correspondingly.
Your Squash Environment
For the purposes of this article I will assume that you are most likely covering a tournament, and that you will be shooting through a glass back wall. Squash photography through the front of an all glass court is less demanding – The players are facing you and more importantly the lighting in most cases will be better too.
If the club or venue in question is staging a tournament they will hopefully be thinking about making sure their lighting is working 100%. If you happen to belong to that club then you could get involved in this, and refurbishment of the courts too. – Whiter walls reflect more light!
Did you just go and spend your hard-earned cash on one of those fancy LD lenses? You know, the £700+ type? Well, if you are shooting though a smudgy, marked glass back wall with it, then I can tell you that with the help of a bottle of glass cleaner you would come away with superior pictures from a £50 camera. – Get there before the players do, kick off the kids who are taking advantage of the free court lighting while the players get ready, and clean it, …or better still, pay them in soft drinks to do it for you while you set up your equipment. (It’s worth noting at this point that some players like to wipe their hands on the glass in between rallies, (We still love you Richie) so you may need to jump on court between games and give the glass another quick wipe.)
Knowing the players will give you an advantage. Where the venue has a single glass back court for their matches you won’t have a choice, and the tournament organiser may have a preference for certain matches to be covered, but if you do have a choice of courts you have the opportunity to select the most photogenic players to shoot. Very often the better players carry with them a dead-pan expression and are unmoved by controversy. You will come away with better pictures from matches featuring more animated and volatile characters. – Think Borg v McEnroe here.
Setting up Camp
You can’t be in two places at once and you can’t move around too much, especially as a tournament advances towards the finals, so your first choice of encampment is, I believe, directly behind the glass at the backhand corner. You may not want to leave your gear unattended to reserve your spot (although I’ve not had anything stolen yet), so at least place a “photographer” sign somewhere to help secure your place.
Equipment and settings.
This is the part you were really interested in isn’t it? – “I just spent five grand on equipment and I’m still not sure how to set it up in this environment. My test shots are still out of focus and/or blurred.” – “I’ve only got a mid-range or entry level camera. Is it up to the task? My test shots are all out of focus, blurred and grainy.”
Welcome to squash photography shooting through a glass-back!
Full Frame v Crop Sensor Bodies
A full frame camera will give you better low light performance than a crop sensor camera. (given similar sensor age/technology) This is by virtue of affording faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures at higher ISO without suffering excessive noise. If you posses a full frame then please remember that the lens focal lengths I refer to below are for crop sensor cameras and you will need to make the necessary conversions.
If you haven’t made that choice yet you may want to consider that if you don’t have a fast zoom and you don’t like changing lenses either (juggling and dust) you will want two camera bodies. – Me, I can’t afford a f2.8 zoom lens, so I’m stuck with crop sensor bodies and prime lenses. (Mind you, when I go out for a hike I don’t need to take a pack horse with me)
Some of the sharpest looking pictures I’ve ever taken, as viewed on a monitor, were taken on an old Konica Minolta Dynax 7D, a six megapixel camera. – Unless you want six foot high prints, then megapixels have only one use, and that is for cropping whilst maintaining resolution. This can be quite useful, but isn’t really necessary. My camera is 24mp, but for squash I downgrade the camera’s resolution to 12mp. I do this for better burst performance, better transfer rate, and faster processing, plus the option to crop a little.
Not convinced? Open up a nice sharp 24mp image in Photoshop. Make a copy and reduce that copy to 6mp. Now view both images at full screen size. – Identical. In fact you are still wasting pixels. 3mp would also look identical.
Unless you want to invite trouble forget about flash. Leave flash guns in your bag, get into your camera’s menu setting on-board flash to “off”, and whilst you’re in there disable any illuminated focusing aids you camera may have too. – End.
Sorry to say; You may be pushing things a bit too far with a kit zoom lens of the f/3.5-5.6 ilk. At f4 or so your images may be unacceptably noisy if they are to be sharp. If you use lenses that will give you at least f3.5 all the way through the focal range then you will be ok.
In fact paying for really fast lenses, esp at 50mm and beyond would be wasted on squash through the back wall because the depth of focus will be so small as to never allow you to get a shot of the players, coming straight at you at speed, in focus.
I use affordable prime lenses which offer bigger apertures than zooms.
I’ve tried every exposure combination going, and still now experiment, but if I had to stick to a single format here it is;
- Manual Focus
Depending on your camera/lens technology you may be able to get blindingly quick focusing. I can’t. By the time your auto-focusing has finished hunting the shot has gone.
Instead, decide on which part of the court you’re going to shoot the action, and manually focus on the floorboards in that zone. Leave the dial alone and fire off your shots. Any shots where the players have come out of the focus zone you can just put in the bin at the end of the rally. Simple
- Manual mode
The lighting on the court won’t change. Shutter range; 320th-400th, Aperture range: f3.2-3.5, ISO range; 2500-3200
Start there and make adjustments according to the newness of your camera sensor. You can get good player portrait studies at 250th, but racket heads will definitely blur at full swing. This and flying hair can be a good thing though for adding life to the image. Have a look though the exif data on the images below and see what you think.
- Burst rate
Set to max rate and fire off in twos and threes. Try to anticipate a crash or fall, in which case keep firing.
Some General Advice
I often see photographers seemingly waiting for some undefined optimal moment to press their shutter button. Sadly they may come away from a match having taken ten shots total, none of which are any good. Aim to take at least a hundred pictures per match, binning the unusable as you go. – I refer you to the earlier quote “My pictures are all blurred and out of focus” – A good deal of mine are too! …Shoot more and bin the rubbish.
Squash is played by people, and people have faces. Shooting from behind the players is no excuse. If you don’t have a face in the shot you probably don’t have a much of a shot at all. That desperate lunge into the front corner to pick up a deft drop might look good to the spectators, but your still image of it will most likely be a bore.
Add Some Variety
Change the elevation of your camera occasionally, especially for close in, wide angle shots. If you get the chance to jet across to the forehand side once for each match, this will add some variety to your gallery too.
Sometimes the action in between rallies provides better photographic opportunities than the play. – Don’t miss out. Arguments with referees can end in total loss of player’s self-control and should not be missed! It helps to tell the story and makes for good editorial accompaniment, especially if this is how the match ends.
Other features you may not have thought about can be great photo opportunities too. Get sequences of falls and close ups of grazed knees which may affect the outcome. The undone shoe lace, tattoos, silly socks, slick hair-dos all make for character and variety, whilst the displays of frustration despair jubilation that players display are a reflection of their desire to win, and deserve to be captured by you with your camera.
Wear black and before you set off say a prayer to St Jude that spectators decide against wearing stripes that day. Unwanted reflections can be reduced by getting your front element as close to the glass as you can without impinging on player concentration.
You are playing an important role in promoting your club through their web site and the local press when you take your pictures. But perhaps more importantly you will be providing good publicity and recognition for these young, under-paid yet highly skilled and supreme athletes who bring us such excellent sporting entertainment.
Now demand a free beer!