The Beauty of Being Overlensed

One thing I try to emphasize to my students about shooting action photos, whether they are working as a sports photographer or shooting their children at ballet recital or a soccer match, is the value of filling up the frame. I see a lot of inexperienced shooters, and even some professionals, shoot action too “loose” as we say, meaning that the subject only occupies a small portion of the frame, usually right in the middle.

Lucky shot: I was walking to my spot in the shallow part of the outfield when this play happened, and while I was way overlensed, it worked out just right.
Lucky shot: while I was walking to my spot in shallow left field to work using my 300mm f/4, this play happened, and although I was way overlensed, it worked out just right.

The problem with this twofold. The first issue is wasted pixels. When you shoot too loose, you either bore the reader with a lot of irrelevant clutter toward the outside of the frame, or you crop out literally millions pixels for which you paid when you bought your camera. The second issue is depth of field; when an image is shot too loose, the isolation of the subject that is so valuable in drawing the viewer’s eye to the action is lost, even with large apertures like f/4 or f/2.8.

As a result of wanting to fill up the frame, I try to shoot from a position fairly close to the action, and I try to shoot with “big glass.” Estimating the right lens and position for your sport gets easier with practice, but it’s still a fairly subtle art. Generally speaking, with an APS-sized sensor in most digital cameras, you can start with these numbers:

  • For baseball, a 300mm from a position in one of the dugouts about halfway down the foul line, or a 400mm from farther down the line. This will give you home plate, second base, the pitchers mound, and the closest outfielder.
  • For basketball, I like to shoot from the base line, since there is usually more room to work. An 85mm gives nice tight action out to about the three-point line, and a 200mm gives you much of the rest of the court. I like a fast (meaning bright like f/2.8) 80-200mm zoom here too.
  • For softball, the layout of the field sometimes dictates whether I use an 80-200mm or a 300mm, but both can work from the right spot.
  • For soccer on a regulation-sized field, 400mm or more is the only real choice, since the action can move to the opposite end of the field in just a few seconds.
  • For football, an 80-200mm from 10-15 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, or a 300mm from about 25 yards downfield. Sometimes if there is enough light, I’ll camp in the end zone with a 400, a spot that has the advantage of backgrounds not cluttered with fans or players.

    Oops! From the middle of the third base foul line, my 400mm f/3.5 was just a little too tight.
    Oops! From the middle of the third base foul line, my 400mm f/3.5 was just a little too tight.

Why not use a zoom instead of a 300mm or 400mm? Typically a consumer zoom that gives you 300mm will be f/5.6 at that focal length (and is typically not sharp unless stopped down the f/8 anyway), and f/5.6 or smaller won’t allow shutter speeds needed to stop the action, nor will it give you those nice, smooth out-of-focus backgrounds that isolate the subject like an f/2.8 or f/4 will. The one zoom I might recommend for a lot of sports would be the AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm f/4, for which Nikon wants almost $6000.

Of course, when I shoot super-tight stuff like this, there are times I miss the shot because of heads cut off, baseballs out of the frame, or frames that are entirely empty, but when I can “hit” these images, they end up looking great.

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3 Comments

  1. I’ve certainly been guilty of both extremes: too loose or too tight, so let me play devil’s advocate for a moment…

    Of the two, I prefer too loose, mainly because cropping *is* an option, whether with digital or with film. If you shoot too tight, you cannot regain part of the scene that you never shot in the first place.

    In fact, cropping is one of the reasons for the megapixel wars. If I could shoot the image perfectly at 6mp, now I can shoot it too loose at 12mp and crop away the extra…

    I cannot argue with the depth-of-field issue. A longer lens is better. No question.

    As to the “irrelevant clutter toward the outside of the frame,” there are certainly times when that extra stuff is actually worth seeing. (I believe I once captured an Ada photographer in the edge of my frame, either dozing or blinking slowly…) 🙂

    Yet one more reason I sometimes intentionally shot too loose is because I never knew what size/shape prints my customers desired. If they wanted only 4×6 or 8×12, then I’m fine. But if they want an 8×10 or 5×7, I either have to crop off part of the frame, squish/stretch the image, or add in blank areas to the print….

    (Readers, don’t misunderstand me; I agree with Richard 87% on this. I’m just pointing out the other side of the coin…)

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  2. Loose + cropped definitely does NOT equal super-tight. I’ve been underlensed many times, and always disappointed in the results of cropping. As far “cropping is one of the reasons for the megapixel wars” goes, it’s a little like paying for the ability to be sloppy. Maybe another analogy that makes sense it sniper versus shotgun; it takes skill to kill with a sniper rifle, but the results are cleaner and much more efficient.

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