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|| News Item: Posted 1999-12-23

High Sticking in the NHL: how to shoot hockey
By Don Smith, San Jose Sharks

I can still recall that January afternoon in 1990 sitting in the lobby of the San Jose Sharks posh offices in downtown San Jose. I was there to interview for the team photographer position. My friend, Rocky Widner, had asked me at a Stanford football game if I would be interested in joining him as co-team photographer.

Photo by Don Smith

Photo by Don Smith
Rocky was and still is team photographer for the NBA Sacramento Kings. What both of us knew collectively about shooting hockey you could put in a thimble. I had shot a few games at an Olympic Sports Festival in Houston and Rocky had shot a few exhibition games at Arco Arena. Believe it or not, neither one of us knew what an icing call was. To say the least, my stomach was in knots.

But as fate would have it, the powers that be liked what they saw (or were at least fooled into believing we knew what we were doing) and as they say, the rest is history. So here I am nine years (and some 400 NHL games) later writing a piece on how to shoot hockey. Coming from a baseball and football background, I can honestly say I still feel at times as if I'm skating on thin ice.

Personally I feel hockey is the toughest sport I've ever tried to capture consistently on film. There are so many bodies (now two referees and two linesmen for most games) in such a confined space plus following a puck moving at times over 100 mph, it can quickly add up to a frustrating night. So the first thing I would say is have a plan. Know ahead of time why you are shooting the game and plan accordingly. What I mean by this is differentiate between shooting the game editorially or shooting for stock.

Photo by Don Smith

Photo by Don Smith
The reason I touch on this is because your positioning can make or break your success. If you are shooting for a newspaper or wire service and your goal is to make an early deadline, then I would suggest an above shooting position where you can use a 400mm lens and shoot the entire ice. Most arena ice level positions are going to be in one corner or the other.

Nothing is more frustrating than having all the action take place on the other end of the ice and there you sit feeling the pressure of the clock ticking. I've literally seen some photographers be so uptight that they miss the action when it finally does come to their end of the rink. Also, try to arrive at the arena as early as possible to secure a shooting spot. In San Jose, these are first-come, first-served (except for playoffs).

Most of the work Rocky and I do as team photographers requires a combination of stock (tight isolated on a player) and editorial style shooting. I shoot 95% of the time from ice level. If I'm shooting stock style, I'll stay on a player the minute he steps onto the ice. If he is a forward, I try to wait until he has the puck on his stick either passing or shooting. I try to show the defensemen in a variety of ways. They also handle the puck but are known more for passing, checking and setting up the play.

Photo by Don Smith

Photo by Don Smith
Usually I'm shooting vertical with anything from a 300mm to a 600mm. But remember to try some horizontal - I tend to go horizontal when the action is happening around the net or in the corners to include more bodies. I use a 300 f2.8 and both 1.4 and 2X converters. With strobes I get f4.5 on the ice. For action in my corner I'll switch to my Canon 35 - 350mm which is variable aperture. I lock down at 5.6 and push the film 1/2 stop so I can get the entire zoom range. The lens takes a little getting use to, but it is my favorite hockey lens.

Rocky likes to use his Canon 70-200mm with and without a 1.4x converter. He also uses his 500mm f4.5 lens handheld when shooting tight. There is no right or wrong lens, just use what gives you the framing you are looking for. I've even gone into the stands and used my 600mm with both the 1.4x and the 2x and shot from behind the net across to the other goalie. If you are allowed access, use it, seeing the game from different angles helps refuel the creative juices.

Like most sports, anticipation is key in successful hockey photography. About five years ago I read Wayne Gretzky's autobiography. The "Great One" acknowledged what gave him his edge was his ability to correctly analyze where the puck would end up on a rebound off the boards. He felt he had an uncanny ability to arrive where the puck was going to be prior to it or any other players getting there. I thought about that and figured if it worked for him, why not try to incorporate that into my shooting. In other words, don't simply follow the puck, try to get ahead of it. Obviously I don't always guess right, but it does get me in the general vicinity of where the action is going to take place a second or two before it actually happens. Most of the time this is the difference between a meaningful shot versus an after-the-fact picture.

Photo by Don Smith

Photo by Don Smith
The most obvious area that action takes place is around the net. I defer to my partner in describing these shots. "Usually this is where you want at least two or three players plus the goalie in the frame," said Widner. If a power play is taking place, there are good pictures of players pushing and shoving in front of the net. If you want to go tight on just the goalie, frame him and wait until he flinches then shoot."

When it comes to using remotes, we have probably tried them all fromgoalie-cam to overheads. Unlike basketball, hockey players do not look up, so placing an overhead remote will only give you a different angle but your odds of getting a spectacular picture are small. If you are lucky enough to get a sprawling goalie and a puck, you usually have a winner. Unfortunately we have an all-white arena in San Jose. Even the roof is painted white thus even our goalie-cam pictures aren't the most intriguing.

Lastly I'd like to add that the most neglected area of a hockey game is between the two blue lines - an area known as the neutral zone. Generally this is a transition area where teams are bringing the puck into their zones. I've recently been concentrating more in this area because we have a shooting position from our penalty box (just inside to blue line). I've notice some of the most violent open-ice hits happen in this zone. These are the ones you see on the Sports Center "Plays of the Week" segment. Usually it involves an offensive player breaking out of his zone with the puck only to get broad sided in this neutral ice area at full speed by a defenseman who has come at him from a blind-side angle. Sometimes neither player sees each other and both collide at full speed. I've yet to make a great picture here but I really feel this is where it will happen if I can see it developing and then as Gretzky says - "get there before it happens."

(Don Smith is a former high school teacher and is currently a Bay Area freelance photographer. He has been shooting for the San Jose Sharks since their inception)

Related Links:
Don's member page

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