Getting creative with ice hockey photography

February 8, 2022

Long exposure of hockey action

I remember a super important lesson renowned wedding photographer Cliff Mautner said during an online class. It’s always stuck with me.

Get the shot, he instructs. Then get a better shot.

There’s no better place to emphasize that lesson than game action photography, and few more advantageous sports than ice hockey to put it to good use.

I’ve found myself as a hockey photographer as a kind of happy accident.

2022-01-14 HempfieldMT vs West Shore

Long exposure shot of a faceoff during a local youth hockey match.

Athlete portraiture remains the core of my photography business, but I find myself every week or so bundled in fleece, pressing lenses against scuffed up plexiglass at local rinks documenting youth hockey.

It all happened thanks to a friend who’s an assistant varsity coach. He invited me to capture an intense local rivalry.

That one match lit my fuse for game action photography, and I’ve been pursuing opportunities ever since.

A little word of caution. If you want to get into sports action photography, you might want to start in a sport other than ice hockey.

Hockey is fast. Much of the great photo action happens away from the puck. But if you take your eyes away from the puck, you might miss something.

There’s a barrier of plexiglass between you and the action, which means you have to shoot through it. Doing so downgrades an image’s clarity.

It’s also nearly impossible to find a place where you can see all the action. You have to choose a spot and focus on what you can capture instead of forcing shots that don’t fill frames or the action is moving away from you.

2021-12-12 Central Penn vs York

Faceoff during a local youth hockey match.

2021-12-12 Central Penn vs York

Anticipation in front of the net during a local youth hockey match.

And when it comes to local youth hockey, the lighting at the ice rinks, well, there’s not other way to put this — it sucks.

The vast majority of people can’t tell. But as a photographer, train your eye to look on the ice, and you’ll see patterns of light and shadow.

You’ll have to boost your ISO way high, and even then, the photos will often be inconsistent with lighting.

All those things being said, ice hockey photography is an adrenaline rush. Once you get the pace of your photography matched with the game, you can make some incredible images.

Another incredible truth about the game of hockey — even in a blowout, the pace of a match is intense. There’s no let up on the hits, the shots, the players skating as fast as they can back and forth across the blue lines.

I photographed a high school hockey match when late in the third period one team jumped ahead with an insurmountable 4-0 lead.

The cameras had plenty of action shots (get the shot). It was time to get creative (get a better shot).

2022-01-14 HempfieldMT vs West Shore

Capturing hockey action using a slow shutter speed (1/20 of a second).

From a vantage point up in a crow’s next next to one of the team’s benches, I switched my shutter speed from 1/640 of a second to 1/20.

The goal was to capture the fast motion of the game. Every sport is about bodies in motion. I wanted to see if I could capture it.

The nice thing about hockey is you can pan your lens when doing long exposure. That means the subject of your photo will have some detail (a jersey number, a name, maybe some discernible facial features), which for sports I think is key.

You want the person viewing the photo to immediately understand the story you’re telling with the image. Having some detail despite the slow shutter speed helps achieve that.

I mixed the telephoto lens (70-200mm) with long exposure shots utilizing a wide angle (16-35mm).

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As the game action moves in my direction, I utilized a wide angle lens to capture the motion.

Not everyone loves these kinds of images. Most parents bought clear action shots of their children when I shared the gallery.

But the purpose here is to satiate a photographer’s desire to move beyond the routine. After nearly three period of hockey action, it was time to push creativity.

What do you think? Do you like these kinds of images?

2022-01-14 HempfieldMT vs West Shore

A local high school hockey player drives the puck into the defensive third of his opponent.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He’s worked in wedding, family, and high school senior portraiture and today owns Creative Sports Photography, which provides portrait services for youth athletes.

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