Q & A : The Best Lens for Hockey

To ask a question of The Photo Video Guy, send an email to ross@thephotovideoguy.ca Janet writes; "I am getting into sports photography because I spend so much time in arenas since my son and daughter both play hockey.  I have a Nikon D5200.  It came as a kit with two lenses.  One is the regular lens and the other is a telephoto zoom lens.  The zoom says Nikon DX Nikkor AF-S 55-200mm1:4-5.6 G ED.  The person at Best Buy said it was perfect for hockey but my shots are all blurry.  I use the camera in the fully automatic mode.  I want to get nice pictures of my kids but don't have a lot of time to learn all about photography.  Is this a good lens?  Is this a good lens for hockey?"

Well Janet, hockey is pretty challenging.  Most amateur arenas have horrible lighting, the sport is pretty fast, and you have somewhat limited shooting positions.  When I was doing the TV show with Bryan Weiss we had OJHL Director of Photography Brian Watts on the show and he talked about the gear he uses.  Brian is a professional, but his advice is, I think, very good.  I also agree with him.

To make good pictures in the arena, you are going to have to do a few things.  It will be easiest if you come off auto mode and set your camera to aperture priority (it's the A on the top dial).  Then set your ISO to 3200.  You have a great camera with a very new sensor and it will do a good job at ISO 3200.  This high number tells the sensor to be more sensitive to light.  You will get a bit more digital noise at higher ISOs but if you are sharing on the web or making prints up to 8x10 this is going to be just fine.  You will also want to set your camera to continuous auto focus that Nikon calls AF-C.  I don't have a D5200 handy but this is usually a switch on the body, often on the front near the lens.

There are two more setting that you will want to make.  First put the camera in continuous shooting mode.  CL will give you up to 3 frames (pictures) per second, and CLH will give you up to 5 frames per second.  Second, find the control for Exposure Compensation and set it to +1.5 or +1 ⅔ depending on how your camera is setup.  You want to overexpose a bit because of all the white ice.

I suppose I should also mention to have a large fast SD card in the camera, so you don't have to wait while the buffer empties or you don't run out of shots before the game is over.  When I shoot hockey, I average about 200 shots per period.  Most of them aren't keepers, I expect a very high discard rate.  Better to shoot and throw away than not shoot and miss the shot you want.

Now to your last question, about the lens.  It's a good lens particularly for outdoor work.  But without trying to upset you, it's really not the right lens for hockey.  The focal length (biggest amount of zoom) in this case is 200mm.  On a crop sensor body such as you have this is like shooting with a 300mm lens on a professional grade camera like the Nikon D4.  This is good because it reduces size and weight.  Unfortunately the lens you own is optically very slow, too slow in my experience for success inside arenas.

If you still have return privileges, I would pack the lens up neatly and get your money back.  I don't mean to disrespect Best Buy, I'm sure that there are nice people there, but they likely don't know photography.  Head in to a photography specialty store and look at the Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 lens.  It's physically bigger than what you have and weighs a bit more, but at 200mm it lets in two more stops of light than the lens you have.  Without a bunch of techno-babble that means FOUR TIMES as much light.  That will make a huge difference for you.  The lens is often on sale, and as this is being written in November, holiday and Black Friday sales are going on already.

In Canada, where I live, Sigma offers a 7 year warranty, no need for extended warranties on this stuff.  Do get a quality protective filter for the lens.  A Tiffen UV is a great filter and much less expensive than some of the other brands.  I won't kid you, expect to pay about 5x for the Sigma what you got the Nikon kit lens for.  If you cannot afford this you can use the lens you have but I am concerned about having enough lens speed for good hockey images.

Once you have the lens on the camera, you've made the other settings I mentioned and you are heading into the arena, use the camera's controls to set the LOWEST aperture number the lens can deliver.  On the Sigma, this is f/2.8 at all zoom levels.  On the Nikon it will be f/5.6 at 200mm, dropping to f/4 at 55mm.  This is called opening up the lens or shooting wide open.  You want as much light as you can get.

Now put your AF focus point on your player of choice and hold the shutter button part way down.  In Continuous AF, the focus will adjust as you and the player move.  It's very effective.  When you think you have a shot, press through gently and let the camera take 3-5 frames.  Hockey is tough because sticks, hands and other players can get in the way. In a great hockey shot, you can see the player, the stick, the puck and the player's eyes.  As I tell my students, repetition is the mother of skill.  Shoot a lot, throw away the ones that didn't work out at home and keep refining.

I tend to recommend shooting in RAW instead of JPEG, but you indicated that you don't want to spend a lot of time learning photography.  In this case, it's probably easiest to set your camera to large JPEG and the Picture Control to Standard.  If you have a program that can convert your RAW images and you are happy doing some editing, shoot in RAW.

As a final tip, since you are shooting your own kids, don't miss a great play because you are scanning through the pictures or deleting bad shots on the camera LCD.  The time between periods is your best time to review, not while the game is ongoing.  Every game I hear a photographer moan when he or she misses a goal because he or she was looking at the back of the camera.

It is absolutely possible to get great pictures of amateur hockey in your hometown arena.  Here's an example from a couple of weeks ago that I shot in my town.

Thanks for writing in, I hope that this article helps!