20 Tips for Photographing Youth Basketball

Shooting basketball can be a tough job.  All those plays looked great while you watched them live.  Maybe you got so caught up, you even forgot to shoot some of them.  Heck, they even looked good on the back of the LCD.  Then you got home, and they were blurry, grainy, and not what you remembered.  Below are 20 tips to help you get the shot you really wanted using affordable gear.

1. Shoot with an eye open

The gym might look bright to you, but it doesn’t look bright to your camera.  You can put it in sports mode which tells the camera to prioritize high shutter speeds, but that still slows the camera down as it makes decisions about the exposure.  Also, having a consistent exposure makes your post processing easier.  I’ll share some exposure information below.

2. Shoot in Manual

The gym might look bright to you, but it doesn’t look bright to your camera.  You can put it in sports mode which tells the camera to prioritize high shutter speeds, but that still slows the camera down as it makes decisions about the exposure.  Also, having a consistent exposure makes your post processing easier.  I’ll share some exposure information below.

3. Turn up the ISO

In the gym where I shoot most often, I have to shoot at ISO 3200.  I know, at 3200, you can see the grain, but let me tell you a secret.  I had to shoot a poorly lit soccer field last year at ISO 5000.  I printed an 8 x 10 and couldn’t see any grain after a little (yes a little) post processing.  Go ahead and push the ISO.

4. Open up the aperture

As wide as it will go (smaller = wider, I know it seems backwards, just trust me).  You want to get as much light onto the sensor as you can.  We can talk about focus issues down the line.  They are manageable.  I shoot at f/2 most of the time.

5. Shoot with a prime lens

Look up the best sports lenses and your likely going to find yourself directed to the 70-200 f/2.8.  Warning, if you’ve never taken time to drool over this lens, there may be some sticker shock.  I love the 70-200, but not necessarily in the gym, plus that sticker shock might kill you.  I have to give up a full stop to shoot at f/2.8 which can mean the difference between seeing blur and freezing the action.  Most cameras from the past few years have enough megapixels to crop and get a usable image so I don’t really need the zoom.  You can try shooting with an 85mm 1.8 (about $400 and also great portrait lens).  I’ve done it with a 50mm 1.8 with good results, although focus speed is sometimes lacking.

6. Shoot with a crop sensor

A crop sensor has better reach (because the lens is magnified by a factor of 1.6).  Shots out to the three point line still look great when cropped.  The other bonus is that a crop sensor has a greater depth of field.  This is usually considered a hindrance of a crop sensor, but if I’m shooting at f/2, in a fast paced environment, I need that extra depth of field.  I can’t speak to Nikon, but the Canon 7D (soon to be replaced) has a faster burst rate than the 5d Mk iii. 

7. Stop the action

I usually aim to get at 1/500s or a little better to freeze the action.  This is why I don’t like shooting at f/2.8, it slows me down to 1/250s and it’s just too slow.   f/2 at ISO 3200 gets me to 1/500 in most cases.  A better lit gym may allow you to shoot at a smaller aperture or lower ISO. 

If you want to freeze the ball and the player, you will need fast shutter speeds (unless you are shooting with flash). That is how the picture below was taken.


8. Shoot in burst mode

This doesn’t sound very technical, but there is a spray and pray aspect to sports photography.  You don’t know when that magnificent play or expression is going to happen, so you have to keep shooting.  Burst mode helps to make that happen by shooting multiple frames per second. 

9. Shoot JPEG

All that advice to shoot in RAW and I’m here I am telling you to shoot jpeg.  I love RAW, I shoot RAW most of the time, but not in the gym.  RAW shots will fill the buffer on all but top end cameras very quickly.  Since you’re shooting in manual, and gyms usually avoid a lot of outside light, you won’t really find the need to recover information from a big RAW file.  It also makes selecting and processing hundreds of shots much faster.

10. Shoot it vertical

It’s a vertical game and if you don’t shoot vertical, you will lose the ball and the basket all the time.  Anticipate that the game will move up in your frame.  Leave some space for that to happen.

11. Pick the center focus point

This is crucial for getting shots in focus.  I generally use the center focus point for sports.  My goal is to keep that focus point on whatever I am shooting.  Using multiple focus points causes the camera to make a decision and it often decides on the closest subject.  This doesn’t work on a crowded basketball court with a shallow depth of field. 

12. Switch to the bottom focus point for high school boys

By the time they get to this level, the boys start getting pretty tall, have long arms, and can really jump.  They also are moving very quick in order to beat another athlete.  If they are jumping out of the top of your frame, account for it by switching to the bottom focus point.  I find I use this the most when shooting from a low position or trying to capture a dunk.    

13. Use continuous focus

This is called AI Servo on a Canon and AF-C on a Nikon.  This is crucial for sports because the players are often moving toward or away from the lens.  Normal focus involves the camera setting the focus and then taking the shot.  Continuous does just what it says and continues to focus.  This is a crucial setting for most sports, so don’t forget it.

14. Use back button focus

Back button focus allows you to set your focus independent of your shutter button.  You usually control this button with your thumb.  You need to reference your manual to determine how to set up back button focus on your camera.  When the camera is focusing, it slows down the speed at which it can take shots.  Back button focus allows you to tell the camera to stop focusing when you have a static subject.  This allows the camera to shoot at its fastest burst mode.

15. Focus on the Drive, let go on the jumper

When a player is driving the basket, the distance between you and the lens is changing.  This is when you want to hold down your focus button so that the camera continues to adjust the focus.  During a jump shot, the player’s distance to you is static.  With practice you can quickly get the player in focus with the back button, then let go of the button while the jumper is taking place. 

The following series of photos, which eclipses less than 2 seconds, illustrates several of the tips from this article.  Each was shot at 1/400s, which is the slowest shutter speed I would suggest using for sports.  Burst mode, continuous focus with a selected focus point, and shooting vertical were all necessary to make these shots work.  Finally, all of these were cropped, which I often find necessary for sports photos. 

PC-game-3-38 PC-game-3-39 PC-game-3-40 PC-game-3-41

16. Shoot the offensive side of the court

Whichever team you are trying to shoot, you want to shoot on their offensive side of the court.  Let’s face it, defense may win championships, but the offense is going to dominate Sportscenter tomorrow.  Take your cue from the pros and shoot from the offensive side.  Hint: You can sneak in some interesting defensive plays when a team moves into a full court press.  This scenario also tends to bring out a lot of emotion at the youth level so keep your camera moving and looking for the shot.

17. Shoot from the player’s weak side

I tend to shoot from the baseline and off to the side.  When shooting and dribbling, player’s bodies and faces get blocked by their dominant hand.  They open up to their weak side.  You want to shoot a right handed player from the left side (as if you were facing the basket).  Left handed players you want to shoot from the right side.  Most players are obviously right handed. 

In this gym, I had to shoot from the player’s right.  This is often what happens when shooting from the player’s strong hand:


 18. Get low

Sit or squat so you are shooting up at the players.  It makes the players look bigger provides a different perspective. 

19. Know the player’s tendencies

Are you trying to capture a player that scores on breakaways, three pointers, in the paint?  An outside shooter calls for a longer lens.  A post player may be right handed, but prefers to spin to their left.   A certain player may be more expressive than others.  Some players are defensive specialists, while others drive and go to the ground often.  No matter what you are shooting, you’re always trying to tell a story.  Find the story and the emotion in the game if you want to get the shot.

20. Keep shooting

Just because a basket was scored doesn’t mean the play is over.  Players express emotion, pain, frustration, and determination after the play has happened.  Don’t miss these moments. 

Article written by Terence Fominaya li

27 thoughts on “20 Tips for Photographing Youth Basketball”

  1. Typically I love these articles, but this was I wasn’t as much in love with. While it offers some really great advice, I had a few issues with what I read/saw.

    -It should be pointed out that Canon crop factor is 1.6x but Nikon is 1.5x to cut down on confusion.

    -For me it’s not about shooting with a prime, but about shooting with a very fast lens. I’d rather a f/2.8 zoom, because I’d rather not be cropping my shots dramatically all the time, especially with the higher ISO used.

    -I’d refrain from saying “small aperture”. It’s confusing to people, it’s easier to say wide open, low or high aperture. “Small” especially confuses beginners because they relate it to the number, not the physical state of the aperture.

    -Please, be more conservative with watermarks. THEY DO NOT NEED TO BE HUGE! Sometimes subtle is better, especially in this case. We create art, make sure your watermark is classy and tasteful and doesn’t detract from the image itself. It’s like having a beautiful picture of a bride, with a huge snot hanging from her nose. My eye is drawn to the watermark, not the image, where it should be focusing.

    I loved the tips, they were all really true and useful, but those were my few gripes.

    Thanks for writing and keep on doing so!

  2. Mitch,
    I appreciate your comments. I apologize for not mentioning the Nikon crop factor. I go back and forth regarding how much I should differentiate between Canon and Nikon differences, or in other articles using Photoshop in a PC vs. a Mac. If it is indeed confusing, I will be more careful to make those distinctions.

    I would agree with the statement about shooting with a fast lens. Shooting prime is definitely debatable, but it is usually the cheapest way to get into the fast lens market. I noticed most of my best basketball shots happen in or close to the paint, and the rest are jumpers that tend to get repetitive. I can’t take anything away from a 2.8 zoom, and it has a lot of application in other shooting situations, but they are generally quite costly. Mid-focal length primes are usually portrait lenses, so perhaps lens choice would be more easily decided by the photographer’s overall needs.

    I will think more carefully about how I use the term aperture. This does indeed seem to be one of those great mysteries to those who are learning photography.

    Finally. I don’t know what happened to the watermarks either. I’m glad you brought it to my attention. Looking back at my last few exports, they were exporting in an appropriate size (small, but there). Then I noticed they were not exporting with a watermark. Then they started exporting at the size you see in the article, which I agree is too large. I will have to figure out what the problem is.

    Thanks for the encouragement at the end. It is difficult to “put myself out there” as both a writer and a photographer. I hope the overall article was helpful.

    1. Terence,

      Enjoyed your article very much. Ignore the criticism and keep on writing articles.

  3. Just a nte to say great article and ask a question. I totally agree with the low light and getting the speed to make things happen. My question is on the focus point. I usually set mine at the top point to make sure and get the players face/head in focus. You suggest to set the bottom. Just wondering why? I always thought I would want to shoot top focus.

    1. Hi Barb,
      Because the player’s hands and the ball are going to move up in the frame, I want to leave room at the top of the frame for that to happen. If I use the top focus point on the players face then I would lose arms and the ball as they jump up in the frame. I try and keep the focus point on the body of the player which is difficult enough, trying to keep it on the head would be very tough and the camera would be refocusing every time I lost the player’s head. The head is generally aligned with the body so I can maintain accurate focus. I use a DOF calculator on my phone to make sure I have some wiggle room. I usually only go to the bottom focus point on tall players whose arms can stretch well above their bodies.
      All the being said, focusing in sports is difficult. I am planning an upgrade to a camera that has a more robust focusing system. If that’s in your budget, great. All the same, I have had good results with mid-range gear using the tips I gave above.

  4. I too have a number of nits to pick. First the recommendation to shoot in manual. In some gyms in some places that might work, but in many, many, more gyms it will not work.

    First to consider is the type of lighting – most gyms have some sort of mercury vapor or florescent lighting. Both of these do not put out a constant amount of light. They actually go through a cycle that can vary by up to a stop in intensity depending on where in the cycle you actually take the photo.

    Second to consider is the placement of the lights and how well they actual cover the area. Again in many, many gyms, each light will create a bright pool of light that rapidly falls off. Again you can have up to several stops of difference in exposure depending on where in the light the subject happens to be when you press the shutter.

    Third is that most of the time not all of the lights are the same age, and as they age they produce less and less light. So again, in many gyms you can have large variations in exposure depending where on the floor the subject happens to be.

    I have shot in gyms where there is as much as 4 stops difference in lighting in as little as 10 feet. And I’ve shot in places where there isn’t a half stop variation in lighting across the entire area.

    The worst lighting will in general be in elementary/ junior highs followed by high school gyms and the best lighting is anywhere you have pro sports that are televised.

    So from my experience (which spans 40 plus years and hundreds of thousands of images) the most useful method of metering is aperture preferred auto. And if you camera is capable of it – auto ISO. It doesn’t mean that you will nail every shot, but I believe that it will significantly increase your odds of doing so.

    Next is the wide open aperture – sometimes that is a necessity, but with today’s high ISO capable cameras you are better of coming down to about 5.6. That extra depth of field goes a long way to getting a properly focused image. And better a focused image that has motion blur than one where the action is frozen, but the focus is off.

    But you can minimize the motion blur by learning to pan with the action. Timing your shots to catch the peak of the action. And not relying on the frame rate to catch the action for you.

    These are the techniques that photographers of old used to capture sports when Tri-X at ISO 400 was considered a speed demon.

    In fact if you want to really become proficient then set your camera to single exposure mode. Not only will you save yourself a whole lot of time going nearly identical images, your sense of timing will grow to the point that you know when to press the shutter to capture that peak moment. Which by the way isn’t when you see it, because if you’ve seen it in the camera, you missed it.

    While basketball may seem to be a fast paced sport, it still provides the photographer with a number of points where the subject really isn’t moving that fast. Like the top of a jump shot. At the point where the player reaches the top of the shot, and just before they begin to descend they are actually motionless in the air. So if you time your shot to capture that peak action, then you don’t need as high of shutter speed to freeze the action. In fact you can get away with 1/125 or even 1/60 of a second.

    The same with the player that is charging down the court. When they switch directions on their drive, again for that split second they are actually still as they transition from one direction to another direction.

    If you follow the above, then you don’t have to worry about your buffer overflowing, so shot in RAW. It simply gives you more options with the final image.

    Picking the center focus point – the most important part of any sports image is arguably the face and expression of the player. Using the top focus points aimed at the head of your subject will keep that important part in focus. Especially if you are using wider apertures and have less depth of field. And you don’t lose them to the top of the frame when they jump.

    And then finally, basketball is best covered with a wider angle lens. On a crop sensor I will be shooting a 24, and on a full frame a 35. Although I will have a second body with a 80-200 handy for the occasional shot where you need to reach out to touch somebody.

    stand at the end of the court, just off the side of the basket, or in the corner of the court, and keep your shots inside of the foul line.

  5. Thanks for the article. I shoot high school basketball and was looking for a new technique or validation for the approach I was using. Your blog showed up in a search and gave me exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for this article. At my level, I’m just practicing photographing my family and local area. My daughter played her first season of basketball this year and I found these tips to be very helpful.

  7. For white balancing, I prefer to use an Expo Disc if your camera allows a pre-set white balance. I also continuous focus. I will change positions in the gym. Notice the amount of fans and shoot them as background color. Know the game to at least some degree as it helps to understand what is happening and will happen. Know the venue ahead of time. I shoot one gym that has canary yellow lighting. Needless to say, I avoid it now.

  8. Are you serious? Shooting jpeg will kill your image! If you shoot RAW, you will be able to process the image much better! You shouldn’t be giving out this kind advice if your can’t back it up with good photos. Your pictures look terrible and you can see soooo much grain! 🙁 Also, 3200 ISO?!?!?!?!??????? Are you even a sports photographer???? GUYS, DO NOT FOLLOW ALL ADVICE FROM THIS ARTICLE. YOUR IMAGES WILL TURN OUT TERRIBLE LIKE THE ONES ABOVE.

    1. @Kiggin – That may seem surprising to photographers who don’t do a lot of sports, but if you look down the sidelines of the photographers at a professional sporting event, a LOT of them are shooting in JPG. It’s pretty common practice in sports photography.

    2. @Kiggin – Go to any professional indoor sports game and ask the photographers what ISO they’re at. ISO 3200 is VERY COMMON among professional sports photographers.

  9. Charles Jorgensen

    Good article and quite helpful. I’ve been shooting my kids basketball games for 4 years now (usually in a badly lit indoor court with basic lighting – basketball is not a huge sport in South Africa) and have learnt quite a bit in the process. I agree with most of what was said except the “shoot with a crop sensor” tip. If you have or can afford a full frame camera, you will be able to shoot with much higher iso’s than with a crop body and your pictures will thus have much better image quality and have MUCH less noise. I also mainly shoot at f2.0 or f2.2 and I use canon 85mm 1,8 and sigma 35mm 1.4 paired with a Canon 5dmk3 and they beat any zooms for my shooting requirements (I also have a 24 – 70mm f2,8 but I find I get better images with the primes indoors). At 85mm aim for min shutter speed of 400 and at 35mm you can get away with as low as 200. Of course, if your lighting is good you can get away with shooting at f2,8 without pushing the iso into 5 figures and a fast zoom would then be better in my opinion.

  10. What works for one photographer may or may not work for another, but I shoot NCAA Division 1 basketball and here’s my approach, some of which is similar to that of the author and some of what is not:

    Gear: two Canon 7D Mk. 2 bodies, primary lens is a 24-70 2.8 zoom. No longer use prime lenses, except as a backup.
    Always have a backup body and lens.
    Typical settings: ISO 3200-4000, 1/640 to 1/800, f-stop whatever the camera computes.
    Location: Baseline, as close to the basket as possible.
    Technique: Avoid having to crop excessively. Anticipate the flow of the action and know the likely plays to be made.
    I never shoot in manual.
    I rarely shoot in vertical.
    I rarely use the back AF button, usually use partial depressing of shutter release instead.
    The closer you are to the action, the more emotional impact the image has. Shots from far away are rarely as impactful.
    Long telephotos can be a crutch for those unwilling to develop the skills needed at 10 feet from the action.
    This is a fast game and you’re basically shooting a moving tree in the middle of a moving forest. Develop the related skill set.
    I always use continuous AF for action
    I always use high rate burst mode – 10 fps. for the game. Use single shot mode for after the game.
    Always shoot from a seated position – take a look at the photographers in ANY NBA game.
    Don’t neglect shots of the coaches and the bench – lots of emotion there.
    Don’t stop shooting after the game ends – catch the smiles, frowns and congratulations.

    1. Perfect suggestions!!
      I use exactly the same set ups.Oonly I d not go that high in ISO. max 1600
      Canon 5DMarkiV

      1. I’m willing to accept the slight IQ degradation @ ISO 3200+ (particularly since 98% of the images will only go to the web), since I consider that VERY secondary to catching the critical moment in a fast-moving sport like basketball.

        Have you found the 7 fps to be a limitation? My experience has been that more fps is almost always my friend.

  11. I have shot numerous youth basketball and still feel the need to search for tips. I think you have some pretty good ones! I just bought a new Nikon 7200 and still getting the hang of it. My better shots were with a 40mm prime. I think some people like myself want that Sports Illustrated shot but there are a lot of great landscapes that can be taken from the other end of the floor or as a fast break is happening and the team is running the floor. Offense is great but you can get some great shots on the defensive end as well. I try to focus on emotion more than anything else and it seems to work. What works better than anything else is getting to the venue early. With today’s cameras and the delete function you can easily practice and figure out which setting is working best for that particular gym and its lighting. Thanks for the article. Very well done!

  12. I shoot 8th grade and high school elite basketball. I’m always looking for tips. I found your suggestions affirming and I’m going to try others. A few things. I don’t shoot in manual. The lighting is too unstable in gyms. I use aperture priority mode on my Nikon. I set the ISO to automatic with a maximum of 3200. It usually ends up shooting at 3200, f2.8, 1/250 or faster. I don’t use a crop sensor. I don’t see how that would help. Also, regarding stopping the action, blur is cool. Photographs that show the movement of the basketball through blur and the players’ feet blurred a little look amazing. I do not use vertical shooting because I use a unipod to keep the giant telephoto lens steady. Your suggestion about being seated interests me but parents always stand at the sidelines and would block my view. I may move a chair to the sideline and try vertical. I feel the problem is you lose how many opposing team members are attacking the offense. I may try bottom focus, but I’m most interested in facial expressions. As long as that’s what I get, I’ll be happy. With the Nikon, I don’t need back button–it will keep shooting even if it doesn’t think a frame is in focus if you program it that way.

    Thanks for putting yourself out there. Ignore the one or two mean comments here. Keep shooting and keep writing.

    I noticed one commenter uses an older style of photography that incorporates panning. That is something I’d like to try. Photographers have been using it since before the newer lenses were made. You use a slow shutter speed, like 1/60, and track the player. He will be in focus and everything else will be blurred. It comes out really awesome if you can learn how to do it. I’m going to practice that. It’s only going to work while they’re running the court, I would imagine.

  13. Great tips!! I’ve heard a number of these from professionals in the past(single shot, top of the jump, etc). Great reminders. Thank You!!

  14. @Kiggin I’m an aspiring sports photog, mostly shoot MMA but shoot all sports as well…..
    I have shot at iso 4000 f2.8 or iso 4000 at f3.2 or f4 and ISO 4000 is typical for ESPN at MSG etc especially when the boxing area is white i may have to up the iso or exposure comp by a little
    newer cam’s get better ISO’sIMO

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