May 13, 2009 / Photography

Getting beyond the clichés of baseball

Written by Bill Hankins

“Getting something different.”

That, according to award-winning photographer Ival Lawhon of the St. Joseph News Press, St. Joseph, Mo., is the toughest thing about shooting baseball.

Photographers new to the experience of going after great baseball images probably know what Lawhon means. Baseball is full of cliché shots that have been around forever: the pivot shot at second base as the second baseman avoids the runner while making the throw to first; or the pitcher delivering the ball to home plate; and the play at the plate. High school yearbooks are filled with another baseball cliché – the hitter swinging at a pitch or just standing at the plate.

Even a photographer who does not have the longest telephoto lens can get some nice story-telling moments in any ball game if he or she stays prepared.

New shooters are probably happy if they can get a nice crisp image during the game. But the more the young sports photographer shoots, the more he or she will want to move beyond the clichés.

To get the more telling sports images, especially in baseball, Lawhon said, start by being aware of the game and how it is played. Where to shoot from depends on the stadium. Certainly down the first and third base lines are key locations, but with an accommodating coach, Lawhon prefers being in the dugout.

“If I get access to the dugout, I will have my 28-70mm zoom or my 17-35mm,” Lawhon says.

These lenses work great for coach and player reaction and even plays at the plate. But Lawhon also has his 300 f/2.8 lens handy especially if he moves to a position along the first or third base lines.

When shooting batters, anticipate and start shooting as the hitter's swing begins. Use a motor drive if possible. Crop tight and try to get the ball on the bat. If not, you can get some interesting shots, such as the softball player trying to get out of the way or the batter who is biting on her uniform collar to keep her head down as she swings.

Because he is always looking for innovative shots, Lawhon has developed some personal favorites he is always striving to capture, even though they are elusive. Even that usual play-at-the-plate can be exciting if the photographer gets all of the elements together and the timing is perfect.

“I do like plays at the plate. There is usually slam, bang action, and they often make for good images,” he said.

Rarely are two of these play-at-the-plate images exactly the same, which makes them more interesting. Lawhon said that getting the umpire in the picture also can improve these shots.

Another must in avoiding the typical cliché baseball picture is to know the game well enough to anticipate where things will happen, Lawhon said.

“Try to find out the key players,” he said.

Austyn Boyett captured the coach giving instructions to a hitter before he goes to bat. That player/coach interaction is all part of the story of the game. It might seem to be an easy shot, but a photographer has to be prepared for the small moments as well as the big moments in a ball game.

Taking the time to be prepared and knowledgeable can pay off when the best bunter on the team squares around to lay down a bunt and squeeze in the runner from third.

Lawhon said even the usual baseball action photos need to be shot because sometimes your publications will have a use for them. For example, the baseball spread might include a sidebar feature on the pitcher or perhaps a hitter sets a new school record. The photo staff would need a selection of good images of that hitter at bat to choose from, even if the image is a bit clichéd.

Remember to save film or memory for the end of the game. You just might get a shot of a winning or championship moment  that is better in quality than much of the game action shots. But you will miss it if you run out of memory or film, and leave before the final moments of the game.

Be involved in the game so that you can focus on the bases where the next play might develop. Anticipate the play to anticipate the shot. It's obvious that both the photographer and the second baseman were on the ball.

Of all the sports, you may wonder why I would write mostly about clichés of baseball photography. Out of a two-hour baseball game, total action time is short. Photographers do not have much time to get that great action shot, so they often fall back on shots they know they can get.

However, yearbook photographers have the opportunity to go to a game, try their hand at it, see what they got on the negative or memory card, and then go out and try again – all for the same yearbook spread that is awaiting five to seven nice moments of baseball action. Working hard at pursuing a variety of great baseball shots can provide staff designers with some visual variety.

Lenses to Use:

  • 200 to 300mm: from first or third baseline
  • 135mm or 80 to 200mm zoom: from the dugout

Exposure Setting to Use:

  • Shoot as fast as the light will allow: 1/1000 or 1/2000
  • Use the widest aperture possible for the least depth of field
Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.