5 tips for filming sports games

Going to film a sports game? Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, soccer, or tennis, here are 5 tips that will help you out.

1. Film with a camcorder, NOT a DSLR

DSLRs have many limitations. One of the most obvious limitations is a DSLR’s inability to film continuously. Due to a combination of the recording format and the manufacturers’ reluctance to categorize DSLRs as video cameras, most DSLRs are only capable of filming 12-30 minutes continuously. This becomes a problem when filming a sports game, as the last thing you want is to miss a play because your camera stops recording. Of course, you could start and stop filming in-between plays, but that would become tiresome.

Additionally, DSLRs have glaring rolling shutter issues. Rolling shutter, a process by which the sensor creates each frame by scanning horizontally, allows for skewing and wobbling artifacts. These artifacts are particularly apparent when filming high speed action; making them ill-suited for sports games. You want to capture the plays as accurately as possible. Skewing or wobbling from DSLRs will be extremely disorienting to the viewer.

2. Film at a high frame rate and shutter speed

Many videographers and freelancers have embraced 24fps (at 1/48th shutter) as their go-to frame rate for their portfolios and paid work. Given that feature films and many television shows are shot at 24fps, video shot at 24fps has a more cinematic, film-like look. While 24fps is great for creating attractive commercials or wedding videos, it’s a little too slow for a sports game. However, the most important setting is the shutter speed (or shutter angle).

The shutter speed is the amount of time the shutter is exposing the film (or sensor) to light. Slow shutter speeds create too much motion blur to accurately portray high-speed action. You’ll want a fast shutter speed, so that the shutter is only opened for a short amount of time, effectively freezing the action. If the shutter is too slow, the action on frame is moving faster than the shutter, causing the motions to smear across the screen. This is known as motion blur.

Additionally, fast frame rates will capture more of the action, as more frames are being created per second. If you can, your best bet is to film at 60fps (at 1/120th shutter). 60fps and 1/120th shutter will give the video much smoother motion and allow for you to freeze the video or slow it down in order to analyze individual plays. If shot at 24fps and 1/48th shutter, there will be too much motion blur to discern action happening at high speed.

3. Favor wide shots over close-ups

As a videographer, it’s natural to want to film close-ups or to compose subjects tightly in your frame. However, these filmmaking techniques aren’t suited well for filming sports games. Unless you’re focused on an individual player for keepsake purposes, you’re going to want to stay as wide as possible when framing your shots.

Always keep your audience in mind. If you’re filming a sports game, it’s probably for parents, coaches or recruitment purposes. The most important thing is the game. You want to be able to watch the action as it unfolds. If your shot is too zoomed-in, it will be very difficult for you to follow the action. You don’t want to risk missing a play entirely. A wider shot allows for the ball to always remain in the frame. Furthermore, it’s important for the audience to see the play as a whole, and where all the other players are in relation to their teammates and the opposing team. If your frame is too tight, and you’re too focused on following the ball, not only will your footage be disorienting, but you’ll miss the strategy unfolding in each play.

4. Find high ground when you can

As a spectator, it might be more exciting to watch the game from as close to the field or court as possible, but that angle doesn’t give audiences the best view of the action. When you’re too close the field, the space between you and the other end of the field is too compressed, creating a problem of spacial relations. When you’re in person, you’re seeing the game in three-dimensions, which makes spacial relationships more obvious. But 2D images start to become confusing and the audience doesn’t know how far away one player is from another. This makes it difficult for the view to follow the game.

Instead, the best perspective you can film from is as high as possible (the top of the bleachers or “crows nest” if you can). This creates the most top-down view of the court or field. By doing this, the spacial relationships from one player to another are more even and not distorted by the camera lens. Imagine a coach strategizing with his/her players; he or she will most likely sketch from a top-down view of the court or field. If they’re to analyze the game, the best video footage will emulate this view as closely as possible.

5. Film with a deep depth of field

Along with the advent of DSLRs came the current trend of extremely shallow focus. Shallow depth of field is achieved through fast lenses and large sensors; which sprouted suddenly due to DSLRs and are quickly making their way into affordable camcorders. While the use of shallow DOF is great for many projects, you’re going to want deep depth of field for filming sports games.

Shallow DOF has an artistic and aesthetically pleasing look. But like anything that looks great, comes at a price. In order for a shallow field of focus to work for your project, you need to manage that field of focus whilst shooting. It’s a clear sign of an inexperienced videographer when their footage is constantly going in and out of focus. When you’re filming a sports game, and missing a moment could be disastrous, you wouldn’t want to add another layer of complexity by incorporating shallow DOF. It’s simply setting yourself up for disaster. Keep everything in focus and don’t leave anything to chance.