Shooting Giants: Photographing Baseball from the Diamond’s Edge

Buster Posey waits on deck, as the author (in grey hat) shoots from the photographers’ pit.

I’ve got the best view in the house.

I’m poised on a folding chair in a photographers’ dugout just below ground level, at the edge of the diamond at AT&T Park in San Francisco. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Giants are losing to the San Diego Padres 6-3.

Angel Pagan gazes heavenward.

My camera is less than two feet above field level. As I look straight out through protective netting, I am focusing on Giants infielder Joaquin Arias at the plate, no more than 50 feet in front of me. A right-handed batter, Arias faces away from my vantage point on the third-base side of the field, but I can clearly see his body language throughout the at-bat and see his face during his follow-through.

Joaquin Arias follows through.

Ten feet to my left, a television camera captures the action for the live broadcast. Beyond that, the Giants’ dugout is filled with serious faces contemplating imminent defeat. Just in front of me, a new pair of baseball cleats blocks my view toward the batter, and I tilt the camera up to see Giants’ slugger Buster Posey, who has not played today, stretching in the on-deck circle, waiting to pinch-hit.

Gregor Blanco bunts.
Everth Cabrera flies around the bases.

I’m shooting stills today for a new client: aka Two Guys, a Glove, and a Coke Bottle, the podcast and blog hosted by my son Daniel Zarchy and his partner Thomas Todd. Access to the photo dugouts is tightly controlled by the team’s Media Relations Department, and my presence on the field on this beautiful July day is a byproduct of their outreach to social media. There’s another photo area on the other side of the Giants’ dugout, and two on the other side of the field, flanking the visiting teams’ dugout. I started the day on the visitors’ side and moved to this photo pit near the Giants’ on-deck circle after four innings.

Tim Lincecum pauses at the top of his windup …
… then goes through this remarkable stretch …
… and finishes in this balletic pose.
Lincecum exits the field, as manager Bruce Bochy (15) pulls him in the fifth.

I’ve toted my Canon 5D Mark II camera with my 24-70mm wide-angle zoom lens and a rented Canon 100-400mm telephoto zoom. I’m using a five-section monopod made by Giottos, with a Manfrotto tilting quick release, which enables me to frame horizontal or vertical shots with ease and support. No tripods are allowed, even for professional photographers. For most of my shots, which are on the telephoto end, the fine strands of the protective net are so far out of focus that they’re invisible; occasionally I can see them in a wide-angle shot.

Reliever Jeremy Affeldt grimaces as he unloads.
Brad Penny is a whole lotta fella …
… but a powerful and graceful athlete nonetheless.

I freeze the action by shooting at shutter speeds of 1/2000 of a second, and sometimes 1/1250, with the camera in Shutter Priority Mode (marked as Tv Mode, for “time value”). I often set the Drive Mode to Continuous, so I can shoot bursts of exposures. I set Autofocus at AI Servo, recommended for moving subjects, and it handles all tight shots and most wider shots pretty well, constantly adjusting focus to changing subject distances. It’s sunny all day, and I usually have the ISO at 400 and the aperture around f/5.6.

Ryan Theriot runs out a grounder.
Brandon Belt waits for a pitch.

The 5D Mark II camera shoots up to 3.9 stills per second, but even with this many exposures, I find it difficult to capture the ball as it leaves a player’s hand or bat. I realize I’m comparing my results to the Ultra SloMo on the Giants’ TV broadcasts, where they’re shooting at up to 1000 frames per second. Of course, I’ve often used the 5D in video mode at 24 or 30 fps, but shooting that way today would generate thousands and thousands of images, much more data than I want to handle for this simple shoot.

Brandon Crawford slides spead-eagled into second base.

Nevertheless, I do shoot over 800 still exposures during the game. Getting this close to the action and shooting from this low angle gives me dramatic shots of the players, the sold-out stands teeming with spectators in the background. Shooting batters and pitchers is relatively easy. Following runners and capturing defensive plays in the infield is difficult. Trying to capture defensive plays in the outfield I find nearly impossible from this angle.

Shortstop Crawford makes the turn at second.

Arias grounds out to end the game, so Posey never comes to the plate. It’s not a great day for the Giants. They muster little offense and few good swings. But I glean what I can from a mediocre game.

Nate Schierholz waits on deck.
Schierholz has a meeting with his bat. Less than a week later, he was traded to the Phillies.

Among others, I get great shots of outfielders Nate Schierholz and Melky Cabrera. But six days after my day in the photo pit, the Giants trade Schierholz to the Phillies. Two weeks after that, Major League Baseball suspends Cabrera for 50 games — the rest of the season — for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. So inadvertently I do manage to freeze a moment in time.

Melky Cabrera stretches in the on-deck circle.
Cabrera inspects his bat, looking for hits. Three weeks later, he was suspended for the season after failing a drug test.
Shooting from the Stands

I love baseball, and I love the close access and dramatic up-angles I get shooting from the photo pit. By contrast, photographing action from the stands means looking down at the players, with the grass in the background.

For example, check out this shot from a different day, made with my Panasonic Lumix FZ-150 Ultrazoom advanced point-and-shoot camera. I’ve succeed in capturing the moment — even freezing the ball at 1/2000 of a second for Hunter Pence’s game-winning first home run as a Giant — but because I’m shooting from my purchased seat near right field (much further away), the angle is flat and the background is the field itself.

All photos Copyright 2012 by Bill Zarchy

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