Making contact

A “ball on bat” photo is a picture, in baseball or softball, of exact the moment the ball makes contact with the bat (or soon thereafter) and it can be a daunting task for a photographer. The three most important things in shooting such a picture are timing, timing and timing.

There is a popular sports photo adage that goes “it you see it happen in the camera, then you’ve missed it.” It means sports action happens so quickly that if you see it happen through your viewfinder, by the time you press the shutter button the moment will be gone and you’ll have missed the shot. With most action pictures you have to anticipate what’s going to happen and press the button before it comes into view, especially so with ball on bat photos. The difficulty with photographing the batter is that you don’t know when, or even if, he/she will get a hit. They may strike out or be walked having not even taken a swing. I’ve shot a million of photos of players just standing there with the bats on their shoulders.

When I photograph baseball/softball I use both eyes. One eye is looking through the camera while the other, the one closest to the pitcher, is looking at the guy throwing the ball. With that eye I watch the pitcher go through his windup and throw, then I quickly switch to the eye on the batter. For a fraction of a second, the ball is out of sight as I change attention from on eye to the other. Then I anticipate when the ball will arrive over home plate. Now, due to balls out of the strike zone, blazing fast strikes or even hitters just taking the pitch, batters do not swing far more times than they do. After lots of practice one can determine when the batter will swing by changes in his/her stance and the tensing of their muscles. Even when they do swing, the best of them only gets a hit about 1/3rd of the time.

All this takes experience, practice and a lot of luck, and still getting a ball on bat shot is still pretty low. I say it’s around 10%-15% for me, probably a little higher for someone who shoots baseball all the time. As with everything else, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

For all that work you need to get them, ball on bat pictures aren’t my favorite from baseball. I find them rather, well, bland. I’d much prefer to shoot (and see) second base action, a home plate contest between a catcher and base runner or even the pitcher throwing the ball. The first two you get to see players from both sides in action emphasizing the idea of a contest between opponents and the last one you get to see the intensity of the pitcher as he/she throws.

There are a couple problems with ball on bat photos. Unless you’re positioned way out in centerfield with a super long telephoto lens in the 800mm-1000mm range (something that even a very experienced photographer isn’t likely to have), you’re going to have to photograph them from the side. That mean’s you’re probably not going to get the face of the batter. When they swing batters they drop their heads and their faces are often obscured by their helmets. If you’re lucky you might get a glimpse of their chin or nose. I prefer shots of just after they hit the ball. Their heads are usually up and you can see their faces as their eyes track the ball.

Secondly, The photos are just small slices of time. You can’t really tell the results of a ball on bat picture. A base hit can look like a grand slam, which can also look like a foul ball or a pop fly to right field which was easily caught by the outfielder. Video is different. With it you can see the batter hit the ball then the cameras can track it’s path. But with still photos you just can’t tell one from the other.

Having said that, ball on bat photos are still necessary at times. It’s nice to have a shot of someone hitting or a double that drives in the winning run or that grand slam. Just don’t expect for it to look like anything different than any other ball on bat photo.

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