Photographing Figure Skaters

As my daughters spent more and more time at the rink, I found some time to get back to a long lost hobby of taking photographs. Since I was at the rink, figure skaters become the subject of my photography.

Photographing figure skaters in motion is a more challenging activity than I initially anticipated. I assumed that with the modern technology of auto-focus and auto-exposure that any idiot should be able to get good results, but that's not the case. There's a fair bit to learn to do it well.

Following are the things I've learned so far about photographing figure skaters in action but I'm hoping to learn more as my experience grows. Keep in mind, that I'm strictly an amateur and I don't have too much experience yet, but I've had reasonable results with the following approach. I've only photographed amateurs and mostly kids although some of them have competed at the Junior National level.


This is really important because a flash can startle a skater and cause them to trip, fall, land incorrectly or any number of things. It should be obvious, but it's really important.

My Equipment

Camera: Canon 60D

Lens: when I'm shooting a major event at the club, I rent a Canon Series 2 70-200 f2.8 lens. More on the lens later.

Camera Settings

AF Mode: AI Servo

Single centre focus point

Drive Mode: Hi-speed continuous


White Balance: Used the camera's facility for setting a custom white balance based on a photo of a white paper in the rink lighting

Metering Mode: Center-weighted average (I need to experiment with other settings)

Exposure Compensation: Still experimenting but over expose by at least 1/3 stop. Some say more but it's better to be underexposed and brighten things up in post-production (PhotoShop).

Aperature: f2.8

Shutter Speed: 1/500 or faster. The last series I shot at 1/640. If you have a longer lens, you might want to go faster. Slower skaters you can probably go with a slightly slower speed.

Image Stabilization: Off. With this fast a shutter speed and this length of lens, I don't think the stabilization is really helping much and I've heard that it might actually be counter-productive.

Before Shooting

Permission and Position

Before you start shooting, make sure you have permission to photograph the skaters and make sure it's ok to be down by the boards. Formal competitions require special permission that must be requested well in advance. But if it's just something going on at your club, you can probably get permission from the club on the day. If you're willing to share your photos with the skaters free of charge, you probably won't have any problems. Once you have permission, make sure you have permission to be down at ice level in a place where you don't have glass or mesh in front of you. Usually the player benches are the place to be. You want to be down at the same level as the skaters.

White Balance

I have to admit I'm not sure how important this really is since you can do it easily in post-production, but I still set my camera ahead of time so that the white balance is pretty good when the photos come out of the camera. If you don't do this, your photos will have a distinctive pink or blue colour depending on the type of lights in the arena. You may even find that the colour changes at different parts of the rink as each bulb has a slightly different colour.

Organize the files ahead of time

If you know the skate order of the kids you're going to be shooting, I create folders on my memory card with an abreviated version of the skaters name. Then in between skaters, I change the folder the camera stores the images in and it saves me sorting them and trying to identify the skaters later on. Even if you don't know the names of the skaters, you can do kid1, kid2, kid3, etc. Check your camera manual for acceptable naming conventions. My Canon requires three digits plus up to five characters; eg. 100kid1, 101kid2, etc.

Strategy for Photographing Figure Skaters

I use the approach of tracking the skaters around the ice as they skate their programs and shooting lots of pictures. A photographer suggested that he would focus on a zone and wait for the skater to skate into that zone, but I don't think you'd get many good pictures that way.

As the skaters move around the rink, you'll need to keep zooming in and out so that the skater takes up as much of the frame as possible. However, beware of zooming in too much because you start to loose arms and legs and feet which makes for poor composition. Keep your shots a bit wide and you can do strategic cropping in the post-production stage.

Burst Mode: I make strategic use of burst mode. My camera does 5 frames per second but when I want to capture a sequence of shots, I usually shot three or four at a time and then let the camera refocus and I re-compose. The only exception is when the skater is doing a spiral. As the skater is usually on a curve, the composition changes constantly and you often get the transition from side profile to faceing the camera. By shooting the whole sequence, you'll be sure to get a couple good shots of the spiral which when executed properly makes for an attractive photo.

Skater takes up their starting position. I zoom in to get the skater using up most of the frame and then usually shoot three or four shots here. It's amazing how in the space of a second or two, their facial expression can change and their body position can change which significantly alters the quality of the shot. Then I zoom back a little bit so that they don't skate out of the frame on me once they start to move. I'm not that experienced a photographer and being zoomed back makes the skater easier to track.

I find that right after their starting position, skaters often make some expressive jestures and interesting movements which are often photogenic, so be alert and plan to snap off a few more in the next 5 or ten seconds.

After that, I try to anticipate poses and interesting positions from the skaters. With practice and experience watching and shooting skaters, I'm finding that I get a better sense of when things are going to happen even when I don't know the skater's program.

At the end of their program, I try to catch their finishing pose and snap off a quick burst of that position as well.

Photographing Figure Skater Jumps and Spins

Photographing jumps and spins is a bit of gamble. Often skaters' faces are grimaced or otherwise not very attractive when they're jumping, so that's not ideal. However, I find that every now and then I get lucky and catch a skater at the peak of their jump, facing the camera with an acceptable facial expression and these shots are really cool. The skaters seem like to them particularly if shows some good air on the jump.

Spins are also not always photogenic but if you catch them at the right point, they can be interesting and also dramatic. As a result, I tend to shoot bursts of spins and jumps. For spins, I shoot a burst of three or 4 as the skater is coming around to face the camera. that many shots usually catches the sequence of their side profile, facing the camera, and then their other side profile. If the skater is holding a good spin position, these can be interesting shots.

For jumps, I often shoot a burst as the skater is lining up their jump. I find these photos can give a sense of suspense and really capture the mental focus and physical power that goes into the launch of the jumps. Then I try to catch their landing position which can also look quite graceful. Since shooting more photos doesn't really cost much in the digital world, I sometimes shoot a burst of shots through the whole jump, and sometimes get a good shot.

Lens selection for Photographing Figure Skating

Since my camera doesn't have a full frame sensor, the 70-200mm lens works out to an effective range of 112-320mm. This is a pretty good range for shooting from the boards in a typical rink. If you're not at the boards, something a little longer might be nice. The 112 is actually a little too much when the skater is close to you, but the 320 is nice when the skater is down at the far end of the rink.

By having the f2.8 over the entire zoom range, you don't have to worry about the exposure differences when you zoom in and out. If you're using a 3.5-5.6 lens for example, you or your camera have to take the difference into account as you zoom. Many arenas aren't that bright and you need as big an opening as you can get to get a good exposure. Otherwise, you have to start sacrificing shutter speed and or ISO which may result in blurred or grainy images.

In the case of Canon, you want an L series lens which gives you the big, constant aperature, great optical quality and ultrasonic (fast) focusing . I can't afford the $2500 dollars for the 70-200 so I rent it when I need it. It only costs me $50 to rent from Friday evening to Monday morning. When I don't rent the fancy lens, I still get by with a cheap lens but you really notice the difference in sharpness, particularly if you do any cropping and zooming in post-production.


I'm a wimp and I find that holding a big lens for several hours is really difficult so I have tried using a tripod and a mono-pod. The tri-pod is really not practical as it's difficult to compose a good shot as the skaters move around the ice. The mono-pod is a little more practical and perhaps with practice might be the ideal solution but for my last shoot, I hand-held the camera for three hours and my arms were tired but the results were good.

That's all I've got to say about photographing figure skaters for the moment. I'd welcome other people's comments about their experiences and any advice they'd care to share.




# Garth Scholten 2012-12-22 19:36
Good article. I also shoot a lot of figure skating with both the 60D and the 7D. My main lens is the 70-200 f2.8L II. My experiences mirror many of yours. My tips:

Keep the stabilizer on and set it to mode 2 (panning) -- even if using a monopod and shooting at 1/500. I once thought the monopod was unnecessary with fast shutter speeds, but every little bit to minimize camera movement helps sharpen the image. There is no benefit in turning the stabilizer off.

I generally don't trust auto exposure. This may vary with the rink, but for non-ice show events, when all the lights are on, lighting is generally consistent throughout the rink. Pending lighting, I'll set the ISO from 1600 to 3200 so I can use shutter speeds around 1/500. Aperture is fixed at 2.8.
# Garth Scholten 2012-12-22 19:43

During ice shows with colored spot lights, I always shoot RAW. During exhibitions and competitions, when all lights are on, I'll use custom white balance off the white boards. (At our home rink, white florescence works just as well.) I do find that I shoot mostly JPEG in these situations to maximize the buffer performance. Whether it's a spin or a jump, timing is everything, but I still burst a few here and there. Unfortunately, the 60D buffer fills quick in RAW mode, hence the need for shooting JPEGS. If shooting JPEGs, it's better to get white balance correct in camera than in post.

When shooting at 3200, it can help to overexpose 1/3 stop, as long as you don't blow out the highlights. This makes it easier to cleanup the noise in post using Lightroom 4 or Noise Ninja.

For what it's worth, you can get sharper and cleaner images from shooting RAW than from shooting JPEGs. But, if shooting for the club and capturing 1,000-2,000 images per event, the post work in RAW becomes time consuming (not to mention the drive space).
# Garth Scholten 2012-12-22 19:44

Your comments on photographing jumps is spot on. The jump always looks best in motion. Most of the moments that you capture find the skater in less than a flattering position. It is truly a stroke of fortune to catch that "Olympic moment" at the apex of the jump with the skater facing you and their arms and legs together. Spins are a little easier since you have more revolutions to choose the moment.

Some of the best shots come from spirals, lunges, and split jumps. While I shoot vertical most of the time, my challenge is rotating and framing to landscape to best capture these moments. You can simply crop the vertical image, but if you capture in landscape, you get the most out of those 18 megapixels.