An Idiot's Guide to Table Tennis Photography

01
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What Type of Camera Should You Use?

Photo of Andrei Makowski
Decisions, decisions... Photo of Andrei Makowski. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Written by a photographic idiot for smart people...

This is not your typical guide to shooting table tennis action photographs - I don't know very much about cameras so I'd feel ridiculous trying to give in depth advice on what camera to buy, what lens to use, what shutter setting is best and so on. Instead, I'll focus(!) on explaining how a camera novice like myself can still manage to take some decent table tennis photographs despite knowing very little about using a camera properly. So it's an Idiot's Guide to Table Tennis Photography, written by an actual idiot when it comes to using the camera!

Before purchasing my camera, I decided on using a digital type rather than a film type for 2 reasons:

  1. I was taking pictures for use on the Web, so digital photographs would be easier for me to process on my own computer; and
  2. I figured that most of the photos I took would be unusable, so going digital would allow me to take lots of extra photos in order to get a few decent ones, without having to worry about the expense of wasting film.
Both of these reasons turned out to be correct - especially the second one!

Being a photographic novice, I didn't want to spend a fortune on an expensive digital camera whose extra features I would never use, so I was looking for a good entry level camera. I thought a SLR camera might be better than a point and shoot camera, because I could then change the lens easily if I needed another lens for different lighting conditions - since I already knew that lighting varies tremendously depending on what location you are playing at!

With a little research, I found a reasonably priced entry level SLR that was highly recommended on the Web - a Canon 350D (bear in mind that this was back in 2006) – it takes 8 megapixel photos in max quality mode – around 3000x2000 pixels or so. It came in a kit with a lens that was suitable for general photography in good lighting conditions, but was woefully inadequate for table tennis action shots, as I soon found out (it was an 18-55mm f/3.5 - 5.5 or so). Oops - time for a new lens already!

Photograph note – this type of serving picture is useful when you have a camera that is struggling to get a decent still image of the players in mid stroke. By taking pictures of the player serving, you can usually get a good picture of the player before he begins the serving action, and another when he completes his serve. And as is the case here, you can sometimes catch the player when he pauses at the end of his backswing.

02
of 14

Type of Lens

Photo of Nadine Bollmeier
Photo of Nadine Bollmeier. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

The lens that came with my camera didn't have the ability to get enough light at fast shutter speeds, so my attempts to take action photos were either crisp but virtually black, or bright but very blurry. I needed a lens that could shoot fast enough to capture a table tennis player in mid stroke in less than perfect lighting (without a flash!), but still keep the picture bright. The ability to zoom the camera in would be a nice bonus as well.

Unfortunately, to get a fast zoomable lens would cost around $2000-3000 - we are talking pro type lenses here. Yikes! I didn't want to spend that sort of money on something I was only doing for fun. At the price I was willing to pay, I had two choices - zoomable but slow, or fast but with no zoom. Which to choose?

I figured that since most of my photographs would be taken in tournaments that I was competing in, I should have no problem getting fairly close to the action, so I could live without a zoom. And since a slow lens would be useless in getting crisp, bright shots anyway, I really had only one choice, a fast, unzoomable lens. Fortunately, there was a good choice - a 50mm, f/1.8 lens, for around $150 US. A 50mm lens will essentially give you a photograph with no zooming in or out, which means I would need to be fairly close to the action. This lens has turned out to be great value for money - it is what I used to take all of my table tennis photos.

So that is my entire table tennis photographic kit - an entry level SLR with a $150 fast lens. Not exactly a ton of gear compared to the professionals or other more experienced table tennis photographers such as Gerry Chua, but it gets the job done for me, as you'll see in the photos accompanying this article.

Photograph note - this is a fairly typical photo for a novice photographer like myself. I'm using the automatic sports setting in burst mode, shooting around 3 shots per second. At the time, I was attempting to track Nadine's movement around the court, and as you can see I've cut her left foot off a little due to my not quite keeping up with her movement towards me. The camera does a pretty good job of automatically adjusting the focus provided I keep Nadine in the center of the frame. The lighting in this hall is not all that wonderful, so the camera has dropped the shutter speed down a bit, causing some blurring here and there. But this type of photo is fine for my purposes

03
of 14

Using the Camera

Photo of Scott Houston
Photo of Scott Houston. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Camera Settings

An experienced photographer could probably tell you all the best settings for taking table tennis action shots. About all I really know is that for a decent photo with little or no blurring of the bat, I need to get a shutter speed of around 1/125th of a second or faster. Fortunately, the automatic sports mode of the camera can achieve that for me almost all of the time with no effort on my part, so I leave the camera in this mode for all my table tennis photos. That way, the camera can work out what the best setting is for the lighting available, and I just point and shoot, which is all I really want to do in the first place!

I suppose I could try to take the time to learn how to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, lighting balance etc manually for the lighting available, but I'm lazy and since I generally just want to pull out the camera and start shooting, automatic mode works fine for me. And unless you are trying to take professional quality photos, I dare say it will work just fine for you too!

Holding the Camera

I use the typical method recommended on the Internet of holding the camera with the left hand under the camera, and with my left elbow tucked into my torso for stability. The right hand is then free to press the shutter button. A tripod or monopod (a monopod is basically a single stick with a device on the end to attach the camera, it's easier to carry out and operate in a flash(!) than a tripod) would allow me to keep the camera very still, but since I am also carrying around a video camera and its tripod when I travel, I don't want the extra baggage. Again, I think just holding it properly works pretty well in 99% of situations for me.

Photograph Note - This is one of my better efforts – the player (Scott Houston) is in good focus with just a little blurring around the racket hand and ball. I kind of like a little blurring effect in my pictures – to me it gives the photo a feeling of motion, where some photos that have no blurring at all can seem a little static. But that's just me. I'm standing in the adjacent court, so I'm only around 8 yards away at a guess. It's just as well I used a horizontal shot, because I doubt I'd get all of Scott in the frame of a vertical picture.

04
of 14

Don't Distract the Players

Photo of Ivy Wang
Photo of Ivy Wang. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Since I am using a 50mm lens, I need to get fairly close to the action if I want to have a photo where the player takes up most of the frame. I'm talking within 8 yards or so. If I'm willing to crop the photo later on to focus in on the player, then I can be further away. But as a regular player and familiar figure with my video camera and digital camera at the Australian Open, I usually have no problem getting permission to use empty adjacent courts to get in close.

Dual Distractions

There are two possible distractons to be aware of when you are that near the players - motor noise from the camera, and any sudden movement that you make.

I've only had a problem with the motor noise once, and that was because it was the final stages of the O/30 Men's final, with no other matches being played in the hall, and the crowd had gone quiet, being absorbed in the match. Usually you can't hear the motor noise over the background hum in the playing hall.

The other thing to avoid is being a distraction to the players with your movements around the court while you shoot. While players are used to having other people mill around their court when they are playing, there is something about someone pointing a camera in their direction which can be a little off putting at times. The most dangerous time for this is as the server is about to start his service motion, especially if the player you are going to take a photo of is facing you directly. If you move suddenly at this point, for example to go to a better location or to bring the camera up to eye level to snap off a shot, you are likely to distract that player with the sudden movement.

I've found it best to pick a location between rallies, choose my target player, then bring the camera up to my ready position and stand still well before the server prepares to serve. That way I don't have to make any sudden movement as the server begins his action, and once the rally begins the players will no longer notice if I'm turning the camera a little to follow the action. Using this method, I haven't had any complaints about taking photographs since I started shooting in 2006, so I think it works pretty well.

Photograph Note – as you can see here, my camera position is directly in front of Ivy when she is serving. By standing still and being in position to shoot before she begins her service motion, I don't risk distracting her with sudden movements in her field of vision.

05
of 14

Positioning Yourself for Perfect Ping-Pong Photos

Photo of Kyle Davis
Photo of Kyle Davis. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

The question of where to stand to get the best photos does have not a cut and dried answer. It depends on a number of things, such as what type of lens you have, what areas around the court you have available to position yourself, whether the player is left or right handed, the state of the match, and what type of photograph you are trying to get.

Being perpendicular to the endline of the server is great for getting photos of forehand pendulum serves and for focusing on the server, but sometimes you'll get a distracting background with other players directly behind the server, such as in the accompanying photograph. Other benefits of this position is that if you are close to the player, you can get a nice full height photo of the whole player. But if you are further back, you will find the barriers on the court cutting off the legs and feet of the player to a certain extent. And being directly in front of the server when he performs a pendulum serve, you also have to take extra care not to distract him.

It's quite a good angle for capturing the player returning serve as well, giving you a nice side view of the player. In this case I'd use the camera in normal horizontal mode to try to capture the player receiving a short serve – since he will be stretched out over the table, and in vertical mode when trying to get a shot of the player receiving a long serve – since he will be in a more compact position.

Also, because you are so close to the player, it's a bit tougher to keep track of him with the camera if you want to keep shooting during the rally. You can't really see what the opponent is doing, so all you can do is try to read from the player's body language where he will go next, so sometimes you will find yourself half a step behind the action as you try to keep up. If you want a good mid rally shot, you might be better off starting with the camera's view positioned in mid court, and then waiting for the player to come into your field of vision. I prefer to chase the player myself – I find I can usually read the player well enough to keep up most of the time.

Photograph Note – notice how close I came to chopping off Kyle's hand in the photo. This is a downside of taking photos with the 50mm lens in vertical mode - when you are close enough to get the player in the full frame, you have to be careful that his extremities don't go out of the relatively narrow photo width when he swings.

06
of 14

Positioning Yourself - Part 2 - Three Quarters Angle

Photo of Andrei Makowski
Photo of Andrei Makowski. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

The three quarters angle can give you quite a nice shot as well, as shown in the accompanying photograph. In this photo I'm standing roughly in line with the endline of the other player.

Things to note about this positioning:

  • There's much less risk of distracting either player, since generally neither will be looking at you at the beginning of the point, and you are out of the player's direct line of focus once the point begins.
  • If you are on the same side of the court as the umpire, you may get the umpire blocking your field of view on certain strokes. Although you can also manage to get the score into the photo as in this case, which can be a nice touch at times, and gives more of a match in progress feel.
  • You may get some background crowd distraction, as in the photo above.
  • It's easier to get the whole player into the frame, but you may find the table blocking the legs of the player as well.
  • With a 50mm camera, you are a bit far away to get the player in the full frame for a vertical mode shot. No problems with a telephoto zoom lens of course.
  • Because you are a bit further away from the player, it's easier to track him with the camera during the rally, to keep on shooting.
  • Again, you won't really be aware of what the opponent is doing.
  • This position is more or less exactly the same as the previous position, except that you are now photographing the other player. So you can switch between the two perspectives without having to move at all, which is handy and means that you are less of a distraction to everybody.
Photograph Note – although I like this shot, you can see that I've got the camera positioned too high relative to Andrei - although it does avoid cutting off the head of the spectator standing up in the background! This was one of the first shots I took from this angle during the match, and I was still finding the correct height to frame Andrei properly. So this shot would be fine for a photo I was willing to crop later, but not so good if I wanted to use the whole photo to print a poster.
07
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Positioning Yourself - Part 3 - Behind the Player

Photo of David Powell
Photo of David Powell. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

I'm standing outside the court behind David Powell for this photograph, so I'm probably around 15-20 yards or more away from the table itself.

Things to note about this positioning:

  • It's a good angle for getting both players into the shot at the same time. With luck you can sometimes even get the score and the umpire.
  • With a 50mm lens, it's not so great for getting the player to take up the full frame, unless he ends up far away from the table, near you. It would be fine for a zoom lens of course.
  • The risk of distracting either player is minimized, since you are basically part of the background from this position. One thing to watch is if you have one of those point and shoot cameras that shine a red light before taking a photo - even if you are sitting in the stands you'd be surprised how noticeable that is for the player facing the camera. Maybe you could put a little black duct tape or something over the red light.
  • With a 50mm lens, you are a bit far away to get good shots of the player on the other side of the table, and you are behind the player nearest to you. So this is generally only a good angle for when you want a back view of the player, or when you are hoping to catch a player turning around and interacting with his teammates or the crowd, just as David is here.
  • Because you are further away, you may have to be careful about the court barriers cutting off the lower part of the photo. You would want to be as close to the barriers as possible, so that you are looking over them into the court.
  • But if you do stand up close to the barriers to take shots, you may be unpopular with spectators seated behind you, whose view of the match you are blocking. If this is the case, try not to stay in one location for too long.
  • Depending on the height of the lights, you may need to careful about getting light from the courts behind the players into the shot.
Photograph Note - this is a good example of the type of photo I get when I have to shoot from one end of the court with my 50mm lens, instead of to the side of the court. With an 8 megapixel camera, it would be easy to crop the photo to focus on David if I wanted to, and I would still have a picture that would be just fine for use on the Web. But it wouldn't be suitable for making a poster sized photo.
08
of 14

A Few Quick Tips

Photo of Chamara Fernando celebrating
Photo of Chamara Fernando celebrating. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the remainder of this Guide, I'll just mention a few quick tips that I've picked up along the way by trial and error, which might save you some time and aggravation down the track.

  • When taking photos in a tournament, get permission from the tournament organizers or referee first. This can save you a lot of embarrassment later on, so I always do a quick courtesy check with the officials before a tournament starts.
  • You might also want to get permission from the players you are going to photograph first, but this may not always be possible (for example, a match may be in progress when you arrive at the court). This is not something I normally bother with, but since I've been videotaping and taking photos at the Australian Open since 2004 (as well as competing), I think most of the players and officials are familiar with me wandering around taking shots of them.
  • Photographing children is kind of a touchy subject these days. It's probably a good idea to check with the parents first, if you can. Everybody is concerned about people wandering around with cameras taking videos or photos of kids - and with good reason. I'm personally only really interested in the top players competing at the Australian Open, so I don't really seem to take many photographs or videos of juniors.
  • Pick up a few digital memory cards - that way you can take photos to your heart's content, throw out 80% of your dud shots, and still get a lot of decent pictures. I also bring a laptop so I can dump the contents of the memory card on the laptop, view the shots, and see whether I have got a usable shot of that player or not.
  • A fast recharger and spare battery is a must.
Photograph Note – I want to to capture the moment, not become part of it or intrude on the players. So when taking candid shots, I try to stay close enough to get a good photo, but not intruding on anyone's personal space. In the above picture the Victorian team were celebrating winning the Teams Competition, so I stayed back a bit so they could enjoy the moment without noticing me - I figured I could always crop the shot later if I needed to. Staying out of people's direct perception also helps give a nice unposed quality to these type of photos.
09
of 14

Candid Photos

Photo of Shane Laugesen and team mates
Photo of Shane Laugesen and team mates. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

This is just a nice candid shot of Shane Laugesen celebrating a tough win with his teammates. I didn't want to intrude on their moment, so I kept my distance and shot over the head of one of the team mates instead. To me, this gives the shot a nice feel of the whole team being involved, while still concentrating on Shane. A telephoto lens in wide angle mode would have been nice to capture the teammate on the left, but you take what you can get! I liked the flags in the background too, but that was just an accident really.

10
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Candid Photos 2 - Coaching Time-Out

Photo of Igor Klaf
Photo of Igor Klaf. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

This is a photo of Igor Klaf calling a time-out at a crucial stage for his player. I like the backdrop of spectators too, it kind of feels tense to me. I don't think this would have worked as well in a vertical mode. But it shows that you can sometimes get a dramatic table tennis photo without actually having to have an table tennis player in it!

11
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Patience is a Virtue

Photo of table tennis umpire
Photo of table tennis umpire. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

This was a bit of a frustrating shot to set up, but worth it in the end. I got the idea of taking a back view of the umpire holding up a time-out card first, and then planned to take it on a court nearest the wall, so that there would be a less distracting background. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to come up, which took a lot longer than I thought - I guess real Aussies don't call time-outs! But in the end it provided another unique photo of the middle of the action but without a player in sight. These days I try to keep a lookout for different perspectives and occurrences that happen during a tournament, rather than just focusing on the players on the court.

12
of 14

Pay Attention to the Match

Photo of Justin Han
Photo of Justin Han. © Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

This is definitely a favorite picture of mine, and is a good example of paying attention to what is happening in the match in order to catch a dramatic photo.

This match was the semifinals of the 2008 Australian Open, in which Justin Han (pictured) was playing against Shibaji Datta. After a good start by Justin, Shibaji was starting to get on top in the final stages of the match, and Justin was getting frustrated. This was starting to show up in his on-court demeanor and his reactions when losing a point, so I figured that there would be a good chance that Justin might do something interesting if he lost an important point. On the other hand, Shibaji was being quite cool and collected, so it didn't look like he would be doing anything too noteworthy if he won a good point. So I thought I would stick with Justin for a while, since there seemed to be a better chance that he might do something worth capturing in a photo.

And so it proved, with Shibaji winning a big point to virtually cement the win, and Justin lifting his leg high in the air, looking like he was going to bring it crashing down onto the table. In the end, he changed his mind and stamped on the floor, but it still provided a picture that you don't see every day!

13
of 14

Strange Expressions

Photo of David Zalcberg
Photo of David Zalcberg. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

During a match, table tennis players are focused on winning, not on looking pretty - well, most of us are anyway! This can sometimes mean that you'll end up with a photo or two capturing a player in a less that picturesque moment, such as this photo of David Zalcberg.

The question then arises - should you display this photo or not?

It's a tough question to answer - and from my point of view depends on:

  • How well I know the player - good mates are fair game - strangers are less so.
  • How awful the facial expression is - a grimace of concentration is one thing, looking like the elephant man on a bad day is quite another.
  • Is it a guy or a girl? I'm a bit old fashioned, but I'm not really a fan of showing ladies in an unattractive moment - it makes me wince a bit. Whereas a similar picture of a guy makes me chuckle.
  • What type of personality the player has. In this case, David Zalcberg (the player pictured) has a good sense of humor and is a bit of a character in Australian table tennis, so I find it hard to believe he'd take offence at being caught it a less than perfect moment.
  • Whether I would mind if it was me in the photo. Fortunately, I'm usually behind the camera, but if I look at a photo and think to myself - "No way would I want a picture like this of me going around the Internet", then I keep the photo to myself. (No, I don't delete it - how could I blackmail people otherwise?) ;)
14
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Winners are Grinners

Photo of David Zalcberg
Photo of David Zalcberg. © 2008 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

OK, so after that less than flattering picture of David, I thought I'd better finish with a more attractive shot, before David hunts me down.

Seriously though, if you are hoping to get a good player reaction photo, look out for crucial times in the match. In this particular case, David was playing in an important teams match which was best of 5, and was 10-8 up with two match points. Knowing David to be fairly expressive on the court, I thought he would be likely to give a big cheer if he got the win. So I tracked David throughout the rally, waiting for the winning shot, and then starting shooting in burst mode as David celebrated, figuring I'd be likely to get at least one good photo out of the 5-6 that I took. And so it proved, with this photo capturing David in full song. I hoped to have the score in the left of the photo, which turned out as planned, but the ball just showing low down on the wrong side of the net, and capturing the umpire turning the winning score over was just a nice bit of luck.

Conclusion

Before I give myself too much of a swelled head, I'll just finish by saying that even now I still take many more useless photos than good ones. I've learnt a little about positioning myself and reading the play in order to get better action shots, but I'm still pretty poor at taking candid photos between rallies and off the court - often by the time I realize that something would make a good photograph it's too late and the moment is gone. When shooting, I should really carry my camera around with the lens cap off and ready to go. Be prepared!

One final tip - read the manual that comes with your camera - it wasn't until a year down the track that I read that the automatic focus in sports mode only works properly when you place one of the automatic focus points that are on the viewfinder onto the player, and then half press the shutter button to set the focus. Go figure. That cut the number of out of focus photos I took in half!

Oh, and take lots of photos - the more you take, the better your chances of taking a great one - and nobody has to know about the other 200 terrible ones you shot! But hopefully this little guide will help you take a few more good ones and a few less bad ones along the way. Happy shooting!

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Letts, Greg. "An Idiot's Guide to Table Tennis Photography." ThoughtCo, Jan. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/an-idiots-guide-to-table-tennis-photography-4122657. Letts, Greg. (2017, January 13). An Idiot's Guide to Table Tennis Photography. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/an-idiots-guide-to-table-tennis-photography-4122657 Letts, Greg. "An Idiot's Guide to Table Tennis Photography." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/an-idiots-guide-to-table-tennis-photography-4122657 (accessed November 17, 2017).