I’ve shot literally thousands of images at my kids sports events over the years and I think that I've got some tips that other parents and photographers might find useful.
Get Inside the Fence
Shooting through the typical chain-link fences at baseball games in almost all cases does nothing for your photography. Don't be shy but don't be dumb. If you are shooting a baseball game then stand inside the fence but far enough down the base line where the ball is unlikely to come your way. Use a long lens to get the action up close.
If you have to shoot through or around the fence then get the lens really close up so that the fence does not become part of the photograph. I find that I can get my 50mm fixed focal length lens to shoot through a chain-link fence to get pretty good shots of the batters. Examine the fence. If you look closely sometimes you can find one hole that it stretched out slightly. If you look where they attached the fence to the poles, sometimes the holes are stretched just enough to not be in your way. You might have to hold the camera upside down or at some other strange angle. The 50mm 1.8 lens has the added benefit of being really fast. So, this is great for night games.
Anticipate What's Going to Happen
For example, if there is just a runner on first base and someone is up to bat then you know that it is likely that they are going to try and steal second base. Watch the coaches to see what signals they are giving the batters. If this is your first time shooting this team then you can sometimes learn what the signals are by listening to the coaches instruct the kids before the game. You can also just ask one of the coaches and they’ll just tell you if you are shooting their team.
If there is a batter up and bases loaded then you can focus on home plate and get both the batter and the play at home plate. You could have focused on first base but, the real excitement is watching the player get to home plate.
Sometimes the excitement or interesting moment isn’t out on the playing field at all. It could be in the dugout, or maybe a coach teaching or practicing with a player outside the fence. The warm-ups can also be interesting because the fact of the matter is that not everyone gets to touch the ball during the game. But, if you can get a few shots of these players throwing the ball during practice then it makes the whole series of photos more interesting.
The Autofocus Lock Button is Your Friend
Modern cameras all have an autofocus feature. But, this takes a fraction of a second or possibly a whole second to lock on if all you are doing is pressing the shutter button when you want to capture the image. That's a very long time in a sports event. The better thing to do is to focus on something near where you anticipate your next shot. So, if you plan on getting the play at home plate then focus on home plate itself. Get the camera to beep at you that it has the focus and exposure correct then hold the AE button down. This way when you press the shutter button then it will more or less be instantaneous. If you have the camera set to take multiple exposures then it will just fire away like a machine gun. Some point and shoot cameras let you do this by just holding the shutter button half-way down then you just have to hold it there. I find myself rocking back and forth between my pointer finger on the shutter and my thumb on the AE lock button the whole game. You may want to avoid using the automatic exposure setting doing this because the bases are normally bright white whereas nothing else in the photo will be causing for some under exposure.
You don't want to become part of the game yourself. If you are not invisible for the umpires then you run the risk of getting tossed outside the fence. More importantly, it could be dangerous for the kids if you temporarily blind them and then they end up getting hit by a ball or bat or a runner runs into them. You will probably be too far away for the flash to do much anyway.
Capture the Celebrations
I’ve seen other parent photographers make what I consider to be a mistake by getting so caught up in the celebration of a win or a home run that they forget to press the shutter button. It’s completely understandable but, if you are trying to capture images of the event then you have to use some discipline. So, snap a few shots then join in the fun yourself. It just takes a fraction of a second to snap the photo. So, you won’t miss much then you’ll have images to remind you of that moment forever.
Take a picture of the score board once in a while so that people can put the images in context of what is happening. Or don’t. I’ve shot games and walked away with a whole series of really flattering shots of the kids making great plays and hitting the ball, etc… Truth be told, they might have lost that game miserably. The casual observer would have no way of knowing just by looking at a series of pictures. It’s up to the photographer. If you do take photos of the scoreboard now and again and you don’t find them useful later then you can always trash them or choose not to show them on your photo sharing web site or however you choose to show them. But, if you don’t take the photo then the moment is lost.
Focus on the crowd once in a while as well
The parents, siblings and visitors are as much a part of the event as the kids playing are. Including a few shots of the other people can be interesting and also anchors a sense of time and place of the game.
Use a Tripod or Monopod
There is enough camera shaking going on already around because you’ll be doing a lot of quick moving around. You’ll need all the help you can get. VR lenses are also very useful especially as the sun goes down and the shutter speeds get longer. You tend to get softer focus images and completely blurry images. If you try to hand hold the camera then that worsens the problem. You’ll also likely be using longer lenses which are usually a lot heavier. Your arm is going to get tired which means that you won’t be as steady as you could be and you will not have your lens ready to go which means that you are probably going to miss more shots.
Shoot in JPEG. Most DSLR cameras and a couple of point and shoot cameras have a setting to choose which computer file format that you want to record the images. I almost always shoot in raw image format for other types of photography other than sports. In the case of Nikon this is the NEF format. The raw image files save all of the information about the photograph as opposed to JPEG which is the raw information compressed down into a smaller file size. Having the extra information captured in the raw format is better for post production purposes especially if you need to do some color correction but, because the files are so much larger, it takes the cameral an extra fraction of a second to record the data to the media, either a CF or SD card in most cases. This extra time might be the difference between being able to shoot a burst of three or seven shots. If someone is sliding into home plate then you might miss the part where the runner actually touches the plate or when the catcher’s glove comes down with the ball, etc… I find that the time delay isn’t worth it. You can also fit a lot more JPEG files on a card than you can raw files.
Get it Right in the Camera
It is easy now days to rely on post-processing software to correct mediocre images and make them acceptable. But, this takes time. If you can do things like use the color correction options in the camera to avoid having to do that in post production then you can save yourself a lot of time. Sometimes using the shady day setting even on a bright sunny day will punch up the color saturation and make the images bolder.
Discard Images Aggressively in Post-production
It is not unusual for me to shoot over 300 exposures during an hour long game. One of the toughest post processing events is to be brutal about getting rid of the trash. If it is out of focus then it is pretty much trash. If the players faces are all turned away then it's also probably not important, etc...
Use a Photo Sharing Site
If you’ve ever tried to email images then you’ve no doubt run into all kinds of headaches because of spam filters, misspelled email addresses, email systems that won’t accept large files sizes or filters attachments out altogether, etc… I use snapfish.com just because I’ve been using them for a long time and you can also order prints right from their site. There a lots of others. Flickr.com and google’s picasa web albums are among the more popular. You can set up the images to be viewed by invitation only if you want. If you have photographed children especially then using the privacy function on the web sites is probably a good idea.