In this article, I’ll give you some tips for editing hockey photos using Lightroom. If you’re a hockey mom or dad, read on to make the photos of your kid on the ice stand out.
Shooting hockey is hard
Have you ever tried to photograph lightning?
Sometimes that’s what it feels like when taking pictures at a hockey game. Every play is a blur. You can feel the game’s speed and intensity right until the final whistle. Emotion and sweat mix together on the faces of players who battle and fight for every inch, as the arena shakes with a thunderous ovation from the spectators.
In short, it’s a whole lot of fun to capture through a camera. But after the crowds are gone and your ears have stopped ringing, it’s time to head home, load your images up on the computer and apply your special brand of editing.
Editing hockey photos can be tricky too
Regardless of what camera you use, all hockey images will benefit from some attention in Adobe Lightroom before you share them on social media or in a local publication. And despite the thrills of the sport, the arena is a tough place for a photographer. You have to deal with low or inconsistent light, high ISO settings and low shutter speeds, scuffed up glass and more.
Learning the technique to get decent shots in the first place is half the battle — but that’s a story for another time. Today, it’s time to head into the editing room.
Note that even though this guide specifically addresses features in Adobe Lightroom, the same concepts can be used in any photo editing program with similar controls.
Shoot in RAW
First off, if you’re serious about getting the best hockey pictures possible then it’s a good idea to shoot in RAW. Sure, file sizes are a lot larger, but this is because more data is preserved for each shot. When you’re editing, you’ll be thankful for all the extra leeway you can get with a RAW file over a JPG.
That’s not to say that you’re doomed if you shoot JPG. It just means you’ll need to be extra careful getting the settings right in the camera since there won’t be nearly as much flexibility when editing later. The choice is yours.
Culling is the process of removing and maybe also deleting photos that simply don’t make the cut.
Not every image is a keeper. Especially in sports photography, you’re going to get images that are out of focus, poorly composed or simply not very interesting. If your goal is to edit every single image you take, you’re going to go crazy.
Choose the best of the best to focus your time and energy on, and then start editing those.
Cropping and Straightening
It’s rare to nail the best possible composition right in your camera. Sure, it happens from time to time, but it’s more likely that your pictures will benefit from a bit of cropping and straightening.
Consider what’s important in the frame. You want to have a nice balanced composition that fills the image. Think in terms of simplicity: if you crop out a stick or skate that appears in the corner of the image it will help your final picture feel more clean and professional.
It might not be possible to do a tight crop of a shot and maintain quality, depending on how your camera handles high ISO settings. If you find that your images are always just a little too zoomed out, remember that for next time you photograph a game.
Straightening out your images is a big help as well. As you track the play through your camera, it’s easy to start tilting the camera.
There are times when a crazy tilt gives a sense of action and energy to a picture — but often it just looks like the players are about to tumble out of one side of the image.
Take the time to straighten your pictures and they’ll look much more professional and balanced.
Understanding White Balance
Cameras interpret color differently than our eyes do. Under tricky lighting conditions, cameras don’t always capture an accurate representation of color.
Correcting the White Balance is an important part of your final edit since it’s hard to appreciate an image that looks too blue or too yellow. If you shoot in RAW, you can adjust the White Balance without losing any image quality. With JPG, you can still make minor adjustments but don’t count on being able to save many images.
If you have a shot that needs to be fixed, the eyedropper tool can be useful for getting you fairly close to the mark. Click on something in the shot that is a neutral color, such as the boards, and then adjust from there. Pay close attention to skin tones and always remember that the ice should be white.
Finding the right White Balance can be tricky, especially since different display screens can have subtle variances. But with a bit of practice, correcting the White Balance in your shots will become a piece of cake.
Contrast, Shadows, Blacks and Dehaze
Your approach with editing is going to be very different depending on whether or not you have to shoot through the glass. In the NHL, photographers either shot through a small hole in the corners or from higher angles where they can see above the glass. But you may not have that luxury.
Shooting through thick glass usually robs a picture of a lot of its contrast. Contrast plays an important role in giving an image depth and making it “pop”. So you’ll need to add that back in the final edit.
Lightroom offers a couple of sliders that can manage this.
- Contrast: This slider will make dark mid-tones darker and light mid-tones lighter. When used in moderation it can make a picture appear richer, but be careful not to overdo it and create surreal tones.
- Blacks: This slider influences the darkest tones of the image. This can be useful for fixing hockey pants, sticks and skates so that they are black again, rather than a faded dark grey.
- Shadows: This slider affects the mid to dark tones of the image. Typically this slider plays a big role in determining the brightness of the crowd and the players’ faces.
- Dehaze: Introduced only a few years back, the Dehaze slider tries to interpret how light has been lost and scattered in the image. It works well with foggy images and is actually a good fit when shooting through hockey glass as well.
If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to shoot without a pane of glass between you and the players, these contrast sliders will still be an important part of your final edit.
There is no “right” amount of contrast to use; just adjust the slider to taste and to make sure the final image is full and rich.
Keep your Whites White
The ice at a hockey rink is white. That means that it should be white in your final image as well. This can be a tricky process, especially since cameras don’t “see” the same way that your eyes do.
If you overexpose an image, the ice might turn into a uniform blob of white. If you underexposure, the ice becomes a murky gray. It’s a delicate balancing act.
Once again, shooting in RAW gives you a bit of leeway. With RAW you can get good results correcting the exposure by plus or minus two stops. With JPG, a missed exposure could mean that the picture needs to go into the trash.
When editing, you’ll want to pay attention to your histogram and clipping warnings. If the ice is overexposed, it will show as a line right up against the right side of your histogram. Your final image should have bright ice but without clipping.
The histogram of a typical hockey image (above). The mountain far to the right is the white of the ice. If it was all the way to the right, we’d start losing detail in the highlights.
In Lightroom, you can adjust the overall image with the exposure slider, or you can target the ice surface more precisely by adjusting the Highlights or Whites sliders.
Start by adjusting the “Whites” slider, as this controls the maximum brightest point of the image. Once this is set, you can also adjust the “Highlights” slider, which affects a range of the brightest tones.
The goal should be to bring out a bit of the texture in the ice made of snow and grooves carved into the surface.
Brushes, Graduated Filters & Other Adjustments
Now let’s dig into some of the incredible tools in Adobe Lightroom. This is the point where your friends will wonder what kind of wizardry you are conjuring up to make your pictures look so good.
Adjustment brushes give you pinpoint control over selected areas of a picture. This is perfect for when you’ve got your whole image to a good point, but there are just a few more details that you can’t let slide.
Brushes can be used to apply any of Lightroom’s editing features. In the example below, I can use a brush to brighten up one of the players, who was a bit too dark in the finished image.
Above are the settings applied to the brush. We’re raising the shadows to make the player brighter, but also adding contrast so that the adjustment doesn’t look unnatural.
Graduated Filters are fantastic for tackling uneven light or color shifts. If you’re a photographer in the big leagues, chances are you’ll be shooting at arenas with top-of-the-line lighting. But most of us aren’t there yet.
You’re probably more familiar with an old rink that has flickering lights, sections of the ice that are darker, or even the dreaded mixture of color temperatures. Find yourself in this situation and it’s going to take some fancy footwork to save your image.
The image below stood out for its strong composition and a good view of the players’ faces, but it doesn’t get much worse than the uneven light. No fear, Lightroom to the rescue!
The settings on the filter (above). We’re giving it a bump in exposure, and some heavy White Balance corrections.
Lastly, Lightroom also offers a Radial Filter, which can be used to create effects similar to a vignette. This is a useful tool for subtly drawing attention to a certain player.
Saturation, Vibrance & HSL
Hockey sweaters are typically bright and vibrant with color. However, high ISOs, poor lighting, and dirty glass can often cause those colors to appear faded and drab in your image.
The Vibrance and Saturation sliders play an important role in bringing your image back to life with color.
For more precise control over colors, you can also turn to the HSL sliders. HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, Luminance, and these sliders allow you to modify an individual color in the image.
Is the home team wearing yellow? You can make their shirt colors “pop” by adding a saturation boost in the yellow channel but be careful not to ruin the balance in the rest of the image.
If you’re looking for a more advanced application of the HSL sliders, try using them to eliminate unwanted colors from your image.
The image below is suffering from being a bit too colorful. All the spectators in the back, plus the yellow on the goaltender’s glove don’t really suit the color palette.
Fortunately, we can go in and start reducing the saturation of those colors that don’t fit in the image, giving a more professional and cohesive final shot.
The HSL sliders are also an invaluable tool for controlling unwanted color casts in your final image. If you can’t quite seem to find the right White Balance and there’s an overly blue or yellow tone lingering in your image, you can reduce the saturation for that specific color.
This might be necessary when shooting in arenas that have uneven lighting or that use a variety of types of light.
Hockey isn’t a soft game. Play can get rough and gritty in a hurry — and you may want to try to capture a flavor of that in your edit. For this, you can turn to the Clarity slider.
The Clarity slider controls edge contrast. Using a pinch of Clarity can really help with bringing out textures and lend a gritty feel to the image.
Be aware of how stylized you want your image. If you’re trying to edit the image to reflect reality, the Clarity slider should be used in moderation. But if you’re looking to let loose and create a bold, loud image, the Clarity slider can quickly become your best friend.
Sharpening & Noise Reduction
We’re getting close to the finished product! The combination of fast-paced action and high ISO speeds means that you’ll need to pay a bit of attention to sharpening and noise reduction.
While modern cameras have vastly improved how much grain is produced in high ISOs, you’ll want to add some Noise Reduction. Don’t panic about the amount of grain while viewing the image at 400% zoom. Some grain is okay — in fact, it will be barely noticeable at all when viewing the picture under normal circumstances.
Noise reduction should be beneficial to the image; if you notice that details start to lose definition, then you’ve overdone it.
Sharpening can be added according to taste as well. Oversharpening can make the image look metallic and fake, so try to find the right balance.
Export and Share!
Last but not least, click “Export” and share your shots with the world! Maybe you’ve grabbed some awesome shots for a friend or family member, or maybe you’ve set a goal to become a professional photographer for the NHL.
Either way, you’re sure to have learned a few more tricks and will be able to apply that newfound knowledge to the next game you photograph.
Good luck chasing those elusive action shots!