ELi5 How a cameraman at a sports event able to track a fast moving ball with such a great focus on it?


ELi5 How a cameraman at a sports event able to track a fast moving ball with such a great focus on it?

In: 2760

These days there’s all sorts of electronic gadgets to help with that, but in the end it comes down to practice and experience.

SOURCE: in another life I used to work with video production, and although not my main role, I was camera operator for a few years.

The viewfinder shows a different image than the camera is sending to the audience. The camera operator sees a wider field, with lines showing where the broadcast image is in the field of view. If someone misses a change in direction, the director cuts to a different camera, so you only see the times they do the right thing.

They have insane autofocus system. Any modern pro dslr or mirrorless camera can lock onto the subject and follow it, no matter the speed and or movement. It is called continuous auto focus. With the right settings. Exposure settings, the photographer can easily capture, “freeze” the action whenever it is needed

Lots of practice and many cameras. With enough skilled camera operators, someone is bound to get a good shot.

They use parfocal “box lens”. Those big, rectangular lenses are for this job. They set the focus on an object, and it stays even if they zoom in or out. This video explains it really well: https://youtu.be/RkTaMyatsTo

I work in sports. Not as a camera operator but as a Technical Director. It mostly comes down to experience and practice. But camera operators understand the sport and the body language of the players. Players movement, direction and position are just as helpful at tracking the ball as the ball itself.

It all comes down to having a parfocal lens. A parfocal lens enables the camera operator to quickly zoom in and out without losing focus. It also needs a motorized aperture and focus remote control.

[Here is a great video explaining how this is possible.](https://youtu.be/RkTaMyatsTo) There is actually more to it aside from the lens.


I have actually worked as a cameraman at hockey matches that got aired on local tv. This was over a decade ago.The way to make sure we had the tiny puck in the shot was mostly educated guesswork. The viewfinder on the camera’s we used could hardly show the tiny puck. We all wore headsets to hear the directors instructions. He assigned some camera’s an (easier) medium shot in which you have a broader view and the more experienced operators were assigned the close ups. Getting the close ups was hard. You focussed on a player that had the puck and when he swung to hit it you just guessed where it went. Sometimes you’d lose the puck entirely and then the director would instantly cut to the medium shot, allowing you to do a quick zoom out, find the puck and get a close shot again. It was hard work that required a lot of concentration and experience. Keeping a ball in focus works the same way.

I heard that the golf ball image was showing the negative on the operator’s camera meaning that it appears gray instead of white which made it easier to follow.

Beck prior to the launch of the ACC Network, I was a camera operator for a streaming service for some of North Carolina’s not revenue sports. Absolutely no experience, the producer was a complete asshole.

Baseball and softball were pretty easy because of my experience playing, based on pitch location you could pretty accurately guess where the ball would be going if it was hit. Volleyball and soccer? Absolutely impossible

There was a fascinating counter example when one of the networks end up winning a bid on a bunch of PGA (golf) tournaments even though they hadn’t covered golf in years.

Going from memory, but I think the lost the rights to broadcast a bunch of MLB (baseball) games to ESPN which was finally catching on.

The first tournament was a disaster to watch. The ball was almost never in frame and the editing was quite amateurish.

By the third event they hired/stole two cameramen from another network and had them train other cameramen. The ringers were also put on the two important holes.

So it comes down to a LOT of practice and a couple hints from experts.

I am a camera OPERATOR (we don’t say cameraman anymore in Ireland) I regularly work on hurling matches (the fastest field sport in the world) there is a large amount of intuition gained by practise in keeping a tiny ball in focus as it rockets through the sky. You also have a lot of help from engineers in the truck, who can allow more or less area to be in focus. For artsy crowd shots, it’s less area in and the opposite for a ball in the sky. It’s fun. I recommend anyone with a strong back and a love for the outdoors to try out the industry

Another bit of tech in these cameras that operators can rely on, in part, is highlighting hard edges. It basically outlines something that’s in focus, which helps improve visibility of small objects, and gives the operator confidence that the subject is in focus.

Thankfully most sports are played in the bright outdoors. The wider the aperture, the more likely an object will move in and out of the field of focus during play.



So I’m seeing both good info in this thread as well as completely wrong info from people who have no clue what they’re talking about. Let me start by saying I am a current sports camera operator and have worked on ESPN broadcasts for many different professional sports teams. Basketball, softball,baseball, hockey, football, rugby etc.

The cameras and lenses used in these productions are very expensive, the box lenses are parfocal lens like u/drinkyourwaterbitch linked to a video explaining and they can be $200,000+ just for the lens, and professional sports games will likely have 5-10 of those cameras.

When it comes to tracking a ball for example it’s a combination of experience of the operator, watching the players movements, and listening to the director on coms. There is some pretty neat technology’s out there but on the camera operator side of things it’s a lot more basic and skill/experience based than you would expect

I ran camera for college football for about 15 years. Short answer is practice, long answer is practice and remarkable technology.

First thing to keep in mind is the cameras used aren’t your point and shoot style that regular consumers buy for $1000 or less. A single camera set up is hundreds of thousands of dollars with a couple getting into the millions.
They are made to do exactly this type of shooting so having the proper equipment makes the job 1000s of times easier.

Second is the practice and experience. The way the cameras and the controls work how much or little force to use when focusing, zooming, turning the camera on the tripod, ext. The cameras are usually super balanced and can be turned with zero effort. Having said all that the camera guys still mess up frequently (see pump fake shots!) but unless you know what to look for a good camera operator can mask mistakes and make the shot still look decent.

I compare it a lot to playing a new video game. When you first get it and don’t know what all the buttons do, what combos you can hit, and how much you can push the envelope and still “survive”.
But after a few hours of play time and some basic instruction most people get very fluid with the movements of the game. It works the same way with running a camera. Your just pushing buttons and levers and turning your screen.

It got to be second nature on kick off to start off showing the whole kicking team and once the ball is kicked be able to zoom in on the football in the air full frame before backing out enough to get the person catching the ball fully in shot before he catches it. Looks impressive but is one of the easier things to do once you get the hang of it because the movement and speed of the ball stay very consistent.

Hope this helps!

Sometimes during NFL games a good play action pass or trick play will fool the cameraman for a second and they start to pan away from the ball

I was a cameraperson a long time ago before the gear was as sophisticated as it is now, and the answer is to keep your other eye open and practice a lot. It is true, a golf ball in midair is mostly guesswork.

Here’s the trick. Every sports broadcast camera has a role. And depending on the sport and how many cameras you have, will decide what roles you can cover.

1 camera is the “game” camera. This camera is up a little high, so it can see every player. The operators job it to keep most players and the ball in their shot at all times. They need to make live moves that are stable and not jarring to the player, often, you see an entire half of the playing surface. Sometimes this camera will completely lose the puck on screen, because the puck is on the near side, and blocked by the boards. The operator has to make their best guess as to where the puck is, based on where the players are going.

Another camera is the “Tight” camera. This camera will usually sit next to the “game” camera. Their job is to be used for cut-aways in between action. Close ups of players, fans etc. During gameplay, they are to follow the puck or ball or whatever the director/producer want. Here’s the key, they aren’t always live. They shot whatever they can, and their camera is fed into a replay machine. If the camera operator gets the shot, you’ll see that replay. If they don’t get the shot, you’ll never know. So while they don’t miss a ton, there is always a safety net.

Football has 2 or 3 cameras up top, 2 on the different 25 yard lines, and sometimes one at the 50. If you have 2 at 25 yard lines, those cameras will trade off who is the game and who is the tight. The game camera will be the camera closest to the action.

BUT, the biggest answer, is practice. You are watching camera operators on television that have thousands of games under their belt. in a single NBA season, a camera operator will see over 3,500 FGA. They learn little tricks and tips and tendencies. Some of them have played/coached that sport and can anticipate what the players will do.

I’m sure I’ve missed some nuances here, and there may be some regional differences.

TLDR: Practice, lots of practice. And not every move and shot is perfect.

Source: 15+ years experience in watching people play with their balls.