NCAA baseball season is underway here in California, so it’s time to renew my quest for the elusive yet ubiquitous “compressed-baseball-on-bat” photo. Typically this is accomplished with a remote camera setup in the centerfield bleachers, so let's look at the math that's involved in shooting batters from 400 feet away.
Let's assume we're using a DSLR camera and maxing-out the frame rate at 14 frames-per-second (FPS), or one frame every 71 milliseconds. A college fastball traveling at 85mph moves 8.9 feet between each of those frames, and yet takes only 483 milliseconds - less than 1/2 of one second - to travel from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's glove. Of course, the part of that trip we care most about is the batter's contact zone. About five feet in width, this "wheelhouse" only sees the ball for 63 milliseconds of its' journey.
If the hitter swings and makes contact, the ball and bat are only in contact with each other for 0.7 milliseconds, or about 1% of the time needed for the camera in between frames. All of this makes the odds 204:1 to capture a ball-on-bat image for any given pitch when shooting at 14FPS. The odds get steeper for faster pitching or slower frame rates. They get better if the opposite(s) are true.
To complicate matters, an average baseball game only features about 43 bat-on-ball moments (28.7% of 149 total pitches). Collectively, that’s three one-hundredths-of-a-second of action happening at random over a two-hour game. And yet these moments seem to be plentiful in our Instagram feeds, so how is everyone doing it so "easily?"
Patience, that's how. Even with today’s high frame rates, bottomless memory cards and throwaway digital negatives, it can take 3, 4, 5 or more games of bursting on every single pitch to capture one “magical” compressed baseball shot. And that’s assuming you’re not shooting through heat shimmer or otherwise goof on the whole focus thing.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “diligence is the mother of good luck.” I agree. Though my friends with Sony A9’s and Olympus E-M1X’s are statistically-likely to win the ball-on-bat sweepstakes sooner than us DSLR shooters, making such a photo is more about patience & persistence than it is about camera tech.
Oh, and if there's one thing that’s on our side in this endeavor, it’s depth of field. At a range of 400 feet, a 600mm f/4 has a 32-foot-deep area of focus on a full-frame DSLR. That’s 16 feet in front of and behind the catcher’s mask. DoF is even deeper if you’re shooting at a shorter focal length and cropping more, so there’s no need to stop down apertures when shooting over that much terrain.