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Nothing beats a great night of pinball at the local spot with your friends. After your night ends you scroll through your phone and realize none of your photos really capture the fun that was being had. Well hopefully this article will help! Someday, we will all be old and want to look back at the fun times we had. Okay that’s a bit too deep, let’s get back to the subject at hand. I’m going to break this down into a few key points to help capture some better shots.
My name is Jon Geier, and I run the Instagram account @darkroom_pinball where I have combined my love of pinball and try to put a good positive light on the local pinball community we have in the Northeast Ohio area. Working with the tournament directors, venues and local operators, I try to help get more people into the pinball scene. I am a self taught photographer with most of my knowledge coming from various Photography forums which has helped me be able to tackle the demands of shooting in low light and harsh reflective surfaces that is pinball.
The Fundamentals of Pinball Photography
Let’s start with some photography fundamentals. These are the basic concepts that help make any photo you take look a little better, whether they are pinball related or just some candids you’re taking while out with family or friends. I'll try to include a few examples of each concept below.
Deciding What to Shoot
For Friends Playing a Machine or Location Shooting
To create a pleasing composition, find a good angle that includes a subject and the machines in the frame. It's important to not cut off either as seen here.
Use AE/AF lock to focus on your friends' faces, ensuring they are the central point of interest in the photo.
Consider using "portrait mode" or a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field, which will blur the background and make your friends stand out.
Pay attention to lighting. Try to use the available light or strategically placed artificial lighting to illuminate your friends while maintaining a balanced exposure.
When photographing someone playing a pinball machine, it's crucial not to distract them. Choose your angles and timing carefully!
The side angle across the machine can work well, capturing both your subject and the pinball machine in action.
Take advantage of the machine's lighting effects. These can create dynamic and visually appealing shots. Using a slightly longer exposure time can help capture the light trails.
Specifically for location shooting, try and focus on the “brand” of the place (for instance at a brewery make sure you try to get some logos included).
Be patient and take multiple shots. As mentioned, the lighting and action on the pinball machine can change rapidly, so taking many photos and capturing different moments will increase your chances of getting a great shot. Most good photographers will shoot far more photos than they ever use, so shoot more than you think you need and then select your favorites for editing or sharing.
Remember that practice makes perfect, so don't be discouraged if you don't get the perfect shot right away. Experiment with different angles, settings, and lighting conditions to achieve the desired results.
The other tip I want to emphasize here is to try and capture the ambiance of where you are. If your local spot has cool artwork, try to incorporate that into your shot. Wide angle does a good job of this but also try something different each time you're out. Angles are everywhere, don't be afraid to break the mold of normal. After all, you're trying to capture the spirit of what you’re doing which isn’t 100% mainstream. Sneak between machines and try to grab a shot with a machine obstructing part of your photo.
Composition & Framing
What is composition? Well that is a very subjective answer. I’m not going to get into a ton of detail on that but more of the basics that should be considered in most situations. Let’s look at these as key details to ensure you give yourself the best chance at getting the best photo.
When framing your photo try to make sure your vertical and horizontal lines match up. Simply put if you’re looking straight at a line of pinball machines make sure you use that as an alignment tool. Most phone cameras have the ability to turn on grid lines to help you line that up.
In a controlled environment pinball shoot (such asyour home) using a DSLR you have many more options. Glass off the machine is my preferred method while using a flash aimed at the ceiling to fill the scene by reflecting back off the ceiling onto the playfield. Reflections are insane on a glossy surface like a playfield and the metal and plastics on machines. Using a flash allows you to use a fast shutter and really get the camera in the playfield to give the appearance you're under the machine. To create great action scenes, introduce a fresh clean never used pinball (Ninja Balls work great) with a piece of tape under it or a glue dot under it to keep it in place. This is fun but really creates no room for error as that reflective pinball shows everything and requires editing afterwards to remove unwanted reflections.
In either environment, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the rule of thirds and try to get as close to your subject as you can in order to avoid the candid snapshot look. The rule of thirds helps direct the viewer's gaze to the main focal point of an image, whatever the subject may be. You decide what that focal point should be by how you align your camera. Always try to lead the eye into your photos. I always remember this (9th grade art class doing a drawing looking down an alleyway or street), your eyes are leading your brain down the alley. Create that 3D look by doing this. Images that are flat don't accomplish this and you don't have that instant wow factor.
In regards to playfield photography, I have been reading articles on macro photography to give me the ideas I utilize on a pinball playfield and have kicked around the idea of getting a dedicated macro lens to use in those situations. In this scenario you are going for more of a dramatic “art” style focal point. Focus on an object and blur the background out for that soft light look or a hyperfocus look at the playfield. This is where you find out some machines just stand out with the artwork design package.
This is a very tricky thing when shooting on location. Typically you're not going to set up an off camera strobe/flash and using a camera mounted flash will be distracting under a normal night out. If you're doing a planned event then by all means use a flash if the lack of lighting requires it, this will allow you to shoot at faster speeds capturing more crisp images. Keep in mind that there are alot of surfaces to reflect that light back, so try and use that flash as a fill for the space. One thing I have found in locations with natural light coming into the space is to find a way to embrace it. This is where test shooting is huge, maybe the time of day affects the reflections or amount of natural light in the space. These are all things you need to keep in mind when you are trying to capture the moment.
Reflections can make an image go from boring to awesome and fresh if you play with the angle it's shot at. Obviously, the machine is the star of the show as it's putting off its own light show but framing a light fixture into the scene will show a scene of scale and create more than a tight zoomed in image.
Now to the magic of any photograph, the processing. Every image captured on modern cameras has some type of processing. The difference of using a third party app/program is you are choosing what areas you want to reduce or increase instead of the default camera program. There are many free apps out there but because I shoot in RAW format I use Adobe Lightroom which is a paid program for post editing, but shooting a standard JPG image is fine to edit with a free program, you're just limited on the range of changes you can make. Honestly pinball photography is really tough due to the bright lights of the machines, the dark locations, and the movement of a player.
Here are some of the main things you will want to adjust.
- Color temperature
Editing is frequently where you can do great things or go overboard. Less is more. Sometimes you want to adjust that slider too much and yes it will make something super cool and different but I feel most people identify more with clean and crisp images. Play with it and find “your style”, which with practice you’ll start to define. Don’t be afraid to change your style or mimic other styles you like in the experimentation process.
The Gear You Need for Better Pinball Photos
On Phone Cameras
First and foremost the best camera to shoot with is the one you have on you. Most people don’t want to carry around a bulky DSLR with multiple lenses when out having a good time. If you do own a mirrorless camera and want to bring it out for the night then I’ll touch on some steps later that you can use.
Today's modern phones do a great job capturing images and giving you a ready to see product. Now a secondary editing app (Snapseed, Lightroom, Afterlight, Google Photos, etc.) do a fantastic job just adjusting small details to bring out the best in your photo.
Dedicated Camera/Lens systems
Is your hobby photography, or do you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera laying around? Well here is some more in-depth information I can offer you for shooting friends at the local spot or maybe you own a machine and want to capture some photos of the game.
On location with a DSLR or mirrorless camera I highly recommend using a fast zoom lens with a camera that can handle a high ISO and still produce a good image.
By using a faster lens (f1.4 - f2.8) you're going to be able to open the lens up to allow more light into the camera's sensor allowing a shorter shutter time reducing the time it's open. This will reduce any shaking from you holding the camera and capture fast motion of an active player while hitting that awesome slap save.
ISO is a mystery to most hobbyists, ISO measures your camera's sensitivity to light. Most people have it set on auto and allow the camera to decide.
This can cause issues when shooting pinball as the pinball machine is bright and the camera will underexpose everything else thinking the light from the machine is the subject. Typically when I edit photos I find the highlights of the pinball machine are over exposed. This is a very manageable adjustment when editing but this allows my low light areas to be in a good exposure. Modern mirrorless cameras really are a huge improvement over older DSLR cameras in this area. I highly recommend adjusting your ISO manually with a series of test shots prior to the action starting. Each location will change due to the lack of light or the abundance of it, so you’ll want to adjust these settings every time you shoot.
I currently use a Sony A7iii with a Sigma 24-70 2.8f lens. Typically I’m running 1/160th shutter speeds at 2.8f and ISO 4000. I’ve found this to be very close to what works at most places and usually can just adjust the ISO up or down depending on the light in the spot, while leaving other settings unchanged. Sometimes I adjust the F-stop to create more depth of field (lower aperture settings typically result in a shallower depth of field, meaning less of your image will be in focus) but most times I’m focusing on one particular player on one machine allowing the other people to blur out.
As mentioned, I like a fast zoom lens as my primary lens when shooting pinball on location. Some other options you can explore is a dedicated macro lens if you want to focus on close-up shots or a fixed prime lens if shooting in low light conditions is of utmost importance. If you are the creative type a fixed lens filter could make some cool effects, I have been kicking around a time to try that on a pinball location. They have a variety of screw on filter lens that can distort your image at the point of capture.
For phone shooters, you can experiment with add on lens systems, like the Movement lenses mentioned above. I would be interested to see what kind of results these lenses can produce.
Other Tips & Things to Try
- Defocus your intended subject
- Shoot from behind a player watching the action
- Look for high/low vantage points
- Always look around the scene for the activities of others
- Make sure your crowd is ok with you taking photos
This is all about fun and growth and promoting the pinball community, so try a few of these exercises next time you're out!
- Try to get a great reflection
- Try and grab a full body in motion while playing
- Get a photo of intense concentration while playing
Share your pics on Instagram and tag @darkroom_pinball for some feedback!
Just remember to have fun and break all the rules of photography and try something different as pinball photography is probably as tough of an environment as any. Also keep it weird, try and tell a story with your photo with some action shots of friends dancing around or in frustration after a terrible outlane drain.