Sports photos – how much gear is enough?

Steve Nash plays with a "professional" basketball.

04-02-2013  (Click on photos to see a larger view.)

I’ve been shooting quite a few sporting events lately. Actually, it was action photography that got me started in photography, um, 39 years ago. Motorcycle racing, to be more specific.

 

Kenny Roberts, circa 1975 (The continuous shooting rate was as fast as I could crank the lever.)

Sports photography requires specialized photo gear if you want to improve your chances of getting something good. Some of the basic requirements are:

  • – Fast shutter speeds to minimize unwanted motion blur
  • – Enough lens magnification to fill the frame with action that is usually happening at some distance away
  • – Rapid continuous shooting rates to give you more choices
  • – Decent low light/high ISO image quality
  • – Usually more than one camera body/lens combination for a variety of viewpoints

Sports photography also requires some specialized techniques:

I took a knife to a gunfight…and lived.

 

Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats

07-28-2012

Figuratively speaking, of course.

I regularly shoot Sacramento River Cats baseball games for Sacramento Press. The River Cats are the MILB AAA team that feeds the Oakland A’s.

The baseball park is located at Raley Field in West Sacramento and the park has a little more than 11,000 seats, plus some lawn seating. It is a great and comfortable venue for watching baseball.

 

Pre-game ceremonies, shot with a Panasonic GH2 and Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens

My normal gear haul for shooting sports is two Canon 7D camera bodies and three or four lenses. The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 (non-IS) lens is my standard sports lens, the other lenses are usually chosen when I am packing for the game, sometimes on impulse. One time, I took a telescope to a game, just for something different.

After adding extra batteries, a monopod and a water bottle, the gear pack usually weighs about 30 pounds. Fortunately I am able to set the pack on the ground most of the time I am at the game. I do like to shoot from different locations around the park, including from behind the back fence, so I do add up some mileage lugging this load around.

As I was packing for a game last week, I decided to pare down the load and travel lighter. I brought one Canon 7D body and the 70-200 lens. But for a majority of my shooting, I wanted to use the Panasonic GH2 camera with a few smaller lenses.

The GH2 is a micro four-thirds format camera which has a 16 MP sensor that is slightly smaller physically than the sensor on the 7D. The sensors in the GH2 and the 7D are pretty comparable according to some of the diagnostic websites, although the 7D does have an advantage in low light. More on that in a minute.

The entire Panasonic camera system is smaller than the Canons, so the reduction in weight (and pack space) is pretty significant. For example, a Canon 7D with a 70-200mm lens weighs in at 4.5 lbs. The GH2 with a 45-200mm lens weighs 1.25 lbs.

 

Panasonic GH2 setup (left) weighs almost 1/4 of the Canon (right)

Using the Panasonic setup did leave me with a few technical challenges. The Canon lens is two stops brighter than the Panasonic lens, so I knew I would be shooting the GH2 at a slower shutter speed. With action photography, freezing motion is a pretty big challenge. Frame rate is another. The Canon 7D will shoot at 8.5 frames per second, the GH2 lags a bit at 5 fps. And the 7D’s low light advantage would become more apparent as the evening progressed and the park shifted from daylight to stadium lights.

Side note: The GH2 has a super high speed frame rate – something like 40 frames per second. But this comes with a trade-off. In this mode, the sensor resolution drops to around 4 megapixels, and after shooting a burst of frames, the camera needs about 10-15 seconds to write the images to the card. And this is with a Class 10 card!

So how did it go? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I left the Canon gear in the pack until later in the evening when the light levels dropped. Shooting with the GH2 was a delight. The light weight made it much more pleasant to hold without tiring out my arms (and back and shoulders muscles). It was fun to stand in the photo pits along the baselines next to the photographers with the traditional “sewer-pipe” sports lenses. The technological disadvantages I mentioned above were not an issue since I adjusted my technique to compensate. (Imagine that)

 

Action moving toward the camera is easier to capture.

To compensate for the slower shutter speed, I shot more photos at the edges of the action. For example, instead of trying to freeze the batter swinging a bat, I included photos of him approaching the plate or looking at the umpire. I also shot some of the action that was moving toward or away from the camera rather than across the frame.

 

Approaching the plate...

To compensate for a slower continuous shooting rate on the GH2, (“only” 5 frames per second!) I paid more attention to timing my shots to align with the action. An extra benefit was having fewer images to cull through later when editing the photos for submission.

These are the same techniques I used when shooting sports with a film camera. At best I could push process Tri-X film to ASA/ISO 1600 to get an acceptable image. Anything higher than that was pretty much unusable. This limited shutter speeds to something crazy low, like 1/125 second.

 

Even under the park lights, the Panasonic GH2 keeps up with the action.

With film and processing costs at stake, I used to shoot fewer images, way fewer. I was more particular about which players I would cover, and what plays I would follow. And when the action would unfold, I would pay close attention to capture the one shot at the right instant. 8 frames per second seems like laziness at times. Just spray and pray.

Waiting for the right instant can be a great alternative to spraying and praying.

The Panasonic GH2 had a couple of advantages over the Canon 7D. Using the electronic viewfinder on the GH2 is a huge improvement over the 7D. I’ve gone on in previous posts about how much I love the EVF, so I won’t repeat myself here. Even with the slight black-out of the EVF when shooting sports, it’s terrific. The GH2 also has a great AutoFocus control, right where I need it. It’s located in the thumb placement on the back of the camera and I found I used it regularly to lock focus. The best part is it works like a toggle, so I can hit it to lock and then relax my thumb until I want to change focus, then hit it again. I’ve programmed the AF button on my 7D to also control auto focus, it just requires that I hold it down continuously.

Once the light levels dropped to the lowest point, I pulled out the Canon gear and used it during the last couple of innings. It certainly does handle the low light nicely, and I didn’t mind the extra weight of the rig, since I wasn’t using it all evening.

The Canon setup handles sports in low light very nicely.

One thing I haven’t discussed is the credibility factor. I’ll admit I was a little self-conscious about not slinging around a huge camera/lens combo. This is often the sign of a “serious” sports shooter. But those little fears dropped off quickly as I found myself enjoying the process of using smaller scale gear (and much smaller cost!)  and applying some brain power to get the results I wanted.

Next time? I’ll probably do the same thing.

– + –

College football is a blast

Be true to your school

09-24-2011

I recently started shooting photos for Sacstatesports.com – a sports-news outlet that features stories on the athletic teams at California State University, Sacramento – better know as the “Sac State Hornets.”

The energy at these games is incredible. The home field seats were pretty well filled, and amazingly, the visitor’s side had a respectable attendance, especially considering the visiting team was from Montana.

One of the things I really like about college sports is how hard the athletes play. They will give it their all on the field. They aren’t playing for a salary, but for the enjoyment, the ambition and the potential. And when they do well, their teammates get excited, too. Of course, the crowd is very loyal and loud. At this game, the Sac State Hornets beat the Montana Grizzlies, 42-28. It was the first Hornets’ victory over Montana in 17 games, so the student crowd was especially rowdy.

Serious football happens here.

Funny thing, I took some crowd shots of the grandstands and it wasn’t until I edited the images after the game that I noticed a strange spectator in the crowd…

Looks like a normal crowd shot…
…until you look closer – what the….?

I have no idea what the “Green Man” was about…and nobody around him seemed to care much about it. I guess they were used to it.

Diving for yardage.

Point after touchdown

Wear your team on your cheek.

For the record, #35 has the ball.

I look forward to shooting more sports for Sacstatesports – after all, Sac State is my alma mater.

For you gear heads, I shoot with two Canon 7D’s, one with a wide zoom (17-40mm, f/4) for close action and the other with a tele zoom (70- 200mm, f/2.8). At night games, I need to set the ISO  around 3200 so I can get a decent shutter speed (around 1/500 second).

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What Playing Golf Has Taught Me About Photography

Teeing it up with my $10 yard sale driver.

 

07-07-2011

I was 17 years old when I picked up my first “real” camera. Prior to that I had just been using a basic Brownie-with-610-rollfilm model or the amazing Instamatic-with-126-cartridge film cameras.

I was 34 years old when I picked up my first “real” golf club. Prior to that I had just been using a basic primary-colored putter and matching golf ball to test my skills against the windmill and hippopotamus-mouth obstacles at the mini-golf center.

Since then I have probably shot about 500,000 photos and hit about 500,000 golf balls.

It has been said the best way to get to know someone is to play a round of golf with them. Clearly, the game of golf will shred away any layers of superficial pretense and display the inner core of a human being, usually by the second green. Otherwise mild and even-keeled folks can become vitriolic, maniacal, obscenity-laden beasts in a matter of minutes, often with no shame whatsoever. I’ve seen people throw clubs, break clubs, beat their golf bag for several minutes, run full-speed into a tree, and dismantle a porta-potty – all over a chunked shot or a missed putt. I’ve seen others play terribly and seem to be having a great time.

So what has golf taught me about photography?

I notice plenty of similarities and lessons (although I have never seen a person throw a camera):

Patience – golf demands patience, no doubt. The harder I push, the harder golf pushes back. Only when I finally let go and surrender to the game does it let me in. It’s counter-intuitive but the more I let go and relax, the better I play.

Photography requires patience – to learn, to improve, to gain clientele. It also takes patience with certain subjects to “come around” so they can relax and have great photos taken of them. In my photo classes I often meet aspiring photographers who want me to give them a crash course in photography technique or business aspects so they can become “Polaroid Pro’s.” (A Polaroid Pro is one that is made in 60 seconds.) I feel like Yoda guiding a young Luke Skywalker or Mr. Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid how to wax a car.

Practice – Austin commercial photographer Kirk Tuck has been a swimmer all his life and he talks about the importance of “time in the water”. A person can read books, watch tutorials, take lessons – but nothing is a replacement for just doing it. There is no limit to the amount of online golf instruction available. And most lessons will vary enough to appear contradictory, and thus, more confusing. But in the end, you have to pick up the club and hit some balls.

The same is true for photography. The cacophony of photo tips and advice is mind-numbing…and distracting – sooner or later you have to just pick up the camera and make photos. There is no better way to learn the tactile method for adjusting your camera than to use it a lot. Once you are able to touch-type the controls on your camera, without peeking, then you will be able to get on with the business (and fun) of making pictures. You will also practice interacting with people as subjects and clients. But you have to leave the house!

Discipline – this is a close partner of practice. In both golf and photography, discipline gets you off your butt, keeps you focused on the task at hand, and let’s you get the most out of your experiences. Without discipline, you won’t practice and you won’t learn.

First tee at Pebble Beach Golf Links

 

Gear – comparing golf equipment can be the biggest distraction of all. Which brand of clubs to buy? What kind of shafts(graphite, steel, or what about rifle shafts), grips (tour wrap vs soft vs leather), balls (two piece, three piece, balata), shoes, gloves, head covers, bags, etc etc?? And every year the new technology promises to out-drive and out-score the previous one. The sad fact is there is not a correlation between the cost of golf equipment and the score you will shoot. I’ve been playing golf with some older inexpensive yard-sale clubs recently and I’m really loving it. I hit my $10 yard-sale driver farther and straighter than my much more expensive, hi-tech one.  In a strange way, it feels like I’m thumbing my nose at all the hype around the “next greatest thing” in gear. And that is pretty satisfying.

If you are a photographer this sounds very familiar when it comes to cameras, lenses, lights, tripods, etc etc. It is very easy to get caught up in the next feature or improvement of the newest technology. While I admit that some of the improvements are very useful (low-light capabilities, for example) many of them are just incremental. And remember, your current camera does not suddenly stop working when a newer model comes out. Focusing on the gear is another distraction that gets in the way of Practice. Worse, focusing on the Holy Wars of brand debates takes you nowhere fast.

Every once in a while I pull out an older camera model and re-acquaint myself with it. Besides the little bit of nostalgia, I am also reminded that these cameras still take amazing photos. Some of my favorite images were made with long-forgotten technology. Most of my gear purchase decisions now come down to more practical things, like battery compatibility and consistency with the location of the controls (see touch-typing above).

Creativity – OK, creativity in photography seems obvious, but golf? Oh yes. If you’ve ever found yourself under a low tree branch or been stymied behind an immovable object, you’ve had to tap your golf creativity. It’s called Scrambling and it can make the difference between just one bad shot and several. You are allowed a maximum of 14 clubs, but there is no limit to the number of shots in your repertoire. Can you hit a golf ball behind you while standing with your back to the target? Putt with a 3-wood? Hit the ball 100 yards without flying higher than 10 feet off the ground? Lob the ball over a bush and make it stop on the green? Have you PRACTICED any of these? Many times the best shot is not directly at the flag.

And every once in a while, I make that amazing shot that erases all the bad ones, and brings me back out for another round.

Creativity in photography is much more than visual. I’ve had to scramble on photo shoots plenty of times. The scheduled time comes and goes, and so does the magic light. Equipment fails. Weather changes. The power goes out. People show up in bad moods. The client gets a brainstorm and wants to change the concept on the spot. Or the shot just doesn’t materialize the way the designer had hoped. All of these situations require scrambling and creative skills.

One of my favorite golf axioms is: In golf (and life) if you get into trouble, don’t get into more trouble. Creativity, and discipline, and practice, will get you out of trouble.

Fun – golf is a game that is PLAYED, and “play” should be fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably grinding too hard. I have the most fun playing golf when I get to know my playing partner better. Often, we’ve met on the first tee. Golf becomes the backdrop to the bigger picture – social interaction. I don’t Tweet my playing partner, I look him or her in the eye and we talk. And we talk about everything except golf. I remember the people I’ve played with much more clearly than the score I shot.

Photography is the same – if you’re not having fun, you’re probably grinding too hard. It is the backdrop to the bigger picture of social interaction. Spend a little time looking over the camera instead of through it. I usually remember the photo subject or the event much more fondly than I remember the photographs.

Tee it high and let it fly!

– + –

Playing at the Game

A beautiful day at the ballpark.

 

06-20-2011

I have the fun opportunity to shoot lots of local sporting events: Minor League Baseball (River Cats), NBA (Kings), United Football League (Mountain Lions), Tennis (Capitals), college sports, etc, etc.

Sports photography is always a challenge of techniques – it requires touch-typing all the camera buttons while looking through the viewfinder (no time to peek), anticipating and following the action, keeping track of exposure and manual focus, and oh yeah, watching out for that line drive foul tip that zips over the top of my head. It helps to learn to shoot with both eyes open. So far so good.

Action photos take split-second timing, anticipation of the action, and full control of the camera.

But after a while, and I hate to say this, it gets kind of repetitious. After nailing a few dozen batting shots, fielding plays, double plays, home plate collisions, manager/umpire dirt-kicking exchanges, crowd reactions, and mascot hi-jinks, I start to wonder, “What ELSE can I do?”

And that’s when the fun really begins.

First, I like to get right behind home plate and capture the ball in flight between the pitcher’s hand and the catcher’s glove. Shallow depth of field leaves very little time for the ball to be in focus. Even at 1/8000 of a second(!) it is mostly a matter of lucky timing to capture that one instant when the ball passes through the plane of sharpness. (It helps if your camera can crank out 8.5 images per second, too!)

The ball is sharp, it's not overlapping anything else and it's moving about 88 mph. (Click on photo for larger view)

Next, it’s kind of fun to take a high viewpoint shot of the field and apply some fake tilt-shift effects in Photoshop to give it that “miniaturized” look.

Gee, from way up here, everyone looks like toy figurines.

Then, for something completely different, how about putting the camera on a telescope and taking shots of home plate from the area behind the center field fence? The shots below were taken from a distance of about 450 feet away. I think the effective focal length (after calculating the crop sensor factor) worked out to about 2000 mm.

This photo was taken from about 450 feet away. Seriously, that's some amazing magnification.

 

All eyes are on the ball.

 

Check out the red arrow - that's where I set up the camera/telescope combination to take shots of home plate.

 

Instead of stopping the action, how about letting it really show?

Panning with the subject, shutter speed was 1/15 second.

As you can see, it’s not just the players who get to play at the game!

– + –

 

 

Stop it!

src20100711_036a

07-11-2010

I just realized it’s been almost two months since I last updated this blog. I guess you could say I’ve been a bit busy lately…

– shooting several sporting events for SacramentoPress.com

– teaching photography classes at Learning Exchange

– working on a large commercial project that includes photography, design and press-printing the final product

– performing serious engine repair on my little beater truck.

The image at the top is a popular shot in sport-shooting. It was inspired by an iconic baseball photo (wish I could find it!) When I enlarge the high-resolution image, I can see the logo on the baseball in nice detail.

This photo is a combination of preparation and luck.  The technical info:

  • Camera: Canon 7D in manual exposure mode
  • Lens: Canon 70-200L f2.8 – manual focus
  • ISO 400
  • Shutter speed: 1/6400 second
  • Aperture: f/2.8

I manually pre-focused on a spot midway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, put the shutter on continuous release (8 frames per second) and made several attempts. This image was the best one of the bunch.

– + –

Blur + Detail = Action! (Part 1)

Kenny Roberts maneuvers his Yamaha cafe racer through a turn at Laguna Seca Raceway; July 1975
Kenny Roberts maneuvers his Yamaha cafe racer through a turn at Laguna Seca Raceway; July 1975

01-08-2010

I have always enjoyed action and sports photography. In fact, it was my love of motorcycle racing that led to my love of photography. As a young adult, I spent countless hours tromping around the Laguna Seca Raceway, loaded down with camera gear, in pursuit of the ultimate racing photographs. Riders, like Kenny Roberts above, would race their motorcycles at lightning speed, challenging the expertise and fast reflexes of both themselves and sports photographers.

Action photography offers some special challenges. First of all, when dealing with high-speed action, it is important to capture enough frozen detail to give the viewer a “picture” of what is happening. Still photographs can disclose plenty of information not discernible to the naked eye. Check out the long-jumper below, frozen at the peak of her jump.

Fast shutter speeds freeze action, giving the viewer details about the movement
Fast shutter speeds freeze action, giving the viewer details about the movement

Her facial expression and outstretched arms are captured in great detail, this is something that you may not otherwise be able to see during the jump.

Continue reading “Blur + Detail = Action! (Part 1)”