Sunday, June 17, 2007

DC Soapbox Derby

Earlier in the week I sent an email over to Al Santos at the DC Sports Box and asked him about a photo he took of a basketball player in the Verizon Center. I wanted to know some more details about what lens he used and what the lighting is like in Verizon. This is very relevant to something I'm pursuing right now: a new short lens.

At the center of my inquiry was the question of the f-stop on his lens. I specifically wanted to know if he was shooting faster than f2.8, or if he was at f2.8 and the lights in Verizon are just really good. Here's a link to the picture in question. As it stands now, I don't know if getting a 50mm/f1.4 lens would suit me best in Comcast or if a f2.8 lens would suffice. I also included a link to my blog site and asked Al for any advice (good or bad).

To my surprise Al responded that he took the shot at f2.8 and that the light in Verizon was very bright. I was also pleased because he reviewed some of my shots and offered me an assignment for Saturday: the DC Soapbox Derby. He even mentioned that some Maryland Football players would be present at noon!

I was excited to attend this event for 3 reasons: 1.) it was in Washington DC. 2.) it was for somebody other than the Majestics and the Bowie Blade. 3.) it was a new sport. Washington DC is a beautiful city, especially during the summer when everything is green and there is a lot of activity. I knew that I'd be able to capture some compelling backgrounds if I looked hard enough. Between the monuments and the passers by I thought the event would be ripe for good shots.

I was also happy to make contact with someone other than the Majestics and the Blade. Shooting for the Majestics and for the Blade has been very rewarding for me, and one of the biggest lessons I've learned is how important it is to become affiliated with a news organization. In the past I approached individual sports franchises offering to volunteer and got nowhere. On the other hand, media outlets seem to be bombarded with requests by event organizers for coverage. From what I can tell it seems like a lot of media outlets end up turning down coverage requests because there are so many events that occur in the DC area. I'm hoping that if Al likes my shots that he'll pass on a few more volunteer assignments for events that he and his other photographers don't have the time to cover.

Lastly, it's fun to shoot a new sport. Unlike the other times I covered a new sport for the first time, I went into this shoot expecting disappointing results. I fully anticipated attending the event and failing to capture the moment because I'd be too busy learning the flow of the event. A lot of sports photography seems to be based on anticipating action. In baseball, when a player gets to first base you need to be looking for the steal and capturing the player when he slides into 2nd. Likewise, when the player is on 2nd, you should head to 3rd and look for the steal or capture the runner rounding 3rd base. When you attend a new sports event for the first time it seems like you do a lot of "drat I missed that!" because you don't understand the sport. As a result, I expected poor performance on this shoot.

To my surprise a lot of the shots came out extremely well! Out of 150 or so shots, 40 were "keepers". That's my best first-time-out experience to date, and it really makes me happy. I can feel myself getting better and more focused when I attend an event. I now routinely am checking the white balance and ISO settings throughout the event. In the past I'd often get halfway through the event before realizing that my white balance setting was still set to the value of the last event. Practice...practice...practice...

The first part of the event was difficult to cover. All of the racers were gathered by their soapbox cars at the bottom of the hill underneath a couple of large birch trees that blocked out most of the sunlight. There was also a lot of bright yellow CAUTION tape surrounding the "parking lot", and behind the CAUTION tape was a lot of families with brightly colored tents, chairs, coolers, and other fare. It was a very busy background, and that made for difficult composition.

My coworker Jason let me borrow his 18-55mm lens this weekend, and I used it for most of the "parking lot" shots. It's a kit lens with a variable aperture f3.5-f5.6. As a result, the depth of field is pretty wide, and that made dealing with the background particularly difficult. If I had my 17-35/2.8 or my 18-55/2.8 I could have easily narrowed the depth of field and thrown all the noise in the background out of focus. I attempted to do so using my 50/1.8 lens, but the zoom was just too tight for capturing the competitors with their long soapbox cars. To my surprise, the 18-55/3.5-5.6 lens didn't perform too badly, and in some of my shots I managed to throw the background out of focus. Needless to say, I'm really looking forward to my short-range 2.8 lens. I may even order it this week...

I'm constantly amazed by my 70-200/2.8 lens. It allows me to get in so close to my subjects without being right up in their face for the shot. As a result, it allows my subjects to remain in the moment, and I think that my shots capture that. Very few of my shots actually have posed (artificial) subjects - most of them capture a racer as they prepare for a run, or while they receive some piece of advice from a father or uncle. For anyone getting started in sports photography I highly recommend the 70-200/2.8. The 400/2.8 is great for the serious sports photographer who is shooting for a job and on the sideline of a Redskins or Nationals game, but the 70-200 is versatile and fast enough for the newcomer trying to get started shooting a lot of amateur sporting events. In these events where the action is relatively close the lens works exceptionally well. I'm so happy I purchased it this winter!

I took my first "45 degree oh cool!" shot, and I failed at it. I've become a lot more observant of the photos I see in the newspaper, online, and in magazines. I've noticed that some very great shots are taken at a slight angle so as to frame some secondary artifact in the picture such that it is central to the shot. In my case, I tried to direct the attention of the viewer onto an emblem of the Washington DC Metropoliton Police Department logo on one of the soapbox cars while all the competitors were captured in the background. However, I didn't do it correctly - I angled the logo 90 degrees in the WRONG direction! I should have rotated my camera 45 degrees clockwise, but instead I angled it 45 degrees counter-clockwise. Needless to say, in the future I'll be looking for similar shooting opportunities and I'll try to do a better job on lining up the focal point of my shot!

Most of my shots took place at the starting line, where competitors assembled, lined up, and launched from. The starting line was positioned underneath a tent that blocked out a lot of sun. As a result I was confused about which white balance setting to use: shade, cloudy, or sunny? I shot most of them using sunny and overall they came out pretty well. The few that I shot with shade came out a bit yellow. I think you can clean all that up in Aperture afterwards, but the less time I have to spend in post processing the better!

I managed to get some shots of the competitors as they raced down the track. These turned out surprisingly well, as the depth of field really played a nice role! The track was so large that I was able to just focus on the racer and most of the rest of the shot was out of focus. When I took the shots it was difficult to tell how they came out on my 2.5" LCD, but when I looked at them on the computer I said: Wow! I really regret not taking more!

I considered taking some shots of the racers at the bottom of the hill. However, it would have been a difficult shot for a 3 reasons: 1.) the sun was behind them and thus in the background of the shot. 2.) the racers movement towards me would make focus very challenging. 3.) the racers are moving close to 30mph at that point! As a result I stayed put at the starting line. In retrospect I regret not having tried... Next year I'll do a better job!

I also had a very enjoyable time because my wife Julie decided to attend the event with me. She's had a few medical problems the past few years, and mornings typically present the most difficulties for her. I was planning on getting up at 0730 for this event, and to my surprise she offered to wake up that early as well and follow me downtown for the shoot. It was really nice having her tag along, and she was very excited about soapbox cars. In fact, she wanted to go home and make one to race! It was nice having her out there because it got her out to do something unusual and she really enjoyed it. I enjoyed having someone to talk to on the way to the event and during the event, and I especially enjoyed having someone to hold my water bottle for me!


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