Tuesday, July 24, 2007

This weekend was the last home game for the NOVA Majestics.

I've had a lot of fun shooting the Majestics and the Royals the past 2 1/2 months and I've learned a lot about outdoor sports shooting because of all the games I covered. I've also learned a lot about shooting soccer, and that's been a lot of fun.

A big part of shooting sports is anticipating action. If you understand the rules of the game you can anticipate what the next move will be, and knowing that you can position yourself or adjust your field of view to potentially capture a moment.

As an example, observing the home team kick the soccer ball out of bounds next to the goal means that a corner kick is coming. If you move quickly to be located next to the kicker you can catch some interesting shots where the keeper is in focus but the kicker is out of focus. Or you can get a shot of the kicker with the keeper and the defenders out of focus.

Shooting the Majestics has taught me that field position is important, and by being in the right place at the right time and being observant and anticipating the next move or event you can capture some fantastic moments. There are a few photos that I've taken that show a player inbounding the ball, or a couple of players about to collide, and those seem to draw the most attention.

I've also learned a lot about autofocus systems and metering while shooting outdoors. When I started shooting I didn't understand passive vs active autofocus systems, and now I have a somewhat vague idea of how the Nikon passive autofocus system works. I'm by no means an expert, but I understand that passive focus systems are based fundamentally on how quickly contrast changes when cross-cutting an image. In out of focus images the contrast changes slowly but in the case of in focus images the contrast can change quickly (assuming there is sufficient variation in color in the subject).

I've experienced the problems of autofocus first hand while on the field. Specifically I've had problems with backfocus on bleachers rather than on subjects in the foreground, focus locks on the creases in jerseys rather than in the face, and a lot of focuses on the soccer ball rather than the player. When I moved from center-weighted and spot focus to group focus the number of in-focus shots I took dramatically increased. I highly recommend using group focus for outdoor sports like soccer.

Sharpness has been a problem for me since day 1, and I haven't really improved much in my sharpness during my coverage of the Majestics. I think part of my problem has been focus related: if I'm out of focus I can't be sharp. But even when I'm in focus I'm soft in a lot of my photos. I attribute a lot of that to use centerweighted or spot focus rather than group, but even towards the end of covering the Majestics when I was using group autofocus I was still somewhat soft.

I'm still trying to figure out my softness problem, and if anyone has any advice for somebody shooting with a D200 and a 70-200/2.8 VR lens I'd love to hear it. I typically shoot ISO 400, sun WB, manual mode with 1/2000 and f2.8 or aperture priority mode on f2.8, group autofocus, continuous focus, and 7 focal points.

Enough of my summary of the season... Now onto details about the shoot...

I arrived plenty early for the game and was happy to see Larry. Larry showed me his shiny new D200 and was sharing the story of how he came to purchase the new body. When I met Larry back in May he was shooting with two D1H bodies (one may have been a D1HS if they made such a beast). He wanted some new bodies and decided to plunk down the change for a Fuji in a D200 body and an actual Nikon D200. I was surprised to learn from him that the Fuji had slower frames per second and cost slightly more than the Nikon. I think it has the same image processing engine tho... Even so... I'm kind of confused why Larry went with the Fuji over the Nikon D200.

Arriving early allows you to capture some good moments before the game that involve players getting psyched up for the player introductions and for the match itself. I like getting a mix of in-game shots and candid shots of the players, and before the game is a great time to get some candid shots. During the game you can get some good candid shots after a goal is scored, but often times you're elsewhere on the field and aren't close enough to get a truly great shot. So I now make a point to arrive early for events to get as many candids as possible.

I started shooting the game using my 70-200/2.8 lens and then decided to apply my 2X TC. I haven't used the 2X TC in months, and I really forgot how nice it is to be shooting at 400mm. It's really amazing! You lose 2 f-stops, and that noticeably changes the depth of field and the out-of-focus effect of the background, but being in so close allows you to get some great action shots. Because a soccer field is SO large there's a chance that MOST of the action will occur SOMEWHERE AWAY from where you're standing. So having a 400mm gives you reach into the action that occurs far away.

When looking at my shots at home I noticed that my shots with the 2X TC came out really well and seem to focus better than my shots at 200mm that I crop. It just goes to underscore the difference between pixel-zooming and optical-zooming: if you have a very dense sensor (e.g. 12MP) you can pixel-crop and that produces a "zoom" effect but you'll get out of focus subjects that aren't sharp. But if you are optical you're pictures are clearer and in focus.

Using the 2X TC really got me thinking about acquiring a longer lens. I'm going to have to give some thought to a 300mm lens given the success I had on my 2X TC during my last shoot of the Majestics.

Lastly, I was happy to see that the county finally removed all the buses from the parking lot next to the soccer field. They kept getting into my field of view and they really made for an awful background. However, in place of the buses the county landed a nice gray trailer. So we go from one slightly ugly background to a really awful background. Oh well.. I guess that's what you get when you're not shooting the professionals...

Overall I've been very happy shooting the Majestics. When I first contacted them I didn't know if they'd let me into games, and when they asked if I would attend every home game I was excited to try but hesitant due to the distance from my house (they are about 40 miles away and it takes over an hour to get to their field). However I've had such a great time shooting them and have learned so much about shooting outdoor soccer that I haven't minded the distance at all. In fact, my wife even came out to one or two games to keep me company while on the road!

I'm sad to see this team winding down for the summer, but I'm happy that I took advantage of the opportunity to take some pictures of a small local team and learn a little bit more about photography. And I'm happy that I'll be sending all the photos to the GM of the team so that he/she can distribute them to the players. I think that some of them will really enjoy some of the moments I captured for them, and maybe they'll even print one or two of them...


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