Sunday, August 12, 2007

Here's my advice on getting started in the photography business: get out and shoot!

I'm far from being in the photography business, but I'm experiencing first hand how one can start a career in photography if that happens to be one's goal. It's remarkable how pervasive photography is these days as a result of the digital revolution. In the film days you had to have some level of seriousness in order to shoot. But in the post-film era you can pick up a digital camera at Best Buy for $100 and start to become knowledgeable.

At Maryland games this past Spring I talked to a few spectators in the stands who inquired about my equipment. Some photographers may consider this a distraction but I actually find it quite enjoyable. It's a lot of fun to listen to people talk about their equipment, hear what they enjoy shooting, and learn from their experience. You have to take everything with a grain of salt, but several times I've had someone make a comment that got me thinking about some of my own techniques.

And there's something about carrying around a 400mm f/2.8 lens that starts up conversation. It's usually "that's a big lens!" and that leads to further discussions. Tonight I was shooting the third game of the Baysox series against Binghamton and I spent a lot of time shooting from the stands. I made my way all the way down the 3rd base line hoping to catch some good foul ball shots of the batter and I ended up sitting next to a gentleman named Rusty from St Mary's. Rusty told me all kinds of facts about minor leaque baseball that were really quite interesting. He also told me about some new teams that are starting up next season.

Although I'm not a reporter I do consider myself something of a photojournalist, and a huge part of reporting is listening to people talk. Listening to Rusty describe the minor league and some of the history of the pitching coach of the Mets taught me a lot about the teams.

Game #2 of the series, and early in the game tonight the pitching coach was ejected from the game. The person I was sitting next to (I didn't catch his name) told me that in Game #2 the pitching coach and the umpire got into an argument and the coach kept pestering theI also sat next to an older gentleman who sits slightly down the 3rd baseline but next to 3rd base. I missed umpire throughout the game. The guy speculated that the pitching coach was ejected prematurely to send a message to the Mets: Don't mess with the umpires.

Another gentleman passed me while I was on my way between two spots and asked me what kind of lens I was using. When I described it he asked the cost and mentioned he was thinking about going into the photography business and wanted to know if I had any advice. I laughed at the thought of me giving someone else photography advice because I'm usually the one soliciting advice! He's retiring and is thinking about doing some work on the side as a photographer. I didn't catch his name but I gave him my business card and told him to email me if he had any questions.

Lastly I spoke for awhile with a gentleman named David Hartcorn. It turns out that David and I have a lot in common both professionally and photographically. We both work in the same domain space, we both occupy office space in Annapolis MD that's close to each other, and we both shoot Nikons.

David told me that he his car was recently burglarized and all of this equipment was stolen. This really reinforces my desire to obtain insurance and to do it soon. He said that he had a dashboard navigation system as well as a satellite receiver on his dash and the thieves used a slim jim in broad daylight at Hunt Valley golf club in Columbia MD to break into his car. Once inside they lifted his satellite and navigation system and made off with his suitcase of equipment.

He lost two D2XS bodies, a 70-200mm/f2.8, 50mm/f1.4, 85mm/f2.8, 105mm/f2.8, 17-55mm/f2.8 and I believe a 400mm/f2.8. He also lost a few teleconverters, spare batteries, media, and all the other assorted accessories we all carry in our bags. I'm not too worried about theft of my gear from my car because I take my bag into my office with me during the day, and when it's in my car it's always in my trunk. But still... hearing about someone losing ALL of their gear sounds like a devastating thing to have happen. Fortunately David has commercial photography insurance and was able to replace all of his equipment. I'm sure he missed a few assignments tho while he filled out police reports and waited for an insurance claim to be processed.

We had a pretty lengthy discussion of lenses and when I started describing my 70-200 and D200 combination and it's performance at 200mm he completed my sentence by saying: "It's soft isn't it..." His statement is consistent with my personal observations and what I've read on's forums: the D200 and the 70-200mm lens is soft at 200mm and f2.8. Stepping down to f4 or f5.6 helps though.

He also told me that the D2XS body and sensor are so sharp and perfect that they really expose "bad" lenses. I'm not too sure what he means by "bad" lenses since I'm not a physicist and I don't know about the laws of light and how chemicals impact it's progression through the lens elements. I only know about AF-D and AF-S style lenses and the differences in the focusing mechanics. For me it's not a problem since I'm on a D2H and a D200, but I thought it was an interesting comment.

Tonight's shoot was a great experience from a lighting perspective. The Baysox tend to start the Sunday games at 6pm rather than 7pm, giving photographers and extra hour of sunlight. This makes a huge difference, and I wish that they started every game at 6pm. I realize this would probably reduce their crowd size (because people may still be at work at 6pm) so it will probably never change. But when they play at 6pm I like to get to those games because the lighting is perfect! You can get a solid 5 innings in before you have to go to ISO800 or ISO1000.

I decided to give a shot at using both my 400mm lens and my 70-200mm lens at the same time. During Friday night's game I just carried around the 400mm lens because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to handle 2 bodies, one of which was attached to a monster lens. I like to play it safe, so I decided to shoot Friday night's game using just my 400mm lens on my D2H body. But when I shot that game I felt too close for a lot of shots.

It was nearly impossible to catch any steals using the 400mm lens from the lower level because I was in too close. I had to go up to the upper level to shoot, and I wanted to stay down low so that I could get excellent profiles of the players while they bat. I kept thinking on Friday night that my 70-200 would really work well for catching some of the steals where you need to be wider, and the 400mm lens would be great for the up-close profile shots as well as the candids that I love shooting.

It was a bit awkward at first negotiating between the 70-200mm and the 400mm lenses, so I decided to shoot from down on the field to get started. I figured that by shooting on the field I'd be all alone and wouldn't have to deal with the complexity of the crowd moving around and possibly stepping on my equipment. Down on the field I have my own little chair I sit in, and I can safely place one camera on the ground while I use the other camera.

It was surprising to me how well it worked. The only awkwardness I encountered related to the extension on my monopod. I use a monopod on my 400mm lens, and to put the 400mm lens down I place it hood down on the ground (not on it's side). When the monopod is extended it's too much weight on one side and the camera wants to tip over. But if you reduce the monopod to it's storage size the camera and body stand upright just fine.

Observing this made me think about the AF-S II lens and how it's slightly lighter than the AF-S I lens. My 400mm with a D2H and monopod hanging off of it is somewhat unstable. I imagine that if my 400mm had it's weight reduced by 1lb or slightly more that it would not longer be able to support the D2H body and the monopod, even when it's fully reduced. I'll have to ask some other photographers with 400mm lenses how well their rigs hold up. Maybe that's why some people by those carbon monopods (because they are light).

After 2 innings on the field I was extremely comfortable going from the 400mm to 70-200mm lens and I decided to journey up into the crowd to get some shots from above. This worked out pretty well except the children posed a challenge in some cases. Children tend to be attracted to cameras (probably because they like getting their picture taken!) and that can be risky when you're talking about $6k worth of equipment sitting on the ground next to you while you're looking through the eyepiece of another $2k of equipment.

I found a bunch of spots tonight to shoot from and my pictures are coming out better than ever. These days I'm shooting 75% of my shots using group weighted continuous autofocus and it's working remarkably well. The other 25% of the time I use single spot continuous autofocus. The single spot autofocus mode works very well when you have 2 players talking to each other, one shallow and one deeper in your field of view and you want to blur one to bring him out of focus. In those cases the group autofocus locks on both players as one unit, or you go back and forth between the two players. But using spot you're able to point to the player you want to focus on and take your shot.

I'm very pleased with how the quality of my work is progressing. I've been going back over a bunch of old Maryland related photos I shot during the Spring and moving them over to BlunckSports and many of them are really low quality. I'm not ashamed of them at all, but it is remarkable how much of a difference just a few months makes in shooting.

That brings me to the advice I offered in the opening paragraph of this lengthy post: Just get out and shoot! If you're considering going into photography get out there and start shooting whatever you think is interesting. Maybe it's critter-shots or maybe it's nature. Maybe it's sports. Or maybe it's architecture and business. But get out and figure out if you enjoy shooting, and if so what you enjoy shooting. The worst thing you can do is not try.

And with that I'm off to eat some chicken ramen surprise. In my house that's just chicken ramen with some curry seasoning and cayenne pepper. It's the cayenne pepper that's the surprise.


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