Monday, August 6, 2007

USTA: Czink vs Savchuk

Earlier this week my 400mm/f2.8 AF-S lens arrived from Karl in Texas, and I've been really looking forward to using it!

My wife and I decided to wrap up her weekend-long 30th birthday celebration with a trip to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. Several years ago I went to a Legg Mason Tennis event as part of a tennis camp, and more recently Julie and I used to attend using tickets that her employer (Fannie Mae) offers at a discount. Although the discount no longer exists (or is substantially smaller), we still enjoy going. Professional tennis is fun to watch, and it's a nice summertime activity.

The DC Sports Box was granted 2 credentials for the entire week, and Al assigned another photographer to cover the event. Unfortunately the other photographer was unable to attend the final and the credential is not transferable. I called and pleaded with the media relations folks to transfer the credential but they insisted it was against their policy to create "additional" credentials. I tried to clarify the request and explain that I wasn't trying to add another credential but to change an existing one. It didn't work...

I then phoned a different office at Legg Mason and asked what kind of photographic restrictions were enforced for today's matches. The intern reported that the only restriction was "no flash photography." I asked: "Can I bring my 400mm lens?", and while my wife laughed in the background I listened to the confused intern respond: "Uhhh. Yes." When I hung up the phone my wife laughed at me and said: "Do you think he knows what a 400mm lens is?!" followed by "You're never going to get in with that lens..."

The 400mm lens is quite large. It's easily 12" long barrel-wise, and at the front glass element it's probably 6 or 7 inches in diameter. It weighs about 10lbs, and you can't shoot it without a monopod. It's a professional lens that you typically see at outdoor field sports like soccer, football, and baseball.

Most sporting events have strict rules on camera use inside the arena. If you aren't a credentialed photographer you're not getting in with anything longer than a 18-55mm kit lens, or maybe an 80-200mm lens as long as it's f4 or f5.6. Anything thicker and "professional" looking (at least in the subjective eyes of the 18 year old security guard) is forbidden.

I was expecting that Julie was right: we'd get there, and I'd haul my 400mm lens from the car to the entrance and be turned away. To my extreme surprise they waved me on through. I was absolutely shocked. I had my camera bag and my lens over my shoulder, and the only fuss I received from the guards was a request to look in my bag. I opened it up, and when they saw it was just filled with lenses and cameras they let me through.

It may have worked out because both the credentialed photographers and the general public accessed the venue through the same location, and the security had a forward posture compared to the ticket takers. I think that the security guard probably thought I was credentialed, and didn't bother to escort me over to the ticket people. Because of that I made it past security and then Julie presented our tickets to the ticket taker. Since we were past security the ticket taker let us in, because her job is just to take tickets and not to turn people away. Security, powered by 18 year olds earning $12/hr, at it's finest...

We walked around and found the women's single championship match. The double's championship match was taking place in the main stadium, but I wanted to get a few close up shots of the women. I like the smaller venues were there are smaller crowds and you can move around easily. I didn't want to head up into the official stadium just yet...

Julie and I sat on the uncrowded side of the court, and it was exceptionally hot. We sat down on one side of the court and I rigged up Al's D2H to my 400mm/f2.8 lens to take my first official sports shots. As I looked through the eyepiece I was overwhelmed at how close the lens got me to the action. It was too much magnification for me, and I adjusted my location to get some wider shots. I backed up as far as I could, but even at the far end of the court I was too close for the 400mm lens.

I swapped the lens out with my 70-200mm lens and continued shooting. I was using Al's D2H and I left my D200 at home because I'm considering purchasing it and I'd like to see how well it performs. In retrospect I wish I had brought both bodies so that I didn't have to swap lenses. Al had told me that the 70-200mm lens would be fine for me in tennis, but I really wanted to try out the 400mm lens.

Unfortunately a lot of my shots of the women's game were dark. I think that the D2H and the D200, although very similar, have some subtle differences in how the rollers work on the body. I think that I must have adjusted one of the rollers and indavertently set the exposure compensative to darken the image. My first several shots were very dark. It took me awhile to figure this out because the LCD on all cameras is not very bright, and it's pretty unreadable under direct sunlight.

Eventually a cloud moved over and I managed to realize that I was applying too much EV correction and I adjusted it back to zero. Afterwards my shots cleaned up. In post-processing I was able to lighten the images and they were definitely salvageable.

After trying the 400mm lens I switched to the 70-200 for the rest of the match and was quite happy with it's performance. I adjusted my location several times, and that was really difficult in the heat. The sun cooked the green bleachers, and whenever I moved around I was greeted with a fresh new hot seat. I couldn't kneel on the ground because the ground was hot as well.

I sweat like crazy during this match and felt like I lost 5lbs of weight. But in the end I was pretty happy with how the shots turned out. I had a lot of "firsts" during this shoot, and overall I was pleased with the results. It was the first time I played with 400mm, first time on a D2H, and first time shooting tennis.

As I've written in the past, first-times are often the worst shots. You don't know where to shoot from, you struggle to anticipate the action, you don't know the rules of the venue, you are unfamiliar with the players, and the lighting is something new. Given all of that I'm very happy that I was able to piece together 49 shots during the 1 set my wife and I managed to watch.


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