Friday, September 28, 2007

MLS: D.C. United vs Chivas Guadalajara

Late in the day on Tuesday Al asked if I'd like to join him for the D.C. United game on Wednesday night. I've covered the Nationals at RFK but I've never covered a D.C. United game so I thought it would be fun and I accepted.

Earlier in the evening I attended Maryland's Field Hockey matchup. You can read my writeup over on the DC Sports Box by clicking here. Al was planning on meeting me at the game and we'd head down to RFK. Al was running a bit late and had to return home to pick up his season credential, so we were a bit late getting started.

We left College Park around 8pm but we made it in time for the opening faceoff at 8:30pm. The drive from College Park to RFK goes really quickly if you take 295 (the BW Parkway). Parking isn't too bad but it isn't great. I think there's a way to get a media pass that allows you to park in lot 5 but we didn't have one so we had to park in lot 8. Parking was only $12 tho so it wasn't too bad.

Covering a D.C. United game was a lot of fun. MLS fans are pretty loud and excited! There were lots of people with flags, banners, confetti, smoke bombs, drums, and everything else you can imagine. There was quite a large police presence as well. I don't think that the crowd was quiet once during the entire game - they were always cheering or singing or waving a flag.

I was shocked at the lighting conditions in RFK. It's great! I was able to shoot at ISO 800 and 1/500th of a second at f2.8 without any problems. I wonder if the lighting is great because the lights are brighter at RFK or if it's great because the entire stadium is enclosed. Being enclosed there's a lot of light reflecting off the stands and all the surroundings. Over at Ludwig Field in Maryland it's basically wide open and the lighting stinks.

During D.C. United games you have to remain in either endzone and you cannot shoot from the side of the field. That was alright with me because I tend to look for endzone shots anyway. When you shoot from the endzone you tend to get a lot of shots of players as they run down the field. When you shoot from midfield you get a lot of profile shots as the players move around on the field.

The downside of shooting from the endzone is that you're swapping cameras a lot. The shots on the far side of the field are reachable with a 400mm lens, but it's a bit of a stretch. Likewise, once the players get to within 1/3 of the field to your position your 400mm lens is just too much power (especially given the 1.5X crop factor on the DX Nikon cameras). When that happens you have to switch to another lens.

I saw a few people using 400mm and 300mm lenses, but I think that 300mm lens is a bit long for action on the near side of the field. On the other hand, I used my 70-200mm lens and I felt distant for a lot of shots. So maybe the 300mm lens isn't too bad. I really think that the 200mm f2 Nikon prime lens would do well for this event, especially on a full frame sensor that doesn't have the 1.5X crop. But those cost $4k, almost as much as I paid for my 400mm f2.8.

I started with my D200 on the 400mm lens and the D2H on the 70-200mm lens. I generally like to use the high speed shooting mode on the D2H for the shots where there will be a lot of action. When I was heading to the game I thought that my high speed shots would need to be of the players when they shoot.

As the game drew on and there were very few shots I realized I wasn't using the D2H very much and I switched bodies and lenses. I ended up shooting the D2H on the 400mm lens and the D200 on the 70-200mm. In retrospect I regret making this decision. My shots on the D200 look so much better than my shots on the D2H. It's a combination of noise at ISO800 but also softness. For some reason the D2H wasn't very sharp on the 400mm lens at night.

I've found that at night it's extremely difficult to take sharp pictures, and so I'm not surprised that I had trouble with the D2H. I am surprised at how well my D200 photos turned out. I'm not sure if it's a megapixel issue or an image processing issue, but my D200 pictures are remarkably sharper than the pictures I shot on the D2H.

During day games my D200 and my D2H perform roughly the same. I can tell which shots were shot with which body, but for the most part they're pretty equivalent. But it's a day and night difference at night. I'm going to factor that in during my next game when I'm selecting which body and lens combination to use.

I'll probably end up sticking with the D2H on the 70-200mm lens because I use that for close up shots. When the players are closer they tend to be sharper. It may be because when they are closer they reflect more light and that helps the AF sensors.

I enjoyed shooting alongside Al. During the other games I haven't known any of the photographers except for Greg Fiume. Many of the photographers know each other because they work frequently with each other. That makes it kind of difficult to shoot because you're basically standing alone for hours taking pictures without talking with people. There's chit-chat that goes on, but rarely does the conversation carry anything of substance.

Shooting next to Al we were able to talk about the DC Sports Box, photography, writing, raising capital, making plans, etc. It was a lot of fun. Al also taught me how to swap between the 400mm and the 70-200mm lenses very quickly. During all the other games I'd put my 400mm down while I picked up my 70-200mm and shot. Then I'd put the 70-200mm down and pick up the 400mm.

I don't like doing that because I'm fearful I'll damage one of the camera bodies or a lens. I've noticed other photographers holding their 400mm lenses while they shoot with smaller lenses and I wanted Al to help me learn how to do that.

He explained the technique very well and it basically boils down to just a few steps. First make sure that the height on your monopod holding your 400mm is pretty high. When you want to switch to your smaller lens you apply rotational pressure to the monopod. That results in the lens swinging around and facing backwards. You rotate it such that the lens looks backwards over your shoulder.

When the lens is over your shoulder it's in a stable position and you can kind of pinch the monopod between your forearm and your bicep. That frees up both hands to use your smaller lens. The only think you have to be careful about is not moving around too much.

The 400mm and body are very heavy, and they're at the top of a roughly 6' pole that you're hugging between your forearm, bicep, and chest. When you start shooting on your short lens you have to be careful not to tilt your body too much because that will result in the monopod going at an angle (not being plumb). It doesn't take too much weight on the top of that long pole to make things unstable. And when you're shooting on a shorter lens action tends to move around a lot. So you have to be careful and keep your attention on where that 400mm is positioned!

I had a great time with Al and we had some good conversations about improving how we operate the DC Sports Box. We're trying to optimize our workflows and adapt them to incorporating other photographers and writers into the organization. Right now we're not really set up that well for collaboration, but I think we can get there with time.

Tonight's game was a perfect example of how we can't collaborate. We don't have the infrastructure in place that allows Al to do the writeup of the event and for both of us to share our pictures in the gallery. We'll need to get to that level at some point. We also don't have the ability for both of us to edit and work on the write-up because Joomla locks the article until it is published. If you'd like to look at our final writeup and gallery you can view it here.

This weekend is going to be very exciting. Volleyball Friday night, field hockey, women's soccer, and another D.C. United game on Saturday, and then a field hockey and men's soccer game on Sunday. I should be very busy!


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