Monday, November 24, 2008

After a bit of sleuthing around of aerial photographs with my Dad on Sunday morning I packed up some glass and headed over to Comcast for an afternoon tilt between the Terps and the visiting UCLA Bruins.

While sitting on the baseline I thought about a comment Mike Busada made on Friday night: "You never seen Canons out here anymore. It's f***in' awesome, man!" I laughed when Mike made that comment on Friday evening but this afternoon it really sunk in. Nikon has really turned the market around. Last year I was definitely in the minority with my Nikon equipment and the 1D Mark III was all the rage by everyone. I constantly was enticed to "switch to Canon now before I invested too heavily in Nikon gear." I resisted for mostly financial reasons but I was very tempted at the time after seeing the high ISO capabilities on the 1D line.

In retrospect that would've been a huge mistake. Nowadays Nikon dominates the sideline and the D3 is essentially the de-facto standard. At the football game I took note of the photographers and what brand they shot - I counted 3 shooting with Canon gear and 14 with Nikon gear (D700 and D3 mostly, but some D300). Last year it primarily Canon with a spattering of Nikon. In fact, I remember having conversations with Greg Fiume about if he was going to switch to Canon given all the glass and bodies they were kicking out at the time.

It is truly remarkable the turnaround that has occurred in the market. I'm kinda surprised for not having taken notice until Mike pointed it out but now that I'm looking for the trend it's really in your face. I'm so glad I stuck with Nikon gear!

In my last women's basketball post I stated that I was going to take a stab at shooting single frame from the baseline for at least 1 full half. I decided to have a go at it in the first half and boy was it difficult at times! Shooting single frame allows you to time your shots for the exact moment. The downside is that you have to be very skilled to hit that exact moment! In perimeter shooting plays it's not too difficult to time a players release, but when they drive or penetrate it becomes a lot more difficult.

During the game I was so tempted to flip back to continuous high speed so I could rip 9FPS while KT drove the lane or Marissa backed in for an in-the-lane shot. But I resisted and stuck to my plan of 1 frame at a time. The nice part of this shooting strategy is that it didn't yield many photos to post process! Nearly every shot was a keeper and I only had around 30 or so frames to import by halftime!

While shooting 1 frame at a time I thought a little bit about how I would approach this learning exercise with 2 bodies. Would I shoot 1 frame at a time on both a long lens and a short lens, or would I switch to CHS on the short lens so I could get the dribble penetration shots? The truth is I don't know how I would approach it...

I also wondered how other photographers that use strobes would approach this. If Greg's strobes were down would he shoot CHS or would he switch to single shots and rely on his timing to get the right shots? I'll have to ask a few people the next time there's a Maryland event.

A week or so ago I blogged about the importance of keeping an eye open for things going on off the court. This afternoon such an opportunity came up when Greivis Vasquez showed up and signed a bunch of autographs for a middle school girls basketball team that attended the game. I noticed him walking along the sideline and saw him head up into the stands and towards the invited guests. A few minutes later I noticed him sitting down with them while they all practically climbed on top of one another to get his autograph and talk with him. With a 20 point lead and 6 minutes remaining in regulation I decided to run back to the media room to grab my 14-24mm ultra-wide lens and SB-800 speedlight.

I raced back out and up into the stands where I said hello to Greivis and asked the girls if they wanted a picture with Vasquez. They all jumped up nearly simultaneously and formed a circle around the iconic Team Captain for the Terps.

Without a light meter I was basically shooting blind there in the stands. I set the ISO to 1000, WB to flash, and slowed the shutter down to around 1/400th with an aperture of f/5. The power correction was set to something ridiculous like -2.0 but I fired anyway. The shot came out really dark so I quickly stepped up the correction to -0.3 and took another shot. The second one came out much better although the colors were still slightly off in the end.

I handed a business cards to one of the players who frantically whisked it away to their coach sitting in another section. A few hours after the game I received an email from the coach who didn't seem to believe the players who told them that a professional photographer took their photo with Greivis. I laughed and replied to him with the photo and said that I hoped he had enjoyed the game. He responded today that he and the team had a great time at Maryland and that the photo would add to their memories. I was happy I could capture it for them.

At the football game on Saturday a similar situation arose when Testudo boosted a 6 year fan out of the stands and brought him down onto the field. I quickly spun around and snapped a few frames and then later found the mom and dad and gave them my business card. After a few emails back and forth it turns out that the 6 year old took the photo to school the next day to show all his friends and his teacher.

Photography is a great skill. I'm so fortunate to be learning about it and have Julie that encourages it in me. I can't wait to see what the next things are that I'll shoot.

Friday night I was up pretty late post processing basketball photos and publishing them out to the various sites where I post photos for safe keeping once they are all touched up and ready to be viewed. Saturday I laid in bed watching Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, The Learning Channel, and Animal Planet while my wife Julie worked her second of three jobs up at my company's office. Yes, I have a good life - I'm laying in bed while my wife is up at my office working on a project making some extra scratch.

After a decent recovery I emerged from the house around 4pm to head out to REI to purchase some reinforcements for the cold. This past week it's been in the middle 30s during the day and dropping down into the 20s at night. With gametime scheduled for 7:45pm I knew it was going to be a cold one, and if there's one thing that outdoor sports photography has taught me it's this: be prepared for the weather.

If you're focused on your wetness, your coldness, or your sleepiness you're not going to focus on the play on the field. Purchasing $50 worth of goretex pants and jackets or a $30 windproof hat is worth it in the long haul and will allow you to be prepared for the eventual shoot where the weather just doesn't play nice. Often times those soaker games can lead to the best shots where you capture clumps of dirt flying up in the air or a player wringing out a jersey.

My purchases at REI this afternoon included some small sized goretex gloves along with a wind-proof hat and some portable air-activated heat packs for both my feet and my gloves. Kirsten Olsen introduced me to a sweet pair of gloves last year that I've sworn by ever since - they are essentially a glove with the fingers cut off at your last knuckle. However, they also come with a protective flap that is like a mitten in that it slips over your 4 fingers. The thumb comes with a flap as well. What's nice about this glove is that it leaves your pointer finger and thumb exposed giving you plenty of dexterity to work the dials on your camera.

It's really important that a photographer have good sensitivity on their pointer-finger because the shutter-release/auto-focus button is very sensitive. You want to partially depress the shutter to activate the AF system but you don't necessarily want to trip the shutter. You need a very soft touch and wrapping your hands in lots of protective gear, while certainly insulates you from the cold, reduces your ability to properly apply the AF system.

When I went to REI I put a lot of time into selecting the right pair of gloves. I intentionally bought gloves that are too small for me because I wanted my finger to be tight against the neoprene so that I have the best sensitivity possible. I also wanted to make sure that they would fit under my existing photography gloves!

Prior to the game I tailgated for a few hours with my family. We've had a standing tailgate for several years now and it seems like every year we encounter a freezing cold night game that forces us to bring out the blankets and quadruple wrap ourselves for warmth. Tonight was no exception from the trend and both Andrew and Haydee and I all brought pocket warmers and toe warmers. I was very impressed with how well the toe warmers functioned - my toes were never cold during the evening!

My strategy during the tailgate was to ingest as much food and drink as possible so that during the game my digesting process would create a lot of heat to keep me warm! It was pretty bad - I was gorching myself at the trough of chicken wings, chicken breasts, bratwurst, and friend chicken from Popeyes. On top of that I tore down a couple of Coca Colas. By gametime I was set to go!

I arrived early on the field so that I could catch the seniors. I walked out onto the field and double checked with Greg to see if other photographers could shoot the seniors. After an approving nod I positioned myself around the midfield mark and waited for the first players to emerge. After a few snaps I noticed that Coach Friedgen was shaking the hands and hugging the players before they ran out to midfield. With everyone else snapping the typical family shot of the seniors I raced up the field to grab the shots of Ralph and his senior class. It was a bit of a tear-jerker seeing Ralph hug and swell up while each senior gave him an enormous hug and thanked him for believing in them for the past 4 or 5 years. I felt pretty fortunate to be in that spot catching those moments. Of course, those photos will probably never see the light of day and ever be published because I don't know how much Ralph would appreciate that sort of thing. Who knows though - you never know who might call one day looking for an archived photo of Coach Friedgen and a senior. I still pull out my old shots of Scott McBrien being hugged by his grandfather after winning the MVP in a bowl game several years back.

After the senior ceremony but before the game I dropped my 400mm off in the closed part of the endzone and traveled up into student section with my 24-70mm lens. I stood perched up at the top above all the black'ed out students and awaited the fireworks that would welcome the team to the field. I wanted to shoot wide so I could capture the fireworks display. I shot at a pretty decent ISO (maybe 1600?) at f/3.2. Prior to the display I tried to anticipate how high the fireworks would rise. I was really off in retrospect! None the less, I'm glad I shot landscape so that I could capture as much of the stadium as possible.

While running around with my double-gloves and wind-proof hat I became really hot! I was so hot after climbing up to the top of the student section that I had to shed my gloves and hand warmers and cool down. I guess all that chicken and soda must've done the trick! However, after the game began and I was back on the field the temperatures settled in and I was glad to have both layers of gloves.

I decided to shoot the game at f/4 and ISO 2500. From time to time I had to drop down to f/3.5 or f/3.2 because the Terps wore black. However, when FSU was in the foreground I had plenty of reflected light at f/4 and ISO 2500.

I traveled to the visiting side of the field and was very surprised by how little light there was in comparison to Maryland's side of the field. The Athletics Department installed some additional lighting in Tyser Tower this season and the increase in light behind the Maryland bench is really noticeable. It was easily a full stop if not more!

I was surprised to notice a couple of photographers shooting at ISO 6400 during the game. They were all using a D3 and shooting through 400mm glass. I also noticed that they all shoot for newspapers - I'm not sure how much of a role that plays in their decision to crank the sensitivity up to ISO 6400.

After a long game I packed it in and took my last walk up the long steps of Byrd Stadium for awhile. This game was the end of the home schedule for Maryland and marked the conclusion of my first season of shooting Terrapin football. It was tremendously enjoyable and I learned a lot during the process. I wish the Terps the best of luck in their match against BC and look forward to the bowl season hoping that Maryland will have the opportunity to tack on another win in late December or early January.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wow, what a game. I realize that many people on the baseline and in the reporters booth are supposed to maintain an indifferent perspective on the events unfolding on the court but tonight all I could say is wow! Both Maryland and Vermont played with their hearts out on the hardwood and it was extremely exciting to be so close to such a hard fought match between the two teams.

Maryland and Vermont were well suited for one another and both teams had to put all they had on the court this evening to earn the W. Maryland came up with it in the end but Vermont put up a formidable battle. As a photographer such a matchup is a great opportunity to capture some great moments of competition.

The space was pretty tight this evening on the baseline but spots for both DC Sports Box and Inside the Shell were allocated on the baseline.

Mike Busada stepped in for Dave Lovell and shot the game this evening for the DC Sports Box. I enjoy working with Mike on assignments - he works full-time in the photography field and has a lot of valuable insight he's willing to offer. In the past I'd look to Mike to offer technical advice on matters like exposure. Nowadays, with 250 games under my belt, exposure is not so much of a concern any more. I'm now trying focus on dynamics like capturing the mood and moment of the game.

How do you characterize that? Is it a shot of a fan with veins protruding from their neck while cheering on their home team? Is it the home coach calling a play or giving a stern look towards the referees? Is it the team captain amping up the crowd with an on-court emotional display like a fist-pump or a celebratory scream?

I feel like at this point I'm competent enough with the mechanics of photography to capture enough in-game shots to accurately portray the story of the game. I want to focus now on displaying the emotion or "bite" in the game. What was it that makes the Vermont game memorable versus the 20 other games that the Terps will play this season? To do that I realize I need the advice of photographers more experienced than myself. To me it seems like proper exposure settings are simply a pre-requisite into this higher level class.

As is always the case, my struggle is to find someone willing to teach and offer me advice. Certainly Mike is a great photographer but his primary focus is in subject matters different from sports. And the people I sit next to are people that look at my product as a potential competitor to their own offerings. How can I learn the subtle art of emotional sports photography when the lessons are so highly protected by the practitioners of the art? That's what I wrestle with...

In the mean time I continue walk down this learning process realizing that my path is not straight and is not the most efficient approach towards becoming a great sports photographer. However, I accept the inefficiencies because I'm aware of the free market and realize that my potential competitors have little to gain in offering my insight into their tradecraft.

As is always the case I continue to show up to games and do my best to convey both the flow and emotion of the event. It looks more and more likely that if I'm going to learn the art of sports photography I'm going to have to bump and bounce my way through it. While it's certainly suboptimal I can accept it and I have the perseverance to see it through - after all I've shot 250+ games now at UM.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

This evening I was awarded with a plastic credential from UM with my name on it. I'm very proud of that achievement. It was very rewarding to see my name and photo on a plastic credential produced by Maryland. I've shot over 250 games at the University and written hundreds of articles for the DC Sports Box. Receiving that piece of plastic, as silly as that sounds, really meant a lot.

Tonight I introduced a new photographer from our company to Maryland. Kim Lynch shot her first Maryland event this evening and I was happy to walk step her through the rules and procedures. We both sat baseline while she shot for the DC Sports Box and I shot for Inside the Shell magazine.

In the second half I decided to diverge from my normal high-speed shooting process. I switched to single frame exposure and I changed my aperture from f/2.8 to f/3.5. That required an increase in ISO 3200 but on a D3 the increased noise is negligible.

I attempted the single-shot approach last year when shooting my D200 and I decided to try it out again this year. When I look at Greg Fiume's photos I think to myself that the most difficult aspect of his shots is his timing. Whereas I (and everyone else) can rip through 9 FPS of shots during a drive Greg gets a single shot to fire his flash. It takes a lot of skill to time the shot perfectly.

For the second half I went to single-shot shooting mode and relied on my own timing to get my shots. To my surprise I didn't do too poorly. My timing is a lot better than last year, and of course that's no surprise considering I've shot a lot of games since then. None-the-less I was still surprised how many decent shots I got using single-exposure shooting mode. I was very pleased with a few shots I got of Marissa Coleman driving to the net, including the one I featured at the top of this page.

I haven't decided how much I'm going to pursue the single-shot shooting mode approach to sports photography. Installing strobes in the ceiling of Comcast is simply not an option due to prohibitive costs. But, there is value in shooting single-shot mode even if you don't fire strobes. The value comes from your ability as a photographer to time the moment and pick the exact split-second moment you want to capture and show to the world. If you rip through 9 frames per second all you're doing is sitting in a privileged spot with an expensive capture device and then picking the best shot from the collection. If you can time it right, get the focus sharp, and get that perfect shot ... well ... that's pretty good.

So even though I have no intentions of strobing the arena I still am thinking about shooting single-frame so that I improve my own photography skill. We'll see how risky that proves. Will I fall back to a 9FPS rip on a big play? I don't know. Seems like the best approach is to try out the single-shot approach on women's games. If I can make it through an entire women's game using single-shot maybe I'll take a stab at shooting the second half of a men's game single-shot.

I was pretty late to this evenings game and arrived in the media room with 2 minutes before tipoff. I had barely enough time to take my laptop out and get it powered before I had to race out to the court to find my spot on the hardwood.

There were quite a few more photographers and TV people on the baseline this evening than there were last week. The early-season games seem to be hit and miss with space on the sideline: Maryland leaves open a bunch of spots for the TV folks and sometimes they show and sometimes they don't. Tonight a bunch of TV folks showed up and that crunched space a lot.

I took a spot on the close end of the court for the first half because I arrived late and didn't scope out a space on the shooting end the Terps use in the first half. By the time I made it out there all the spots were taken. It was ok though - I had plenty of shooting opportunities from the far side. I simply pulled out my 400mm lens and shot long for the majority of the first half.

Just as halftime commenced I marked my spot on the shooting end of the court for the Terps for the second half. I grabbed a spot towards the 3 point line. Fortunately nobody moved my gear and by the time I made it back out to the court after halftime everything was in it's place.

I like basketball games a lot because I have time at various points to review pictures and delete the bad ones. By the time I make it towards the end of the game I usually have gone through the first batch of my photos and am working on a refined data set. In other events I'm reviewing 600+ photos afterwards, but in basketball by the time I get home I usually have it down to around 100 photos, of which 40 are publishable.

It's kinda funny to think about how a couple of years ago when I shot my first games I brought my little Nikon bag and placed it on the back of the basketball rim while shooting. I didn't even know where the media room, much less how everything worked. It's good knowing where to go, where to put your stuff, and when you can review your photos.

I started uploading my photos to the Inside the Shell website. We're using a piece of Joomla software named Phoca. Phoca is a gallery viewer and it is quite awful. My wife Julie teases me and says that I never think that any software is good. She's right - I have really high standards before I say a certain software package is good. But seriously - Phoca is ... well ... not good. To post a gallery I have to go through about 10 steps that involve repeating the fact that this gallery should be called "2008-11-18: Youngstown State". Doing anything in software should involve the minimal amount of steps possible to ensure that it is done right. Offering the user lots of choices and forcing them to repeat themselves about things like gallery names (e.g. "2008-11-18: Youngstown State") inevitably leads to mistakes because humans are imperfect.

I don't plan on trying to improve the gallery situation because it's not my problem. I have plenty of work on my plate and trying to take on revamping the gallery infrastructure for Inside the Shell is pretty low on my priority list at the moment. None-the-less, it's been a valuable experience to learn how to post images up to Phoca. Even knowing what NOT to do is a good lesson and helps you avoid making the same mistakes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Sunday I headed back to the hardwood for a women's basketball game between the Lady Terps and Delaware State.

Women's Basketball is where sports photography began for me a few years back and it remains one of my most enjoyed events to shoot. Access is very convenient and there is plenty of room on the baseline to shoot and try new things. I don't have to worry about bumping into many people with my photo gear and if I want to move down to the other side of the court I can without a problem.

This afternoon I didn't try out any new techniques other than using my 300mm lens. I've used the 300mm lens in men's basketball for some scrimmages and for a couple of games but I really wanted to give it a shot in women's basketball to see how it performed. In women's basketball the rules are slightly different and that changes the tempo of the game. The ladies shoot with 30 seconds on the shot clock rather than 35 and they don't have a 10 second back court rule. As a result you can get a team that likes to double team in the backcourt to force turnovers and that changes how you shoot the game.

In men's hoops you grab your long glass as soon as the play under your basket is over because the offensive team needs to get out of the backcourt quickly and past the midcourt line. In women's hoops half the clock could be burned in the backcourt so you don't want to jump on the 300mm as quickly. However, shooting a player between yourself and midcourt on a 300mm produces a wonderful image if you can catch them in focus properly!

There aren't any universal do's and dont's in sports photography in so far as what body and lens to use so I was looking forward to my first women's game of the season to see how useful the 300mm lens was. It came as no surprise to me that I went to the 300mm for most of my shots, including shots in the front court. I sat out along the 3 point line and shot under the basket at the far baseline and 3 point line. That distance was just perfect for a 300mm lens but it would've been too far for 200mm and too close for 400mm.

The 300mm lens has really expanded the variety of shots I publish from my basketball games. In the past I relied on my 70-200mm for penetration shots while I used my 17-55mm DX lens for my under-the-basket shots. With the FX sensor I'm enjoying using my 300mm glass for across-midcourt shots as well as shots on the near side of the court. When I switched to the 70-200mm it was with the thought process of "I guess I need some layup shots".

After the game I headed up to the rafters to take a look at the basket through my 300mm lens. Greg was right in his comments about the difficulty of the shot - there are definite challenges from up there. When looking down at the glossy floor the lights from above create a noticeable reflection on the court. However, if I shot using the 400mm lens I would be close enough to just capture the faces and fingers of the players as they went up for the basket.

I have some more tricks up my sleeve that I'm working on with this shoot. I don't want to spoil anything by posting it online and I need to talk with some people to verify some assumptions. I'm crossing my fingers though that I can pull this off. If it works it could be some really cool shots!

After the Maryland Field Hockey Game I high-tailed it home to scoop up an awaiting Julie and race off to the campus of George Washington for an afternoon matchup against regional challenger UMBC. The Lady Retrievers were the first on the regular season schedule for the Lady Colonials and it promised to be an interesting shoot.

Marc Irlandez, a GWU alum, agreed to cover most of the 2008-2009 season for both the women's and men's teams. He lives down near the GWU campus so the travel time for him is quite reasonable. In comparison it took Julie and I approximately 45 minutes to travel from College Park MD up around the northern side of the beltway, down the GW Memorial Parkway, and then into Washington DC before we arrived at the Smith Center. Fortunately with Julie in the car I was able to bail out and shoot while she drove around looking for a parking spot. In the end she ended up parked in a No Parking spot just outside the stadium while she waited for me. I don't know how many other wives would hang out in a car for an hour while their husband shot a women's basketball game so I consider myself extremely lucky.

It is very challenging to find decent photographers to work with that are skilled and reliable. Most people that are skilled want to shoot the high profile NBA, NFL, or NHL games. Very few want to sit down at a collegiate women's basketball game and rip off a thousand frames. As a result we have limited resources to work with when lining up coverage for certain teams and games.

Accordingly, my plan this afternoon was to capture enough action photos for a gallery while also capturing isolation shots of as many players as possible. This posed a real challenge because I promised my wife waiting in the car that I would leave the arena no later than 3pm.

Having a single camera body made this a real challenge. I stuck with the 300mm lens for the most part so that I could focus on isolation shots but I switched up to my 70-200mm "go anywhere" lens for some action shots. I also used the 24-70mm lens under the basket for a handful of wide shots that showed the arena and the players.

The only issue I had during the afternoon was the varying color temperature of the overhead bulbs. I've read in the past (but cannot find the link) about variations in color temperature in certain bulbs as the intensity in them oscillates in relation to the 60Hz electrical current. The idea behind the article was that as power enters the bulb the bulb begins to emit light at a certain temperature. As more power enters the bulb the temperature changes. Eventually the bulb powers off and there's no light emitted. This happens 60 times a second because that's how electricity in this country oscillates.

If you shot at a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second or slower you would have received light from all the different temperatures from the bulb and every shot would have a consistent color in it. But if you shot faster than 1/60th you'd only get a small segment of those colors and the faster you shot the narrower the sampling your camera would have. If you had 1 bulb producing all your light you might be able to compensate but with N bulbs overhead each oscillating at slightly different schedules it makes it nearly impossible to correct automatically.

The Volleyball and Wrestling teams at UM play in the Comcast Pavilion and I've experienced this problem first hand. You can fire 4 shots at the net using a fixed WB setting and come up with completely different tints on your shots. Unfortunately the arena where GW plays basketball suffers from the same issue.

Most of my isolation photos of players from my GWU will have to be touched up with manual WB adjustments. In Volleyball you often have the white stripe of the net you can use as a reference point. In the case of basketball the Colonials where a white jersey but the imperfections in the fabric make adjustment difficult at times.

Ahh, if only we just had strobes...

Saturday morning the Terps field hockey team kicked off their quest for a 2008 championship trophy by playing in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on their home field in College Park. I attended the game, as did Yuchen, and we got some good shots of the team.

When I awoke on Saturday morning I took one look out the window and remarked "this is going to be a difficult game." The weather was highly volatile - lots of wind and low clouds. The ground was moist from periodic rains earlier in the morning but the sun also broke through the clouds from time to time.

I never let the camera control the exposure for me. I always use manual exposure settings and use the camera meter as a hint for where my shutter should reside. Most of the time I keep my aperture locked at f/2.8, f/3.5, f/4, or the occasional f/5.6 while I set the ISO at a sensitivity sufficient to give me 1/500th or faster at the minimum aperture I'm willing to use. On a cloudy day I might need ISO 800 for 1/500th on a f/5.6 exposure so I'll keep the ISO at 800. I can open up the aperture to f/4, f/3.5 or even f/2.8 and handle the added light by increasing the shutter to 1/2000th, 1/4000th or even faster.

When the weather is variable your success is tied to your instincts and your cameras built-in meter. If it's cloudy and my subjects are properly exposed at 1/500th, f/4, ISO 640 but then the sun shoots through for a few seconds the meter may not pick up on it properly. In that case it's up to you the photographer to recognize the change in the amount of light and to increase your shutter speed to accommodate the additional light. Eventually the meter catches up but at the point the play may be over.

So the bottom line is: in variable weather you have to pay religious attention to your exposure settings or else you risk over or under exposing your subjects. And you can't exactly ask for a do-over in sports photography. You either get the shot or you don't.

I took my standard "sun over my shoulders" shots this afternoon in the first half, although a minority of my shots were in direct sunlight. Most of my shots took place under cloudy conditions. I managed to grab a few frames when the sun broke through but those shots were few and far in between.

At halftime I sorted through my 300 or so exposures from the first half and narrowed it down to around 80 photos I'd be willing to import into Lightroom. In the second half I looked for Yuchen and noticed he grabbed the "sun over my shoulder" spot on the far end of the field. As a result I decided to stick down near the scoreboard and try my hand at some halo shots.

Shooting halo shots of the players can be fun and is a nice change of pace. You look for a spot where you are shooting directly into the sun and you meter the players face. This often overexposes the background (which can be ok) while creating a bright halo of light around the players hair and extremities. It looks really cool when done right.

Field Hockey halo shots are especially fun because of the wet nature of the field. The operations crew pumps an enormous amount of water out onto the field to keep it safe for the players and the water droplets throw off a ton of light when you shoot into the sun. Additionally, water drips off the sticks of the players and the light piercing those droplets create an awesome effect.

As the Terps raced up the field I kept looking for the halo shots. Unfortunately the sun didn't cooperate as much as I would've liked and I was only offered a few chances to capture my water-droplet-frozen-in-mid-air halo shot. I love the effect though and next season I'm going to shoot into the sun more often!

I also decided to shoot the game at f/4 and f/4.5. Most of the other games I covered this year I shot at f/2.8. I've been told "you paid for the f/2.8 glass so why not use it". There's some validity to that statement but the sharpness at f/2.8 is less than if you shot at higher apertures. Each lens and camera body varies in where it's sharpest but you can generally say that the narrower the aperture the sharper the image.

There was a huge difference in the sharpness of my photos today. The f/4 aperture really worked well and my subjects were well isolated because I shot on a 400mm lens.

Today's game most likely marks the end of my coverage of Terrapin Field Hockey for the next 9 months or so. I'm shooting the women's basketball game on Sunday afternoon while Yuchen covers the Field Hockey game for the DC Sports Box, and I won't be able to travel to Louisville to cover the Terps when they compete for NCAA gold. It's been a good season and like last year I've learned a lot from the experience. From a cloudy lens during one game to shooting seniors at 14mm to my goalie-mask-speedlight pose it's been a very enjoyable and memorable season. I wish the Terps good luck in the Final Four in Louisville and a safe offseason until Fall 2009.

Friday evening rolled around and the Terps opened their 2008-2009 regular season with competition against the visiting team of Bucknell from Pennsylvania.

I've been to the Comcast Center a few times this season for various media day events, scrimmages, and exhibition games. However, tonight was pretty exciting because it's the official start of the season where records start to tally up and the win column gets a lot of attention.

A lot of familiar faces were on hand on the baseline and it was nice to see everyone again. I had my laptop with me in the car but I chose not to take it inside during the game. Instead I decided to just work with camera gear and prune down my photos on camera.

In the past I brought my laptop inside Comcast with me and would review photos and prune out the bad shots during the post-game press conference. This year I'm shooting for Inside the Shell and I don't have any writing responsibilities so that changes the equation somewhat. When writing for the DC Sports Box the post-game press conference was a perfect time to wade through my photos in Aperture and tag the bad ones for removal. By the time the press conference ended I had both offloaded my imagery from the night while at the same time pruning my out of focus shots. After a quick stop-off in the locker room to get some player quotes I'd end up back in the media room where I'd pack up my things and leave. At that point all the traffic had left the arena and the roads were open for me to head home, making my commute time about 5 minutes from Comcast Center to my home over in College Heights Estates.

I'll have to play it by ear for the first couple of games and see how things go in so far as sticking around or leaving after the game. If I leave immediately I'll be caught up in traffic and I'll miss the post-game press conference. However, by leaving early I might actually make it out before the masses and get home before the rest of my family! Hmmm...

Settings for tonight were the standard ISO 2500 with f/2.8 aperture and 1/500th shutter speed. I used a custom WB that I set a few weeks ago during a scrimmage and that has worked really well. Nothing too unusual happened during the event tonight in so far as equipment problems - everything functioned properly and went smoothly.

I've been shooting more and more with the 300mm in basketball and I really love how close you can get to the players using that lens. The 200mm simply doesn't isolate the players as much and the 300mm really gets you up close and personal. I've actually contemplated pulling the 400mm out for some shots of players on the far side of the court. Last season I used the 400mm on a D200 with a DX sensor and had a remarkably difficult time tracking my subjects. The few shots I did manage to capture were great because they were really up close and the background was all blurred out due to the long focal length. With a D3 and an FX sensor I'm curious how manageable the 400mm will be.

After the game I thought about going up in the rafters with my 300mm and taking some test shots looking down at the basket. The unfortunate fact about basketball is that the players look up towards the rim and lift their arms up while shooting. Lots of times their faces are blocked by upward reaching arms as the player shoots or goes in for a layup. By placing a camera above looking down you could get some interesting shots where the players are looking towards the camera.

I asked Greg about it and he said I could accompany him up to the rafters after the next game to see what it looks like. He cautioned me though and said that he had tried it before and there's a bunch of limitations that make the shot difficult. None-the-less I'm looking forward to seeing the angle and trying to figure out a way to get the shot.

On a surprising note I was told by some friends and family that Gary Williams remarked on some booing that occurred during the opening 5 minutes of the game. I must admit that when I'm on the baseline I tend to get wrapped up in the mechanics of photography and sometimes things happen and I'm unaware of their existence. I'm looking at the bench for reactions, the visiting coach for what he's doing, and Gary Williams for his scowling looks onto the court. I'm watching the players on the court to see who's going to drive the lane for a finger-roll layup, or which guards are going to dive onto the court for a loose ball. I'm looking at the refs for the technical foul call, or where Testudo is walking around. In short, I'm trying my best to be aware of as much of whats going on as possible so that I can capture something special.

Things slip past often. I rarely know the score because the scoreboard isn't that interesting (although knowing when the home team is about to take the lead for the first time is interesting). Tonight I missed the booing and I missed Gary's apparent reaction to it when it happened. During the post-game press conference I was standing no more than 10 feet away from Coach Williams while he addressed the crowd and I missed his comments on the event (he apparently referenced UCLA only winning by 1 but not being booed). I wasn't paying attention to what he was saying because I was focused on watching his lips eyes, and facial expressions looking for the right time to fire the shutter.

In my last post I talked about paying less attention to exposure settings and more attention to being in the right spot to get the best shots. As we head into the winter basketball season I'm reminded of the lessons learned from last season and will do a better job in remembering that my ears are a valuable tool for finding those "special moments" that make a great photograph. As photographers we tend to look to our eyes for those cues but our ears can be as effective...

Sunday, November 9, 2008

After a quick run home to offload and post-process men's basketball pictures I headed back to the Pavilion for the senior ceremony of the volleyball squad.

James Lang was on assignment to shoot the ceremony while Dave Lovell and I also photographed the event for the DC Sports Box. I noticed Dave on the court with a short lens and a flash so I opted to stand back on the side and use my 300mm lens to get some profile shots of the players while they posed for Dave and James.

Naturally my shots were not as crisp and sharp as James and Daves because I shot at f/2.8 and ISO 4000 while they were able to rely on the light from the flash to offer them shots up around f/7.1 and probably ISO 640. Under those conditions you can make the subjects pop with the light from your camera while I'm forced to use the hodge-podge overhead bulbs of varying color and brightness.

I noticed that the elevated spot on the far end of the court was not occupied for this evening's game so I moved in to claim it for myself in the opening set. Normally videographers or team statisticians are perched from that prime spot and photographers are not permitted atop. I've had my eye on the spot all season because it's high enough where you can somewhat catch the players leaping up over the net to spike.

I say somewhat because not all players can get that high. Most of the time the top line of the net crosses their face in half while their hand makes it above the stripe. But on occasion you'll catch an attack where the player makes it high enough to get over the white stripe.

Focus from that position is a real challenge. My AF system kept locking on the mesh of the net rather than the players beyond the net. It really was a challenge and very few of my shots from that position came out well. The few that did were really good but the reliability was just not there.

I decided to stick with the 300mm and shoot from a couple of different spots around the Pavilion. I headed up to the top row of the bleachers as far back as I could go. I positioned myself such that the right handed players would spike towards me so that I could get a full shot of their faces and bodies. In comparison if I had shot from the opposite side of the court the players would continue to spike with their right hands and would block their torsos and faces.

I've found that I no longer spend time thinking about proper exposure when I shoot sports. I now look for the good spots to shoot from and I try to pay attention to where the players will strike from. If it's basketball I want to be on the opposite side of the court as where the players strike. So if they drive right (because they are right handed) I want to be on the left hand side of the court (from their perspective).

I also look at the angles that a lot of other photographers use and consider incorporating them into my own portfolio. It's a combination of learning by example and trying my own things. It works pretty well for the most part except for the criticism some people give you for this approach. They'll say you're "copying" but in reality there are only so many places you can shoot from in certain events and just being in the same spot doesn't guarantee the same shot. There are different focal lengths, apertures, and moments that are going to produce entirely different photos. A shot at f/4 with 1/250th at 300mm in volleyball of a player serving will look entirely different than a shot at f/2.8 with 1/500th at 200mm in volleyball of a player bumping a return to a serve. The two images may be shot from the same location but how the photographer captured the scene will be entirely different.

Anyhow, after I shot from back and up high I decided to try to go low and from the backcourt. I had a difficult time from that spot because the players on the close end of the court blocked the Terps on the opposite side of the court. I wanted to catch some good bump shots from the backline but there were just too many Seminoles and Terps standing in between myself and the backline on the opposite side of the floor.

The third spot I attempted was from midcourt along the side. I've worked from there before with the 70-200mm lens but I wanted to give a go at using the 300mm. It was just too much reach for that position so I ended up going back down to the 70-200mm lens. However, I was still blocked for a lot of shots by other players and I decided to move around some more.

Eventually I settled in on a somewhat decent location behind the scorers table while using a 300mm lens. I was able to capture some decent shots of serves and after climbing up high on the stands I got some interesting angles on players in the backcourt bumping. On a 300mm lens you can get in pretty close and I liked that isolation a lot.

With volleyball officially over for the season the only remaining Olympic sports on the agenda are soccer and field hockey. Both teams will compete in the NCAA tournament and some of the games will most likely be played at the University of Maryland. It should be fun!

Ahhh men's basketball... Julie's favorite sport...

Maryland opened their season this afternoon with an exhibition game against the Northwood Seahawks. I've been to a handful of scrimmages this year as well as both media days for men's and women's basketball so I've been inside Comcast several times prior to the Terps taking the court for the first time this afternoon. None the less it's always exciting to see the Terps in their actual uniforms and Gary dressed in his regular suit and tie.

Accommodations for the game were unusual because the game was exhibition. Normally Maryland places cards on the baseline with each organization's name that has been awarded a photographer's seat. This evening the baseline was absent of any such identifiers, although the assignment sheet just outside the media room identified spots and locations.

The DC Sports Box took the #1 seat under the home team basket. Different people look at this spot with different perspectives. On one hand you're close to most of the action but on the other hand you have to shoot directly up to get players dunking or going up for rebounds. As a result you often have a difficult time catching the players faces. But, you get some great shots on dribble penetrations by guards and forwards striking in from out beyond the free throw line or the arc.

Some people like the spot out beyond the 3 point line. I've shot from there and you certainly get a different perspective that is equally great. You can catch defensive players leaping out to block a shot by a perimeter shooter. Or you can capture a guard driving baseline from the opposite side while they struggle to remain inbounds. In all due honesty I think the most appealing aspect of the outer most spot on the baseline is that the referee doesn't block your shots as much! When you are right under the basket the baseline referee seems to constantly be in front of you.

I chose to go up high for the opening tipoff and see how a 14mm shot on an FX sensor would look from where the TVs are located. It was decent but nothing stunning. If this were Duke or North Carolina or some other team that would pack Comcast to the rafters the shot might've come out pretty well. But since it was an exhibition game against a team that just added a basketball team a year ago not too many people showed up and the stands were empty.

I also believe that shooting from the 200 section is too high for the shot. For Friday night's game against Bucknell I'm going to try and shoot from lower down and see what I can capture. I'm trying to get as much of the arena in the frame as possible but I want the stands to be all over the frame. When shooting from the 200 section I was mostly shooting down and the stands on the opposite side of the arena were dark and hardly noticeable.

After going wide I went down to the court and shot a few frames on my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens from the wing spot. I literally only shot a few frames because the whistle blew after 1 or 2 plays and I was able to race back to the media room to pick up my 300mm f/2.8 VR lens.

I've been wondering how that lens would perform at a real basketball game and after tonight's game I have to say I'm very impressed. The 300mm f/2.8 lens on an FX sensor does a great job isolated players on the opposite side of the court. The reach is great for basketball and the long focal point narrows the depth of field well enough to isolate the players while blurring the background.

Last year I went back and forth between a 400mm f/2.8 lens on a DX sensor (yikes!) and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on a DX sensor. On the 400mm lens (equivalent to 600mm on an FX sensor) I was way too tight and I only got a handful of shots. The few that I got were great but it was really difficult to focus and properly frame the players. It was just too much reach.

But 200mm was too short and I couldn't isolate my players against the background. 300mm is perfect on the FX sensor and I'm really happy with it's performance. I shot nearly all of the first half using the 300mm glass and I even wrapped up the closing 5 minutes with the lens in the second half (I wanted to shoot the defense). The 70-200mm is an ideal lens for shooting basketball under your current basket because it can easily reach the players out on the perimeter and it can be pulled back wide enough to capture the players dunking or driving towards the net. I recommend it and a 300mm lens for good basketball coverage.

I was also very happy with the performance of my D3 at ISO 2500. Last year I capped myself at 1600 due to noise on the D200 sensor but now that I'm on a D3 I can go up as high as 6500 without offensive noise. Keeping myself locked at ISO 2500 and 1/500 shutter speed all night I didn't ever think to myself "I wish there was more light in here."

During the game I looked up to the rafters towards the strobes and thought about a spot for a remote. I'd like to try to place a remote with a really powerful lens (e.g. maybe 400mm or 400mm with a 1.4 TC) up in the rafters parallel to the baseline focused down on the rim. I bet you can take some great shots from the position. My only problem is that I only have 1 body so I can't try it out.

I've been thinking about picking up a used D3 since prices are down due to the economic pullback. I've been really busy at work lately and have a ton of jobs lined up for awhile so I think I can afford it. Then again you never know in an economy like this and a new president set to move into the whitehouse in 3 months.

Friday morning Andrew and I got up and headed back up to the DC area. We arrived back in College Park around 1:30pm and that gave me plenty of time to unpack, clean up around the house, and take care of some yardwork that has been screaming for attention.

My wife and I have roughly 15 oak trees on our property and Fall Foliage, while certainly colorful and appealing, creates a lot of leaves to rake and blow. I haven't worked them at all this year and having arrived back early from my trip to Virginia Tech I decided to make the most of the nice weather and rake all the leaves to the curb.

I debated which photo assignment to take on Friday evening: men's soccer or women's basketball. Basketball is certainly a welcome assignment any time but the game was exhibition while the soccer game was an ACC matchup, senior night, and the end of the regular season for a team that is ranked No. 5 in the country. I decided to go with men's soccer even though I really wanted to sit on the hardwood in Comcast.

In retrospect I made the correct decision in sticking with the men's soccer assignment. Senior night is an important event for a team and an ACC matchup between No. 5 and No. 21 in the country is no small potatoes either.

A couple of photographers were present for the game, including the Diamondback photographer who shot the Virginia Tech game the night before and drove back to College Park after the game. I asked her how she fared on the trip and she told me she stopped a couple of times and slept for an hour at gas stations and rest stops. Hats off for the dedication to covering the team - it's a pretty tall order to put 540 miles on your car in 10 hours of driving to cover 3 hours of gametime all on a student's hourly rate of probably $10/hr!

The Terps played admirably during the contest against Carolina and I was happy with most of my shots. The colors are slightly off in some of the photos and the shadows on the players are sharp but there isn't a whole lot I can do in Ludwig. If I increase the ISO to fully illuminate the shadows on the players faces I blow highlights in other areas of the frame. Or if I turn up the blacks too much the photo looks artificial. The lighting in there is just poor - I really wish Maryland would invest in 2 additional lights in either endzone (or in the center of the field).

On Thursday evening I had the opportunity to shoot the Maryland Terrapins vs Virginia Tech matchup down in Blacksburg VA. This game was nationally televised on ESPN and featured two teams ranked in the top 25 in the country so it promised to be exciting.

I drove down to Blacksburg during the day on Thursday and arrived at my hotel in Roanoke in the middle to late afternoon. After checking in and grabbing some food and drink I hopped back onto I-81 and headed south to Blacksburg. The traffic from Roanoke was stop and go and that surprised me considering I left around 4:45pm for a 7:30pm game.

I arrived at the stadium around 7:00pm and headed down to the field to take some test shots. Fortunately it was warm for this time of year (early November) so I didn't have to carry around a winter coat. However, I did bring a light jacket to use on top of a couple of layers of shirts and a sweatshirt.

A handful of photographers were present from the DC area and I said hello to them. The few I bumped into were surprised I made the drive down to Blacksburg for the game. I didn't offer any explanation other than "we received the credential so I came."

The lighting in Lane Stadium is very good. I got away with ISO 1000 (and sometimes 800) with 1/500th shutter speed at f/2.8 for most of the evening. The Terps wore their white uniforms while Virginia Tech was in their traditional burgundy garb. That made the exposures pretty easy to balance - it's difficult when one team wears black and one team wears white.

My shots for the evening came out fairly well but were nothing worth noting. I compared it to other imagery I saw from other shooters and I don't feel like I missed any key plays.

Towards the end of the game I started to get a hunger headache. Sitting in traffic, running up and down the sidelines, and breathing in all the smoke from the fireworks took it's toll on me and by the time I wound up in the press conference afterwards I was pounding bottles of water trying to rehydrate and re-energize myself. It helped a little, and the oatmeal raisin cookie my brother bought and left for me in the car went a LONG way!

The real behind-the-scenes story for me was the drive back to Roanoke. I believe the game concluded around 10:45pm or so. The press-conference for Ralph Friedgen was very short and afterwards I hunted down a golf cart over the course of 10 minutes to take me out to the media lot. When I reached my car and put all my glass and body away I called Andrew to see where I could pick him up. My cell phone recorded the call as being made at 11:15pm.

By the time we made it back to the hotel parking lot in Roanoke the timestamp on our parking pass read 1:15am. It took us 2 hours from when I started my car to when we actually made it back to the hotel.

The traffic heading out of Blacksburg was terrible and I-81 north was packed. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and really wanted to go to sleep badly but had to tack on another 2 hours after wrapping up the game. Some of the photographers actually headed back to DC that night, including a student that had class the next morning at 10am. I don't know how they did it - I barely (and I mean BARELY) made it back to Roanoke in one piece because I was so tired!

I shot around 700 frames during the game and came out with around 35 or 40 I'll send to my photo editor for publishing. I waited to post process until the next day in the car but I managed to offload overnight when I got back to my room.