Monday, November 17, 2008

Field Hockey: Maryland Terrapins vs Albany

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.


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