Friday, December 12, 2008

After a week off I got back behind the glass this evening to photograph the Terps in their matchup against their eastern neighbors, Delaware State. I arrived 15 minutes early for the event so that I would have enough time to prepare and get my laptop opened up and all my camera equipment assembled.

I bumped into Kirk Queen out on the floor along with Jackie Borowski. After some chit-chatting I bailed on the baseline and went up into the student section to get some heads-up shots of the Terps driving to the net.

When you're on the baseline you're at about knee-level with the players. Given that they're going up against a hoop that's roughly 8 feet up it can be tough to get player faces, and that's what a lot of people want to see. You can get some great down-the-court shots of the players breaking up court or playing defense, but in-so-far as dunks, layups, and dribble penetration you're often capturing a lot of necks and chins when you shoot from the baseline. The only exception to this is if you shoot early when the player goes up for the shot. Unfortunately, without the hoop in the frame it leaves context out of the shot and leaves it wanting more.

If you go up a little higher you can catch a good amount of the players faces as they drive towards the basket. You have to be careful though about where you go and how high up you position yourself. If you opt to go really high you have to go more towards the sideline so that the backboard doesn't block your shot. If you go sideline then the only shots you get are the baseline drives and those are few and far in between (most of the time the players drive up the middle).

Alternatively, you can stay directly behind the basket but then you aren't looking at the players straight on as they head to the hoop. It all goes back to something I discussed a few posts ago - think about where the players will be on the court, what hand they'll use when they shoot, and where you can be to best capture the shot. If players shoot with their right hand then you want to be on their left so that their shooting arm doesn't block their face.

I was happy with the shots I got from up in the students section this evening. I wouldn't want to camp out there for the whole game but having a few of the frames gives the gallery some spice.

I went back to flourescent white-balance this evening because I lost my WB presets Sunday evening when I attempted to adjust them at the Verizon Center for the BB&T classic. Flourescent worked pretty well but I'm making a mental note to bring my gray card to the next event in the Comcast Center. That's where I shoot most of my events so that's where I'm going to need to set my pre-set.

As usual I shot ISO 2500 with 1/500th shutter and f/3.5. The f/3.5 aperture is just narrow enough where I get some decent sharpness on my exposures and 2500 doesn't kick in a lot of noise. I can also do a lot of lightening in post-processing in Lightroom. I'm a lot happier with f/3.5 than I was with f/2.8.

This has made me rethink a lot of stuff about "fast glass".

A year ago the upper-bound on usable ISO for Nikon gear was 1600. Even then you had to lighten and blacken your photos in post-processing. But the D3 changed all that. I can effectively shoot ISO 6400 and it looks better than 1600 a year ago. When I shot 1600 I had not choice but to shoot f/2.8 and all my exposures were soft.

These days I regularly shoot above 1600 and I drop the aperture down to f/3.5. Sometimes I even go down to f/4. The results are noticeably crisper due to the reduced aperture.

"Slower" glass (f/4 or narrower) is significantly cheaper than "fast" glass (f/2.8 or wider). It is also a lot lighter than fast glass because there is less material used in constructing the optics. If all I shot was men's basketball at the Comcast Center and I was comfortable with ISO 3200 noise I could shoot with f/4 glass for a lot less money than f/2.8 and my shots would come out great! If that's the limit of what you use the lens for then you have to ask yourself: does it make sense to pay a lot more for glass you aren't going to use? If you don't plan to shoot between f/2.8 and f/4 due to the softness then why pay a premium for a f/2.8 lens?

The answer is obvious: versatility. Photographers don't typically just shoot in the same place day in and day out. Sports photographers sometimes do because they shoot in the same venues. But they almost always work on side-projects where the lighting is different. Then again, how often does a sports photographer need to pull out a 400mm f/2.8 lens in a wedding or a corporate board room?

Given my experience in technology I predict 2 trends over the next decade: there will be huge advancements in low-noise high-sensitivity CCDs, and arenas/gyms will become brighter as the cost of lighting continues to drop.

Given all that it doesn't seem too unreasonable to me to look ahead and see more sports photographers shooting with f/4 glass. I predict that this will happen inside arenas but will eventually spread to outdoor fields as the bulbs in the existing lights are replaced.

Accordingly, I'd say that if you are a sports photographer on a budget you should consider f/4 glass as an alternative to f/2.8 glass that is typically used in the field today. If you instead invest in a D700 you'll be able to shoot at ISO6400 and that will make up for the reduced amount of light a f/4 lens will capture. You'll also take sharper images than others shooting at f/2.8.

The only caution I'd add is: avoid variable aperture glass!

With variable aperture glass the maximum aperture varies as your zoom changes. In a f/4 - f/5.6 70-200mm lens the maximum aperture at 70mm is f/4 but the maximum aperture at 200mm is f/5.6. In many situations your shutter speed drives your exposure: in sports you want 1/500th to stop motion, in a bar on rear-curtain-sync you want 1/10th so you can blur the background. Many times you adjust your aperture so that your exposure is proper given your shutter. In sports you may say "ok, at 1/500th I need f/4 to properly expose". Alternatively, in the night-life rear-curtain-sync world you might need f/11 or f/13 to properly expose at 1/10th.

It's not trivial to find that proper exposure level. In sports you often stay in the same place and the light remains constant but in bars or other environments you can contend with shifting light sources and varying distances to your subject. You want to be able to say "f/11 at 1/10th second" is your exposure regardless of whether your zoom is 24mm or 50mm or 70mm. If the aperture changes as your zoom changes you can't do that.

Accordingly, while I say that slower glass may become more prominent I still believe that fixed-aperture glass will remain prominent for professional photographers. Dealing with variable-aperture glass introduces an unnecessary variable into a process that is difficult to begin with.


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