Saturday, February 28, 2009

When I started photography sports a few years ago I was overwhelmed by the commitment the genre required. Regular practice of photographing sports keeps your reaction times sharp and keeps you fresh. On top of that your regular involvement in events keeps your face "fresh" with the media folks involved in the industry. Quite simply put: if you ain't there you ain't nobody.

Accordingly, I shot as often as possible in as many different venues as possible. My emphasis was a combination of breadth and depth of experience: shoot different sports, and shoot a lot of the same sport. By going both deep and wide I thought I could expand my horizons and grain a bigger understanding of this domain.

As I've filled in the pieces to this puzzle my immediate family members have become interested. Most notably my brother Andrew, who has always had a passing interest in photography, has become notably involved. This came to a head several weeks ago when I asked him to fill in for me for an NCAA men's basketball game between the Maryland Terrapins and the Virginia Cavaliers at the Comcast Center.

Since that event he's been uniquely interested in sports photography. Wrestling is the only Olympic sport with regular events so I punted the photography to him while I sat behind the desk and wrote the stories. I'm no writer and my knowledge of wrestling is limited to 2 years of watching events (albeit through a microscopic lens). My true love is photography, but the Comcast Pavilion is anything but a photographer's Eden. Exposing Andrew to the difficult lighting of Comcast during a wrestling match was a way to throw him into the deep end of the pool.

To my surprise he swam.

Lighting in Comcast for wrestling is nothing less than despicable. A black mat, inconsistent lights above that force you to ISO 4000 or above at 1/400th for dark exposures... I think it's worse than high school gyms, although I won't swear to that since I haven't shot very many high school games.

Andrew has done well and that's allowed me to focus on writing. This season I didn't shoot any duals and instead sat behind the press area with Joey Flyntz and quietly took notes on the duals while Andrew shot.

As winter turned to spring the other Olympic Sports started up and that presented scheduling conflicts. Andrew agreed to shoot a women's lacrosse game between Maryland and UMass so that I could focus on the wrestling dual.

This afternoon was my first wrestling dual of the season behind the lens even though it was the final weekend of the home schedule. I enjoy attending wrestling duals at Maryland a lot. When I first dipped my feet into the genre of sports photography wrestling was the first Olympic Sport I was exposed to and it was very welcoming. As a result that's left a bit of a soft spot for me for the mat.

I varied my shots this afternoon and shot from both down low and up high. While shooting from up high you can get better reflection of the overhead light. However, you sacrifice the intimacy of being tight in on the wrestler's faces. As a result it seems like the best bet is to go for a combination of wide and tight. The wide paints the picture of the overall event while the tight gets you the emotion.

It was enjoyable shooting the event wide this afternoon. When Andrew showed up with my 400mm lens I decided to give it a whirl and see what I could capture. It turned out really well but you have to shoot from up in the stands to get a good composition.

Friday, February 20, 2009

On Friday evening the Terps gymnastics team faced New Hampshire at the Comcast Pavilion. The history of the gymnastics team is truly remarkable. Head Coach Duke Nelligan has held a firm hand on the wheel for 31 years and is set to hand over responsibilities to his son Brett Nelligan next year. 31 years is a long time to do any one single thing. I have a lot of respect for anyone that can pursue the same occupation for that amount of time and even more for someone who has managed to succeed year in and year out as the Head Coach at a Division-I school.

I attended my first gymnastics event a month or so ago because I wanted to expand my sports photography horizons. Maryland has 27 sports and that presents a lot of opportunities to shoot unusual sports that you wouldn't otherwise get a chance to photograph every other day. I shot 2 of their meets and after retrospecting the events I wanted to go back for more to see what else I could do with different lenses and angles.

In particular I was jonesin for a shot of Kaitlin Joseph on the beam. As part of her routine she somehow manages to lift her full body into the air while her chin holds all her weight on the beam. I knew that getting in tight on her face against the beam would make for a great shot and I brought my 400mm lens (normally used for field sports like football, baseball, lacrosse, and sacrosse) to the Pavilion tonight so I could grab the moment.

Unfortunately I didn't get the shot.

Kaitlin didn't perform on the beam and I was really bummed about it. I've been hoping for this shot on and off for the past month or so and I know it would've come out well. After all, you've got to pour a lot of emotion and energy in supporting your entire body weight on a 4 inch beam. Fortunately the gymnasts will perform 1 last time in Comcast in 2 weeks and I have another chance to grab my shot. We'll see how it goes.

I played around with the 300mm lens a lot this evening with mixed results. The nice thing about being tight is that you can focus in on facial expressions. However, unlike nearly every other sport out there, gymnasts use ALL of their bodies during their performance. A volleyball player wants to jump high, a basketball player wants a strong arm for dunking, and a field hockey player wants biceps for the wrister shots. A gymnast wants flexible joints so that they can leap into the air and perform some twist or move that is awe-inspiring.

You can't shoot tight. It seems like you have to shoot wide to get the full effect of what their performance. If you lock in tight on their face you might miss the key part of their performance (their twist on the beam). I guess in this case you have to settle with less facial detail in exchange for a more macro frame.

Saturday evening the Maryland Water Polo team took to the pool and faced the Tigers of Princeton. The story of the Water Polo is truly remarkable. The squad debut'ed in 2004 and lost nearly every game. But in 2005, 2006, and 2007 the Terps climbed back to a winning record under the advisory of Head Coach Carl Salyer and Assistant Coach Meghan Sullivan.

I shot 2 water polo matches last year and I was very interested in the photographic aspects of the sport. The combination of the action of athletics, the vibrance of blue water, and the visual effect of water droplets as a player whips a shot was very compelling. Unfortunately we (the DC Sports Box) didn't report on the water polo team last year in very much detail. When we did report on the team we reported from the stands.

As usual I updated my photoblog with details about those two events and good fortune (along with Google searches) drew one of the coaches to my blog site. This opened the door to pool-side access this year to the Eppley Natatorium.

The support of the coaches, trainers, and players on a team goes miles in terms of your ability to capture the emotion of a game. Media relations gets you into the venue but the comfort level of the players, coaches, and support staff with you as a photographer makes a world of difference. If you're there for every game the staff and players know you as a photographer and are comfortable with you. They don't hold anything back when they're in your huddle and you're firing frames. You're there to preserve the moment for them.

When the coaching staff buys into your presence it just makes a world of difference and I've seen this in several of the sports at Maryland (including Football). Knowing the coaching staff and having their support really opens doors from a photographic perspective. I cannot understate it's importance.

As a result I had wonderful photographic opportunities this evening while shooting water polo.

I picked up 3 PocketWizard MultiMax units off and have been itching for chances to use them. I brought along my tripod and trained a D3 and a 400mm lens on the Maryland goalie. I set the focus to manual and used the appropriate PocketWizard cable to keep the camera active. I then fired the camera remotely using an additional PocketWizard while I sat poolside.

The only problem I ran into is that I accidentally switched channels in the first quarter. As a result I missed a bunch of shots and since I was out of ear-shot from the remote I didn't notice that I missed the shots until I checked the camera at the end of the first quarter. In retrospect I could've checked the channel number on my local PocketWizard but I didn't think to do it. Live and learn...

I was extremely thrilled with my shots this evening. In sports there's this tradeoff between freezing action and preserving the sense of motion in a game. Sports are fast paced and sometimes you want some motion blur in your exposure. But you want it in the extremeties because everyone wants to see the athlete's face. It's ok if the legs, arms, hands, or ball in play have some blur but the eyes and the face need to be sharp.

Lots of times photographers increase shutter speeds beyond 1/500th second to freeze the motion. But that sometimes makes the scene appear unnatural. A slam dunk is fast paced and you don't expect to see every single frame of it in fine detail. The mind wants a motion blur for something like that.

Water droplets bridge the gap for pool based sports.

They show the motion in an action even if you freeze your subject in place. I can lock a water polo shooter at 1/800th but the trailing water droplets from her arm and head give the viewer a sense of motion. In any other sport you don't get the same effect because air doesn't appear on the exposure.

Unfortunately Maryland only plays 1 more home game at Eppley Natatorium this season. I'm very bummed about this. I really would've enjoyed the opportunity to shoot more of the Terps in the pool because this sport is really exciting and unique. Hopefully in the coming seasons Maryland will play host to more teams. One can only hope...

On Sunday I shot the Lady Terps vs Rutgers. Last year Rutgers erased a 10 point lead the Terps had in the second half and handed Maryland a loss. This afternoon's game was a chance for the Lady Terps to level the playing field and they did well.

I intended on setting up a remote on the stantion but I failed to make it to the arena in time to get my remote mounted and configured. Greg has a "1 hour before tipoff" policy that basically says you have to have all your rigging ready to go 1 hour before tipoff. Because I ran late I wasn't able to get my equipment in place. Oh well... Better to follow rules...

I really liked a photo of Greg's he shot during the previous men's game. During the introduction of the team he stood far away and used the reflection of the court to get a really cool shot of the team huddled up. I loved the contrast between the pitch black darkness and the colorful jerseys of the team. It's easily one of my favorite sports photos I've seen.

I decided to try my hand at reproducing it tonight. I got a decent shot of the Lady Terps huddling up and I thought the pink jerseys gave the photo an extra something. I really liked it.

After a fantastically enjoyable break in the Rockie Mountains of Colorado I returned home to Maryland to resume my regular life. We flew in Friday night and on Saturday I shot the Terps vs Hokies men's hoops game at the Comcast Center.

As usual I started up in the stands for the first half. This approach has worked well in the past but this evening it didn't pan out so well. I don't know if it was just the rust of being 1 week separated from the shutter or if the Terps were firing differently but my timing and positioning was just not right. Normally I get several dribble-penetrations and layups in the first half but tonight I came up lagging.

On the other hand I did manage to get some great emotion shots of Dave Neal from up high. The Washington Post ran photos from the same moment in time but their perspective was much lower and they captured considerably less of Dave Neal's face than I managed to grab from up higher. I lucked on in the sense that I was just at the right place at the right time with the right equipment.

I juiced up the sensitivity to 3200 and 4000 tonight to bring in more light. The shots looked considerably better. There's definitely a difference between increasing real exposure versus increasing brightness in post production.

I shot the Competitive Cheer contest Maryland hosted on the weekend of February 6th. The venue was Comcast Center so I was extremely familiar with the lighting and the environment. I showed up plenty early to catch both sport and non-sport (is that the right term?) squads cheer.

Greg walked me up into the rafters while he powered on his strobes. I got a chance to scope out some spots for future remotes. Greg has mounted a remote up in the rafters that looks right down on the basket on the visiting team's side of the arena. I would love the chance one day to put remotes up in the rafters but I know that's a long ways away. None-the-less, it's always exciting to walk around in the rafters of an arena and contemplate what future shots you could capture.

There were 9 collegiate level squads that competed tonight and I used the folder feature on my camera to keep things straight. Each time a new squad came out I upped the folder number so that I could easily import the photos into Lightroom and keep them separated. I like to caption all of my shots with the team and location so that I can easily search them later. Importing all the shots from one folder and then splitting them out later seemed a lot more difficult than making different directories for each team before I shot.

Shooting competitive cheer is difficult. I've only shot 1 other competition so it was beneficial to hit this event and see what I can do. I did a little better than my last time out but I still struggled. I don't know what the "good" shot looks like for competitive cheer. Is it a wide angle shot of the whole group, or is it a tight shot of an individual cheerleader smiling and pumping her fist?

I'm glad I shot the event and got some more exposure to this sport. It always helps to expand your horizons and learn something new...

On Thursday the Lady Terps took on the NC State Wolfpack. This was an especially emotional game for both teams given the recent loss of iconic Head Coach Yow from NC State. Coach Yow's positive influence on women's athletics (and basketball in particular) cannot be put into words and a blog posting does not do her justice. As a result I'll just move on to discuss the photography of the game.

I expanded on my recent climbings into the student "wall" at Maryland during this game and decided to head even higher than normal. I shot some initial shots down low in the stands but my curiosity about the view from above got the best of me. I climbed the 45 degree student wall and sat comfortably in an aisle seat next to some enthusiastic engineering students.

While up high I stepped down the aperture to f/5.6 and even f/6 at times. The overhead lights reflect really well off the floor and players when you are up high and you can get away with 1/500th at decent ISOs (2500) at smaller apertures. Plus, when shooting from up high the background is the court, which is extremely uniform in nature. You wouldn't want to shoot f/6 at the baseline (unless you strobe) because the background is going to be in decent focus and that will draw the viewer's attention away from your subject (the player). But when you are up really high an exposure at f/5.6 with the court as the background allows you to get the entire player (and their defender) in focus.

I also shot from down low and was in the perfect spot to capture Drey Mingo getting mauled by a Wolfpack forward. It was one of those things where I just dropped down out of the stands and the timing worked out. I couldn't have planned my spot or my timing better - it just worked out.

February 4th is signing day for collegiate football and Inside the Shell asked me to photograph the press conference Coach Ralph Friedgen scheduled in the afternoon. The press conference was nothing unusual - the typical Maryland Terps backdrop was in place with lights on either side of the Head Coach.

I selected shots where Coach Friedgen looked up at the audience (or at me) during his comments. I've been around Coach Friedgen since his arrival at Maryland both professionally through the DC Sports Box and Inside the Shell as well as personally. Both Gloria and Ralph, along with their daughters, are genuinely good people and care a lot about the well being of the family, friends, and fans that surround them. I used to attend the Sunday evening "Dinner with the Fridge" events over at the Inn and Conference Center as well as the TV recordings at the Outback Steak House over in Montgomery County. Coach Friedgen recognizes me that helps when I'm behind the lens looking for a smile or some other personal gesture that helps my photos stand out from the others.

I've heard from Seth and Jeff that the folks on the forum at are interested in getting a photographic update of the Tyser Towser expansion at Byrd Stadium. As the press conference with Coach Friedge and Coach Sollazzo drew to a close I pulled the chute early and headed down to the field level to get some wide-angle shots of the construction. I was careful about my timing and left during the last 15 minutes of sunlight so that I could get some pretty colors on the construction.

It was snowing during this event and that helped make the pictures stand out a little bit more. It wasn't a blinding snowstorm by any means but there were some flurries in the air and through increasing the contrast in my photos I drew them out a little bit more.

While walking across the field I was a little concerned about someone stopping me and telling me to leave. While contemplating my response to an eventual confrontation I realized: who's going to hassle me? The CSC staff weren't present because there was no game. Is somebody going to call the Maryland Police to shoe me off the field after a press conference? That seemed kinda crazy to me...

So I took my shots, headed up into the stands, and shot a bunch more angles. I opened up the aperture and stepped it down as well while I played with how much light I wanted to throw onto Tyser Tower. I was shooting directly into the sunset towards Tyser Tower while on the Upper Deck side of the stadium. That meant that the details of the expansion were not well lit because the sun shined directly in my direction. During this whole exercise I considered the Active D-Lighting feature on the D3 and hoped it would perform well.

If I increased aperture or reduced shutter speed to properly expose Tyser Tower the clouds and sunset would be blown. But if I properly exposed on the sunset and clouds Tyser would be dark. As a result I shot a bunch of different exposures and hoped to adjust in post processing.

I've fallen behind on my photoblog for the past 3 weeks. This evening I'm trying to warp speed up my posts so that I get something out that documents the thought processes I went through during the games.

On January 31st I photographed the Maryland Men's Basketball team vs Miami. I arrived late to the game but was in the arena with plenty of time before tipoff. I don't rig up remotes and I usually spend the first half shooting from the stands so this wasn't too big of a deal. The only negative aspect to my late arrival was that I couldn't find a good spot to drop my laptop in the media room.

As ACC season cranks into full swing the media room at the Comcast Center becomes significantly more busy. There are lots of folks from various media organizations and they all claim their spaces with backpacks and jackets on the backs of chairs even though laptops don't reside on the tabletops. Most of them take their laptops out to the arena floor for notetaking and sometimes I wish that they wouldn't claim spaces in the media room that they don't intend to use during half time. All I really need is about 24-36 inches of space and there is ton of desk space available but it's all claimed by ghosts. Oh well...

I decided to shoot the game at f/4 this evening and the results came out well. I continued at ISO 2500 even though I'm thinking about ramping up to 3200 or 4000 given my smaller aperture. I climbed higher this evening for some shots and the different in reflected light is significant.