Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The into-the-sun shots in my last Freedom shoot really jumped out at me and during this afternoon's game I wanted to take every advantage of the afternoon sunlight. I arrived with 10 minutes to go before first kick and I trimmed down my pack. This afternoon I only carried a 400mm and a 300mm with 2 Nikon D3 bodies. I also lotioned up with sunscreen before the game and chose a baby-blue t-shirt to wear for the game. I was determined to defeat the sunburn syndrome I've experienced so many times while shooting outdoor sports as a red-haired photographer.

I arrived and took my position at the side of the field that looked towards the sun. During the last game the Freedom shot towards this goal in the first half so I figured I was safe. However, as the teams took the field it looked like the Freedom would shoot towards the opposite side of the field. I was very surprised by this!

In all the sports I shoot the home team shoots towards one side in the first period and then things switch. That's just the way of things. However, this afternoon the Freedom shot towards the opposing team in the first half.

I stood my ground and shot into the light looking for my halo shots. However, it was tough because many of the Freedom players had their backs towards me. Additionally, I was positioned on the attackers left hand side of the field. Most of the attacks came up the right side, which meant I had all the dirty background of the home and visiting team. I moved over to the attacker's right hand side of the field and that opened up a LOT more shooting opportunities as the Athletics drove up the wing. However, when they inevitably crossed I didn't have the same quality halo like I had when shooting from attacker's left. It was a tradeoff - if I stayed on attacker's left I'd have great shots of crosses but they'd be few and far in between. If I stayed attacker's right I'd have so-so shots before the cross but I'd have a bunch of them. And there'd be action there as the Freedom tried to redirect, steal, etc...

I stuck in my position for 2/3 of the first period and then moved to the far end of the field so that I could shoot some Freedom attacks into the sunlight. I figured that I didn't want all of my shots from the game to be alternative-style halo shots. From the side of the field where the sun was over my shoulders I was able to grab some decent shots. I shifted around from attack-left to attack-right and caught a lot of action on the right hand side of the field. The light wasn't as favorable but it was decent.

Strobist says that flash mounted on the camera is dull because it fully-illuminates the subjects but it fails to show depth. A flash mounted off-camera can cast shadows based on a subject's features (brow, chin, nose, lips, etc) that gives more life to a photo. Shooting 30-45 degrees off of the sun can give some shadows on the players that bring them to life.

Shooting from the attacker-right corner for the close of the first half was beneficial because I caught favorable light that provided some depth to some of my photos. It was a good spot to be in.

However, in retrospect, all my favorite shots from the afternoon came from looking into the sun. It was very difficult to properly expose the players because often times the background reflected so much light that the cameras's built-in meter would report the image as over-exposed. Many of my shots turned out under-exposed because I did not anticipate how off the built-in meter could be.

During shoots I often review shots during dull periods of play. This works well inside buildings but it can be difficult outdoors when your eyes are adjusted for bright sunlight. During this "shoot-into-the-sun" experiment I tried to review photos but the LCD was simply too dark to give me a good idea of how well my shots came out. I attributed the darkness on the LCD to my eyes failing to adjust rather than to the shot being underexposed. I had to throw out many of my into-the-sun shots afterwards.

However, many of the shots came out very well and I was very pleased with them. The Freedom play 2 more home games this season. I can't make 1 of them due to a family commitment but I might hit the other one up. The difficulty is that it is played during the week and up in Gaithersburg. It'd be much easier if they played all home games in DC!

This afternoon I shuffled off the dust and headed down to RFK stadium for an afternoon tilt between the Washington Freedom and the Chicago Red Stars. Hats off to my Garmin Nuvi 760 for routing me around a 20 minute delay on the BW Parkway. I arrived with about 5 minutes to spare before opening introductions.

Since I have a little rust on the shutter I wasn't optimized for the shoot. I went to fail-safe defaults, which involves carrying as much equipment as I could possibly transport into the stadium and out onto the field. I traveled with 400mm, 300mm, 70-200mm, 24-70mm, and 14-70mm (all f/2.8) along with flash, battery pack, shooters chair, 2 bodies, and spare batteries. It's always better to be prepared...

I met up with Jose (the team photographer) and introduced myself. I chuckled as several photographers scrambled to get the pre-game team shot while standing on the sideline. The starting lineup was a good 30-40 feet away from them and most of them shot with lenses smaller than 50mm. Of course, if they aren't full frame that might work. Or they can crop down. I probably would've shot 70-200 and kept closer to 70-100 but... I also thought it was funny that they used flash at a distance of 40 feet when there was plenty of ambient light to work with.

As usual I surveyed the field for the best spot from a lighting perspective. That took me to the Freedom defensive side of the field. From that location I caught several decent shots of the defense but my witness to the events was limited. An attacker from the visiting team would face me while my home team had their back towards me. While there were times that my home team faced me (often while chasing down a loose ball) I realized that even though the light was favorable I had to move in order to catch the faces of the subjects I was sent to shoot.

2/3 the way through the first half I migrated to the opposite side of the field so that I could catch the Freedom shooting into the goal. Since I was shooting towards the sun I decided to go full-bore and positioned myself such that I shot directly into the sun. I was going for a halo effect on the players and it came out quite well.

Shooting into the sun is a challenge because the built-in meter in the camera tends to over-estimate the light entering the sensor. It'll give you indications that you are overexposed because a bunch of light reflects off the rim of the player in focus (or the background).

When photographing someone you want to draw focus to the subject and force the background into an after-thought. There are several ways you can accomplish this, the most common being using a wide aperture (f/2.8 or f/1.8 or even f/1.4). You can also throw light onto your subject using an artificial source (e.g. a strobe or speedlight) and meter for that exposure while throwing the background into darkness. A third alternative is to throw your background into overexposure while your subject is relatively dark but properly exposed. This works very well in stadiums...

If the sun is setting and bouncing hard off white concrete and white bleachers in the background you can meter for your relatively dark player and make them stand out in the overall picture. It's true that they are darker than the background but they are still isolated, and that's what you're going for.

This poses a real challenge though because the meter in the camera is going to spike in reaction to the abundance of ambient light reflecting off the background. If you properly exposed the background your subject in the foreground would be underexposed. What you're shooting for in this situation is an over-exposure of the background with a proper-exposure of the subject. The meter isn't set up to do that kind of thing...

One technique one can apply is to follow your subject from a dark area of the field into a light area of the field while adjusting shutter speed. Metering the subject while the background is in shadow will allow you to properly expose him/her when the background is in full-sun. Remember: the key is to properly expose the subject, not the background. Of course, this is a challenge. And I have by no means mastered it or even been able to reproduce it.

So during my first return trip to the field in a few weeks I decided to go with this approach when faced with the realization that my subjects would keep their faces looking away from my shutter.

The shot I chose for this post is variation of the approach I described above. In the shot I exposed for the player but the background was in the shadows relative to the sun. In the shot you'll notice the sweat beeds in mid-air as the Red-Stars player heads a shot out of the 18-yard box. This should give you an idea of some of the detail you can capture when you shoot into the light.