Thursday, August 20, 2009

After shooting my final football practice of the season I decided to stroll down to the Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex to take in some pre-season field hockey. All summer I've been thinking about getting some into-the-sun shots of the field hockey players.

A field hockey field is typically watered down before the game and during half time. Ironically the wet nature of the field reduces the potential for injury. One would think that a wet field would increase the likelihood of injuries but evidently it's the opposite. Go figure...

Late day field hockey games at Maryland pit one team shooting nearly directly into the setting sun. I typically sit with the sun over my shoulder and catch some brilliant light falling on the players. However, I've done a lot more shooting-into-the-sun type shots this summer and I've seen how the light can reflect off of water droplets suspended in mid air.

When a field hockey player swings their stick it can generate an enormous amount of water droplets that fly up into the air. If you shoot into the light you'll get really sharp beams of light coming at you from those droplets. The camera loves it!

The difficulty with this approach is to avoid under or over exposing. The meter in your camera will insist that you are drastically over exposing and it is correct to some extent. For the most part the entire frame will be overexposed. But you don't care about the entire frame - you care about the player that is your subject. You want to properly expose them and since they have their back (or side) to the sun you need to overexpose the entire frame to properly expose them.

Today's shoot at the Field Hockey and Lacrosse Complex gave me the chance to shoot from several different angles and try my hand at properly exposing the players. It was very difficult - many of my shots came out overexposed. But some came out very well.

And it gave me an idea for another posed shot I'd like to attempt. It's just an idea right now but I think it could turn out really really well. More later!

This afternoon I returned to the practice fields at Maryland for one final time before my 2 week getaway to North Carolina. The practice was scheduled to begin at 3:30pm but didn't open up until around 4. I was happy with this because it gave the sun a little more time to drop lower in the sky.

Shooting football practice these past 2 weeks has been very instructive to me because it's forced me to look for different angles and lighting to try to keep my photos fresh. It's taught me about using the meter as a guide (rather than an absolute) because shooting directly into the sun is something you're going to have to do from time to time.

Hopefully between now and the home opener on September 12th my football skills won't decline too much.

Monday morning I hit the football practice fields. The light was low because the practice began at 9:15am and that made me happy.

I ran the normal gambit and raced around the field looking for different angles and different subjects. In the end I was happy with the balance of shots I grabbed. After shooting many traditional practices I narrowed down on a defensive line practice headed by Coach Sollazzo. Sollazzo is a caring hard-ass kind of coach. He can think the world of you on one play and think you're worthless the next play. But, he's good and he makes good players great. His energy on the coaching staff is unmatched and without him on the coaching staff the Maryland squad would not look the same. I have enormous respect for Coach Sollazzo.

This morning Coach Sollazzo challenged a player to rise to the season. He could be considered harsh but in football that's what a lot of players need to hear. The lead photo for this blog shows Coach Sollazzo's energy level on the team.

The rest of the practice seemed pale in comparison to Coach Sollazzo's enthusiasm. It was difficult to find squads that responded to his energy level.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Monday afternoon I headed over to the University of Maryland for practice. I looked forward to this practice because it started an hour later than the practices last week and I recognized that the power of a lower sun could create some opportunities for some fantastic photos.

I've been very fortunate this summer that my other contracting work has placed me close to the University of Maryland at College Park and has allowed me to jump over to campus for a 25 minute photo shoot and jump back to my other commitments. I recognize that this is a unique opportunity that will probably not present itself again in the coming seasons so I've made a conscience choice to take advantage of it this year.

This afternoon I took my regular approach of running around as quickly as possible to as many different drilling stations so I could capture as many different drills as possible from as many different perspectives as possible. It's a lot. But I have knee-pads. And yes, you are free to make jokes about that.

The light on Monday was particularly perfect because it was late-day 5:25pm light and it had a lot of color in it. Additionally, the players tend to look down (rather than up) so the lower the light the better the chances are that I can get some exposure up under the helmet.

I shot some offensive linemen on the block today while propping up my monopod on my left knee and discovered a new technique. I was able to anchor my monopod between my thigh muscle and my knee pad and that provided enough stability to allow me to aim my 400mm lens towards my subjects. This position allowed me to stay up for a good 6 minutes while part of the team drilled. During part of that 6 minute period one of the players washed down with a water bottle and I was in the perfect spot to capture the moment. It was worth the bruise on my leg...

Football: Scrimmage

Saturday evening I headed over to the football practice fields to shoot a scrimmage. It was scheduled to begin at 5:15pm and I managed to convince my family members to give me to 6:00pm to shoot before I returned home to rejoin the rest of the collective to celebrate Julie's birthday.

During those 45 minutes I shot as many different players and angles as possible. In post processing I thought "wow" as I imported over 500 frames. It was a lot to process.

The event itself was decent because it was the first time the offensive and defensive teams got a chance to square up to each other. It was a lot more difficult to capture the action of the event because it was not sequenced - it was a scrimmage rather than drills. I looked at this as good practice for the upcoming football season.

Towards the end of the scrimmage I managed to catch a shot of a wide-receiver who snatched a catch and looked to run up the sideline. My focus was sharp and the lighting was just perfect to catch his eye as he stared down the defensive player. The shot in this blog post is one of my all time favorites simply because the receiver's eye is wide open.

The photo gallery of the first Maryland football scrimmage of the 2009 season can be view over here.

This morning sparked the beginning of 2-a-days for the Terrapin football squad. I attended the morning practice at 9:15am and it was brutal.

Meteorologically the wind often drops to zero over night for a variety of reasons not covered in this blog. Morning can be a very difficult time to exercise because the humidity is very high and there isn't very much relief from wind. I'm sure the football program knows this and wants to take advantage of it as a way to improve the skills of the team.

So Saturday morning I showed up to capture the first 5 periods of the practice. Even though I've shot practices at 4pm during the previous week I think that this morning's practice was the hottest. The air was stagnant and almost tangible due to it's humidity. The water girls were the saviors delivering cooling to the players.

It is amazing to me that men with such large physiques, augmented with protective pads, helments, and jerseys, could function in the Saturday morning heat ... much less perform. I drew a heavy sweat just running up and down the field to capture photos. I was very humbled.

The practice went much like the rest of the practices this week in that it was heavy drills that lasted 5 minutes before the players moved on to a separate location to practice. I ran around looking to capture as many different lighting angles and perspectives as possible. My late afternoon shoots this week and my early morning shoot has given me a more intimate relationship with my meter. I appreciate the complexities of exposure under harsh lighting conditions. And I understand how the meter can guide you but cannot be used to tell you how to expose. It's been a very illuminating (pardon the pun) experience.

Friday afternoon I drove over to the practice fields on campus and shot the Football team practicing at 4:25pm. The light was perfect because it was somewhat late in the day. I had several different angles I could work with and that opened up a lot of options for me.

I've been playing around with shooting into the light and today I used that technique a lot. However, I like to keep a balanced gallery so I took some traditional shots with the sun over my shoulders.

My equipment for today was my D3 with a 400mm f/2.8 lens. I've been shooting f/2.8 exclusively this week since Tuesday and I've been very happy with it's performance. In the past I've shot with a narrower aperture (f/4 or even f/5.6 at times). My motivation for shooting narrow was to increase sharpness. However, I've found that I can increase sharpness in post-processing to good enough level. The out-of-focus background is more apparent to the viewers of my photos than a slightly sharper subject. Lightroom is amazing.

My lead-in photo for this blog is Junior wide receiver Adrian Cannon (7). I have several shots of him reaching out to make a play and he's quite remarkable. Inevitably my best shots from the practice involve him in some way or another. The shot I featured for this blog post is an example of him reaching out to make a catch. My only regret is that a coaching assistant is camera right and ruined what could have been a perfect shot. Oh well...

Chris Blunck's slideshow from today's Maryland football practice is viewable on Flickr.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The sun was much more favorable for this afternoon's practice. There were some storm clouds afoot but the weather wasn't overcast like yesterday. A lot of photographers like overcast because it diffuses the sunlight but I prefer the direct sun. I would rather try to work with it than against it and hope for an overcast sky.

I skipped lunch today and showed up at the practice field hungry and thirsty. Fortunately I had time to head home and change into shorts before the photo-shoot. I'm really happy I spent my 20 minute lunch break at home changing rather than showing up to the artificial turf in jeans and an office shirt - it was crazy hot today!

The usual crew of reporters were present today: a guy from the Washington Times (I don't know his name), Seth (from Inside Maryland Sports), Fabian (from MGN), Mark Clem (from Terrapin Times), and Keith (from Terrapin Times). We all chatted briefly outside the gate before practice began and we were permitted access to the artificial turf.

During our pre-practice chatter we remarked on the 2003 Hurricane Isabel practices. Mark Clem remarked on how the practice schedule was shifted around to accomodate the inclement weather and how a 4pm practice had been bumped up to 6am so the team could get in their drills before the bad weather arrived. The support staff for the football team arrived at 5am to prepare everything. When the players arrived at 6am the support staff amped the regular practice music over the public address system. Mark said that 10 UMPD cars arrived within a few minutes... I lol'ed.

He said the police told the support staff they had to turn the music down because it was a nuisance to all the students in the dorms across the road. The athletic support staff, with the fear of Coach Friedgen in them, refused and told the police they'd have to take the issue up with the coaching staff.

I thought that was hilarious.

I remember Hurricane Isabel (albeit not from a photographic or athletic standpoint - I was interested in the depression from a meteorological standpoint) so this was pretty funny to me.

For today's practice I decided to open to f/2.8 to see how things went. I'm sold on it. My shots came out sharp from Lightroom's post processing. I'll reconsider this during indoor sports (e.g basketball, wrestling, and volleyball). However, for now I'm sold on f/2.8 on outdoor sports.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It's mid-week and I've shot more these past few days and I've shot over the past month. Sports are on the brink of returning and I can't wait.

In addition to football kicking into full-speed the Maryland Field Hockey team is standing up and will play it's first exhibition game this weekend. Unfortunately it's up in Boston so I won't be able to attend. We're trying to schedule a shoot with a few players and I have some ideas of some poses I'd like to set up.

The light was software this afternoon from some clouds low in the sky. There was also some drizzle towards the end of our 25 minute viewing and that made for some interesting shots. That reminds me that I should probably order my Aqua Tech soon in anticipation of the Fall sports and the inevitable rain storms I'll be out at on a cold Thursday evening.

I've been shooting through the long glass for the past 2 practices: 400mm. I've stuck at f/4 but I think tomorrow I'm going to open up to f/2.8 just to see if it makes any noticeable difference in the sharpness of my shots.

I also changed some of my publishing procedures and they have become significantly easier. I'm pushing directly out of Lightroom and up to Flickr. I can post a link to a slideshow from Flickr up on our website. This works a LOT easier than firing up my own custom-developed software. A LOT easier! I'm very excited...

Practice Day 2 came around quickly and a 4:25pm start time gave me some great light to work with. The lower the light in the day the more pleasant it is to play with. You can get completely different feels from your subjects when you shoot them with light from different angles. For instance, you can go for a really traditional shot where the light is over your shoulder and the subject is looking directly in your direction. Or you can flip it 180 degrees and shoot directly into to sun and rim the player with light.

Both are great and all the angles in between create interesting effects as well. I like working when the light is low in the sky because there are so many options you can explore as a photographer.

Like yesterday we were limited to 25 minutes of shooting and observing so I had to move quickly to get as many shots as possible. I timed the practice perfectly and walked in just as they began their first set of drills.

Football: Maryland Practice, Day 1

After heading home, showering, cooling off, downing some Tylenol, and offloading my posed and candid shots from the Media Day event I headed back to campus for a 7pm practice. The start time was pushed back due to the oppressive heat and I was quite happy to shift my afternoon activities around so I could hit football at 7pm rather than 4pm.

Practice was enjoyable to shoot because I hadn't seen the team in action since the April 18th scrimmage. We were only permitted to shoot and observe the opening 5 periods, each of which has a 5 minute duration. As a result you have to move around quickly and shoot as much footage as possible. I managed to grab the defensive line, QBs, offensive line, wide receivers, and some coaches.

Exposure was not difficult tonight because the sun was down below the clouds and was regular and consistent. ISO 1600, f/4, 1/500th or faster shutter worked just fine.

Post-processing went pretty quickly. I dropped 505 exposures down to 28 published photos.

After roughly an hour of shooting various football players in several different posed positions I put down my 14-24mm lens and readied my 70-200mm for some rapid fire candid shots. The coaching staff signaled the team to join the staff over in the stands for a team shot. It took several minutes for the players to line up based on size and squad. During that time I rushed around and ripped about 150-200 frames of the players hamming it up with one another.

After shooting carefully posed shots and balancing the ambient sunlight with my own artificial light it was kinda nice to go back to just pure ambient light. As usual the meter saved me as I moved all over the field in different positions relative to the sun. Sometimes I shot with the sun over my shoulder, sometimes I shot with with the sun right in front of me.

To my surprise the candids didn't come out completely under or over-exposed. I expected them to not come out at all because of how quickly I was moving around the field and throwing the shutter around.

Football: Maryland Media Day Poses

As we closed out July the heat really turned up in the Washington DC area. The Sunday before Media Day at Maryland the forecasters predicted the hottest temperatures of the year: high of 98 with a heat index of 105. And there we were: scheduled to photograph the football team down in the bowl of Byrd Stadium on the hottest day of the year.

I've shot 2 other football media day events at the University of Maryland and in both instances the heat was overwhelming. Prior to this year's event I put together a game plan of my own:

  • Wear short-shorts (GAD), light colored shirt, and bring my photo-hat
  • Bring water bottles in a cooler filled with ice
  • Bring towels to put over my cameras so they don't reach 150 degrees in the heat
  • Arrive 30 minutes early to set up and test all of my equipment

I also gave considerable thought about how to pose some of the players. In my bag of tricks was an AB-800 strobe and 2 SB-800 speedlights. I brought an umbrella but didn't pull it out - instead I stuck with a 20 degree bee cover for my strobe. I gelled one speedlight with light blue and rigged it all together with Pocket Wizards. The last speedlight I left as white and I used it for supporting light in different poses.

It was interesting to work with the football player in posed scenarios. Some of them were uncomfortable around the strobe and speedlights while others took quite naturally to it.

I started off the exposure process by starting at f/16 and 1/125th second exposure at ISO 100. That was a little bright during full sun so I brought it down to 1/250th and narrowed to f/18. That looked pretty good. I then worked on the output power of my strobe.

I started at 1/8 and brought it up to 1/4, then 1/2, and eventually full power. The players varied in complexion and their distance to the strobe. Some players were comfortable posing within 3 feet of the strobe while others stood back a good 5-8 feet. Even though I'd reposition them or adjust my own position I found that they'd back up or shift. So I'd work with zoom or I'd dial up the strobe output power to compensate.

Unfortunately there was a lot of noise in the background from other photographers and teammates. There really isn't anything I can do to control that though.

I was very happy, although exhausted, by the end of the shoot. I wound up with 105 shots we can run in the magazine and they look pretty good. During the middle of the shoot I inadvertently smudged the front of my 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. The smudge mark is present on several of the shots and that disappoints me. But I learned a lot from the event. I'm looking forward to the next posed photoshoot of some athletes!

On Sunday I packed up my gear and took the metro down to Verizon Center to catch the Mystics take on the Indiana Fever. I was looking forward to seeing Terrapin greats Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman on the hardwood. It's too bad I missed the game a few weeks ago where Kristi Toliver competed against her former teammates. That would've been cool to shoot.

Every time I walk out onto the floor of Verizon I'm humbled by the scoreboard. It's incredible. Sometimes I want to just stand there and stare at it in awe.

Settings for the evening were the usual indoor stadium white balance, ISO 2000, 1/500th shutter, and either f/2.8 or f/4 for aperture. I've gone back and forth on whether to shoot f/2.8 or f/4. The D3 gives me the high ISO so I can narrow down to f/4 and pick up some extra sharpness. However, Lightroom exports contain sharpening that does a pretty good job. So the question is: do you use the optics for sharpness or isolation? I don't know the answer to that...

For lenses I stuck with my standard basketball issue: 300mm and 70-200mm. From time to time I wish the 70-200mm could back out to 35mm so I could catch the players under the hoop a little easier. I guess the real question is: would I trade mm at the long end of 70-200mm in order to get wider? If Nikon sold a 35-150mm would I use it? I don't know...

It was good getting back onto the court and taking some shots of the team.