Browsing posts in: Sports Photography

Sports shooting #8 – Evening and night games

My first year or so, I was shooting my daughter’s lacrosse team, which played on weekend afternoons. Then, when my daughter entered high school, she switched to playing games that are in the late afternoon, early evening, or night. There are significant challenges to shooting these games, and there are some weird things that can happen that are very confusing.

This is where it gets expensive. My first year I was shooting with my Rebel XT and 70-200mm F4L, and in most of the games I was done by halftime because there simply wasn’t enough light to be able to get any decent results. I upgraded to a 40D and the F2.8 version of that lens, which gave me about 2 more stops, which is the difference between 1/800th (tolerable), and 1/200th (not even close). This year I just upgraded to a 7D, which should give me another stop, perhaps 1.5 stops.

And I’m sure I’ll still be complaining that I don’t have enough light. It’s just really hard to get the kind of results you can get during the day. Though I will say that having the equipment that lets me be functional at night provides much more flexibility during the day – instead of being stuck at F4 @ 1/800th, I can go to F8 or shoot closer to 1/2000th if I want to.

I like to think of these as three different environments, though you may get all of them in a single game.

Last afternoon (before sunset)

There are a few obvious things here. As you get closer to sunset, you are going to have to deal with less light. If it’s cloudy, you will start with less light but it will generally hold up a bit longer, while if it’s clear the light can go off really quickly. Consider shooting shots during warmup, and try to get a lot of the action early, especially if your gear doesn’t do well in low light.

You will generally want to shoot with the light source at your back, though sometimes you may want to break the rules:

This is shot almost straight into the sun, and then I used a fair bit of fill light in lightroom to bring out the players. If you look at the original, it’s pretty noisy, but it works well in B&W, and I like the outline of the sun in the hair.

This time of day does encompass the golden hour, and sometimes you get lucky, and the sun gives you perfect lighting. Not only is it nice and warm, but it can get inside helmets or headgear because of the angle.


Dusk/Twilight

At this point you are either contending with rapidly waning light or a mix of natural light and artificial light. The light will be changing pretty rapidly, so you may need to play around with your ISO settings often. The color balance may be weird, as the light from the sky will be very blue but the artificial lights usually aren’t quite as blue so it can be hard to get colors that look decent.

Artificial lights

Artificial lights are designed to make sports at night possible. They are not – unless you are lucky enough to be in a college or pro stadium where they do TV – designed to make photography work well.

There are a few things that you may have to deal with, in addition to the lack of light:

You can’t see it, but the majority of stadium lights pulse at 120Hz – they go on and off 120 times per second. If your shutter happens to open while they are off, you don’t get any light. To improve this, many places use what is called three-phase power. Instead of one set of lights that go on and off every 120th of a second, you break the lights on each pole into three groups, with the second and third group each delayed a bit from the group before. So, you never have a time when all the lights are out.

Unfortunately, this sometimes doesn’t happen. Sometimes a whole pole will be on one phase, so you may get pictures where one part of the field is lighted and the other isn’t lit at all. If this happens where you’re shooting, you have my sympathy – short of getting the lights rewired, there’s no fix.

Even with correctly wired lights, you still have the problem that during each cycle the lights heat up and cool down a bit and the color temperature shifts.

Alternatives

If you can’t get a decent shutter speed with your equipment, there are a couple things you can do. Some photographers shoot with strobes. To do that you would need decent power from the flash, a subject that’s close, and approval from the coaches.

What I do is turn the iso down and get the shutter speed into the 1/10th of a second range, and pan. You can get some nice abstract shots with this.


Sports Shooting #7 – My workflow and lightroom

It’s time to start diving a bit deeper.

To continue along with the theme, we’re going to take a few more things away from the camera. We’re going to shoot RAW…

Raw means that rather than letting the camera put JPEG images on our memory card, we’re going to have it put the data directly from the sensor (or, at least, more directly) on the memory card, and then we’ll control how it gets converted to JPEG. We’ll also have the opportunity to do some basic adjustments to make things look nicer.

I won’t spend a lot of time explaining the advantages of shooting raw – read the link if you want more details.

Camera manufacturers provide tools with their cameras that can be used to convert the raw to jpeg. I haven’t used the Nikon software, but I can say that the Canon software leaves a fair bit to be desired.

Enter Lightroom.

Lightroom gives you organization, keywording, raw conversion, and a bunch of other stuff. At $299 (or perhaps $250 on sale), it’s not cheap, and that kept me from using it for a while. I recommend downloading the trial and giving it a try.

My workflow

  1. Shoot the game. I’ll generally end up with around 600 shots from a game of lacrosse.
  2. Import them all into lightroom. I can – and sometimes do – apply a preset with some commonly-used settings during the import.
  3. Walk through all the images, and mark all the ones I want to delete by hitting “x”. I’ll get rid of the out-of-focus ones, and in sequences I’ll decide which shot of a series I’ll keep. That normally takes me down to somewhere in the range of 100 images. I delete these off the disk.
  4. Apply the per-pictures adjustments (more about that below).
  5. Export them through a plug-in that talks directly to smugmug.

The real power is in step #4, which I think is best illustrated through a sample.

Initial picture

It has potential. First step will be a crop:

After crop

That’s better. Note that the verticals are leaning to the right a bit. We’ll rotate the picture a bit counter-clockwise, to get:

After rotate

The next thing to address is the white balance, which controls how the colors render. If you have something that’s true white (such as the shin guards or uniform numbers), you can use the lightroom eyedropper to set the white balance automatically. I’ve found that people often look better if you shift the color rendition a bit away from blue towards yellow. That’s what I’ve done here.

Typically, I’ll set white balance on one of the first photos and then apply it to all the other photos at once.

White balance set

Much nicer. Now I want to deal with the light levels in the image. In most cases, the overall exposure is pretty good, though if it’s snowy I might need to push the exposure up. There are three areas I do want to deal with.

The first is highlight clipping. If you’re shooting in bright light, you are likely to be clipping off some detail in the highlights. You can view this in lightroom and by using the recovery setting, you can dim the highlights just a bit.

The second is what lightroom calls “fill light”. Basically, using fill light lets you bring up the middle brightness areas. It’s very useful if the face of a player is in shadow or inside a helmet.

The third one is black level. This lets you pull the lower part of the image towards black.

In this image, the highlights are fine and I don’t need to use the fill light. If you look at the blacks, you’ll see that they aren’t quite as dark as they could be.

Adjust black level

This gives the image quite a bit more snap.

Clarity

Clarity is a setting in lightroom that increases local contrast. Bumping it up here gives us a bit more crispness to the image.

Vibrance

Vibrance increases the saturation of colors that aren’t already saturated. The effect here is to make the grass (well, fieldturf…) a bit greener, and the jersey a bit bluer.

Sharpening

When you shoot in raw, the image doesn’t have any sharpening applied to it, so the images will look pretty soft. Sports photos require a lot of sharpness, so I’ll turn it up relatively high, to 87 in this case. If you look at the full-size image, you’ll see that it’s much sharper, but the faces look blotchy because they are over-sharpened.

Masking

I turned up the masking control, which limits the sharpening to the areas that need it.

This image was shot in pretty good light using ISO 640, so there isn’t much noise in it. If there was noise, I’d apply some noise reduction and try to balance it against the sharpness of the sharpness loss that it causes.

If you go to the smugmug gallery, you can more easily do A<->B comparisons.


Sport shooting #6 – Cropping

Cropping is a really simple thing that can greatly improve the quality of your images by focusing on the things that seem important. Rather than talk about it, I thought I’d go through some examples. Here’s the first shot.

 

I like the shot – the shooter, goalie, and ball are all in focus. I don’t like the space above and below, #12 isn’t really helping the image, and I hate the Pepsi machine. Here’s the cropped version:

Much better.

You may notice that the resulting image is no longer the 3:2 ratio that we started with. This is an aesthetic choice; I tend to crop to best show the action (and get rid of the distraction) even if it results in a non-standard aspect ratio. Other photographers crop only to specific aspect ratios (3:2, 5:4, 5:3, etc.)

Here’s a simple one:

and one final one:


Sport shooting #5 – Glass

Like many people, when I first started getting into photography (or more correctly, when I started getting back into photography), I was focused on the camera.

Over time, I learned that it’s less about the camera and more about the lenses, or “glass”, to use the term photographers use. It’s not uncommon for a photographer to get attached to their lenses and keep them for years.

After you’ve shot for a while, you may find that the results that you’re getting aren’t quite up to what you were hoping for – you’d like to get pictures that are more like the ones the pros get.

At that point, it might be a good idea to think about new glass.

70-200mm

The 70-200mm zoom is a great lens for shooting field sports – it has enough reach to bring players close but it goes wide enough to handle players that are close. It’s relatively light and relatively cheap.

This is such a popular lens that Canon makes four different lenses:

Why did I choose those lenses? Wouldn’t Canon’s 100-300mm F4.5-5.6 be a much cheaper choice at $295?

It would be a cheaper choice, but it wouldn’t be a satisfying choice.

The four lenses are part of Canon’s “L” line of lenses – the ones that are designed for pros. They have superior optical performance, especially at the wide apertures where you will spend most of your time. They also are faster (gather more light) than the non-L lenses, and have faster focusing systems. At least some of them are parfocal, which means that you don’t have to refocus if you change the zoom.

You do pay a weight penalty. The 100-300 weighs 1.2 lbs, and the 4 lenses I list weigh 1.6, 1.7, 2.8, and 3.2 pounds. I have the third one on my list – put that on my 40D and together they weigh 4.4 pounds. I’m okay using that for a game, but I shot at a charity 5K run recently and my arms were killing me by the end.

The “IS” on some of the lenses says that the lens has Canon’s excellent image stabilization built in. Stabilization reduces the shaking of the camera when you handhold a lens. I have a 24-105mm F4L IS lens, and the stabilization on that is scary good.

But it doesn’t help in a lot in field sports. I’m looking to freeze the player’s movement, and having a nice stable background with blurry players isn’t much help.

My recommendation is that you start at the cheap (well, less expensive) end of the range, and try the 70-200mm F4L.

Other brands

There are other lens makers – Tamron and Sigma come to mind – that make lenses that also cover this range. I’ve heard that some of them are pretty good, but I prefer to stick with the Canon L lenses, because I know what their quality is and they hold their value well. If you want to buy a non-Canon lens, I suggest you compare their review scores to those of the comparable Canon lenses.

Nikon also makes excellent lenses in this range, but frankly, the whole Nikon lens line confuses me, so you’re on your own there. If anybody can give good Nikon recommendations, please feel free to add them in the comments and I’ll include them here…

Used lenses

Unlike camera bodies – which depreciate at an alarming rate – lenses hold their value well. You can find well-cared-for examples of any of the lenses I’ve listed, and you might save 30% or so on a used lens. And, if it turns out that you don’t like the lens, you can resell it, often at pretty much what you paid for it.

There are pros that do this regularly – they’ll buy a used expensive lens, use it for a specific assignment, and then resell it.

It pays to do some research before you buy a used lens – in some cases there are multiple versions of a single lens (with different quality), and sometimes a lens will have production issues that are only fixed in later versions.

Two of my L lenses came from the buy/sell forums on FredMiranda.com. There are also some online stores that offer used lenses.

Longer lenses

Canon’s 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS Lens ($1680, 3 lb) is sometimes used for sports, but it’s a bit slower than comparable lenses.

Most of the lenses beyond 200mm are prime (non-zoom) lenses.

There’s the very popular 300mm F4 L IS ($1300, 2.6 lbs) and 300mm F2.8 L IS – ($4600, 6! lbs). Most people use a monopod for the F2.8 variant, because of the weight.

If you need longer, the 400mm F2.8 L IS ($7500, 11.7 lbs) and finally the 600mm F4.0 L IS ($8300, 11.8 lbs) are also available. Maybe little Johnny will get that basketball scholarship…

The 600mm is a bit large as well. That tiny silver thing at the back is the camera body…

Teleconverters

A teleconverter attaches between the lens and the body and offers an extra multiple of magnification. Add a 1.4x teleconverter to your 70-200mm, and it magically becomes a 100-280mm lens. In the process, you lose some image quality, and that F4 lens becomes an F5.6 lens – you lose shutter speed and background blurriness.

Whether it’s acceptable depends on whether you can afford the loss of image quality and light. Canon L lenses are good enough that the loss of image quality is often acceptable, so if you have the light it’s interesting to try, especially if you have an F2.8 lens.

There are also 2x teleconverters – in these you turn the F4 lens into an F8 lens, which won’t even autofocus on many camera bodies, and you lose a lot of image quality. I don’t think it has much use in sports.

Rental

Before you drop $1K+ on a lens, you might want to try it out for a week. You can rent a 70-200F2.8 L for about $60 for a week, a small price to find out if the lens is worth it for you.

Manufacturing quality

It would be nice if all lenses were perfect from the factory, but unfortunately that isn’t always true. In some lenses the normal manufacturing tolerances line up to produce great results,and in some they go the other way and result in average results. In some cases, the manufacturer can service an average lens and turn it into sharp lens. If you think your lens isn’t performing the way it should, you might want to do this, preferably while the lens is under warranty (one disadvantage of buying used).


Sport shooting #4 – Shoot at F4. Usually…

The following assumes that you have a basic understanding of aperture and how it affects shutter speed and depth-of-field. If you’d like a quick refresher, the following links should help:

Or use a search engine – there are lots of good explanations out there.

My recommendation is that you set your camera to F4, and then adjust your ISO to give you an acceptable shutter speed (I prefer 1/1000th or faster, though I’ll accept a bit lower if necessary).

If you know a bit about how the pros shoot, that may be a surprising recommendation. Most pros use big and expensive F2.8 lenses. So, why F4? Well, I think it’s the best compromise aperture, and will give you the highest percentage of good shots, especially if you’re starting out. In most cases…

To understand that “usually”, it’s useful (or at least I think it’s useful – you are welcome to post a comment telling me that I’m deluded) to discuss what a smaller aperture would do.

2.8 Gives us…

Blurrier background

A smaller aperture will definitely give you a nicer background. But it’s not going to turn those parents on the sidelines into a slightly mottled background, it’s going to turn them into slightly blurrier parents, with an emphasis on “slightly”. Blurrier is better, but I’m not sure you’re going to notice a the difference.

Less depth of field

The same thing that gave us a blurrier background gives us less depth-of-field on our subject. To take an example, my 40D @ 200mm and F4 gives a depth of field of about 5′, front and back. Step up to F2.8, and that reduces to about 4′. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it’s 1′ less margin for error in your autofocus system, and 1′ less range where two players can be. And I suspect that the calculated depths-of-field are a bit too big, since sharpness is so important in sports shots. I know I have shots at F4 where I wish for a bit more depth-of-field, and F2.8 makes it worse.

Worse lens performance

My 70-200mm F2.8 L lens is pretty darn sharp at F2.8. But it’s sharper at F4, and that’s for a lens that is explicitly designed to be very sharp wide open. Most lenses are better one stop down from the widest aperture.

So…

So, I’m suggesting F4, yet I spent the money and deal with the weight of the F2.8 over the F4 variant of the same lens. Why?

It’s simple. Light. My daughter’s lacrosse team plays in the evening, and they also play on some pretty gloomy weekends, and that means I don’t consistently have the light that I want. If I don’t, my options are to bump up the ISO (more noise), reduce the shutter speed (blurry players), or shift to F2.8. That’s when the F2.8 really earns its keep.

If you shoot indoors or under stadium lights, you have my condolences. I’ll talk about indoor/night shooting in the future.

What if my lens only goes to F4?

If you only have a lens that goes to F4, I recommend trying both F4 and F5.6 and seeing what you think. If you have (for example) a Canon 70-200mm F4L, I think you’ll be happy with the F4 performance. But if your lens isn’t good enough, you may be looking at a lens upgrade, I’ll talk about that in a future post…


Sport shooting #3 – Focus

Sports shots are pretty intolerant of incorrect focus.

The focus software built into your camera does its best to give you crisp focus in all conditions, but since all it knows is what you’re pointing it at, it has to make some guesses and some compromises. There are a couple of things that you can do to give it more information so that it can make better decisions and improve the number of in-focus shots. You’ll notice the common thread in this post – rather than let the camera make choices for you, you are making the choices yourself.

Focus mode

There are two basic types of subjects – those that are static, and those that are moving. In the default mode (AI Focus on Canon, AF-A on Nikon), the camera looks at the subject and tries to figure out which autofocus approach works better.

My experience on the cameras I’ve used (Canon XT & 40D) is that the camera often makes the wrong choice. You can get better results by choosing the focus mode optimized for moving subjects (AI Servo or AF-C).

Focus points

Your camera has an array of focus points – individual spots in the scene where the camera can detect focus. The number and sophistication of those focus points depends on the model of the camera – my 40D has 9 focus points, and the new 7D that I’m pining for has 19 focus points.

Like the focus mode, the camera looks at all the focus points and tries to determine which ones are most important and then focuses on those. Sometimes it works well, sometimes you find that in that beautifully-composed and exposed image, the camera decided it was better to make sure the fan in the background be in focus than the players.

Like focus mode, you can help the camera out by telling it what you think is important. By setting on focus point, you know if you put that focus point on the part of the image that you want to be in focus, the camera will try to put it in focus. Say you’re shooting runners and you want their faces in focus, you choose a focus point at the top of the frame.

However, all focus points are not created equal. On my 40D, the center focus point is better – it will work for lenses with higher minimum apertures than the other ones, and it may give better results as well.

When I’m shooting most sports, I stick with the center focus point because I know it will work well and I’d rather give up a little framing and have to crop an image down rather than try to shift the focus point from shot to shot.

Focus-on-demand

The camera chooses when it wants to focus, which can be inconvenient. You want to focus on the face of a player in a static situation and take the picture when the motion starts, but when you take the picture, the camera refocuses to what the focus point is on.

If your camera supports focus-on-demand, you can turn off the focus when you half-press the shutter and map the “focus now” function to a button on the back of the camera, which you press with your thumb. You now get full control on the focus, and on my 40D, the chosen focus point lights up red when the camera detects focus.

Enabling this is not without a downside. First, instead of just following the action, keeping the focus point where you want it, and pressing the shutter-release when it makes sense to take a picture, you also need to press the focus button (and sometimes hold it) at the appropriate point. For me, it took 4 games before I was approaching parity with the performance I was getting with the camera controlling focus, and a few more before I saw any benefits. And you run the risk of forgetting to press the focus button in other situations, like when you are taking a wonderfully wind-blown team photograph in perfect light. Not that I’ve ever done that.

I have this set all the time on aperture-priority on my camera. It’s possible to set it up on one of the custom modes on my camera – so it only does that when you turn the mode dial to C1 – but the power-off/on behavior in that mode resets the ISO so it doesn’t work for me.

It was a fair bit of pain to learn to do this but it’s made a noticeable difference in the quality of my images.

Release priority

One more small point about focus.

Canon cameras in AI servo mode operate in what is known as “release focus” for the first frame in a sequence. That means that the camera doesn’t delay taking the picture even if the camera hasn’t achieved focus. Later frames are “focus priority”, which means the camera knows when it’s going to take the picture and tries to have focus at that point.

So, even if you aren’t going to change the focus point or use focus-on-demand, it helps a lot of you stake sequences of shots rather than single shots – the later shots are more likely to be good.

Micro adjustment

Guess I wasn’t quite done.

The auto-focus system works through the collaboration of the camera and the lens. The camera detects the focus and drives the lens to perfect focus.

Well, it’s not quite that simple. Cameras and lenses are both physical devices and manufacturing tolerances mean that some of them focus really well, while other will back focus (the true focus point is actually behind the subject) or front focus (the true focus point is behind the subject). It’s the luck of the draw.

If you do focus tests – which I might talk about at some point, until then you can search the interwebs – you can tell how your camera/lens perform, and then send the lens and/or the camera (they work together) off to your manufacturer for calibration.

Or… you can buy a camera body that supports micro adjustment. You test the focus, and then you can dial in a little adjustment to get things just the way you want it. Another reason I’m pining for the 7D.


Sport shooting #2 – Field Position

Or, “Where to stand…”

One of my goals in shooting sports is to get images that you can’t get as a spectator. Not only do I want to freeze the motion of the players, I’d like to get perspectives that are different from what you usually see. And I’d like to create images with as few distractions as possible.

Location has a lot to do with that. The following assumes that you are shooting a sport that takes place on a field or court, but the basic principles should apply to most sports.

Where does the action take place?

First off, you’ll want to figure out where the action that you care about takes place. If you are shooting soccer, the majority of the action takes place in the midfield, though shots and scoring take place at the ends.

In girl’s lacrosse, on the other hand, the majority of the action occurs near the goals, though this varies depending upon the specific rules that are in effect for the game (the rules are different for different ages).

So, it pays to be an informed spectator.

What do I want to cover?

I’m typically shooting to try to capture the whole game, and ideally that will feature all the players on the team. I’ll shoot from different spots so I can get both defensive and offensive players, and do this in both halves so I can get the outside players when they’re close to me.

If you are shooting for a single player, you will probably make different choices.

Where am I allowed to stand?

Different sports at different levels will put different constraints on where you can be. My goal is to remain within the league rules, and to conform to the desires of the coaches and the officials. The more official the sport, the more serious people are going to be about photography.

If you’re just getting started, it’s a nice courtesy to talk to the officials before the game, tell them what you’re planning on doing, and let them know that they should let you know if you are doing anything they’d prefer you not to do. Same with the coaches.

If you are allowed on any part of the endlines, try to stand at least 10 yards off the end of the field. This makes you much less obvious and intrusive.

Finally, you will likely run into parents who will avoid this, and go into places where they shouldn’t be. My advice is to ignore them.

Sun and Background

If the sun is mostly overhead, the sun direction is less important, but if it’s low, you will get much better results if you shoot with the sun behind you. If you are lucky enough to be able to shoot late afternoon games that are sunny, you have an opportunity to get sun that will get inside helmets or other headgear and a nice golden color, and my advice is to do what you can to take advantage of it.

In other situations, the background is going to have more of an impact on the quality of your shots. Take some time looking around the field when you arrive and decide what direction you prefer to get the best backgrounds. The ends of fields are often pretty clear, so shooting from the ends can be a benefit.

Height

In many cases, you’ll want to use the standard “standing up” position, and I do this a lot when I’m moving around between positions. But look for different perspectives – last year I took some nice shots from a high balcony about 50′ above a field, and I regularly take shots lying down at the end of the field (but only on dry turf fields…).

Special situations

Shooting goalkeepers is hard. They are facing away from the endlines, and they’re a long way away from the sidelines, and even if you have enough reach to capture them, they’re often facing the other side. And they may not be very busy during some games.

The solution is to go out on the field and shoot them during warmup. That gets you 20 yards from them instead of 50, and you can easily get 50-60 nice shots in a few minutes.

Cheering

You’re either a photographer, or you’re a spectator. If you’re out close to the field, you should act like you’re part of the field – no cheering, no talking to the players, etc. It’s a privilege to be out there, so don’t abuse it.


Sport shooting #1 – starting equipment

In many areas of photography, you can get nice results with high-end point-and-shoot cameras (such as the Canon G series), and sometimes with a cheaper point-and-shoot.

Sports photography is not one of those. For sports shots, you want:

  1. Short exposure times, so that you can freeze the player’s motion.
  2. Good autofocus, so you can focus on the player.
  3. Telephoto lenses, so you can get close enough to the action.
  4. A decent-sized sensor, so the level of noise is acceptable.

Put those all together, and the answer you get is “SLR”. I’m a Canon guy, so I’ll talk in those terms, but there are equivalent choices in Nikon’s line since the two biggies are always fighting for the top of the heap.

At the entry-level, you need:

  • A DSLR of relatively recent vintage.
  • A lens that goes to 200mm (preferably a zoom, ‘cause it’s easier to use).

That puts you at perhaps $500-$750 at the low end, and that will be enough to get started shooting sports if you are shooting outside during the day.

I will warn you at the outset that sports photography can be an expensive passion. The midrange camera bodies and lenses are on the order of $1K each, and the ones the pros use are in the $4K-$7K range for the bodies or lenses.

I started with a Canon Rebel XT (about $750 at the time), and a Canon 28-135 F4.5-5.6 zoom lens (say, $300).


Sport Shooting

Or, “so you want to take pictures of your kids”…

I’ve spent the fast few years teaching myself how to do sports photography, so I could take pictures of my daughter’s soccer and lacrosse teams. Or, to be more correct, progressing from “really bad at sports photography” to “okay at sports photography”.

I found a few sources on the way to help me out, and I’d like to pass on some of the tips that I’ve either been told or found out along the way, and with a bit of luck – and a lot of practice – you’ll be producing some nice images of your own in no time.

I’m going to talk about things in rough order of complexity – I’ll start out with the things that are more basic and move towards the more complex (and/or expensive) ones.

I hope you find this helpful…