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Saturday, April 19, 2008

It Must Be Spring -- Shooting Sports

It must be Spring – I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to shoot sports – especially outdoors – like baseball, track & field, and soccer.

If you’ve spent anytime on this blog, you know that we talk, regularly, about using flash. In particular, we explore how to get studio lighting results, in relatively small spaces, using one or more hot shoe type flashes.

Today, we are leaving the flash behind and we are getting out of the studio (living room, garage, family room) and into the wide-open spaces of a baseball diamond, soccer field, and stadium.

Actually, we are going to do it in reverse order. We are going to the Surf City Invitational Track & Field Meet, in Huntington Beach, California. I’ll explain how I took a few representative photos. At the end, I’ll display a series of other images, from other sports, using the same techniques that I describe in the track & field samples -- and also illustrating that it is important to capture more than just 'action' when shooting sports.

Track meets are great places to practice your techniques because of the wide variety of events and challenges in capturing them. As in any image, the quality of the exposure is determined by the aperture size and shutter speed. In most sports photography, you will be concerned with stopping the action – capturing the image without the blur caused by the subject speeding past you.

We’ll talk about some of the techniques for capturing action, but first, let’s begin with shutter speed. The faster the shutter, the greater chance you’ll have of getting a sharp image. Normally, when I arrive at the location, I will take a meter reading. If you don’t have an external meter and/or gray card, simply position yourself in the same light as your subject, and take a reading off the palm of your hand. While this isn’t perfect, it will give you a fairly accurate starting point. Place your camera in Shutter Priority, set the shutter to 1/000 or faster, and take a reading. Depending on how much depth of field you think you’ll want, decide if the metered aperture is appropriate. You can then dial in those settings in Manual Mode, or leave the camera in Shutter Priority.

In the first image, I was shooting a discus thrower. I was able to shoot toward the subject, from the area to where he would be throwing the disc. His technique would be to stand in a designated circle, spin to gain momentum, and then let go of the discus as he was facing in my general direction. I wanted to have sufficient shutter speed to capture his motion, without a blur. I also wanted to have enough depth-of-field (DOF) to capture the disc as it left his hand. A rather ugly chain link fence in the background complicated this. I would have liked to reduce the depth-of-field, to blur that background, but then I would have sacrificed the opportunity to capture both the athlete and the disc.

I decided on a shutter speed of 1/2000 and found that I could get a good exposure and reasonable DOF at about f4.0 to 5.6. ISO was 400.

In the following five images, I was able to capture great facial expressions. Only in the middle one, did I get both the athlete and the disc. To me, the faces make up for not getting the disc.

For me, some of the most exciting and picturesque events at a track meet are the hurdles. Rather than having the runners speed by, perpendicular to the camera, try to position yourself at about 30-45 degrees, so that the runners are coming toward you. For this series, I focused on one of the hurdles, and keeping my left eye open, used my peripheral visions to see the hurdlers approaching. While your camera’s buffer will determine how many images you can capture, most cameras should be able to capture, at least, three images per second, in Continuous Mode. Pick the best image, don’t show anyone the other two, and you’ll look like a pro!

Exposure was 1/2000 and from f4.8 to 6.7. ISO was 400.

Notice that the second and third photos, above, are from the same sequence. Zooming in can significantly increase the drama of the image. With some practice, you will be able to do this in camera. Otherwise, use an image manipulation program, like Photoshop, to crop your images for maximum effect.

For most sports, select your camera’s Matrix Metering mode, instead of center weighted or spot metering.

In the above examples, we selected a shutter speed, and then allowed the camera to decide on the appropriate aperture. However, in the next example – the pole vault – we are faced with a small figure (the pole vaulter) on a large, light colored background (the sky). In this case, I took a spot meter reading on the uniform of the athlete, while he was on the ground. I placed the camera on Manual, and dialed in the settings. Then, I focused on the crossbar, and used the same left-eye-open technique that I use when shooting the hurdlers, to anticipate when to begin shooting.

Exposure was 1/000 at f8-9.5.

Now, for some random images - there is much more to photograph at a sporting event, than just the action.