Demystifying the world of sports photography

Archive for June, 2011

Ryu: Modes de la sports

Real Madrid v Getafe

Disclaimer: It’s too hot and I’m writing this post just in my underwear.  Hope that’s okay with you.

I came across this on lifehacker recently.  Didn’t think much of it until I realised that there are fair number of shooting modes that pertains to sports photography.  Low and behold, that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

The modes are (Tv/S) Shutter priority, (Av/A) Aperture priority, (M) Full manual, (P) Program, (A)Automatic and Scene modes.  Just to prove that I don’t waste my brain cells in something as asinine as this, Tv stands for time value and Av aperture value.  One of those things I’ve never understood, but doesn’t make me feel that much smarter now that I know what it means.   By the way, there is no such thing as ISO priority mode, so please don’t ask me about it.  As for me, I change the ISO depending on the situation.  I can hear Syd disagreeing with me from 16,000 km away.

Tv/S = Shutter priority
If you’ve used a DSLR or even a modern SLR (you know, the one with that film thing), you know what it is.  You set the shutter speed, the camera does the rest.  This is the mode that I use the most.  Rain or shine, I’m in love with my shutter priority.  Since sports photography in a nutshell is all about freezing the action, you can control the level of frost in an image.  In any given sporting situation, I usually set it to 1/800.  There is no specific reason why I have settled for this number, but I guess if you’re Chinese, you might find some solace in my number picking ability. Would have been better if it was 1/888, but unfortunately we don’t have that much control… yet.

From my experiences with crappy floodlights in equally crappy stadiums, the lowest I go to get most things frozen is 1/500. I’ve shot slower, but then you start approaching into indecisive blur territory.  If you want to go the other way and start blurring, you have to start somewhere around 1/15.

If you want to stop the action in most sports, 1/1000 will do just fine, but I have no idea if it will be enough to freeze a shuttle cock in mid flight.

Av/A = Aperture priority
To be honest with you, I’ve probably shot sports in this mode about 4 times.  In this mode, you are allowed to change the aperture whilst the camera does all the dirty work.. For normal photographers out there, the reason you want to fiddle with your aperture is to control the depth of field.  If you don’t know what DoF is then, well, you should find out.  More DoF, things are more focused in the image, less DoF, you’re guess is probably as good as mine.  I’m racking my brain to find out if there are any instances you would want to use this mode in sports photography, but I can’t find any.  Somebody please prove me wrong.

M = Full manual
In this mode, you get to decide everything other than murder.  Shutter speed and aperture.  I apologise if you were expecting a lot more.  I probably use this about 20% of the time.  The only time I go this route is when I know that the lighting condition is and will be consistent throughout  and the playing surface is evenly lit.  Oh and I use it when there is the ever annoying LED billboards in my line of sight.   I will never shoot manual during the day as the sun moves here and there and as a consequence, casts shadows on the outdoor playing surface.  Unless you know the surface will be completely covered with sunlight or shadows, I will give half my control to the camera and go with shutter priority.

I will only consider going manual when there is something that throws off the light meter inside the camera, ie that godforsaken LED billboards.  Since these are hell of a lot brighter (and uglier) than their older paint based counterparts, your camera will suddenly go dumb.    There maybe other factors that might send your camera into a tizzy, such as something really bright or something even brighter.  Make sure you shoot couple of images and check on your LCD monitor to see if it’s correctly exposed.  What you need to really watch out for is the touch line / sides of the playing surface.  In most cases, they are poorly lit compared to the centre and therefore your shots will be underexposed.  I guess you just can’t have it all.

P = Program mode
I call it the “almost stupid mode” and I don’t use it for sports photography.  The only instances I’ve used it is when if I’m not shooting the action.  Even then, I’d rather go with shutter priority as the only thing that I’m interested is to blur or not blur the scene.  But I must admit that in non-sports photography, I’m a closet P lover.

A = Automatic
I’ve read that the difference between Automatic and Program is that one is slightly less cool than the other, which isn’t saying much.  With Automatic everything is… automatic including your ISO, flash, and all sorts of other things that I can’t talk about it here. Basically it’s the real stupid mode.  As with the Program mode, I don’t use it in sports and I don’t even have it on my camera.  But if I did, I’ll be a big fan of it outside sports photography.  Please don’t tell anyone.

Scene modes
One of the dumbest thing ever to be invented in photography.  Just because you move the dial to a fat stick figure running to the left doesn’t mean you can all of a sudden shoot sports.  I believe that in this mode, the camera selects a high shutter speed so that you can freeze the action.  I guess they never heard of shutter priority.  If you have any pride in your sports photography skills, don’t go there.

There you have it.  All modes fully explained to the best of my limited ability.  As you might have realised at this point, there is no one mode that will rule them all in the realm of sports photography.  You have to take into consideration your shooting style as well as the sports and maybe the weather.  If you shoot various sports, it might be a good idea to jot down what mode and settings you’ve used so that you can refer back to it later.  Don’t forget that there is no “correct” way of shooting sports and what works for you doesn’t guarantee that it will work for others.  The more you shoot in various sports and conditions, the more adept you will become at knowing which mode to use to get the shot you want.

By the way, if you ever master the P mode in sports photography, please tell me how it’s done.


Syd: Getting rid of clutter

AUS: Australia v Serbia - 7 June 2011

When I look at photographs from mums and dads taking photos of their children or their children’s sports teams they generally look the same. They often look like this:

Typically, one of the kids in the photo is theirs, but often it’s not even the one with the ball. You can hear the conversation now “here’s a photo of my child in the game” – “which one is he/she?” – “the 2nd one from the back behind the 3rd one from the right…” The pictures all look like this because the camera doesn’t do the job of our brain in de-cluttering the scene when we watch a match with our eyes. Our brain does a great job and allows us to subconsciously focus just on the action. However, when we take a picture, the camera records everything. Especially all the clutter.

So, for beginning sports photographers, the first improvement to strive for is to isolate the action. That means composing the photo so that only the action is in the picture. Without all the clutter. Here’s another example, it’s better, but it’s still pretty cluttered. The action is not in the front and there’s a lot of distraction in the photo:

Clearly, the next improvement to strive for is to have the action in the front and get rid of more distraction that’s not part of the action. After lots of practise you’ll be able to shoot only when the action is the only thing left in the picture, the background’s clean and there’s no confusion about what’s going on in the picture. Like this:

This last photo is a keeper. The action is isolated, the background is clean from using a large aperture so that its blurred and out of focus and the action is in focus.

I know you want to ask, so I’ll answer – Yes, I took all these photos. It’s an example of my progression from trying to shoot sports. You can see that in the first two photos I didn’t use a large aperture to isolate the foreground. Both were shot at f5.6 whereas the last photo was f2.8. The first photo was taken from a standing position and the last two was from a much lower position. And the time between the first two photos and the last photo is about four years.

I hope this helps you analyse your own photos and improve on your de-cluttering!

Have fun.

Ryu: Hot stove league shooting

Clairefontaine, France

My football season ended few weeks ago and I’m on my way back from Tokyo.  I know, tough life. I apologise for this post going out slightly late, but hopefully you’ll forgive me as I was not only vacationing in south east Asia, rather honeymooning.  Since it’s hailed as a “once in a lifetime experience”, my tardiness should also be considered as such.

Being out and about in Vietnam with my 3 cameras (of which I used 2, but that’s another story come December) as well as my ever forgiving wife, I realised that I now have ahead of me little less than 2 months of non-sports shooting.  Needless to say, there is a mix bag of feelings that whips around inside my innards when I think about the summer of no balls.  Emptiness, fear, weirdness, and why no one wants to play sports when it’s 35 degrees outside with a humidity well over 100%.  Weddings and conferences (where I met my wife, but that’s all you need to know) are all fine pieces of work, but it’s no substitute for the craziness of sports photography.  But twiddling those porky fingers is not going to do any good and this is a perfect time for some experimentation.  Please note that “experimentation” here is not to be confused with activities that you indulge around the first semester of your freshman year in college.

1. Don’t shoot sports.

Yup, that’s right.  Go shoot something other than sports.  Forced family portraits, food porn, self portraits, street photography, and vacation shots, Everything other than the s word.  I’m encouraging this because the last thing you want is getting your head stuck so far into sports photography that you’re not feeling the love no mo’.   Remember, this has to be fun and once the fun is gone, then it’s not fun anymore.  Aside from stating the obvious, shooting non-sports is a great time to discover new techniques which can be used in sports photography.  I for one discovered journalistic style in wedding photography can be used in sports photography.  Minus the dress that is.

2. New compositions and angles and lights.

As you get your feet soaking wet in sports photography, you realise that your composition becomes rather predictable.  So much so that people can tell that it’s your image from the way you’ve composed it.  Although this is not necessary a bad thing as you can claim it as your style, but I think it’s a rather poor excuse of you for not trying other composition techniques.  Placing your subject in a different area within the frame, try shooting from a different angle, and shoot with varying amounts of light.  At first, you will feel that the images look like they’ve been shot by a complete stranger.  Fear not.  You are not suffering from dissociative identity disorder, well, at least I don’t think you are.  The more you shoot with these new techniques, the more comfortable you will get with them.  You might only end up adding only one or two new skills to your arsenal, but that’s one or two you didn’t have couple of months ago.  So thank me later.

3. Go see some art.

Inspiration can come from 15 minutes in the shower as well as seeing art in museums.  “What?  I’m a manly man’s man Ryu!  Arts are for womenly man with womanly needs!  Why am I shouting!?”  If that’s what you think, you are seeing sports photography like those fat lame ass sports photographers who don’t want amateurs sitting beside them at matches.   I guarantee that one visit to the local museum will give you some surprising dose of inspiration.  It’s not necessary to understand the art or you don’t have to force yourself to like them.  Just take it in and see what happens.  At the very least you’ll get free air condition for half an hour.

4. Buy shiny new toys because you absolutely need them.

New technique and new inspirations equals new gear.  If you want to shoot wider low angle shots of ball players, tighter shots of the running back, longer range of casual flash portraits on the pitch, and they all point to another GAS session with your therapist.  If your current gear does not allow you to take the new shots you want, new gear will make all your dreams come true.  I can feel the grease of your palm dripping as you read this post, but before you goto your favourite web store like Adorama or B&H (shameless plug, I know), take couple of deep breaths to steady that shaky hand of yours.   If you want to get wider shots and a longer lens, then you must choose just one.  I can see you rolling on the floor, wailing “No, no no!  I want more more more!”, but you have to trust me on this.  If you acquire two fresh gears, it will take your attention from really learning how to use them.  In theory, it should take you twice as much time to learn as you have two new things.  But if you have only one new gear, you can really concentrate on mastering it and incorporating that to your existing setup.  I’ve said it before: you are only as good as your skills and mastery of your equipment.  And by being sensible,  you have probably staved off another month of declaring bankruptcy.

5. Watch sports on TV.

There is a dearth of sports during the summer, but try looking for them and watch them on the tele..  Ideally, you should be watching sports that you usually don’t watch.  LIke jai alai and sepak takraw.  You might find them strangely amusing and you’re on the next flight to Indonesia.  You might also get fresh ideas for how you will want to shoot your regular sports.  When I watch sports on TV, I tend to imagine myself as a photographer at the match.  I simulate how I will shoot a certain scene and yes, I am that lame.  But playing virtual sports photographer is not a bad game to play if the alternative is cleaning your garage or going grocery shopping.

After a long season of the sports you shoot regularly comes to an end, you would like the opportunity to chill out and recharge.  But no one needs 2 months on the beach with pina colada on the right hand and FHM on the left.  These 2 months can grow your belly or grow you as a sports photographer.  You don’t have to go out there and shoot everyday during the offseason, but making good use out of the down time and preparing for the upcoming season will make shooting more exciting. Sports photography is infinitely more fun when you can see improvements in your images, but don’t expect any of it if you decide to wait on your sofa for training to start.

I believe that is my cue to get off the couch and start shooting. :)


Syd: Use a different button to focus


This post is about the AF-ON button or back button focus. If you already use this technique – go and make yourself a martini!

Before computers enabled auto-focus systems in cameras, the photographer had to manually focus their lenses and the process of taking a picture involved four steps: set the exposure, focus, compose and release the shutter. Today, it still requires these four steps but our modern digital SLR cameras have simplified it to two actions: compose and press the shutter button. However, behind the scenes, the four steps are still there, but just done by computers. And therein lies a big problem.

I’ve met many photographers who are not setting up their cameras to shoot sports that would maximise their opportunity get great shots. In fact, they’re using a $6000 camera like a $500 manual film camera. Well, maybe not that bad, but almost. In this post I’m going to write about one of these settings: why you should not use the standard “half press shutter” to auto-focus in sports photography.

Auto-focus out of the box
Out of the box, every digital-SLR is set up so that the shutter button does three things. Yes, three – count them: 1. When you press it half way down it activates the auto-focus function; 2. It starts the exposure meter and the exposure programming if you’re using an auto-exposure mode; and 3. When you press it all the way down, it fires the shutter and writes the images out to the memory card. You might ask what’s wrong with this? Well, remember that taking a photo before computers was four separate steps? The main problem with putting three steps into one is the loss of control in the two steps of focus and compose:

  • Focus. In sports, your camera is almost aways set up to use continuous auto-focus (AF-C on Nikon and AI Servo AF on Canon). This allows the camera to track, or keep focus, on moving objects like an athlete or racing car. Of course, continuous auto-focus (I’ll use AF-C as a shorthand) has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in digital SLR technology and that’s why the best camera bodies cost $6000 or more, and sports photographers use this feature, but when you link AF-C with the half-press shutter it doesn’t work for a lot of shots. I’ll explain why and how to fix this below.
  • Compose. Coupled with focusing, with the current AF-C systems it is either impossible or not practical to compose a photo where the subject is in focus and not positioned at the selected focus point when the half-press shutter button is used to activate auto-focusing. Again, more below.

Since 1989, all Canon EOS cameras have been able to be set up by the user so that a button on the back of the camera near where the right thumb usually rests is used to start the auto-focus function. Nikon also have this in their d-SLRs. According to Canon, this feature appeared through feedback from their professional sports photographers. This button is sometimes called “Back button AF” but on both camera systems the button is labeled “AF-ON”. This allows the photographer to start auto-focus by pressing the button, but equally important, to turn OFF the default setting of having the half-press of the shutter button starting the auto-focus. By turning off auto-focus on the shutter button means that the photographer can control when to stop and start focusing. Auto-focus starts with you press the AF-ON button, if you keep it pressed, and you’re in AF-C mode, the camera will keep focus on the object, and here’s the most important bit – the camera will stop auto-focusing when you release the AF-ON button and the focus will not change.

Practically, the situation where it’s most important for sports is when you’re tracking a moving object like a runner and out of the corner of your eye you see another object that’s going to cross in front of your object and your camera. This means that your camera is going to change the focusing from your runner to the interfering object. In this case, you just take your finger off the AF-ON button and keep shooting with your shutter button. If you hadn’t disabled auto-focus on the shutter button, all your shots will be out of focus because you wouldn’t have been able to tell the camera to stop auto-focusing and the interfering object will be focused instead of your object.

Here’s the magic setting to disable half-pressed shutter focus:
For Nikon:
Function a5: AF Activation. Default is Shutter/AF-ON, change to AF-ON only
For Canon:
Custom function – C.Fn IV-1 Shutter button/AF-ON button. Default is 0, Metering and AF start. Use 2, Metering start for the shutter button and AF for the button. More info here.

Most sports photographers use the center focus point and when shooting fast moving sports you don’t have time to move the focus point around. What do you do when you want to compose your shot so that the object you want to be in focus isn’t in the middle of the photo (of behind the selected focus point)? Well, if you’re using half-press shutter button for auto-focus and you’re in AF-C mode you’re out of luck. You can’t, as when you recompose, the camera will just keep auto-focusing and focus on whatever is now in the middle of the photo or behind the focus point. But, if your using the AF-ON button and disabled auto-focus on the shutter button it’s super easy. Just tap the AF-ON button to focus – don’t hold the AF-ON button down. After focus has been achieved just recompose and press the shutter button. Pressing the shutter no longer tells the camera to activate auto-focus. In fact, this method makes the AF-S mode on a Nikon and One-Shot AF mode on a Canon redundant. The AF-ON button has duplicated this single shot auto focus mode. This technique is also useful for portraits and situations where you want to re-compose your shot after focusing and you don’t have time to set up the shot and manually move the focus points around.

Let me know how you go.
Have fun!

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Podcast: Episode 4 – Workflow


We’re already at episode 4 and we decide to talk about Workflow, sports photography as a business and lots more. Listen and download links here:
– Subscribe and listen via iTunes
– Get RSS feed
– Get MP3 (Click to listen or right click to save it to your computer)

News – Our best and worst shoots this past month.
Ryu loved shooting José Mourinho and didn’t like Euro league final, whilst Syd had a quiet month and only shot an AFC Champions League match – which he liked.

We introduce… Michael Brown.
Ryu and Syd interview Michael Brown, a sports photographer and owner of a sports photography business from Australia.
Mike’s website: Photoworx
Mentioned in the interview: Homeless World Cup

Master class
We chat about all aspects of Workflow.
– Adobe Bridge and Photoshop
– Adobe Lightroom
– Apple Aperture, iPhoto
– Windows Picasa 3, Live Photo Gallery
– Camera Bits Photomechanic
iView Media Pro

You win
Our monthly competition for our readers and listeners and last month’s theme was “emotion”.

The winner is Ekaterina Lokteva from Moscow and her image can be seen on the rotating image at the top of our website. Her flickr photostream is here.
Here are the links to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place photos.

The June competition it’s liquid.  Goto our BLFS flickr group page for competition rules.

Far Post, Near Post
Our readers’ questions of the month. This month, we discuss Raw versus JPEG file formats for sports photography.

GAS of the month

Jingles by Spencer Griffiths
Icon by Arvin Bautista


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