Demystifying the world of sports photography

Technique

Podcast: Episode 35 – Prepare

Podcast: Episode 35 – “Prepare”

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News

Ryu & Matt talk about end of year self-evaluation and Ryu’s decision to enter some contests. Matt asks for some listener help on whether a MacBook Air can handle RAW editing.

Master Class
In response to a listener question, Ryu and Matt start a three-part Master Class talking about what goes into getting ready for a shoot.

Training Ground
Training Ground is now on video. If you’d like to participate (and we think you should), enter your pictures in the Flickr thread and make sure to tag them BLFSTG201311.

Training Ground will now be split off from the podcast, and will run approximately two weeks after the podcast.

You Win

Our December 2013 themed competition was “Anything Goes

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 7.24.44 AM

The winner was Jan Mulders with this rugby picture.

Second place was Simon Wright with this soccer picture.

Third place was Mike Groom with this racing picture.

The January 2014 themed competition is “Seasonally appropriate”. Goto our BLFS flickr group page for competition rules and to enter.

Cross-Counter

Our new segment where we say good things about sports photographs is called Cross-Counter.  But after seeing Sports Illustrated’s 2013 Pictures of the Year, we took a break from saying good things.

Special thanks to…
Our new producer Robb Massar
Icon by Arvin Bautista

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Ryu: Shooting amateurs professionally

Hello there. At the airport wondering why people havoing such difficult time with our current You Win: Emotions in sports. It is beyond me that why some of you are so locked in on the action and cannot figure out that the most important thing in sports is the reaction to winning and losing. But that’s for another time, because thinking about it gets me too riled up and I’d rather stay calm. Doctor’s orders.

What I want to discuss today is the difference in shooting amateur and pro sports. I belong to a football team in Berlin and I had the opportunity to shoot my team. At first, I wasn’t too excited to shoot my teammates. Not because I have an aversion towards my own team, but I have an aversion for shooting amateurs. Unlike my Jewish partner, I grew up shooting pro sports. My first sports shoot was pro football in Japan. Big games and big tournaments followed and not an amateur in sight. Poor me.

Could I have gone out of my way to shoot amateurs? Sure. But, shooting amateur athletes in Europe makes me 0 Euros. I had a taste of it in DR shooting Dominican baseball players, but most of it was shot in a professional environment, academies run by MLB teams.

So why amateur now? Since so many of you don’t have access (ie press pass) to shoot pro sports, I’d be doing you disservice if I am not experienced at what you are experiencing. I also was in a bit of a funk after the England v Poland match I shot where I felt my shots were awful. Like terrible. I needed to avenge my poor performance and what better to try something new?

1. Access
I mean, WTF? You can go EVERYWHERE. Changing room, on the pitch, and I can even drink their water bottles.  I’m stunned for those who are shooting sports at this level that you aren’t getting more intimate shots. Some of these athletes are your friends or family members. Get them to react to your presence. Let yourself be the stimulus. And also, get in their grill. Make them uncomfortable. Hell, you are the photographer, you do what you want.

2. Unpredictable
At a higher level, things go according to how things should go. Player A passed the ball to Player B unchallenged. 10 out of 10 times the ball gets to the intended position. But at this level unpredictability rules. Expect the unexpected. In a way, it’s more difficult to shoot amateurs because you have to be ready for everything. Make sure you are on your toes and try to be conservative when predicting the next play.

3. The Ace
Since this is not the Bundesliga or the Prem, inaccuracy is rife. Trapping, passing, dribbling, and shooting. Everything is off. Therefore the player will not hold the ball long enough for you to get a good action shot. Lots of lost balls peppered with lots of headers in the air. Therefore if you want good action shots, follow the ace. In my case, our ace can hold the ball longer than the others (“others” include myself of course), allowing me to get the shots I wanted. But obviously you can’t shoot him all day long and you’ll need to shift your focus to the other players because the last thing you want is tons of picture of your ace and meagre harvest of the others.

4. Experiment
This is your chance to do whatever you want. You want to be right next to the goal, at the feet of the players? You want to be so close that you can hear them breathe? You want to go on the pitch when they celebrate the goal and maybe join them? Okay, the last one is a tad too much, but the others are totally plausible. As long as you are not in their way, get as close to the action. Use a flash. Place cameras in weird places. Shoot the players whilst running. The imagination and refs patience is the only limit. Go crazy.

5. Portfolio
If you are starting out in sports photography, shooting amateurs is the best way to showcase your skill. Besides the blatantly obvious segue into Critical Breakdown, shooting amateur sports will be the key for you to get shots unimaginable in pro sports. Only thing impressive about having images of Lebron, Peyton, Cristiano, or Tiger’s waitress girlfriends is IF the image is interesting. Contrary to popular belief, just having images of superstars isn’t enough to impress your potential employer. But an image of the locker room with kids cowering in fear as the coach gives them the hairdryer? Priceless.

The most difficult thing for me was to detach myself emotionally from the game. Not easy when your teammates are busting their balls out there. But if you want to shoot sports, you have to cut all ties with what’s happening on the pitch and concentrate on getting great shots. Because that’s what a sports photographer should do.

Along the same line, I am now thinking whether I can shoot a match with bare minimum non-pro equipment instead of my usual D4 and the funky bunch. But that will have to wait until my next slump.  :)

Ryu

Untitled-10 Untitled-8 Untitled-6 Untitled-5 Untitled-3 Untitled-2 Untitled-1

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Ryu: Low and behold

Afternoon. But by the time this goes out, it could be evening or morning. We’ll see. All’s well in the European front as I’m on my way to shoot some football in Manchester. That’s Manchester in England and not the fake one in New Hampshire. I’m also now toying with the idea of getting a GoPro so that I can get some weird angles and hangout with all the cool extreme sports photographers.

This week’s sweet tip is exactly that. Trying to get your low angle shots lined up whilst not looking through your view finder. This is assuming you have no space to lie down. Because if you have the space, you better have some dirt on your tummy.

What I used to do is to put the camera as low as possible (aka on the ground) and point the lens towards the direction I want and fire away. But unfortunately, this is not the most reliable way to shoot as you have no idea EXACTLY what and where you are shooting. I’d shoot couple of frames, check the images, try different angles and settings, check the images, prefocus, check the images, and repeat until my OCD got tired. When the moment came to shoot, I just hoped and hoped and hoped.

With the arrival of D4, everything changed for the good. I suddenly realised that with this this live view thing, I can now see what my camera is seeing on the LCD. Wow. A twist of the dial and a push of a button. I have to admit that it was a technological breakthrough in my life (I’m fully aware of the fact that a Somy camera made in Tajikistan for 50 Indonesian Rupiahs also has an active LCD just like the one on D4). Welcome to the world where pro gear doesn’t get all the useful stuff.

I don’t know which of the DSLRs out there have a live view mode. But I’m assuming I’m talking to the majority and not the minority. Therefore if you’ve been dying to shoot that low angle shot in a cramped place and was having trouble getting shots, you now just have to push a button. Maybe turn a dial. By the way, in the D4, the live view mode only lets you shoot in AF-S and it doesn’t do the usual FPS.

But hey, life could be worse.

Ryu

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Ryu: Saving private Spot

As is the case with almost all my posts, I’m writing this when I’m bored to tears. I’m kidding. Kind of. But I do think about you when I write about it so there is still some hope between you and me. I’m at Oberstdorf shooting the Nebelhorn Trophy. That’s figure skating to you and me. It’s exciting, but the level here is so low that I’m waiting for the big guns to show up. And that’s like at 23:10 tonight. I’d like to say I’m kidding, but I’m not.

Matt and I have already wrote quite a lot about sports photography in our past posts and frankly we are running out of big ideas to write about. We definitely don’t want to go the Hollywood route and start posting remakes and sequels of our previous posts. Instead, we will continue to write posts, albeit in smaller packages. Like tips. When we have something big to say, like when Matt gets all crazy eyed talking about a certain organisation, we will write a big one. But from here on out, we will give you nibbles on sports photography.

One thing I learned very quickly is that when shooting sports, positioning is everything. What you also need to understand is that these positions are only yours if you claim it. You can sit there until the game starts, but what to do when you want to move around to shoot warm-ups? Or when you want to shoot them coming onto the field? What most of us do is to leave something at the spot. Some opt for a monopod, some a stool, and some duct tapes with your name on it. A lot of Japanese sports photographers do the tape thing, I think it’s a cultural thing. As for me, I usually go with the stool. For a simple reason that I use the monopod to shoot and I can’t just leave it there to secure a spot.

If you really really want to get a specific spot on the pitch or floor or whatever playing surface you will be shooting that day, get there early. My colleague who shoots Real Madrid frequently gets to the stadium 3 hours before the match. On big match days like the Classico, he’s there 6 hours before kick off. Excessive? Most definitely, but he’s certain to claim the spot.

Lastly, getting your spot on is the first thing you should do when you arrive at a sporting event. Get your accreditation, get your bib, claim your spot. Then do whatever you have to do. Early sports photographer claims the spot. So says my mother.

Ryu

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Matt: Before You Hit the Shutter

Every assignment is different depending on what your editor needs, the nature of the venue, and the access you have.  Sometimes you’re there to make pictures that will sell to the widest variety of clients.  Other times it’s a big game and you need pictures of the most important plays.  Once in a while you’ll have to focus on one player.  How successful you are as a photographer depends heavily on how well you can deliver no matter what the assignment is or the obstacles involved.

Recently I had an assignment for Spin to Win Rodeo Magazine that I knew was going to be challenging.  Spin to Win focuses on team roping, and generally tries to alternate covers between headers (the cowboy who ropes the steer’s horns) and heelers (the one who ropes the steer’s feet.)  My picture of header Trevor Brazile was the August issue’s cover, and some readers complained that Brazile’s partner Patrick Smith wasn’t included.  The September cover needed to be a heeler, and the biggest rodeo ending before the closing date was the California Rodeo Salinas.  That meant that my assignment became: get a great cover picture of the winning team roping heeler.

The California Rodeo is one of the oldest, over 100 years old.  Tradition is very important, and in team roping it means they do things differently than any other rodeo.  Both ropers start in the same box, and the steer is given a longer than normal head start.  The arena is considerably bigger than average, and all of this produces longer times.  The longer the steer is running, the more unpredictable things become.  In general the header ropes the steer and pulls it around to the left.  The heeler comes from the right side around to the left and ropes the feet, most times ending up facing the left side of the arena.  But with the rules at Salinas, anything can happen.  Shoot from the right side and the heeler could be facing away.  Shoot from the left and the header could eclipse any view of the heeler.  The far end is more than 100 yards away, not the best bet for a high impact cover picture.

Team roping, along with the other timed events at Salinas, is a five-head aggregate competition, meaning that everyone gets 4 tries and then the top 12 lowest times qualify for the short round and a fifth try.  The lowest time on 5 wins.  This means (unlike rodeos with no short round where the winner could be long gone by the end of the rodeo)  that the winner will be competing on Sunday.  But to be safe, it’s better to have pictures from earlier in the week as a backup in case something goes wrong photographically in the short round.

Now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about team roping, there is the matter of access.  My editor sent in a credential request for me, making sure to ask for the exact access I needed.  Since I don’t have a PRCA photographers card, I can’t shoot from the dirt.  This means that it was vital that I be free to shoot from the fenced-in pit on the right side and from the bucking chutes on the left side.  But when I picked up my credentials I found no chute pass and when I went to the arena I was informed that the fenced-in pit was considered as part of the dirt.  The “official” photographer there really likes to protect “his” territory, “bless his heart” as they say.  Very luckily for me, a PRCA official who knew me was at the rodeo and after a while was able to fix my access situation.  In the mean time I may or may not have sent a series of urgent texts to my editor.

With everything finally sorted out I was able to concentrate on shooting.  By Sunday I had a good feel as to how far down the arena runs were finishing, and as the team ropers went in order of slowest to fastest, I could cheat a little based on the time each needed to win.  The second place team of Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz were behind by enough that they needed a really, really fast run to have any hope of winning, so I cheated in closer.  At that angle I had to accept that I would have no shot on header Begay but would give myself the best chance to get a high-impact picture of de la Cruz.  It all came together, with the team turning in a very fast time to take the lead, and de la Cruz facing directly at me straining while his rope burned through his hands as he tightened his loop around the steer’s hind legs.  Professionally I can’t root for anyone in particular, but I knew I had a cover if their score held up. But the last team to go still had a chance to win it with a good run.  They didn’t quite get it done, so Begay and de la Cruz won and all that was left to do was edit the pictures and transmit.

Obviously only a small portion of our readers shoot rodeo, and only a small portion regularly get assignments, so I’m sure the overlap of these sets is in the low single digits.  But I thought it was important to write this up to show the kind of thought that goes into shooting.  Too often we see pictures where there was clearly no thought involved at all, just someone with a camera pointing it in the general direction of the action, and pressing the shutter button.  Your pictures will get better as you begin to consider your surroundings, the tendencies of the competitors, the access you have, and what you are trying to accomplish (for yourself or for your editor).  The more you think about all of these factors and how they interact with each other, the better your results will be.

Salinas_de_la_Cruz_Cover_Spin_to_Win copy

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Matt: Under the Brim

One of the things that most rodeo fans don’t get to see is the preparation that goes into each ride, and I consider it part of my job to show it. Some guys do yoga, some guys use miles of athletic tape, baby powder files, rosin is cracked onto bull ropes, etc. Towards the beginning of the rodeo season I was shooting behind the chutes at Clovis, CA, as bareback rider Josi Young was wrapping his riding arm in white tape. As I was composing, a head-shaped object filled my viewfinder. Joking around, Josi’s fellow bareback rider Steven Peebles stuck his head between my camera and Josi’s arm. Peebles was far too close for me to focus on him, but it did give me a good idea, extreme closeups with the (GEAR NERD ALERT) Nikon 14-24mm at 14mm. Here’s what that first picture looked like:

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Clovis Rodeo

I put it up on Facebook and people kind of went crazy for it. I figured it was lightning in a bottle and left it at that. A few weeks later I ran into Josi at a different rodeo, and he said “So, let me get this straight: You try to get a picture of me and Peebles interrupts. You take a picture of him and everyone loves it. So I get screwed.” “That’s about right Josi, but I’ll do one of you if it makes you feel better.” So I did:

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Redding Rodeo

After that I thought about it for a minute and decided to shoot as many of these pictures as I could for the rest of the season. Here’s why.

First, it’s good to have a long term project to work on, and this is far more interesting than the one I had been doing. In repeating a similar theme you (ideally) force yourself to work within a framework, and make each new picture good enough to stand on its own. In the end, the goal is to have a series of great pictures that go together and will hold the viewers attention.

Some side benefits of this particular project: Using the same lens over and over can teach you a lot about using that lens. The 14-24 can produce some crazy distortion depending on how you arrange things in the frame. Using it repeatedly on faces can help you learn the best way to use it even on other subjects. A project like this requires you to get very close, and that’s what the 14-24 was made for. It also means that you can’t sit back and observe, you need to get in there and talk to people and get comfortable with that. We see far too much sitting back in the Flickr group. Some of these guys are my friends, and some of them I’ve never spoken to before, but now I’ve at least had a small conversation with all of them, and the better rapport with your subjects, the better your pictures will be.

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Livermore Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Livermore Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Rowell Ranch Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Reno Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Redding Rodeo

PRCA Rodeo 2013 - Livermore Rodeo

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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Ryu: Open wide

Hello there.
I’m in London at the moment for a wedding shoot. No, no, no. I’ve not given up on sports photography, but when you get an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, you grab it. Especially when they fly you in and they pay you for your work. :)

Before I left, I went through all the lenses that I want to bring for this wedding shoot. I ended up taking 2 x fisheye, 14-24, 24-70, and a 70-200. As you might have figured out at this juncture in our relationship, I am a sucker for wide angles. I have no idea where this fascination comes from, but I cannot get enough of wide angle lenses. If money wasn’t an objective, I’d totally get this lens (Nikon 6mm f2.8 fisheye) and shoot all the sports available on this planet. But then, I have neither the fund nor the access to such a beast, so I shoot with what I have. Poor me.

Sports photography is sold as a genre of photography where one must shoot with a 400 2.8 and 1900 f0.5. All you see are shots taken with the long ones and we are conditioned to want to shoot with these lenses. But there is no guarantee that by using the long lens you will end up with a Pulitzer Prize sports photo. Except for my wet dream 6mm f2.8, most wide angle lenses are cheaper than tele lenses. Which means that good wide angle lenses are more affordable than a good tele lens. Therefore we should all shoot sports with wide angle lenses. Yes, we should and my logic is never flawed.

There are two distinct ways in shooting with a wide angle lens: far and close. I went through my shots from this year (2013, in case you are reading this in 2015) and came up with some samples of each.

Far
The main subject is not close to you, but far away from you. Therefore you get a shot that encompasses everything. Like a landscape shot. This technique is used when you see something in the environment that you want to incorporate into the picture. Sunset over a stadium. Crowds in the stands. Also showing the enormity of the place where the game is going on. These shots put the viewer inside the photo and make them feel like they want to be there Unlike a long lens shot, you will really need to think about composition. Tiny mistakes at the composition stage will most likely make you cry later, so be patient and precise when composing. Don’t worry about the exposure that much since the subject is so far away, there won’t be much DOF issues. Here are some samples.

Wide2 Wide1 Wide3

From my experience, you can take time shooting wide angle shots because the subject is so far away. Put it this way, the subject is the entire frame. Individual athletes in it will not make or break the shot. For instance with the ping pong shot, I shot the same composition for about 10 minutes, hoping to catch a good moment. But what I care most was the composition and not what the ping pongers were doing. What I wanted to show was two athletes duking it out in a very big empty arena.

Close
The main subject is very close to you. You should be able to smell them and lick their eyeballs (all the rage in Japan). Just a fact that security is so tough at professional sporting events these days, it’s not easy to get close to them. Hence the rise in long lenses, I guess. But if you are shooting amateurs, you can get as close as you want. Hence, I have no idea why we don’t get more shots of close up wide angles in any of our competitions. Hencing, done.

I’d leave the camera to aperture priority or shutter speed priority and let the camera worry about exposure. You, you worry about focusing. The point of getting close wide angle shots is to get as low as possible. Therefore you are not going to be lying down on your belly. No, you are going to shoot without looking through your viewfinder. If your camera has a live view on the LCD, I’d use it, but this is only useful when your subject is not moving. When they move, you go one handed. You’ll need to take some practice shots to determine composition and trust that the camera will do its job in focusing. This no look focusing is not easy as 1-2-3. You need to practice (Practice?) to get the feel of where and how your camera focuses. So get on it. The point is to get as close as possible to the subject. If they hadou-ken you after you get the shot, you win. But please don’t try this with people or vehicles that can harm you permanently. BLFS condones bravery but not stupidity.

If you manage to execute a close up wide angle shot to perfection, you will certainly wow your friends and butlers. Guaranteed.

WideLow6 WideLow4 WideLow3 WideLow1

Bonus: Fish Eye
Go wide and distort my friends. Since it’s so distorted, you just have to love it. I recently got a circular fisheye and I’ve got plans for this baby. Same rules for far and close with the fisheyes as well, but make sure you know how close you are to the subject when you shoot. It’s that “Object may be appear closer than you think” when you’re using this lens through a viewfinder. Try not to bump into the athletes.

Fisheye2 Fisheye1

Wide angle is underrated in sports photography. It is a shame because it creates such dramatic look that can only be matched with a wider lens. If you are shooting amateur sports where the access is crazy super cool, you have no excuse not to shoot wide angle.

So, go wide, young (and old) BLFSers.

Ryu

*Please Read Below*

Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by clicking on the “Donate” button and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.
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