Ryu: Shadow and light and shadow and light and…

Now that the football season is finished, I’m waiting for it to start again. Since there will be no EURO for me nor will I get to strut my stuff in London couple months from now, I’m in “don’t move, because it will cost money if you do” mode. If you ever thought freelance sports photographer is a cool job, you might want to think again and again. But it doesn’t cost me anything to write a blog post, so I shall do just that. :)

Just last week, I was in Hamburg to shoot Brazil and Denmark. Brazil and non-European countries are a bit lonesome this summer as they’ve got nothing to do. Therefore, the obvious solution was for them to do some part time work so that they can feed their family. The match started at 3:30PM. Sunny day. Shadows on the pitch. Pockets of light everywhere. Day games in stadiums are probably the most annoying thing ever for a sports photographer. Since we deal with subjects that move around and won’t sit still (think dogs, not cats), you have to find ways to cope with finding a way to expose the scenes correctly, no matter the mix of light and shadows. Below are the steps I have taken to deal with them.

1. Go manual young man
After about 10 minutes of shooting, I realised that I was consistently achieving underwhelming underexposed shots. Cameras today are smart. A lot smarter than you and me and Mr. Hawking combined. 3D matrix (and the other camera manufacturers equivalent) meters the entire scene and combines that with their “in this situation, give this exposure” data. It’s like photography magic. But what it cannot do is to see like our eyes and in tricky situations, like the ones I faced that day, it just doesn’t work. Extreme shadows and extreme light equals disaster and I was fed up. Therefore I decided to go manual. I set it to 1/2000 and f3.2 with 800 ISO. My plan was to turn the shutter speed dial according to where the players were on the pitch.

Ah, let me paint you the scenario. Everything is peachy until the players move into the part of the stadium where A) the players are in the shadows B) the stands is bathing in sunshine. What made it even worse was the LED advertisement boards which were constantly changing.

After 3 roundtrips of players going up and down the pitch, I decided that my plan sucked. The fact that I had to look at the meter bar and my shutter speed all the while composing the scene made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything.

2. Compensate my exposure
Exposure compensation (EC). The plus and minus that we all should be using because it’s a one-step make it dark, make it light button. When came up with this solution, I thought that I have reached sports photography nirvana. I even thought about writing a book about it. “How I conquered the shadows: One man’s fight against the evils of midday stadium lighting”. The camera was set at 1/1000 f3.2 and Auto ISO. Therefore, the only thing I had to worry about was adjusting EC according to the scene. I knew that when the players were in the light, they were almost always exposed correctly automatically and when they moved into the shadow I will bump up the EC. Obviously it didn’t work. So much so that I almost cried. In theory, it was a plan for the ages. Simple yet elegant. But in reality it was less than adequate because it still meant that I had to gamble on the exposure when the players were in the shadows.

This is what happened. When the players move into the shadows, the camera is exposing for the entire scene which includes the almost burnt up stands as well as the ever changing LED advertisement board The metering bar is showing “Hey, you’re exposure here is awesome”, but in reality she is lying to me because when I look at the picture, it’s not awesome at all. This EC method doesn’t work, because I cannot rely on the metering bar and I’m stuck guesstimating everything.

3. And finally…
The match is winding down and I now want to throw my camera AND the lens at the goalkeeper. What can I do? I cannot do everything manually, because it’s just too much. Cannot rely on my Spidey senses to dial the correct EC. Then I came up with something that didn’t really occur to me. What if I expose all the scenes on the players and nothing else? Instead of using 3D matrix metering, I’ll just use spot metering. From what I’ve read, it will expose on the focus point that you are on and not only on the central focus point like it was back in 1987.

The results were…. okay. Even if I’m exposing only on the player, there’s also a difference on how much light is falling on them and it did not give me the consistent results that I wanted. But, the number of severe underexposure were reduced dramatically.

Unfortunately, my solution to this age old problem is not enough for met to get a book deal, but I’m hoping that you can chime in on this topic. Have you been in the same situation and what did you do to overcome it? I’m also certain that if you solve this, you will get a Nobel Prize for physics and for a peace of mind.


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13 thoughts on “Ryu: Shadow and light and shadow and light and…

  1. As sacreligious as it may be, ADR on modern Nikons may be your savior and very easy. D4 supposedly has awesome DR in the shadows. So even with a little ISO noise it should be clean. Crank ADR to the level you like.

    Alternately you could try fill flash with ttl-bl ? Trickier, but Dave Black does some crazy things with it.

    1. I meant ADL (Active D-Lighting), not ADR. Also: center-weighted metering allows you to tweak the radius of the desired central area (averages out the variability of spot metering). Of course, the downside is that you don’t get it set on your focus point if your subject is not centered. On the plus side, you can set your function button to trigger center- or spot- metering.

      By the way, this is a great post! I encounter this problem occasionally (though I don’t shoot much sports) and this is the first time I’ve gone through the thought process formally, other than occasionally to think of ADL. Now I’ve got to play with center or spot metering.

      1. Yugo,

        Since I wiggle my focus points more than I wiggle…. you know what I mean, it feels like it works for me. But I thin it really depends on your shooting style as well.


    2. Yugo,

      When I read this, I was really wondering what ADR was. “Assisted Dynamic Reason-why-I-should-use-this” and “Accelerated Dynamite Roppongi” were some of my guesses. I am a fan of trying to do as less as possible on the camera side with my pictures and deal with any problems in post. Maybe because I don’t shoot RAW and it is important for me to get the file as “pure” as possible.

      Fill flash… they have to be really close for me to do that…
      But still it’s a good idea. :)


      1. Ryu,
        I learn so much from your blog, and I’ve been using these tips in my shooting as well.
        Since I usually shoot RAW+JPG, I haven’t really used ADL much (though I guess there’s no harm in experimenting since I have a RAW backup). But my understanding is that it works by boosting ISO a couple of stops (to pull detail out of shadows) and then massaging the data digitally (to tame highlights). So, if you don’t mind bringing your ISO up to around 800, ADL probably won’t annoy you. On the other hand, sometimes you want high contrast and ADL might give you a bit of an HDR look (though not nearly so bad as those overprocessed ones we’ve all seen). Anyway, I’ll play with it soon and will report back!

  2. That’s what Like about this site / blog . Discussing everyday problems .I thought you professionals had that problem figured out .I always thought I must be missing something .Your right it sucks, but so do stadium lights that run a 2 stop light to less light cycle , security that says no , coaches , refs ,umps , cheerleaders , ball boys , people, polls and every thing else that waits for that once in a lifetime shot to jump right in front of you. For what its worth I use shutter priority , center weighted meter , auto iso sounds good , I’ll try that , and if they are not wearing black or white uniforms , sometimes EC, and then hope the money shot is clear and printable. I figure with shutter priority I just have to keep an eye on the speed and if it does get out of hand the f stop will change in my favor ..Somebody tell me what to do and why shutter priority is not favored .

    1. Like Kentm in those situations I also shoot in shutter priority mode, center-weighted meter (because the only thing I care about being exposed correctly is the subject not the background, I always shoot in center-weighted metering unless I’m going for a wide angle shot that includes the stadium as a critical part of the shot or something), and Auto ISO. Shooting in shutter priority mode will mean the camera will automatically turn up the aperture in bright conditions and turn it down in dark conditions (or also activate the auto ISO if it’s really dark). Put the camera on a shutter speed that falls somewhere in the middle of being good for shadows and good for sunlight (1/1250 or 1/1600 or so probably). That way shooting in the shadows (exposing for the subject) the camera won’t have to crank up the ISO too much and shooting in the daylight it won’t have to use too small of aperture which will ensure you still get a nice creamy defocused background.

      Yeah, if the player is in the shadows and the background is in sunlight, then you’ll overexpose the background. If getting high dynamic range is critical to your shots, then shoot in RAW and do some extra post-processing to tweak the shadows and highlights. I will say this, the new Lightroom 4 is incredible at pulling details and color out of shadows, particularly when shooting RAW. Adobe tweaked their processing settings in Lightroom 4 and it really is impressive. If you do that, you should get some very nice results for that situation.

      1. Ben,

        I think the main problem with this is that I rarely shoot anything during the day. My matches are almost always at night and if I shoot anything during the day, then it’s inside. I need to get some practice during the summer…. I think your center weighted approach works well if there is nothing in the center that will detract the exposure of what you want to shoot in the center of the frame. If the subject is in the far right or far left, then you will have to exposure lock it which might take longer. As I have said in the other replies, the solution of exposing shots for sports varies a lot depending on your shooting style, what sports you shoot, and the moon.


    2. Kent,

      I think your way works absolutely fine. It’s just I said to Yugo, it really depends on your shooting style and I prefer to use spot metering because it follows my focus points.


  3. I didn’t realize the spot metering followed the focus point. That’s good to know. I rarely use spot metering unless I’m trying to purposely underexpose shadows (like to only catch the light on a player’s face).

  4. Can you set the AE-Lock button to activate metering (like your AF-ON button), along with spot metering? I realize this would now give your thumb two buttons to touch before the shutter, but it would give you a chance to lock in on your desired exposure once in a scene and then only worry about focus and composition. Or maybe the front Fn button, so your thumb can stay on the AF point selection 4-way.

    1. Yugo,

      Sounds good, but that is one step too much when dealing with people running around like headless chickens. If you can automate the exposure locking part, then things might be a lot rosier.


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