Matt: Pictures of Light

Building on Ryu’s post about how to handle split lighting, and looking at some examples in the Flickr pool of exposures gone wrong, I wanted to share some of my techniques. Landscape photographers like to bellyache about how they have to get up early to make their pictures in the golden first light. Poor babies. As sports photographers, we have no choice on when events start, and the vast majority of them are either in the overhead midday sun, or after dark. Under stadium/arena lights, it’s really every man for himself. Either you have fast enough lenses/high-ISO-capable bodies, or you don’t, and you do the best you can. But in the 1pm sun, everyone is more-or-less equal.

Here are some things to think about and some of the solutions I use:

  • Expose your subject properly  Metering has come a long way. The processing power of modern cameras lets manufacturers load in nearly limitless situations on which to base exposure combinations. But for the time being, cameras are still going to be fooled by strong background light when your subject is in a shadow and vice versa. Unless you’re going for a true silhouette (and you should when appropriate) you need to expose your subject properly. It doesn’t matter how insane the play was, if you (or your camera with your permission) exposed for the stands or the dugout wall, people are going to wonder why you blew the exposure. On the same play, if you got the exposure right on your subject and let the background blow out, no one will say a word.
  • Shoot Manual  Neither Ryu nor I belong to the “Real Men Always Shoot Manual” school. But there are times when only manual will do. Spot metering doesn’t get fooled in quite the same way as matrix/evaluative or center-weighted, but if your focus point slides off your subject in the middle of a play and finds a white sign in the background, you’re still screwed. Getting a good reading on your subject (whether you use the meter or histogram or the camera screen) and then shooting manual means that you’re more likely to get your subject properly exposed. This obviously doesn’t work when your subject is moving between shadow and light, so…
  • Shoot RAW  Ryu shoots JPG, I shoot RAW. I used to shoot JPG until I upgraded my MacBook Pro last year and spent some time setting up my workflow. With the increased computing power and lift-and-stamp adjustments, I can get pictures on the wire just as fast now as I did when I shot JPG. And this is important because I shoot sports where the players wear hats. Baseball hats and football helmets at 1pm present a big problem with deep shadows on the players’ faces. Cowboy hats present an even bigger problem where the shadow can reach down below the riders’ neck. I need the added flexibility to bring up shadows and pull down highlights that only RAW can provide. This isn’t a substitute for proper exposure, I always try to get the rider’s face properly exposed, but a black cowboy hat coupled with a white shirt in midday sun is going to be too much range for anyone. So try to recognize how much range there is in your scene, and expose for the most important part (usually the face of your subject) and then do the rest in post.
  • Shoot backlit  The tendency of new photographers is to want to always shoot with the light, never into it. But in harsh lighting, sometimes the best thing you can do is to shoot into the sun. If you can keep the sun out of the frame, you will find more even lighting because the background will be getting more-or-less the same light as your subject. The difference in range between the face and the hat/helmet is always going to be less shooting backlit than shooting with the light. And if you can move around to different angles, you can use the backlighting for rim light, which will add pop to the picture.
  • Shoot when there is good light  While you can’t schedule games, you can shoot the games that have better light. And if you’re shooting non-competitive sports like a skateboarder/biker etc practicing, shoot them in the late afternoon or early morning, and take advantage of light that will add to your pictures rather than bring up problems that you will have to solve just to get average pictures.


*Please Read Below*
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One thought on “Matt: Pictures of Light

  1. Matt, that top image of the loony fan with the rim-lit crazy hair, grimace, and spittle coming out of his mouth is just awesome in so many ways! Thanks for sharing the tip about using that backlight to control contrast.

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