Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Friday Night Lights

I've enjoyed photographing active people for a while now. Usually, it's just my kids at play or in their youth sports leagues.  This year, I wanted to step it up a notch and shoot some athletes that are a little faster, more organized, and more predictable, so I approached the football coach of our kids' high school (also my alma mater) about roaming the sidelines during a game.  I'd get some fun experience, and the school would get free photos that were hopefully good enough to use for something.  He loved the idea.  This past weekend, my availability finally coincided with one of the home games, so I got my first taste of shooting Friday night lights.

American football is my favorite sport, but this was my first experience photographing it.  I'd been looking at images taken by others for years now, so I had a pretty good eye for what worked & what didn't.  I'd also watched the training video that Dave Black and Scott Kelby did for Kelby Training, wherein they walked the viewer through what it takes to shoot a high school football game.  (It's a great video, BTW, from two guys who get paid to shoot NFL teams and therefore know what they're talking about.)  I felt like I was pretty well prepared for the difficulty that I knew lay ahead.  I'm obviously not a pro at this myself, but I wanted to share some of the things that I did right & some of the things that I did wrong on my maiden outing.


I have two decent DSLR bodies:  a Canon 7D and a 50D.  The 7D is much better for sports due to its faster frame rate (8 fps vs 6.3 fps) and its improved autofocus system (19 points vs 9 points).  Both bodies have APS-C sensors, which effectively offer a 1.6x focal length multiplier compared to a full frame or 35mm film camera like the pros use.  That multiplier is great for sports, because it gives you a free upgrade in your lens length and a lower priced body to boot.  Both bodies will record at an ISO of up to 12,800, but the resulting images are pretty noisy when you push it that far.

I took three lenses that I expected to use, plus one backup.  My primary lens, which spent most of the evening on my 7D, was my Canon 70-200/2.8 IS (v1) lens.  Most of the time, I paired it with a Kenko 1.4x PRO 300 teleconverter.  That combo has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 156-448mm at f/4, which doesn't sound too bad, but I still wish I'd had something longer.  A 300mm f/2.8 lens with the 1.4x TC would have been handy.  The other drawback of my combo was focusing speed.  In the dim light of a high school stadium, the 7D focused somewhat slowly at f/4.  It did a lot better at f/2.8 without the TC.  I'm really glad I wasn't working at f/5.6!  I've tried focusing in the dark at f/5.6 before, and it really sucks.  I'll gladly give up the extra reach of a 2x TC in favor of faster focusing.

My 50D body was permanently paired with my Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 OS lens.  I used it for a lot of environmental shots, as well as action shots right in front of me when the 70-200 + 1.4x was too long.  I also took my Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 lens to use for a handful of grand, sweeping vistas.  It displaced the 70-200 on my 7D when necessary.  Finally, I took my old, manual-focus Nikkor 135/2.8 prime lens as a backup just in case something happened to the 70-200.  It's light weight enough that I hardly even notice it's in the bag.  If my 70-200 had gotten damaged and I didn't have a backup telephoto lens, my evening would have been over.

Me at half time, by Kathy Megrue
Note that both of my main lenses are image stabilized.  With the fast shutter speeds that you want for freezing action, IS isn't really necessary for removing camera shake.  However, it also stabilizes the viewfinder image, which I find to be very helpful for preventing seasickness.  I left IS turned on in panning mode during the entire game.

Proper equipment storage can make or break an event.  My back isn't as strong as I wish it was, so hanging all my gear from one shoulder for 4 hours can really do some damage.  Consequently, I support as much weight as possible from my waist.  I bought a used Think Tank Speed Freak belt pack bag the day before the game, and used it on my left hip to house my spare lenses and (when not in use) my 7D.  (I really like that bag, BTW.  Watch for more info on it later.)  A small holster bag on my right hip housed my 50D+17-70mm.  The 7D hung from my neck through the entire game.

I recorded a video showing the gear I took, especially the Speed Freak bag.  Check it out on YouTube.

I configured both bodies to shoot JPEG only.  That's a departure from the raw+JPEG that I usually shoot.  I did this for two reasons.  First, I can fit about 2000 JPEG files on a single 16GB flash card (compared to 500 raw+JPEG pairs), so I don't have to worry about swapping cards in the middle of the action.  Second, the cameras' burst buffers are only a half dozen or so photos in raw+JPEG, but it's effectively unlimited in JPEG-only mode.  The last thing you want is to have your camera freeze up in the middle of a critical play while it waits to flush the buffer to the CF card.

Of course, I set both cameras to AF-SERVO mode so that they'd continuously focus on a moving target as long as I held the button.  I set the focus points on the 7D to the 5-point diamond pattern.  I'm still able to pinpoint targets when necessary, but it gives me a bigger target area so I don't have to worry about focus jumping to the background when the single, center focus point slips off a fast moving player.

1/500s couldn't freeze this interception
I figured that the lighting around the field would be inconsistent, so I started out shooting in aperture priority mode with matrix metering.  In practice, I found that the exposure jumped around too erratically, so I switched to manual exposure after the first quarter.  Most of the field could be shot at ISO 12800, f/4, 1/500s.  1/500s is barely fast enough to stop most action, though.  1/750s or 1/1000s would be better, if you can manage it under those lights.

Note that I'll gladly sacrifice ISO in favor of shutter speed any day of the week.  ISO 12,800 on a 7D is pretty noisy, but you can compensate for noise in post.  If the players are blurred because your shutter speed was too slow, there isn't jack you can do about it.  All of these photos were run through the Noise Ninja plugin in AfterShot Pro and, of course, downsized to get what you see here.

Kickoff wasn't until 40 minutes after sunset, so the entire game was lit by stadium lights.  You never know what color those lights will be, so I took my grey card and calibrated a custom color temperature before the game.  In my opinion, a pocket-sized gray card is essential for any shoot where the lighting can't be controlled.


I wanted to capture the entire event, not just the action while the clock was ticking, so I made sure to show up as soon as the team began to warm up.  I turned my camera to the grandstand.  I pointed it at the players on the sidelines.  I captured the entire stadium during blue hour.  I shot the final team prayer and presentation of the Spirit Sword to the winning team.  I got it all.

One of the best ways to capture the excitement of a game is to follow a player after he makes a big play so as to capture the celebration with his teammates.  Alternatively, when you see that something big is going to happen and you don't have a good angle on it, focus on the players waiting on the sideline.  Their reactions can make great storytelling material.  Alas, my first game was a blowout (52-7 at half time), so there weren't a lot of emotional reactions.  Ho hum... another touchdown.

During the game, photographers are supposed to stay at least 3 yards out of bounds, and must stay out of the players bench that runs between the 25 yard lines.  I tried to stay on whichever side of the line of scrimmage that LCS (my team) would be facing so that I could perhaps capture the faces of our players.  As it turned out, LCS had a lot of big plays, and I often found myself standing so close to the line of scrimmage that I shot all the long touchdown runs from behind.  Those shots go straight to the bit bucket.  Next time, I'll be sure to stay well downfield (more than 20 yards) of the action.  When they're inside the 30 or 40, I'll plant myself in the back of the end zone.

The four stadium lights were mounted at the 20 yard lines, so the red zones got a little darker than the middle of the field.  When I was standing in the end zone, I eventually learned to remove the teleconverter from my 70-200 so that I could shoot at f/2.8.  Even with the wider aperture, the offense's faces were still completely shaded, which was unfortunate.  The shorter focal length also came in handy during touchdowns.

Zoomed as wide as possible on my 70-200 + 1.4x
Speaking of red zones, I found that the center of the end zone is a lousy place from which to shoot an extra point kick.  I missed the shot of a blocked punt because I couldn't see the kicker from there.  It's better to be standing where you can see the guy holding the ball for the kicker.  For right-footed kickers, you want to be on the kicker's left side.

Another thing I did wrong was to keep using the 70-200 as the action was coming toward me on the sideline.  When the action climaxed right in front of me, my focal length was too tight.  I should have switched to the 17-70mm lens earlier so that I could capture all the action when it peaked.  Alternatively, I maybe could have just backed up a ways from the sideline when I saw the action coming.  Either way, holding my ground with a long lens cost me some good shots.

17mm on my Sigma 17-70
I stood up virtually the entire game.  Unlike full-bowl NFL or college stadiums, most high school fields only have a small section of stands which can provide an interesting background for your shots.  The rest of the field is surrounded by parking lots, fences, neighborhoods, and other uninteresting things that I'd just as soon not have in the background of my photos.  Shooting slightly downward puts more of the playing field in the background, which is nice.  The only down side is when the action happens right in front of you, and you end up shooting downward at a pretty steep angle.  That's a lousy perspective, and doesn't result in very many keeper shots.  I'll try shooting from my knees more in the future & see how it works out.

When the action gets fast & furious, one thing I often struggle with is keeping my horizons level.  This means I have to fix it in post, which adds up to a lot of time if you get lots of keepers.  Gotta work on that.

I also need to work on keeping the shot well framed.  I found that when the ball carrier went to the ground, I often lowered my camera to follow him.  This gave me a lot of grass at the bottom of the frame, and a lot of headless players at the top of the frame.  I'm sure this will improve with practice.

Lighting inside the 20 was very directional
One thing I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to improve is my workflow for processing events.  Once you figure in all the gear prep, travel, and postprocessing, I find that I spend about 2-3 hours behind the scenes for every hour that I spend actually shooting on site.  This game was no different, although my time-per-photo was much lower.  I came home with over 1200 images, and spent about 17-18 hours, all told.  I've got to improve that if I want to continue shooting sports.  The sad thing is that I probably spent just as much time working on that week's game as the players did.

The real pros use a software package called Photo Mechanic, which is supposed to be all sorts of awesome at weeding through sports photos, primarily for its speed.  I use Corel AfterShot Pro, which is OK, but not phenomenal.  My postprocessing basically amounts to selecting the keepers, then straightening, cropping, brightening, sharpening, and applying noise reduction.  About 3% of my shots made the top tier cut.  About 15% made it to my online gallery for viewing by parents, etc.

One thing that might help is learning to use the 7D's in-camera image tagging feature to quickly mark awesome shots right after I take them so that they're easy to locate & upload right after the game without slogging through all 1200 images.  I need to look into that...

Special thanks are due to Coach Farup and the Lincoln Christian Crusaders for letting me photograph this game.  If you want to view all the photos from this game, check out the Prairie Rim Images gallery.  You can read the recap of my next football shoot in a followup blog post.  As always, if you've got any questions or comments, please speak up below.  I always love hearing from my readers.  Remember, I'm pullin' for ya.  We're all in this together.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comment below. Comments are moderated, so don't be alarmed if your note doesn't appear immediately. Also, please don't use my blog to advertise your own web site unless it's related to the discussion at hand.