A couple of nights ago I was treated to a huge electrical storm over Lake Chapala, Mexico. No rain, no thunder, just lightning. This went on for well over an hour presenting a great opportunity to capture some dramatic lightning images.
First however, a word of warning, if you are venturing out to shoot lightning pictures remember that lightning is dangerous. Stay inside a building or vehicle and definitely stay away from tall trees, water, and any other tall object that can act as a conductor. All the images in this article were taken from the covered deck of my home, around 600′ above the lake.
To successfully shoot lightning images you need a camera that can be set to manual exposure, and a sturdy tripod and preferably a cable release. You are going to be using long shutter speeds so it is essential that there is no movement whatsoever of the camera. Lens choice will depend on the location of the storm but generally wider angle lenses will work best.
Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 35mm, 10 sec at f8 set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with Arca Swiss ball head
Set up your camera and lens on the tripod and focus manually to infinity. It’s best to turn autofocus off so the lens does not hunt for a focus point in the dark. . You need to include some foreground elements to add interest and in the shot above I am fortunate to have the village of San Juan Cosala with it’s lights. This did however present a slightly tricky lighting balance as too long an exposure would simply blow out the lights of the village into one big glare.
You need to experiment with your exposures – the shutter needs to be open long enough to capture one of more bolts of lightning. Take lots of shots, some will work and some won’t and it is, to a great extent a matter of luck. Vary your exposures until you find one that works. Review images on the LCD screen as lightning varies tremendously in the level of brightness.
It is also, to some extent, possible to anticipate the next bolts of lightning as there are often fairly regular intervals between strikes. But, your shutter must already be open when lightning occurs, if you try and take the image as you see the lightning you will be too late.
Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f2.8 lens @ 48 mm, 3 sec at f2.8 set manually, ISO 200. Gitzo carbon fibre tripod with Arca Swiss ball head. This image shows both cloud to cloud lightning and bolt lightning
Long exposures inevitably mean an increase in the noise in the image file. My Nikon camera have built-in processing for long exposure noise reduction. This captures a ‘dark frame’ using the same exposure as the original image immediately after the original is captures. The camera software then uses this dark frame to find and remove ‘hot pixels from the original. Very technical, but it works. If you have it turn it on! The downside is that if for example you are shooting a 30 second exposure the processing takes another 30 seconds during which you cannot take another image.
I moved into my new house in San Juan Cosalá on the shore of Lake Chapala back in February of this year and, until a few days ago, we had not seen a single drop of rain. However, we do have the harbingers of the rainy season, the so called ‘rainbirds’ which traditionally begin singing six weeks before the first rains fall.
Not birds at all the Rainbirds are in fact a species of cicada, or chicharra, living underground for the majority of the year only emerging to begin their song. Actually only the males produce the noise and not, as is popularly believed, by rubbing their legs or wings together! They actually have a special organ, called the tymbal, that produces the noise. The noise level, actually a mating call, is incredible, recorded at up to 120decibels, and if one were to have one of these insects up against the ear canal would be quite capable of damaging the ear drum.
Once the rains start the insects mate, lay their eggs in the soil and the adults die and that’s it for another year.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 24-70mm lens at 70mm, 1/250th @ f18, ISO 800, one flash at 45° on each side and a third flash lighting the background
The above specimen was ‘singing’ out on my deck so took the opportunity to transfer it to my light tent for a quick portrait shot. The light tent is great for this sort of subject producing nice even light and isolating the subject.
And, over the last two days the rains have started to fall – right on time with forecasts of rain pretty much every night and thunderstorms over the next weeks. Yes, it really does, in general, only rain in this region at night!
I returned a couple of weeks ago from the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan where I worked as Photo Manager for the Equestrian Events and as part of the Official Photographer team for other sports. An ‘interesting’ experience for sure as I got to photograph a few sports that I had never seen before, even after 35 years+ as a sports photographer. In fact, when I found out I was going to the Games I actually had to look up several of the martial arts as I had never actually heard of them.
After an incredibly long journey of almost 40 hours I arrived in Ashgabat – pity my baggage did not also arrive! (It would be three days before it was found at JFK and another day before it arrived in Ashgabat). Fortunately my essential photo equipment was all carried as hand baggage. The first thing one notices on arrival, apart from the heat, is the incredible whiteness of the city. Ashgabat was entirely destroyed in an earthquake in 1948, one of the most powerful ever recorded, with reports varying between 110,000 and 176,000 deaths. This resulted in a rebuilding programme that has seen every single building clad in white marble. More marble here than any other city on earth. What is remarkable is that this tragic event was not reported to the world until after Turkmenistan gained independence from the USSR in 1991.
The sports facilities constructed in the centre of Ashgabat are truly remarkable – worthy of any world class event, and again completely clad in white marble. Spent the first few days getting to know my way around before the Games actually started.
Opening ceremonies were of the highest order featuring a wide range of Turkmen culture and ending in a spectacular firework display.
Unfortunately the following day I came down with a bad bout of ‘Turkman Tummy’, a condition shared at some point with just about every person working at the games, and which, unfortunately lasted to some degree throughout the two weeks of competitions and even after I got home.
However, I continued to be able to work and covered a range of interesting competitions, including weightlifting, belt wrestling, kick boxing, sambo and even snooker.
The final day allowed myself and a colleague to venture out with the aid of a local taxi driver (read Government minder) to see some of the local colour and architecture. One must be extremely careful photographing in this country, no images with police or military personnel, and great care when photographing certain monuments – if in doubt ask and if told no accept this without question.
A little background
Turkmenistan is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, very much a desert country mostly dominated by the Karakum Desert. It is certainly subject to an authoritarian regime, ruled closely by current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (a self avowed sports fanatic), who’s photo appears in just about every room of every building, bus, taxi, and sports facility. I’s an Islamic state, although fairly moderate, and was once an important stop on the silk road. It declared itself a state of permanent neutrality in 1995, a state recognized by the UN.
Recently while covering the World Junior Taekwondo Championships I was approached by someone asking what my ‘camera settings’ were. I quickly rattled off what I was using “1/1250sec, f2.8. at 4000ISO set manually”. The gentleman replied I must be using old lenses as he did not need to set his ISO nearly this high as all his lenses had ‘stabilization’ so he could shoot at much lower settings and get higher quality pictures, 2-3 stops lower and still handhold “no problem at all” so he was only using 640 ISO.
Now, I am always happy to engage in discussions about photo technique and equipment, just not in the middle of an important competition where I am working, so told this person I needed to concentrate on what I was doing but would be happy to chat if I had the time after competition had finished. Unfortunately I never saw him again so was unable to point out the errors in his thinking.
First would have been – why was I choosing to use 4000 ISO. Of course, had I thought it prudent I would have loved to use a lower setting. The choice of 4000 ISO was to give me a shutter speed high enough to freeze the action when the athletes engaged in their fast kicking movements. This required a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000sec. If I had lowered my ISO to the same 640 that this person was using and assuming I still wanted to make a correct exposure at f2.8 (the maximum aperture of the lens I was using) my shutter speed would have dropped to around 1/250th sec – not nearly fast enough to freeze the action.
Nikon D4s, AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens, 1/1000 @f2.8 6400ISO – This was on an outer mat where the light was even worse than the main mat hence 6400ISO
Now comes the misconception that I have heard many times since Nikon and Canon brought out their stabilized lenses – I can shoot at much lower shutter speeds and still freeze the image. NOT SO!! What VR (Nikon’s Vibration Reduction) and IS (Canon’s Image Stabilization) actually allow you to do is to avoid camera shake at slow shutter speeds – this has nothing to do with freezing the action.
If you need 1/1000th sec shutter speed to freeze the action and have no movement blur you need 1/1000 sec, period. No amount of vibration reduction or image stabilization will affect this in any way.
By the way – pretty much every lens I own has VR, including the Nikon AF-S 70-200 f2.8G ED VRII lens I was using that day. And the VR was turned OFF. I find my images are actually sharper with it turned off when using fast shutter speeds. I only ever turn VR on if hand holding at slow shutter speeds (who said better to get a decent tripod?) or if I am working from a moving platform such as a boat, helicopter or vehicle.
Since being back in British Columbia we have had our hummingbird feeders out and have seen more of these mini wonders than in any previous year. We have been filling the feeders every day and if we are a little late the birds soon mob us as soon as we go outside and let us know.
One feeder is situated on our upstairs deck, overlooking the garden and this is jealously guarded by one male Rudous Hummingbird who sits nearby waiting for intruders. As soon as another hummer appears anywhere near the feeder he rockets across the garden and there ensues a round of astonishing aerial combat – this is ‘Atilla the Hum’ who terrorises the rest of the hummingbird flock. However as soon as he is otherwise engaged other birds will rapidly take the opportunity to visit the feeder.
Photographing hummingbirds can be a little challenging – their wings beat at some 60-70 times per second, and can fly at 25-30 mph in normal flight and attain 60 mph when they make their spectacular dives. Fortunately they are also able to hover virtually motionless when feeding and are the only bird that can fly backwards.
Even with today’s modern DSLR’s and their ability to shoot at shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th sec this will still not be fast enough to get those wings completely frozen. In addition to obtain these fast shutter speeds you will often need to dial up the iSO setting resulting in loss of image quality, and open up the lens to it’s maximum aperture resulting in limited depth of field. The answer is to use high speed flash to freeze the action.
My technique for high speed flash
There are number of ways to set up for high speed flash, but here is my method. (When I talk about high speed flash I am using regular camera speedlights, not studio strobes)
I set all my flashes to manual. Some photographers use TTL but I find that for this sort of work I prefer to have complete manual control. The main reason for this is that flash is providing 100% of the illumination for the photograph, therefore, once you have your camera and flash settings giving a correct exposure, you are not subject to any changing light conditions so you can be guaranteed that every exposure will be the same.
Flash duration is directly related to the output setting on the flash. The table below gives the power output and corresponding flash duration for settings with a Nikon SB910 Speedlight. Other Speedlights will be broadly similar including those by other manufacturers.
As you can see, when you dial down the power, the flash duration gets progressively shorter, and these durations are way faster than any camera shutter. So how to put this to good use.
I also set my camera to manual mode when using high speed flash. Again, once you have a correct exposure there is nothing to change and you need to gain complete control for this first stage.
You need to determine a base exposure – this is an exposure at which the camera will register no ambient light in the image. (To help with cutting out ambient light it is helpful if your subject area i.e. the feeder and background are in a shady area rather than full sun). Start by setting your camera to it’s lowest ISO setting, which will additionally give the best quality in your file and the fastest flash synchronization speed. (Nikon and Canon users should not use high speed flash settings as, to achieve these fast synchronization speeds, the flash emits multiple burst of light that will have a slightly stroboscopic effect and result in blurring of the wings – the very thing we are seeking to avoid). Turn off your flashes, focus on the feeder and take images adjusting your camera aperture until you get a completely black frame, i.e. no image registering at all. I generally find something in the order of ISO 200, Shutter speed 250th (my fastest sychronization speed) and an aperture of around f11 does the trick in a shady location.
With regard to lenses you need something that focusses relatively closely whilst allowing you to remain far enough form the feeder to not disturb the birds. Something in the 300mm to 400mm range is ideal. I pretty much always use my 200-400mm f4 for these shoots as it focusses right down to 2m (6.2′) allowing frame filling shots of these tiny birds.
Finally – use a tripod! You cannot possible hand hold a long lens, focus and frame the birds with any degree of accuracy.
Placement of the flashes
Note that I say flashes – you need more than one flash for a number of reasons. First, the output is going to be dialled right down so output is going to be low (although we are going to compensate by placing the flashes close to the subject area). Second we need to light from multiple directions to avoid shadows, and third we are going to need to light the background otherwise it will register as jet black (although this in itself can lead to interesting photographs).
Many articles will show setups with between five and seven flash heads but you can certainly get great photos with as few as three as I will demonstrate. (Note that because you are using fully manual settings you do not need thousands of dollars worth of camera brand flashes – a few cheaper models with manual settings will easily suffice such as those made by Vivitar and others).
Your flashes do need to be close to the subject area as your flash output is going to be low and will not have a lot of reach, around 12″ to 18″. To use a three light set up I place two of the flashes at around 45º with one set slightly higher than the other to give a balanced light, and a third above the background pointing straight down.
Most modern flashes also have a zoom setting. I set the two flashes in front of the subject to their maximum zoom settings to concentrate the throw of light and the background flash to 50mm to give a bit of spread over the background.
I generally start with an output setting of 1/32 or 1/64th, either of which will give an action freezing flash duration for a hummingbird wing. Take a photo, doesn’t have to have a bird in it, simple image of feeder or a flower head in the correct location will do just fine. Check the exposure on the camera and watch for flashing highlights and blown out area on your histogram. Adjust your camera aperture (never the shutter speed) until you have a spot on exposure.
You are going to need a method of firing the flashes. I use Pocket Wizard Radios along with some flashes set to fire using IR slave. You can also use a sych. cord to one flash and set others to fire using either built in optical slaves or cheap add on optical triggers. Check your manuals to see what works for you.
Feeder set up
To attract the birds it’s best to set up at a feeder station they have already been habituated too. Hummingbirds are remarkably tolerant, allowing you to be very close whilst they feed. When you start shooting don’t simply fire away every time a bird arrives at the feeding station. Give them a break once in a while and allow them to feed without the flashes popping of every time they get near. It is amazing at how quickly they will get used to the flashes and other ‘stuff’ you have placed near their feeder.
Start by placing the feeder to one side of the frame. Cover any feeder holes you don’t want them to visit. If your feeder has perches remove them as the hummingbirds will provide better subject material as they hover rather than sat on a plastic feeder.
Once the birds are habituated you can start changing things up. I usually start by placing suitable flowers close to the feeder which can give the illusion of the birds feeding on the flowers. (Make sure you only use flower heads that the hummingbirds would normally visit to avoid a false looking image). The ideal way to position your blooms is to use a Wimberley Plamp. (http://www.tripodhead.com/products/plamp-main.cfm) The next step is to remove the feeder completely and replace it with a suitable tubular shaped bloom. Grab a syringe (I have often been described as a photo junkie!) and some sugar water and ‘inject’ the flower bloom with sugar water. They may be confused for the few few visits but will soon latch on to the idea that the bloom is fill of nectar. Regularly re-fill the bloom to keep them coming.
Sit back and wait for the hummers to arrive and make great images.
Many years ago, long before we ever came to live in North America, my wife Jean and I were sitting in a restaurant in Houston Texas having a meal while en-route to cover another major sports event. A nearby TV was showing the baseball play-offs games and it was evident that tour waiter was more intent on the game than on serving us. To get his attention we decided that the best course of action was to engage him in a conversation about the game as frankly, we had no idea what was going on. There followed a series of questions around the rules of the game, distance from pitcher to batter, how far it was around the bases, how many players in a team which, if achieving little else, did get us our meal served.
Fast forward to 2014 and I found myself in Toronto working as the Photo Chief for the 2015 PanAm Games. So, I started to pick up some photo assignments, mostly for USA Today, covering major pro-sports event in and around the city. Inevitably, I therefore picked up my first assignment to shoot baseball, and quickly realized that little I had learned all those years ago had stayed with me.
My first ever game was Canada Day, July 1st 2014, a national holiday here in Canada.
I had tried to study other photographers photos, including the work f some famous baseball photographers including Brad Mangin and Robert Beck to try and figure out the shooting angles and chatted to friends here in Toronto to get the names of the teams leading photographers. So far all well and good!
I have always believed that a good sports photographer can go to any new sport and quickly figure out the best ways to shoot it, and found that baseball is easily learned – up to a point. Sure there are the photos of the pitcher throwing the ball, and the batter hitting the ball but much of the best action photos come from other plays, sliding to a base, fielders catching and I soon found that my lens was pointing one way while all the others were in an entirely different direction as they were anticipating plays – still a lot to learn. And one other thing, I realized that, although I thought my reflexes were pretty good, not one of my batting pictures had the ball in.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens at 250mm 1250th @f4, ISO 800, set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre monopod
Now, shooting for a major wire service like USA Today Sports Images means that you are constantly having to decide when it is a suitable break in play to race in to the photo area, select some images, caption them, transmit them and get back out again hoping you didn’t miss any major play. And thereby came the next problem. In most sports I was used to very simple captioning – i.e. Seve Ballesteros (ESP) putts on the 18th green to win the British open golf, or Rafael Nadal plays a forehand in round two at Wimbledon, and so, adopted the same principal for captioning my baseball photos. Big mistake!
Nikon D3, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens at 360mm 1000th @f4, ISO 3200, set manually, Gitzo carbon fibre monopod
Phone starts ringing from the editors desk asking me what the play was – i.e. was that the RBI single from the pinch hitter in the 7th inning? Of course I had no idea what he was talking about, and what’s a pinch hitter anyway? Fortunately I had colleagues in the TO2015 office who were baseball fans, and the other photographers at the game soon started to educate me in the finer points of the game and before long my images started to improve, and the caption errors got less.
So, fast forward again to October 2015, and now having covered around 50 games I find that this is a game that has really grown on me and I look forward to covering each one. And what a season it has been for the Toronto Blue Jays, they are in the post-season play-offs for the first time since 1993, when they were World Series Champions. Unfortunately things are not looking so good, having just lost the first two games of the play-off series to the Texas Rangers, hopefully they will pull it back with two way wins so I can continue my new fond love affair with the game.
Oh, and every caption for the play-off games I have covered was absolutely perfect, mainly because we were hard-wiring (plugging an ethernet cable directly into the port on a Nikon D4s and transmitting straight from the camera to the picture editor) the camera to send images and all the post-processing work and captioning was done by the editor. Yes, baseball play-offs are a really big deal. USA Today Sports Images had three photographers at the games, one shooting from an elevated position, one from the photo pit near first base, and yours truly from the photo pit near third base. You cannot afford to miss a big play at this level.
How to improve your baseball photography
These principals apply whether you are shooting your son or daughter at Little League or getting your first opportunity at shooting a big league game.
Get close to the action – use a long lens and fill the frame as best you can. At least a 200mm even for those school diamonds. I rarely shoot with any less than a 300mm and often am right out to the 500 or 600mm if I want to get good facial expressions
Use a fast shutter speed to stop the action, especially if you are trying to get the ball in the picture. 1,000th second at an absolute minimum and even at that speed you will still probably get a slightly blurred ball. Remember, that with any modern DSLR you can push the limits by increasing the ISO setting. I often use the auto ISO setting on my Nikons where I can ensure that if the light drops to a level that would make the shutter speed less than 1,000th the ISO will automatically increase to compensate.
If you see the ball in the viewfinder it is probably not going to be in the picture you take, especially as you get to the bigger league games with faster pitchers and harder hitting batters. By the time your brain tells your finger to press the shutter, and the mechanics of the camera operate to open the shutter the ball is either in the catchers glove or sailing over the outfield. At MLB games I keep both eyes open and try to watch the ball leaving the pitchers hand, press the shutter and fire a sequence of two or three and you are likely to get the ball in the frame – with a bit of luck actually connecting with the bat
Anticipate the action – not all good action shots are pitchers or batters at the plate. Watch when players are on the bases, stolen bases or the batter diving to home plate make some of the greatest action shots. Concentrate, focus on the player and follow focus the action if your camera focusses fast enough or pre-focus on the point where you expect the action be if your camera is a little slow. Almost any modern DSLR will allow you to follow the action. However, even with he fastest cameras, make sure you have your focussing set up properly. My cameras allow 51 points of focus but for any sport where you are essentially focussing on a single player cut this number down in your menu settings and your success rate will improve dramatically. I always use 9 focus points on my Nikons for this type of sport.
If you have a favourite player (your son or daughter!) make sure you shoot from the right side of the field. A right handed pitcher should be shot from
third base, a leftie from first. A right handed batter, go to first and a leftie from third.
I hope you find the tips will help you improve your baseball photography.
UPDATE: Yesterday, 14th October, Toronto Blue Jays won the divisional championships. Take a look at the latest images gallery to see a small selection of some of my favourites or go to http://www.usatodaysportsimages.com to see the full selection
The last week has been really busy in Toronto, covering three Major League Baseball games and one Major League soccer. Tuesday and Wednesday saw me at back to back baseball games with the Toronto Blue Jays hosting the Boston Redsox. The Blue Jays are desperate for wins to stand any chance of extending their season into the playoffs. Unfortunately on Tuesday the were given a lesson by Boston who came out 11-7 winners, although the game went into an 11th inning, the fourth time in a row that extras have been necessary to get a result. Wednesday saw Toronto get their revenge with a 5-2 win, but frankly time is running out for the Jays. Both of these were night games and I was once again able to put the Nikon D4s through it’s amazing high ISO paces.
Nikon D4s, 500mm f4 lens on Gitzo carbon fibre monopod, 1/1250 @ f4, ISO 3200, exposure set manually
I set the exposure manually for all night games. The D4s at 3200 ISO renders an image quality similar to the D3s at 800 ISO
Regrettably, I had to hand the D4s back to Nikon on Friday, but I hope to have one in my hands permanently before too much longer.
Nikon D4s, 500mm f4 lens on Gitzo carbon fibre monopod, 1/2500 @ f4, ISO 1000, exposure set manually
Nikon D3s, 16mm f2.8 fisheye lens, 1/640th @f5.6, ISO 500, handheld
I wanted to take advantage of the amazing evening light falling onto the CN Tower before the game and decided this was an ideal opportunity to get out the fisheye – a lens I don’t use too often but this was a natural choice for this shot
Saturday was the start of a long weekend in Canada with Monday being Labour day. Today was back to major league soccer for me and frankly my worst experience of shooting sport in Toronto, although this had little to do with the game itself.
First it was a good job I left myself plenty of time to get to the game, I always like to arrive early to ensure the technology is all working correctly and to shoot any pre-game images. Paid my $3 token on the bus at for what is normally a 20 minute ride to BMO field for the game. 30 minutes and 400m later I got off again and decided to leg it. Traffic was at an absolute standstill and actually walked past 4 other busses by the time I got to Exhibition where BMO field is located.
Now, imagine having a 20,000 seat soccer stadium with a premier league match and plonking it in the middle of the biggest fair you can imagine! I hadn’t realised that the event causing all the traffic chaos was the Canadian National Exhibition, one of the ten largest fairs in N. America, attracting 1.4 million visitors, most of which I think were there today! Then,to make matters worse, I discovered that because I didn’t have a ticket to the game, as I collect my accreditation at the ground, I had to pay $30 to get in to the exhibition grounds, one expense claim going to USA Today! So, instead of arriving 45 minutes before the game as planned I got in about 5 minutes before kick off so I didn’t get any pre-games photos. To cap it all it was the worst footie game I have ever seen, Toronto played like a bunch of schoolkids, giving away the first two goals in the first 5 minutes. Finally, as the second half began it started to rain. Who says sports photography is glamorous?
Nikon D3s, 200-400 f4 lens at 240mm on Gitzo carbon fibre monopod, 1/1600 @f4, ISO 1600, aperture priority automatic
The 200-400 is now my standard lens for soccer for daytime games, I switch to the 300 f2.8 for night games where I need the extra stop of speed
My final shoot of the week was today’s baseball game at Rogers arena which was important for a reason other than the game itself. This was the last game that all time baseball great Derek Jeter of The New York Yankees will play in Toronto. Jeter is estimated to be the richest player in Major League Baseball with a net worth of some $185,000,000. although the web is full of articles about his net worth, his many glamorous girlfriends and the fsct he built the largest house in Tampa Florida it his extraordinary exploits on the filed that will remain his major claim to fame.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens on Gitzo carbon fibre monopod, 1/1000 @f4, ISO 500, aperture priority automatic
This season is his 20th in Major League baseball for the New York Yankees and he is both their captain and a major figure in all the Yankees recent sucesses. Throughout the season each opposing team has provided a gift to Jeter, Toronto presenting a check for his foundation for young sports development. Jeter did not score today and the Jays finished the series with a win.
Nikon D3s, 200-400 f4 lens at 400mm on Gitzo carbon fibre monopod, 1/2000 @f4, ISO 1000, aperture priority automatic
Post match I was sitting sorting images and transmitting to USA Today when news came in of the firing of Toronto FC Manager and the whole coaching staff – what a surprise! It has subsequently become apparent that star British player, and the man who was supposed to bring glory to Toronto, Jermaine Defoe may be on his way back to Europe possibly to London club QPR.
While all this is going on in Toronto my wife Jean is in Normandy France covering the World Equestrian Games (WEG) or, as it’s become known, Worst Games Ever! To read of her exploits in Caen go to www.jeanllewellyn.com
Last week I worked the Men’s ATP 1000 Tennis Event in Toronto, The Rogers Cup, for USA Today sports Photos and Reuters. Featuring almost all the top male players in the world with the exception of Rafa Nadal who withdrew before the start with an injury, this is one of the leading events apart from the Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Nikon Canada provided me with one of the new Nikon D4s bodies to test during the event.
Nikon D4s, 500mm f4 lens on Gitzo monopod, 1/5000th @ f4, ISO 500, aperture priority automatic
First let’s look at the D4s. This is not a camera to buy unless you have deep pockets as it’s currently listed at $6,999 on the Vistek.ca web site. For this you get a fully featured pro body, 16.2 megapixel, 11 frames per second (1 frame faster than the D4) and full 1920 x 1080 video recording, and is aimed squarely at sports wildlife and news photographers.
Nikon D4s, 300mm f2.8 lens on Gitzo monopod, 1/1250th @ f2.8, ISO 5000, aperture priority automatic
The new processor, the Exspeed 4 processor gives faster performance than the previous version and allows shooting up to 200 JPEGs or 104 raw files before the buffer is filled, 30% faster than the previous D4. This processor is not only faster but has also brought huge improvements in quality, particularly at high ISO settings, ISO sensitivity now runs from ISO 100-25,600 instead of ISO 100-12,800 which can be extended as high as 409,600 (nope, not a typo) if you ever feel the need to take photos in near total darkness!
Autofocus is the same as used in the D4, the Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX, which has 51 AF points and ‘3D tracking’. More on this later.
Controls and menu settings are similar to previous Nikons’ so any Nikon user will soon become very familiar with this camera. The first thing I did was head straight over to the autofocus settings and set things up for continuous AF, with 3D tracking on. The camera tracked more than capably shooting at 11fps and practically every frame was in focus. The coolest feature is that when shooting at 11fps while in 51-point AF with 3D tracking mode activated you can actually see the AF point changing in the viewfinder, enabling me to focus on a players face and the focus point would stay on that face as it moved around in the viewfinder. I also set up the camera to only operate the autofocus using the AF buttons. As soon as releae the AF button the autofocus sensor jumps back to the point you had previously selected.
Nikon D4s, 200-400mm f4 lens set to 360mm on Gitzo monopod, 1/2000th @ f4, ISO 640, exposure set manually
(Note how s’quashed’ a tennis ball gets when these guys hit it – no wonder they need to change the balls regularly)
So, how does it all work in practice – well let’s just say I don’t want to give this camera back to Nikon. In short, it is the most amazing camera I have ever laid hands on. The 16.2 megapixel captures gave plenty of room for some quite severe cropping and still have an image size with plenty of data. Now, in principal, I like to shoot my images as full frame as I possible can, and you may well ask why would this be any different for tennis? Well, it’s simply that there are so many background distractions around the court including, linesmen, ballboys, chairs, and water containers to name a few. While shooting a fast moving athlete it’s difficult (read impossible) to avoid all thee distractions. At the Rogers Cup the various officials are a real distraction as they all wear red, the one colour that always stand out above all others. Therefore, cropping images, became a big part of the editing process before sending each batch to the USA Today Sports Photos feed.
Nikon D4s, 200-400mm f4 lens set to 400mm on Gitzo monopod, 1/2000th @ f5.6, ISO 640, exposure set manually
You can see the images that made the final cut at http://peterllewellyn.photoshelter.com/gallery/Tennis/G0000ixiJqYXvfZM/
Now, if I can just make those lottery numbers come up tonight perhaps I can afford a couple of these beasts!
The series of test events for the 2015 Pan Am Games is now well underway and will continue throughout the run up period to the Games. Unfortunately many of these events are not taking place at their Games time venues so unlike London I will not be attending all of them.
This last week has seen two tests taking place, first the World Racquetball Championships, took place at Burlington. Racquetball and squash are two Pan Am sports that are not in the Olympic Program so I went along for a quick look to help me with placing the photographers who will work thee sports next year. Racquetball is a notoriously difficult sport to photograph at the best of times and the courts at Burlington were not too media friendly. There was very little room and being only glass backed do not present a wealth of photo opportunities. At the Games the show court will be all glass which will hopefully ope up more flexibility and enable photographers to get better shots. The main problem with a court that is only glass backed is that for 90% of the time the players have their backs to you so you have to watch for the fleeting instances when one or both players turn to face the rear wall.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 24 – 70 f2.8 lens at 60mm, 1/1000th @ f2.8 (set manually), ISO 2500
As you can tell from the relatively high ISO of 2500 the light was far from ideal, hoping for better than this next year!
All last week also saw another World Championship taking place, this time the World Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Championships at Ryerson University Sport Centre, which is home to the basketball for the Pan Am Games. Make no mistake about it, despite being in wheelchairs these girls are true athletes and great competitors in their own right. This time working conditions were great, plenty of room to work around the court, excellent lighting and, for those attending next year, a great catwalk to set up remotes. I didn’t have time to set up any overhead remotes ton this occasion but photographers should be able to make great shots here.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 200 – 400 f4 lens at 400mm, 1/640th @ f4 (set manually), ISO 1600
Wen shooting from the end of the court I consistently found myself using one of two lenses – when the attack was at the far end of the court I grabbed the 200 – 400 f4 zoom on a Gitzo Monopod and when the attack was closest to me the 70 – 200mm f2.8. Other than a few wider shots with the 24- 70 f2.8 these two lenses were used for 90% of everything I shot at courtside.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 70 – 200 f2.8 lens at 140mm, 1/800th @ f3.2 (set manually), ISO 1600
Note how in this image I have elected to open the aperture a little more to push the shutter speed a little higher. This is because the 200-400 was supported on a monopod but I am hand holding the 70 – 200 so want to absolutely eliminate camera shake. Remember more images are ruined because you don’t select a high enough shutter speed when hand holding to eliminate camera shake that any other cause!
Watch out for some important news about my sports photography coming in the next few days.
This weekend saw the start of the Redpath Waterfront Festival, attracting thousands of visitors down to the lake in Toronto, including a wine and spirit event at Sugar Beach, flying men at the 2014 Flyboard North American Championships at Harbourside, and flying dogs at the 2014 Dockdogs World Qualifying Championships. World Pride 2014, which is hosted this year in Toronto also kicked off with a Sweetness Pride Beach Party today, needless to say also at Sugar Beach!
The jumping dogs are hilarious, and don’t let anyone tell you that they don’t enjoy every minute of this. Various competitions take place including both a highjump and a longjump competition. Maybe both should be included in next years Panam Games. Dogs perform their amazingly athletic leaps off a raised platform, landing in a water tank.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens at 400mm, 1/1600th @ f 4.5, ISO 320, Handheld
In the longjump the owners throw a favourite toy in to the far end of the pool and the dogs launch themselves into the water to retrieve it. Speed down the runway translates into distance, just like a human athlete.
In the high jump a bumper is suspended at height over the water, the dogs leaping into the air to grab the toy, each getting two attempts at a successful leap to progress to the next round where the height goes up.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 24-70 mm f2.8 lens at 24mm, 1/2000th @ f 5, ISO 400, Handheld
For all of these shots I set the exposure manually. I needed to keep a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action but these shots were all taken in early afternoon with the sun very high in the sky. With the variety of different dog colourings had I relied on Aperture Priority Automatic my exposures would have been swinging widely all over the place, especially as the dogs splashed down into the water where the white spray would have thrown the auto metering widely off. To get a starting exposure I metered off the blue sky and then opened up about one full stop. A few quick shots checking the exposure on the LCD screen both visually and using the histogram proved this was bang on.
I always have blinking highlights turned on to check for areas that blow out to pure white. In the above shots I didn’t worry about the overexposed highlights in the spray, the important subject, the leaping dog was what mattered to get right. Even with pretty accurate exposures I still had to do a little work in Photoshop to get the look I was after.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 70-200 mm f2.8 lens at 92mm, 1/3200th @ f 5.6, ISO 500, Handheld
Nikon D3s, Nikon 70-200 mm f2.8 lens at 80mm, 1/2000th @ f 5, ISO 500, Handheld
Superdog with his red cape was quite a favourite with the crowd. After an hour of photographing the leaping dogs we moved further down the harbour front to catch a few of the competitors in the 2014 Flyboard® North American Championships. Competitors perform a series of moves in an aerial ballet on a platform driven by water jet via a hose from a jet ski.
Nikon D3, Nikon 500 mm f4 lens, 1/2500th @ f 5, ISO 500, Gitzo monopod
I continued to use manual mode as I found myself shooting almost directly into the sun. The backlighting worked well for the water but care needed to be taken to ensure good exposure on the competitors. Before competition started I took a few shot of the safety boats that were in roughly the same direction as the competitors would be and again checked the screen and the histogram to ensure an accurate exposure.
Nikon D3, Nikon 70-200 mm f2.8 lens at 92mm, 1/200th @ f 5.6, ISO 400, hand held