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.
Generally my ‘how to’ articles have concentrated on obtaining the sharpest images possible. That’s great, up-to-a-point, as the majority of my published images need to fit exactly that criteria. But, after you have captured all the usual images of your subject showing it in all it’s pin sharp glory, it’s time to look beyond the norm and start getting more creative.
In a follow-on from my previous blog where I started to look at the similarities between sports and wildlife photography, the techniques used for movement blurs in both subjects are identical.
Movement blur is simply allowing your camera shutter to remain open long enough to allow movement of your subject (or of the camera) to register on the sensor.
Nikon D3s, 16mm f2.8 fisheye lens hand held, 1/6oth @ f8 ISO 640 Note that by keeping the nearest cyclist centred in frame he remains quite sharp while all the other competitors are blurred
Let’s look at some of the methods to induce that sense of movement into your still images.
Creative blurs using long exposure with subject moving
There are effectively two methods you can use with a long exposure technique, keeping the camera still while the subject moves, or moving the camera (panning) whilst keeping the subject centred in the frame – or you can combine the two.
Nikon D3 with 80-200mm f 2.8 lens @ 80mm hand held, 1/30th sec @ f22 ISO 200 – Here I have used both a slow shutter speed and a panning action. The slow shutter produced the movement in the subject, the panning the movement in the background
This is perhaps the most common technique to induce deliberate blur where the photographer choses a shutter speed sufficient to render a recognizable subject but, at the same time, the shutter is open long enough for movement to register on the image. The trick is in choosing what stutter speed to use and for this you need first to assess how quickly your subject is moving. Obviously a formula one race car move quicker than a galloping horse which in turn is quicker than grass stems being blown in the wind.
Nikon D3, 200-400mm f4 lens @ 360mm, 1/125th sec @ f16, ISO 200 In this image I have used a relatively fast shutter speed but the foreground blur imparts a great sense of movement. This was shot through a vehicle window whilst travelling at around 50 mph (80 kph)! The Pronghorn is renowned as the fastest land animal in the Americas.
If you are using a long shutter speed to capture movement, for example moving water, it is absolutely essential to lock the camera down on a solid tripod. The long exposure will exacerbate any camera movement. To ensure there is no camera shake it is best to either use a cable release or to lock the mirror up and use the camera’s self timer to trigger the shot.
Nikon D3, 20-35mm f2.8 @ 35mm, 1/15 sec @ f22 ISO 100. Gitzo carbon fibre tripod, Arca Swiss ball head
What shutter speed?
So, what shutter speed do you need to create motion blur – the answer is ‘it depends’. If the speed is too short you still end up freezing the subject or it has minimal blur which just doesn’t work well. If too long then the subject itself becomes too blurry to be recognizable for what it is. Other factors will also come into play such as the angle your subject is moving. Is it toward you , diagonal, away etc. each of which causes a different apparent speed of motion. Are you, the photographer standing still or are you moving i.e. in a vehicle?
Note that, the further away you are from your subject, the easier it is to pan and follow, keeping the subject in the same location in the viewfinder. The plain fact is you need to experiment a little for each subject you shoot – exactly what that little screen on the back of the camera is for!
However here are some starting points:
Birds in flight to create some wing blur – 1/125 sec
Panned action for cars, cyclists, and animals at full gallop – 1/30 sec
Sports action featuring people, basketball, athletes etc. 1/60 sec
Remember that these are just indicators, you will still need to experiment for yourself.
I am not including star trails etc as this is a whole other subject. Similarly I am not going into rear curtain flash – I will again write about this in a separate article.
Long exposure while moving the camera
The second common method of creating movement blur is when the subject is still (or relatively so) but you deliberately move the camera during the exposure.
Nikon D3, 105mm f2.8 Micro lens, 1/8sec @ f32, ISO 100. Here I have used a twisting motion to rotate the camera and lens whilst taking the photo. Note how the fish near the centre are rendered relatively still whilst the further you look to the outside of the frame there is increased blur.
There is a huge range of movement you can introduce, rotation, up and down , side-to-side each of which will introduce a different blur effect. Also experiment with the same movement and different shutter speeds to find which works best.
As creative blurs require longer exposures than normal you need to take care with not to overexpose your photos. In general keep the ISO settings as low as possible and use small aperture to allow for longer shutter speeds without over-exposing. On bright sunny days even then you may not be able to set a long enough shutter speed to achieve the desired effect. This is where the use of a neutral density filter comes into it’s own. Neutral density filters cut the amount of light coming through the lens without altering the colours. These are available in a range of density settings but I recommend owning having one of the darkest, perhaps a -6 stop. This way you can always open the aperture or raise the ISO if you need a slightly faster shutter speed. If you don’t have a dark enough ND filter you have fewer options to slow the shutter down.
Nikon D3s, 20-35mm f2.8 lens @20mm hand held, 1/30 sec @ f4, ISO 200. Here due to the light levels it was not necessary to use a small aperture to achieve the desired slow shutter speed.
Here, a word of warning. Your sensor must be scrupulously clean when taking long exposures. Almost invariably you will be using small apertures which have the effect of sharply focussing every tiny scrap of dust on the sensor. If I know I am going to be taking long exposure shots I will always clean ny camera sensors before going out.
To see more creative blurs search the online archive by entering keywords in the search box below.
Several times I have been asked how it is that my long-time career as a sports photographer gels with the wildlife and nature work I now mostly shoot. The fact is that there are a great many similarities.
First let’s look at the equipment… Pretty much identical, rapid-focus cameras using large telephoto lenses.
Second… similar techniques, long periods of waiting around with not much happening while trying to maintain a high level of concentration so you don’t miss the decisive moment!
Nikon D2x, 600mm f4 lens, mounted on a Gitzo tripod with Wimberley head, 1/3200th sec ISO 200 @ f5.6. You can certainly shoot low slowly flying birds from a tripod but it’s much harder to acquire focus and stay locked on than with hand holding. Here, as I was still shooting with a D2 series camera that does not handle high ISO settings as well as more modern cameras, I have opted for a larger aperture than I would choose today.
One area of wildlife photography where all the above is particularly true is in capturing images of birds in flight. Often fast moving, unpredictable, with difficult lighting, much the same as with so many sports events.
My preferred lens for in-flight photography is the Nikon 500mm f4, either with or without the TC-14 1.4x converter, and occasionally the 200-400 f4, more often than not hand held with image stabilization turned on, depending on the size of bird I am working with and the distances involved. I never use the converter on the 200-400, which slows down autofocus to an unacceptable level. This technique results in more ‘keepers’ than using the 600mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. The 600mm is just way too heavy to hand hold, at least for me, not being a muscle-bound body builder!
Just like photographing high-speed sport it’s essential to set your camera effectively to freeze the action (unless of course you are going for intentional blur, but that’s a whole other subject – coming soon!) I never let my shutter speed drop below 1/2000th sec, adjusting my ISO settings to ensure that I stay at this speed or above. Remember, birds can be very high-speed subjects, often cruising at 30 mph, and can reach enormous speeds of 60 mph or more when diving or hunting. I will generally stop my lens down to around f8 to give a good depth of field and also because this is the ‘sweet spot’ on my 500mm producing the sharpest corner to corner images. Unlike sport and ground-based wildlife subjects – where I will often use my telephotos wide open (largest aperture) to limit depth of field and isolate my subject from the background – this is rarely necessary with in-flight photography as, in the majority of cases, your subject is against the sky or is already distanced from any discernible background.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens hand held, 1/2500th @ f8, ISO 800. Look for the unusual bit of action such as when this bird dips his toes into the lake..
With my Nikon bodies I use continuous autofocus, AF/C (AI Servo on Canon) and select 9-point autofocus when photographing single birds, or 51-point 3D-tracking when shooting more than a single bird. I always use the highest frame-per-second rate possible and, like capturing sporting action, will often shoot in short bursts.
Shooting birds in flight I almost always use manual exposure, unlike sport where my preferred method is aperture priority. Primarily, in sport, I generally aim to keep my subject isolated from the backgrounds which, most of the time, are fairly constantly lit. With in-flight photography, backgrounds can constantly change as you continue to shoot; i.e. the birds move from blue sky to white cloud, or from a dark vegetation background to a more open area, and it’s really important that the exposure is based on the bird and not on the background. To set my exposure I get in position and shoot a few test shots ensuring my minimum 1/2000th sec is achieved, checking my histogram, and adjusting my shutter speed and ISO to move the histogram to the right without it actually touching the right-hand edge and blowing out highlights. It is essential to keep detail in the brightest, often white, part of your subjects.
For white balance I invariably just leave the setting at auto. As I shoot 100% in RAW format, I can always change the white balance in post production, if I need to – which is rarely. I find it all too easy when manually setting a white balance to forget I’ve done so and end up with extra work on a whole bunch of photos.
Technique for birds in flight
Even though my Nikon lenses autofocus extremely rapidly, you often have little time to acquire sharp focus as a subject might suddenly appear. To ensure the most rapid focus I will, if at all possible, find a subject that is at approximately the same distance as I predict my subjects might appear and pre-focus on that. This means that when a bird appears in the right zone my lenses have little work to do in locking on to the bird and I find I am shooting sharp images way earlier. I always use the rear focus button on the camera and not the half-depressed shutter button, as I like to decide when the cameras actually focus on the subject… Another throwback to how I shoot sport.
If you can, keep your selected autofocus points on the eye of the bird, which is easier with large birds than with rapidly moving, smaller subjects. When photographing more than one in-flight bird, ensure that your focus points are on the leading bird, because if the leader is ‘soft’ and the following bird(s) is sharp, it produces a very strange look.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens handheld, 1/2000th @f8, ISO 320. When shooting more than one bird ensure you focus on the leading subject. Also remember that many birds have large areas of white colour so it is essential that you don’t blow out your highlights.
Just like shooting sports, with birds in flight it is essential to develop good panning technique. You MUST keep the lens moving, locking your subject in the same position in the viewfinder as far as you can, and keep shooting. A common error is to shoot every image with the bird dead centre in the frame. I often shift my focus selection points slightly to one side of the frame or the other depending on the flight direction, to allow space for the bird to move into. This generally gives a much more pleasing composition. The best bird images, particularly with larger species, tend to be when the wing is at the highest or lowest position during the flapping motion, aim to hit this spot consistently.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2000th sec @ f8, ISO 1200. Try and time your shots so the wings are either fully elevated or fully down, relatively easy with soaring birds like this vulture
Perhaps more-so than with other forms of wildlife photography, it is practically essential to shoot with the sun at your back with a useable arc of around 30°. Backlit and sidelit subjects rarely work well as you will invariably end up with very harsh shadows. The angle of the sun is also a huge factor. Photographers talk about the golden hours, around two-and-a-half hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset, when the light has a soft even feel and has a golden glow that lends itself well to all wildlife subjects. A further advantage of a low sun angle is that it will often result in a great catchlight in a subject’s eye. In general, high sun angles during the middle part of the day are not workable if the sun is out, but you can extend the shooting day with more overcast conditions.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/2500th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Give a little more space on the side of the image that your subject is facing to allow room for it to ‘move into’
Another weather condition to keep in mind is wind direction. Birds, like aircraft, will tend to take-off and land into the wind. Absolutely the best conditions for in-flight bird photography is when both the sun and the wind are at your back.
Nikon D3s, 500mm f4 lens with 1.4 teleconverter (effective focal length of 700mm) hand held, 1/1600th sec @ f8, ISO 800. Birds take-off and land into the wind, try and have both sun and wind at your back
Remember, like all photography, the foregoing suggestions are guidelines and not set-in-stone rules! I still experiment with different shutter speeds, camera movement, lighting angles etc. but, my experience has been, that using the above guidelines will generally produce the most pleasing images.
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!
Several people have asked how I produced the ‘Lady in Red’ photos recently posted to my Instagram account.
Here are the steps I use in Photoshop.
Choose a photo that will convert well to black and white but which has a small area of a vibrant colour that you can bring back. Bright warm colours generally work best i.e. reds and oranges. Good subjects that work well are a bright red vehicle, red rose, red dress etc.
Open the image in Photoshop and create a black and white adjustment layer
With the new adjustment layer active you will now see a black and white version of your image
Select the Eraser tool (This may be hidden behind other eraser tools)
Use a suitable sized brush with a fairly hard edge and carefully paint away the top layer revealing the colour underneath. It helps to zoom in on the area you are working on. If you have a pressure sensitive tablet it makes this much easier than using the mouse
Now flatten the image into a single layer )Layer-Flatten image
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
Today was Canada Day and a public holiday, however for me this was a return to my early roots of shooting sports for National Newspapers. I am now photographing major sports events in Toronto for USA Today Sports Images, starting with the Toronto Blue Jays hosting the Milwaukee Brewers at the Rogers Centre. It was a very hot sticky afternoon so I was happy to photographing a sport where one spent the majority of the time sat in one position. It’s always a challenge going to a new venue and photographing a sport I don’t know that well so the first order of the day was to ensure my internet connection was up and running, no worries there, wired connections from just inside the players tunnel and great speeds. After checking out the positions I decided to photograph the first few minutes from the ‘nose bleed’ seats as I had found out that a giant maple leaf flag would be unfurled just before the start of the game.
Immediately after the opening pitch I made my way back down to field level for the start of the game as I needed to get my first few photos sent to USA Today by the end of the third innings. This meant concentrating on at least getting good photos of both teams starting pitchers.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens, at 300mm, 1/5000th @ f4 ISO 640, Gitzo monopod
Baseball is a sport of rapid movements and to freeze the action it is necessary to keep a close eye on the shutter speed. Don’t let it get much below 1500th if you want to freeze the action n either the pitcher or the batter. As today’s cameras are so good at high ISO settings I am more than happy to push up to well over ISO 400 to ensure action stopping speeds, even with the bright sunshine conditions.
Once the first images were safely away I could relax a little and start to look for other types of shot. Although I say relax that’s not entirely true, relax too much and you miss the best moments so a high degree of concentration must be maintained. In fact there are long periods of time when the only action is pitchers throwing and batters swinging and it’s easy to get lulled and then miss the best and more unusual action shots.
Nikon D3s, Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens, at 250mm, 1/1500th @ f4 ISO 800, Gitzo monopod
The light for today’s game was very hard as it was a 1.07pm start so the sun was almost directly overhead with a lot of heat haze rising off the field, especially early in the game. This made it challenging to get much light on the faces.
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
Beautiful day in Toronto, temperature in the mid 20s, not a cloud in the sky. On days like this my wife and I have taken tolong walks, getting to know the Toronto neighbourhood and one of our favorite destinations is the Distillery District. The Distillery is a series of Victorian red-brick buildings, formerly the Gooderham and Worts whisky distillery, and now home to around 70 cultural and retail establishments, where this is always something going on. This weekend for example is the Sing festival, Canada’s premier capella singing event.
Panasonic Lumix, 1/400th @ f5.6m ISO 200
Nikon D3s, 24-70 f2.8 lens at 70mm, 1/400th @ f8 ISO 200, hand held
Most of my non-sport images now get processed using either the Lightroom or Photoshop raw conversion engine (these are actually identical), and many then get additional processing using various filters from the NIK software suite. The most common filters that I use are the Detail Extractor and the Pro Contrast filters, and every image that is published, either electronically or in print is sharpened using Sharpener Pro 3. Sport images don’t generally go through this level of processing due to time constraints – I am usually transmitting images withing a very short time scale so very little post-processing is done.
Raw processed in Photoshop at default settings
Post processed using detail extractor and pro contrast in NIK software
The complete bundle of NIK software, now owned by Google can be had for the remarkable price of just $149, and for that you get Dfine® 2.0, Viveza® 2, HDR Efex Pro™ 2, Color Efex Pro™ 4 Complete Edition, Silver Efex Pro™ 2, and Sharpener Pro™ 3.0. In the coming weeks I will be explaining in detail how I use different aspects of the collection. In fact I don’t use all of them. I do use Dfine for light noise reduction (if an image requires a lot of work on noise I will still use Noise Ninja,) Viveza if an image requires a lot of local control, Color Efex on nearly every image, Silver Efex for every black and white conversion, and Sharpener Pro on every image.