Panning

As the indoor season comes to an end, I’d like to explain some basic elements of what I think makes a good photo of fast moving athletes, especially in low light situations.

Nationaler Renntag Tissotvelodrome Jan 2018

F2.8, 1/30sec, 28mm. Taken on January, 25 2018 in Grenchen (Tissotvelodrome)

The basic problem: Imagine there is low light and you shoot in the full auto mode. The camera will (among others) reduce the shutter speed. So you end up with a blurred picture because of the fast movement. In my beginnings the following picture would have been one of my better result. Needless to say, this picture is crap.

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A crap picture with motion blur. 1/160 sec, 1000 ISO, f3.2, 14mm, Canon EOS 5D3.

Theoretically, you can turn the above picture into a sharp one as follows: Increase the shutter speed to 1/1250 sec (this is 1/8 of the previous exposure time). To compensate choose an 8-times higher ISO value, 8’000. If your camera tolerates ISO 8’000 you will get a nice and sharp picture. There are great cameras on the market that tolerate ISO 8’000. They are expensive, though.

The usual next step is to use a flash. How does this work? Make sure you underexpose a little, then let the flash pop in with the right amount to freeze the scenery. If you don’t underexpose, you end up with a strange mix of blurred and frozen movement. Some people like this. I find it just awkward.

A flash has disadvantages.

  • First, they are forbidden at many events, for good reasons.
  • Second, if some athletes are close and some far away, the close ones might be overexposed and the far away ones underexposed (see this picture). This looks very un-natural.
  • Third, the flash freezes the motion. Hence when shooting cars, or cyclists from the side, the wheels seemingly stand still. Here is an example. Isn’t it strange that the riders are in a 45 degree steep curve and manage to balance their bike on one spot?
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Mark Cavendish and Iljo Keisse at the Zurich Sixday Nights shot with flash: notice the frozen wheels

To be clear. I’m not saying flashes are always bad. They saved my neck in many situations (I shot the above picture because I had to get a sharp picture of superstar Mark Cavendish. No time for experiments). Photography masters produce terrific results with flashes. For instance, look at this picture by one of my idols, Kristof Ramon. It’s just that frozen pictures from the side are not good in most situations.

What is the solution? Panning. Don’t regard the low light as your enemy. Make it your friend. Panning solves more than one problem in sports photography. The following picture of Jens Voigt is a nice example.

ulf schiller (schillerphoto.com) - thejensie1c

Jens Voigt setting up a new hour record in the Velodrome Suisse

The difference to the previous picture of Mark Cavendish is obvious. Jens’ picture expresses speed, Mark’s picture does not. Both have blurred background, but look twice. The blur in Mark’s picture is unnatural due to the flash. The blur in Jens’ picture is nice, even, and natural.

So how did I do this? I set the shutter speed to 1/160. This is eight times less than it needs to freeze the motion (some say you should take 1/30, but in most cases this is not necessary). To get a sharp picture, I chose a single autofocus point, concentrated on Jens’ face and moved the camera exactly with Jens’ speed. As a result, the face is sharp, the rest is blurred.

The advantages are clear. The background is blurred, Jens is in focus. Moreover, the picture expresses the speed – it is exciting. So exciting that a super-sized copy is hanging on the wall of the Swiss Velodrome.

So what are the drawbacks? To be honest, panning isn’t easy. There is always a risk that you fail. Here are my tips.

1. Concentrate a lot. Any distraction will cause a blurred shot. If the eye is blurred, delete the picture.

2. Choose the ideal distance (if possible). 20-30 meters and a light tele lens are much easier than the 3.5 meters with Jens’ picture. Here is an example from athletics taken with 25 meters distance and 135mm. I took pictures of every heat. Each(!) attempt was successful.

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Clélia Rard-Reuse: Fourth at the European Championships 2016: 1/125sec, F7.1, 135mm

3. If you are forced to shoot from a closer distance, anticipate the changing angular velocity of your subject. It is fastest just when it passes your position. If you don’t anticipate the effect, your panning will be too slow.

4. Train this. Your success rate will increase a lot. I have a friend who shoots professional pictures for the automotive industry. Guess what? He trains panning regularly.

5. Choose a rich background. A blue sky or a concrete wall would hide the effect. So you have no benefit but the risk of blurring the image.

Conclusion. Some people that see my pictures respond with “you have a good camera“. Yes I do. This blog is not about a camera. It is about a shooting technique that I even applied successfully with quite cheap cameras.

Just Another Lens

Did you buy another lens? Why do you need another one?”

I recently bought the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 lens. Admittedly, this was a very though decision, as I have a lot of gear.  Why did I do this?

  • At many events my 400 was too long and the 70-200 was too short. Examples? Football when the play comes closer, athletics when athletes react after the finish line.
  • Moreover, I love the flexibility of a zoom to shoot the same scene close and wide at the same time. So a 300mm prime lens was no option (and far too expensive).
  • Finally, I needed a fast lens. F2.8 was a must.

There’s only one lens on the market that can do all this: the Sigma 120-300 F2.8

VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018

Der Swiss MVP des Jahres Jovan Djokic im Schweizer Cup Final zwischen Biogas Volley Naefels und Volley Amriswil; VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018 am 31 March, 2018 in Fribourg (St. Leonhard-Halle), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller

Critics on the lens were excellent. So I took the risk and bought it instead of renting it first.

I added a Sigma USB dock, because I understood that Sigma lenses almost always have either front or back focus problems. I downloaded the adjustment software and spent one very dull evening with the calibration of a heavy back focus problem (thanks Tobias Wagen for cheering me up via the facebook chat).

Moreover, the lens weighs more than 3kg. From my experience with my 400mm prime lens, I knew I could hold it for a while and use a monopod between the shots. I certainly would think twice if I had to carry it with me as a nature photographer (which I am not).

VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018

Here’s a digital zoom into a picture. The lens is sharp until you approach the limits of my Canon 1DX mark ii. VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018 am 31 March, 2018 in Fribourg (St. Leonhard-Halle), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller

The next event on my schedule was the Swiss Volleyball Cup Final. So I took the lens with me to this event. My friend Stephan Wiesner came with me and prepared a video.

So what is my verdict?

It is a great lens. Some “testers” have complained about this or that… I don’t care!

  • The pictures are sharp. Period.
  • The autofocus is working. Period.

The only serious complaint is about the initial back focus problem. Sigma stole me 4 hours to fix it. But here’s the second thought. I saved about 3’000 stones compared to a 300mm prime lens. In this sense, buying the Sigma 120-300mm lens instead of the 300mm prime is like receiving a daily wage of 2 x 3’000= 6’000.

This makes me feel good! I should go and buy another lens!

 

Mujinga

Soon after my move to Switzerland in 2004, I became aware of a little girl that was much faster than all the others. Not only did she beat my children 😉 , she always won with big, big margins against anybody. It was easy to see that she was really special. Her name was Mujinga Kambundji.

Mujinga Kambundji - Shooting

Almost 14 years later, Mujinga is an international star. At the recent indoor World Championships she won the bronze medal, beating the Olympic 100m Champion Elaine Thompson (JAM) and the World Champion of 2015, Daphne Schippers (NED).

Living in the same area, even being a member of her club, I always had in mind doing a shooting with her, but I knew she has a lot of similar requests. So I always hesitated, despite of other people telling me that she would agree for sure. In my opinion, there had to be a reason for a shooting.

Mujinga Kambundji - Shooting

The reason came when the organizers of the international CITIUS Meeting (Bern, Wankdorf, June 16, 2018) asked me to do a shooting with Mujinga. The CITIUS meeting will be Mujinga’s first individual start in her home town Bern since 2012.

My friend Stephan Wiesner, the well known YouTube photographer, came with me and we did the shooting in team work. Needless to say, that Stephan also did a nice behind-the scenes YouTube video.

Links:

Shooting action using flashes

Recently I did several portrait shootings with internationally successful athletes. The ambition is to set up special lighting using flashes. This blog is about the difficulties that you encounter and how to solve them.

The Basic Setup

First let me explain my typical setup like I used it for this portrait of the European Scratch Champion 2016 Gaël Suter. The customer (Tissot Velodrome) showed me a target picture with a portrait of a 5xOlympic Champion and Tour de France winner (if you know cycling, you know who).  That target picture had side lighting as the main artistic ingredient. So I placed my 120cm soft box with grid on the left hand side. This was my main main source of light. Next, I took my 180cm strip light (with grid too) and placed it on the right hand side behind Gaël. The idea was to create a rim light that would separate Gaël from the background (typical for sports portraits).

The rest was easy: Gaël balanced his bike on the rollers and I ensured that I pressed the shutter exactly when his right foot was in the picture.

Gael Suter, 26.06.2017

Gael Suter am 26.06 2017 im Tissot Velodrome, Grenchen, Schweiz, Foto: Ulf Schiller 2017

 

From still pictures to action pictures

Taking action pictures is considerably harder. This is a shooting that I did with Stephan Wiesner in December 2017 when we met the U23 European Silver medalist Dany Brand. The basic setup was similar, but not identical. One light source (the same 120cm soft box) from Dany’s front (of course now to the side of the photographer). Instead of the strip light we chose five speed lights from the back.

Dany Brand Shooting

Dany Brand (Silver 400mH at the European U23 Championships 2017)

The main problem is to freeze the action. To explain, a flash has a short but not infinitely short burning time. This time gets longer, when the flash is used at higher power. In such cases, the action often won’t be frozen. The usual result is a quite ugly image. So we had to ensure that the burning time was sufficiently short! This meant that the flash had to be at  low power. The usual reaction would have been to shoot with wide aperture. However, there was a second difficulty: we wanted to create the star-like look of the flashes in the back. Hence we had to shoot at F13 which is less than half the light as in Gaëls photo. We solved the problem by increasing the ISO (ISO 400) and moving the flash as close as possible. It was just outside the frame.

Moving the light source close is almost always a good idea in portrait photography. By the law of physics with half of the distance you need just 1/4 of the flash power. Moreover, the light gets softer (which was a potential problem here because we also wanted Dany’s muscles to pop out. But, as you can see, his muscles were bigger than the light source was soft 😛 )

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Me, Dany, Stephan

Better gear made me a worse photographer

Admittedly, the title is an attention grabber, but I have a point.

When I meet other “old” photographers, we start talking about the good old days after a while. We had cameras with a single shot only, manual focus, no auto exposure, maximum 400 ASA films (which is equivalent to 400 ISO) that we could push to 800 ASA, maximum. Pushing to 800 ASA was only possible with black and white films, of course. After 36 exposures we had to insert a new film. Back in the late 1970s sports photography was really hard. I shot Basketball Bundesliga games. I used about three films per match and went home with one or two good pictures. Moreover, when I look at those pictures today, they are all very soft. Given todays standards, I would just press the delete button.

VOLLEYBALL NLA PLAYOFFS 2018 QUARTER FINAL

Tiana DOCKERY (Viteos NUC #7) during the warm up for the quarter final between Viteos NUC and VC Kanti Schaffhausen; VOLLEYBALL NLA PLAYOFFS 2018 QUARTER FINAL am 24 March, 2018 in Neuchatel (Halle des Sports de la Riveraine), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller

So, let’s be clear: Today my pictures are better! But still, I think my claim is true: better gear made me a worse photographerExamples?

  • I was more patient. In a basketball match, I pre-focused on, say, the position where the power forward typically shot. Why pre-focus? Because I had no autofocus. After pre-focusing, I had to wait. Guess, what didn’t happen? The guy did a lot of things, except shooting from the “typical” position.
  • I was more concentrated. Today my camera is like a machine gun. Back then, I had only one shot. Then I had to re-wind manually. So while I can shoot up to 14 frames/sec today, I had to press the shutter exactly at the peak of the action. Recently, I remembered this when I was at a cross run. I set the camera deliberately to the one-shot mode and tried to capture the strides exactly at the point where the back leg was in maximum stretch. I needed a few attempts, but it worked after a while. The advantage: nearly every picture was perfect whereas with the high-speed mode, I mostly have “almost perfect” pictures, shortly before or shortly after the ideal phase.
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Langenthal cross run 2015: single shot, fill-in flash

  • I cared about the background. Today, I have super lenses. My 400mm F2.8 has 140mm aperture. With such a glas, background is just irrelevant. It vanishes in the bokeh anyway. Back then, this was entirely different. So I was constantly looking for positions with good background. This was often in conflict with the lighting, though. I shot many bad photos, just because I could not solve this problem.
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Cyrille Thièry at the Berner Rundfahrt 2016 – 135mm F2 (the cars in the background vanish in the bokeh)

  • I was more selective. Today I often press the shutter although I know that I shouldn’t. The consequence are tons of mediocre pictures that get deleted immediately when I look at the results. Back then, I had 36 pictures on one film roll. I didn’t want to waste them, so I was much more cautious when it came to pressing the button. Again, this is related to the fact that I am less concentrated than I was back then.

So why do I care? Because I come back home with tons of junk. This stresses my shutter counter and my time budget. My aim for the next year is to remember the skills from the “good” old days (they weren’t exactly good), be more concentrated, shoot less, without missing the good pictures.

 

“The team did everything to make it easy for me”

Volley Düdingen’s topscorer Danielle Harbin talks about her life as a pro in Switzerland

Volley Düdingen’s outside hitter Danielle Harbin will remember her first professional year for the rest of her life. After 15 matches she leads the Swiss top scorer ranking with 292 points – almost 20 points per match. Together with her team, the Düdingen Powercats, she also rallied through the first round of the CEV European Cup, contributing 20 spikes, 3 aces, and 3 block points to the success.

“I didn’t expect this” she tells me. “I never was a top scorer before.”

NLA TS Volley Duedingen vs VFM

Danielle Harbin with roomie and setter Zora Widmer during the match between TS Volley Duedingen and VFM; December, 16 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

From the deep south of the US to the provinces of Switzerland

We meet and talk after the Powercats have just swept the third of the previous championship, VFM, out of the gym. Danielle is relaxed and takes her time. No superstar behavior. My interest is less in the usual after-game bla bla. Rather, I would like to know more about Danielle’s background. In particular, how did the young college player make the transition from the deep South of the United States to a small town in the provinces of Switzerland?

Growing up in Mobile Alabama, Danielle started playing basketball and volleyball. “I always wanted to be a professional volleyball player”, Danielle starts explaining. “One of our coaches at the Arkansas Razorbacks was a pro.” The coach approached a well trusted agent who set up Danielle’s profile. “The most important thing was to define my position, as I have also played on other positions before.” The file must have been convincing: Only a few weeks after it was published, Danielle received an email. It was already the ultimate offer – written by an unknown team in an unknown town in Switzerland – the Düdingen Powercats.

NLA TS Volley Duedingen vs VFM

The first of three steps until she hits hard. Danielle Harbin during the match TS Volley Duedingen vs VFM on December, 16 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

One team member was crucial

Excitement and nervousness were great. Wow, Switzerland, was the first thought. The agent didn’t give much, but very relevant information. “It is a good offer. We can wait, as there will be more offers, but it is not likely that there will be many better offers.” The crucial information was that there is another American on the team, managed by the same agent, namely, Sabel Moffet. “With Sabel on the same team, things will be easy” was the promise.

“We have a good reputation on the US market”, explains club president Christian Marbach. “Mutual trust between our agents and us is crucial.”

Before the big adventure started for Danielle, there was another adventure ahead, though: She represented the USA at the University Games in Taipeh, Taiwan, in August. From the Games, Danielle travelled back home, then, after only two days, she headed to Switzerland.

Volleyball NLA: TS Volley Duedingen vs Volero Zuerich

Danielle HARBIN (TS Volley Duedingen #3) during the match TS Volley Duedingen vs Volero Zuerich Nov 19, 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

Team around the clock

“We do a lot for the players, especially on the first days” Christian explains. “Two contact persons welcome the players. They offer help in case of any problem.”

“I arrived at Düdingen exactly on my birthday” Danielle remembers. So what was the first impression of the town, I ask her. “Cute!” is the immediate response. Düdingen reminds her of her home. A small town and volleyball important. The Powercats are visible everywhere in Düdingen. “People recognize me on the street. The Powercats mean something for them.”

“The team did everything to make it easy for me,” Danielle continues. She lives in an apartment with two other players, libera Thays Deprati and setter Zora Widmer. Even in their free time, the players stick together. Sabel plays the integrating role. She finds a lot of activities, or – in other words – she implicitly keeps the agent’s promises. The team and life: these two expressions appear identical for Danielle.

“In fact, the chemistry is right”, adds Christian. Having players with team spirit, like Sabel or captain Kristel Marbach, is ideal. “As a result, the team has a strong will. I am really proud of this team.”

Volleyball NLA: TS Volley Duedingen vs Volero Zuerich

Maybe Danielle’s best game so far: the 3-2 against Volero Zürich. For her excellent spikes just at the right time, Danielle received the MVP award. Nov 19, 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

Train – eat – sleep – repeat

I ask Danielle how life has changed. The answer is surprising at first sight, but absolutely plausible after a second thought. Despite of the completely different surroundings, things didn’t really change,. “I have more training”, Danielle replies after some thinking, “now twice a day”. So for most of the time she lives in the train – eat – sleep – repeat mode. The usual life of a professional athlete. “I don’t miss anything here”, she tells me, “my family, of course, but nothing else.”

She won’t miss the family for long. After the final match of the year against Cheseaux, she will re-unite with the family and celebrate Christmas.

Volleyball CH: NLA Edelline Köniz vs TS Volley Duedingen

If its this far, there is little the opponent can do: Edelline Köniz vs TS Volley Duedingen on Dec 09, 2017 in Koeniz (Sporthalle Weissenstein), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

(by the way: The season re-opener will be on Jan 6, 2018, 17:15 versus Galina)