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.

Gael Suter, 26.06.2017

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

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 (you know who).  That target picture showed a grim looking cyclist. Side lighting was 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).

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Tomáš Bábek

The shooting with Gaël took place in the same underpass below the stands of the Tissot Velodrome where I took this portrait of the Czech Keirin European Champion Tomáš Bábek. However, this time I wanted a completely black background. I did this by increasing the flash power and reducing the ISO to its minimum (I don’t remember the exact data, but the data for the photo with Gaël were about 1/160, F8, ISO100).  Moreover, the grids on the light sources ensured that there was far less stray light in the room than on the picture with Tomáš.

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.

(As an aside: the portrait with Tomáš was taken when I still had worse gear / less experience than I have now, but I’m still extremely proud of the basic idea: the two Speedlights in the background created hard shadows that took a heart-like form in front of Tomáš. I used very weak lighting from the front in order not to destroy the main effect.)

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 (notice the better quality of the lens compared with the picture with Tomáš).

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. 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.

So, let’s be clear: Today I shoot better photos. 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.
SBL Liga Cup Qualification: Starwings vs Lugano, 21. December 2016

SBL Liga Cup: Starwings Basel vs Lugano Basket on December 21, 2016, Birsfelden, Switzerland, Foto: Ulf Schiller 2016 schillerphoto.com

  • 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)

Seven youngsters to watch in 2018

2017 was the best year for Swiss Athletics. As 2018 is looming, it is time to publish my personal watch list of 7 Swiss talented youngsters (in fact, 8, but see below). Of course, there are many more succesful super young stars like the international junior champions Géraldine Ruckstuhl, Jason Joseph, Yasmin Giger, or Delia Sclabas. My aim is to go beyond the obvious and look behind the curtain. Therefore, I deliberately leave these amazing talents out.

Number 1. Annik Kälin. LEICHTATHLETIK SM U20/U23 2017

The 17 year old heptathlete improved to 5664 points at the Swiss Nationals late in the season. Her strengths are the long jump and the hurdles.

Number 2. Stefan Wieland.

LEICHTATHLETIK SM U20/U23 2017

The 19 years old STB athlete threw the 6kg shot to impressive 18.29m, Swiss U20 record. His personal record with the 7.25kg shot is now 16.58m. He is better than Werner Günthör at the same age, despite of a broken foot early in the year.

Number 3. Gaëlle Maonzambi.

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The 16 year old triple jumper from Berne gathered bronze at the European Youth Olympic Games in Györ (Hungary). She was even nominated for the Swiss Athletics Youngster of the Year Award.

 Number 4a and 4b. Sales Inglin (l) and Finley Gaio (r) 

WELTKLASSE ZUERICH 2017

Regarding the hurdles all attention in 2017 was on the European Junior Champion Jason Joseph (center). However, there are two other talents, one year younger than Jason: Sales Inglin (left) and Finely Gaio (right). Sales achieved 13.47 secs and Finley Gaio 13.52 secs over the 10 obstacles. Both will have another year as juniors and the opportunity to attack Jason’s national record.

Number 5. Judith Goll.

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Judith improved to 11.66secs over 100m. The 18 year old sprinter is “best of the rest” behind the six national relay runners, Mujinga Kambundji, Salomé Kora, Sarah Atcho, Ajla del Ponte, Cornelia Halbheer, and Samantha Dargy.

Number 6. William Reais.

42. Pfingstmeeting 2017, 03.06.2017

Active in athletics since 2015, William improved to 10.60 secs over 100m and 21.15secs over 200m. Born in 1999, the 18 year old sprinter is not only a talent on the track, but also a good-mood machine.

Number 7. Lore Hoffmann

LEICHTATHLETIK SM 2017

Admittedly, Lore does not count as a “youngster” in a narrower sense. Let me call her a late developer. She was born in France (1996) and has a Swiss license since 2017. The EPFL student took the 5th place at the U23 Europeans in Bydgoszcz and improved her PB to 2:03.03. When you see her, you guess that this is not the end of the story.

Farewell Ellen

Yesterday was Ellen Sprunger’s last competition. The Weltklasse Zürich meeting was just the right stage for the end of her fine career.

I met Ellen in 2011 when she was a very young heptathlete and participated at the Hypomeeting in Götzis joint with her sister Léa. Still a pure hobby photographer, I took some snaps and sent them to her. I started following her career, not knowing that I would cross her paths over and over again after I became a semi-professional.

Years later, I became impressed by Ellen’s personality. I apologize for an absolutely amateurish psycho analysis, but here is my characterization.

  • She is passionate and stubborn – maybe a career as a runner or even a hurdler would have been the better choice for her… better in terms of world ranking places. But unlike her sister Léa, Ellen never switched, because of her deep passion for the heptahlon (after a few beers, I agreed with the well known expert Guillaume Laurent that the 400m hurdles would have been her ideal discipline… maybe even at Léa’s level).
  • She is friendly and empathetic. During her career she started working for disabled children – she once told me that this would be her dream job after the end of her career. Well, ambassador for the Special Olympics 2018 in Geneva will be a good start.
  • She is tranquil and self-controlled. Fans will remember one of the key moments of her career, the 4x100m final at the Europeans in Zurich. Mujinga Kambundji dropped the baton and the disappointment was huge. Understandably, it was hard to deal with the home crowd and talk to the media. The way Ellen did this was just impressive. Team spirit is very much a matter of managing bad moments. On this day, Ellen showed that she has team spirit.

So what remains of her career? She is a double Olympian, 2012 and 2016. She was Swiss athlete of the year in 2012 and 2013. Until 2016 she was member of the 4x100m relay that took its path from mediocrity to world class. At the 2016 Olympics, she was the secret leader of the team… “Mom” the giggling girlies (sorry) called her.

Her biggest disappointment will be that she failed to break the Swiss national record in the heptathlon. There is no doubt that she had more than just the potential to do so. An ugly injury at the Achilles heel (“the heel doesn’t heal”) held her up over many years. So her biggest desire, a world class heptathlon performance, remained unsatisfied.

Finally, her physical appearance always was part of her. A broad public became thrilled by her courageous competition at the London Olympics that peaked with the fourth discipline, the 200m. As a photographer, I am envious of Olivier Morin of Getty Photo who took the maybe best known picture when she celebrated her performance. “Ellen Sprunger… sixpack” is a suggested auto completion by Google still today.

Quite likely, the sixpack will go one day… passion and friendliness will remain.

 

 

Sport Portraits

Admittedly, sports photographers are not in the studio that often. Hence, compared to professional portrait photographers, I have a disadvantage. Don’t get me wrong, I know how to set up the lighting and how to let people pose. But just as any photographer will get some little details wrong in the arena, I lack about 10’000 portrait shots to get really everything perfect.

So how do you cope with the situation? You work with your strengths. I guess one of my strengths is that I can talk to athletes, because I was one. I know how they feel during training and competition.

So instead of directing them like models (‘look happy’, or ‘look serious’), I ask them to ‘look like you just climb the podium at the medal ceremony’, or ‘look like you are a few seconds before the start of the final’.

Also, I use poses that relate to the sport. This gives them confidence. I try to let them look strong, I let them play with their equipment, or I take pictures of the action.