End of Volley

I followed the entire Swiss Volleyball season as a photographer. The result was a 13th title for Voléro Zürich. Business as usual? Not really. Different from previous years, Voléro lost against three other clubs during the regular season, and in the final  Sm’Aesch-Pfeffingen literally pushed the champion to the limits.

Volleyball NLA 2017/18 Final Frauen Spiel 4 Sm'Aesch Pfeffingen vs Volero Zuerich

Madlaina Matter (Sm’Aesch #6) gave the Voléro super stars a hard time. After the disappearance of Voléro, Sm’Aesch Pfeffingen is the designated new front-runner of the league

This blog reflects the season from my point of view. I base my thoughts on my current knowledge. Admittedly, a lot more was going on. So forgive my maybe biased view.

Volleyball is a micro cosmos. It lives in a bubble. Match reports use to appear just in the local media, or they are published by private persons/institutions on social media. Professional national media just appear at two events: the Cup Final and the Championship Final.

VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018

Voléro Zurich withdraws from Switzerland and will play in France. Laura Unternährer (l) will move with Voléro. Gabi Schottroff (r) will play for Sm’Aesch Pfeffingen.

Does the sport deserve this? The immediate response is no. Volleyball is fast and exciting, and the Swiss level is very good: The better teams easily survived the first rounds of the European competitions. Most of them reached the quarterfinals. This is really, really good.

However, there is a second thought. Maybe Volleyball deserves the low attention. So what’s going wrong? Before I answer this, let me enumerate some facts.

  • The distribution of the money is strongly skewed. There is no level playing field. The leader, Voléro, has a huge budget, equal to the very best clubs in the world.  Moreover, a handful of clubs has sound support by local sponsors and a few hundred regular spectators. For the rest, survival is everything. One club, Köniz, even died during the season 2017/18.

 

Volleyball, NLA 2017/18, Spiel 2 um Platz 3: TS Volley Duedingen vs Kanti Schaffhausen

Volley Düdingen is one of the second-tier clubs with a strong local support. The entire town loves their “Powercats”.

  • As a result, the competition used to be boring. With Voléro as guaranteed champion (as mentioned, 2017/18 was different), a few other teams just tried to become second. Just very few matches were interesting for this second-tier group, since all the weaker clubs were much too weak.
  • The best National League B teams have little ambitions to promote to the National League A. Rather, two years in a row, former NLA teams decided to relegate voluntarily. If the trend continues, the NLA is threatened by a card-house crash.
VOLLEYBALL NLA PLAYOFFS 2018 QUARTER FINAL

Kanti Schaffhausen: another club that successfully attracts a lot of local support.

  • The crash happens even from two sides. Voléro recently announced to merge with a French club and withdraw the team from Switzerland. The reason is understandable: with the ambitions at the World class level, the Swiss league is too weak. Voléro’s superstars faced no challenge in the league, and weren’t prepared to compete under pressure in international matches.
  • There is no professional roof for the league. Rather the clubs meet and negotiate how the season should be played. The national association, Swiss Volley, keeps the central management to a minimum. A lot of important decisions are delegated to the clubs’ assembly.
VOLLEYBALL CUP FINAL 2018

Neuchatel University Club (NUC) made it to the cup final. Their spectators are like a wall behind the team

  • Voléro occasionally made gifts to both some of the clubs and Swiss Volley. The leading agent fed the principal and the followers. It pumped so much money into the sport that Switzerland even co-hosted the European Championships back in 2013. I’ll come back to the consequences.
  • News is turned into propaganda. Quite understandable, private information management via social networks emphasizes positive news, but has a certain tendency to suppress negative news. The public often doesn’t get the full background of what is going on. There is a boomerang effect, though. When things develop bad, social media commentators use to blame Swiss Volley while missing the full background (some blame Voléro instead).

The card house effect seems to be the major short-run problem. For 2018/19 there are two empty NLA slots. So far there has been no announcement who will promote, despite of the end of the NLB season. Does this mean the NLA will have just eight clubs in 2018/19?

Volleyball NLA 2017/18 Final Frauen Spiel 4 Sm'Aesch Pfeffingen vs Volero Zuerich

The money man behind Voléro. Stav Jacobi has enough of the Swiss league and moves to France.

With less clubs, there are less games. Less games mean less visibility for the home spectators and the sponsors. This means less income and less attraction. A downward spiral.

Another hot issue in the past season was the commitment to have two Swiss educated players on the court. This rule, called LAS rule, has been very much under debate since its origin. Some clubs see it as an obstacle to excellence. Lugano, Voléro, Köniz, and Sm’Aesch even sued Swiss Volley in the past. In this season Voléro was under pressure losing one of the best-of-five final games. To save their neck in set 4 of game 2, they played without Swiss players. A clear violation of the LAS rule. Voléro preferred to pay the fine: 20’000 Swiss francs. The president even showed a middle finger to the protesting Sm’Aesch fans. Another fine: ridicolous 300 Francs. The background is that the sanctions had been defined by the clubs themselves in the course of a negotiated settlement. And 20’000 francs don’t mean much to Voléro.

Volleyball CH: NLA Edelline Kšniz vs TS Volley Duedingen

Played for two clubs in the same season: After Volley Köniz crashed, their top scorer Nette Pait was immediately transferred to Lugano. This happened outside of the transfer window. Another strange detail of the season.

The scandal highlights the basic weakness of the system. A strong principal is missing who has just one goal: the image of the league. A better image would attract external league sponsors and make it possible to support especially the weaker clubs. Good governance and freedom from scandals would be another concern. Moreover, the new principal should gradually modify the licensing agreements, including an obligation to invest in more attractive gyms. Currently, the clubs play in school gyms. Spectators, TV cameras, and photographers have wall bars as background. Where is a sponsor that would like to support this?

A franchisor-franchisee system could be the solution: The principal would be a firm with own legal identity and owned by the Association. It would act as franchisor and the clubs as franchisees. North American professional leagues or the major European football leagues are leading examples. And maybe some famous franchise firms will be attracted as sponsors: the Swiss McDonalds Volley League? How does this sound? Just kidding.

Volleyball NLA 2017/18 Final Frauen Spiel 4 Sm'Aesch Pfeffingen vs Volero Zuerich

Good bye Voléro: It was nice … most of the time.

*** UPDATE *** Meanwhile Swiss Volley announced that the second from the NLB championship, Geneva, will promote to the NLA, but the first, Lucerne, won’t. So as things currently stand, the NLA will have nine clubs in 2018/19. ***

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.

FA4B2631

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?
_R2A9042c

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.

https://schillerphoto.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/untitled-1-7-1.jpg?w=1453&h=969

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!

*** UPDATE: One month later I had many more opportunities to work with the lens. I stick to my verdict, but with a slight qualification. When the action comes close and I am shooting at 120mm at a distance of, say, 5-7m, the autofocus has problems. I missed some shots at Bundesliga matches. ***

 

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 😛 )

Dany-Ulf-Wiesner

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.
2015-12-05-langenthal-cross-17

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.
2014-05-bernerrundfahrt-66

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.