Sigma screwed me up

Back to Bundesliga. This blog is about my frustration with my latest football coverage.

For those who follow my blog for photography reasons: maybe you remember that I bought a new tele lens earlier this year, the Sigma 120-300 F 2.8 S. It had been introduced in a video by Stephan Wiesner and we were quite enthusiastic about the first results.

After a few months it is time for a report on its long-run performance. I’ll be short: the lens has a massive problem: the autofocus! Depending on what you want to do, the performance ranges between “good” and “absolutely not reliable”.

  • The lens performed really well on the first day when the video was made: why? Because I only did two sorts of shots that work with this lens. First, shots when things are not hectic. Second action shots where the distance is predictable. A good example for the latter are the volleyball scenes from the head-on position that appear in Stephan’s video. Below are examples of such shots.
  • However, the lens is absolutely not reliable, if the subject is running towards you, or the exact spot of the action is not predictable. The first is typical for head-on positions in athletics (a 100m sprinter is too fast for the lens) and the latter for football matches (where one intelligent pass requires immediate re-focusing to some completely new spot).  I cannot include these pictures, because I delete them immediately: believe me, I deleted many! Also: be grateful to my parents who educated me well. I won’t use strong words here. I was tempted to use them, though, when I missed important shots.
  • As an aside, the lens also has strong vignetting. This is not bad per se. Some of the pictures have a “cool” look. However, Lightroom is not able to correct this if you want to.  So this is worth mentioning.

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. ***

*** UPDATE 2: It’s the beginning of June and I had the first serious issues with the lens. I used it at two meetings in midday sunlight and the results were… BAD. I immediately switched back to my old equipment which worked nicely. As this happened twice I will do further tests. Was it the sunlight? Was it me? Do I have to repeat the calibration? I’ll let you know, but it will take some time. ***

 

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