Digital Dave's Ruminations

This is the place...

...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

My three most recent posts will always appear on this page (unless you've arrived here via a direct link to a specific article). Use the archive links on the right sidebar to access previous posts. Most images on this blog can be clicked-on to view them in a larger size.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Keep your eye on the puck...

How does one successfully photograph a fast-moving sport like hockey?

By keeping your eye on the puck, just like the player in the below photos is doing. (Of course it's not that simple, but it's still good advice!)

Click to view larger image

Click to view larger image

I've been sporadically photographing my friend's amateur hockey team over the past few years and It's an ongoing challenge for me to come up with well-composed images that convey the essence of the game. It had been just over a year since I last photographed the team and I realized right out of the gate on this latest shoot that my rhythm was off. Hockey is a continual blur of motion, maybe the fastest-moving major sport out there, and a year away from even watching the game was not helpful in terms of my ability to anticipate the action. Muscle-memory eventually kicked in, however, and by the latter half of the second period I felt like I was starting to get dialed in.

Click to view larger image     Hockey: the Gentleman's Sport

I brought a fairly large arsenal of gear with me to this game, intending to do a little experimentation. In addition to the bread-and-butter D3 with the 70-200 f/2.8 mounted to it, and the D700 with the 24-70 f/2.8 for wide shots, I also brought along the D300 and the 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 to see how that combo would do for capturing action at the far end of the ice.

At these games my shooting position is at the outside end of the players bench (which is really the only place to shoot with an unimpeded view in the Oakland, CA, ice arena where these games are played) so the action at the far end of the ice relative to my position is a bit challenging for a maximum 200mm focal-length on a full-frame camera. The 70-300 zoomed to 300mm on the 1.5x crop-factor D300 gives me the full-frame equivalent of 450mm, of course, but with the penalty of a maximum aperture at that focal length of f/5.6 - a dubious proposition under the marginal lighting in the arena.

I'm wondering if maybe the ref's got an issue with this guy...

Also an impediment to shooting indoor sports with the 70-300 on the D300 is the fact that ISO 1600 is as high a sensitivity as I'm willing to use on that camera, whereas ISO 3200 is a setting that I routinely use on the D3/D700. In fact, for this shoot I had auto-ISO set on the D3/D700 with the maximum ISO set to 3200 and the minimum shutter-speed set to 1/640 of a second. Those settings gave me a shutter-speed of 1/500 of a second for virtually every shot and ISO sensitivities that ranged from 1200 to 3200. With the same settings on the D300, but with the maximum ISO set to 1600, I simply got too many shots with a shutter-speed of less than 1/250 of a second (often as low as 1/125 of a second), which is not quite enough for fast moving subjects.

In the end, however, it was none of the aforementioned issues that caused me to come to the conclusion that I'd leave at least the 70-300 home the next time. The bottom line is that, optically, the 70-300 just doesn't hold a candle to the 70-200. I did get plenty of useable images from the D300/70-300 combo, but when compared against the output from the D3/D700 with the 70-200, which was far sharper, had way more contrast, and exhibited much better clarity and acutance, I determined that it would just make more sense to work with less reach but better image quality and crop if and when necessary. The twelve million pixels of the D3/D700 has proven to be of high enough quantity and quality to do so.

Click to view larger imageA very heavily cropped image made with the D3 and the 70-200 f/2.8

As far as photographic composition is concerned, hockey presents its own unique set of problems, mostly related to the geometry of the composition but also related to such logistical matters as players skating in front of the camera and blocking the line-of-sight to your subject at the exact moment you're about to capture your "money shot" (though that particular issue is specific to the fact that I'm shooting from the bench and not from an elevated position in the arena, which is often the preferred location for photographing hockey). Both of the aforementioned issues are usually solved with some judicious cropping.

The biggest challenge presented by hockey for the photographer is, of course, just being able to follow and, optimally, anticipate, the action. Naturally, the more I watch and photograph the game, the better I get at knowing where and when to point my camera. It also helps to have a few preconceived ideas as to what type of photos you'd like to end up with (i.e., a shot on goal and its aftermath, a skater racing to the puck, a brutal cross-check, etc.) It's also important to remember that photos of the action itself isn't the only way to tell the story. Sometimes a portrait of a player coming off the ice or sitting on the bench watching his teammates conveys more about what's going on in the game than anything else.

There's more than one way to tell the story:Click to view larger image

Click to view larger image

Of course, none of what I've talked about so far matters very much if focus on the intended subject can't be consistently attained and tracked, so optimizing the auto-focus settings on my cameras to the particular demands of shooting hockey is imperative. After experimenting at these hockey games over the years with virtually all of the myriad AF settings available on the pro Nikons, I'm satisfied that 9-point Dynamic AF is the way to go for hockey. That setting attains focus almost instantly and tracks the subject perfectly without ever jumping to another player wearing the same color uniform or inadvertently  picking up focus on an element in the background. This recent shoot was the first time that I did not end up with even one mis-focused image out  of a total of well over six hundred that I took. That has never happened before!

Click to view larger image     Keeping focus on the intended subject with 9-Pt. Dynamic AF

View the entire gallery of photos of this shoot here.

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