Monday, January 26, 2009

Even less available light

In the last post I mentioned using the available light in a natatorium and figuring out how to make it work. In this post, we'll take away some of that light and increase the speed of the athletes, making for nightmare assignments on occasion.

This weekend I drew an assignment to shoot high school gymnastics. It's the kind of draw that will make any photographer, not shooting with a Nikon D3, want to run away screaming. Okay, maybe it's not that bad, but high school gymnastics is about as bad as it gets. It's not because of the quality of the competition. Those girls work hard and I am constantly amazed by what they can do.

No, it's the quality of the light, which is mostly nonexistent where high school gymnasts compete. You've all seen the wonderful gymnastics images from the Olympics. That's the fantasy world. In the big international meets, pieces of apparatus are set far enough apart that they do not distract from one another and the lighting is designed like that of a stage production with nice dark ceilings as the backdrop.

In high school gymnastics, everything is crammed together for lack of space, there are all kinds of people wandering the floor, invariably standing directly in the middle of your composition, and then there's the light. It is usually fluorescent and very FLAT - meaning zero contrast. The amount of available light forces the photographer to push ISO settings to the max the cameras can handle, introducing a lot of digital noise. Worse yet - for the safety of the gymnasts there is no flash or strobe lighting allowed, so obtaining consistent color is almost not possible.

The bottom line is you've got to find clean angles and you've got to set up to shoot areas where there is light. You also have to experiment with slow shutter speeds and moving the camera with the athletes.

I shot the meet with my Canon EOS 1D MarkIIn cameras set to ISO 1600-3200 depending on the area of the gym, and I used the 70-200 f/2.8, 300 f/2.8, 16-35 f/2.8 and 50 f/1.4 lenses to make my pictures. I honestly don't know how anyone gets usable photos with lenses slower (higher F-stop numbers) than 2.8, considering the lack of light and the terrible background clutter, though I see plenty of people shooting with them.

As with most sports photos, background is key. Clean backgrounds place the focus on the action and it usually takes a good amount of thought to find a good background, but when you do the pictures stand out from the rest of the crowd - not that mine always do, but I certainly try.


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