Saturday, November 24, 2007

Down On the Bayou

I meant to post this about a month ago, because these two events happened just over a month ago, but I got kind of busy with the World Series, and then after that, just never bothered to write about it...

Anyways, about a month ago, I went down to Louisiana for a weekend of football. I flew in on a Saturday morning in order to cover a night college game between the LSU Tigers and the Auburn Tigers in Baton Rouge. Then on Sunday afternoon, I covered an NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons at the Superdome.

Needless to say, this was the first time I have been down to Louisiana to shoot football. Quite frankly, I'm not sure why I was asked since you'd think there'd be someone else within 900 miles of New Orleans and Baton Rouge who could go and handle these games. I guess everybody local happened to be tied up that particular weekend... or I'm just that good ;-)

Like I said above, the first game I shot was a game between Auburn and LSU in Baton Rouge. From TV, I know that SEC football is life down there, so I was very excited to make a visit to LSU's Tiger Stadium - aka Death Valley. I knew it was going to be a madhouse, so I planned on getting there 4 hours early. So four hours early, and traffic was backed up 10 miles away from Baton Rouge. Crazy. I eventually figured out why as I got closer to campus and the stadium, as thousands of yellow and purple clad LSU fans were just milling all over the place jamming up all the streets and sidewalks. Yup, SEC football is life.

Now, if you didn't check out my link about Tiger Stadium aka Death Valley got its nickname from the fact that it is one of the most hostile and intimating environments for a visiting team. It is super duper loud there, which is helped by the fact that most of their games are at night where the locals have plenty of time to liquor up (as the pre-game traffic jams prove. Seating 92,000 fans, legend has it that after a game-winning TD against Auburn in 1988, the geography department's Richter scale got a detectable reading just from the crowd reaction. In 2003, ESPN recorded a decibel reading of 117 (also against Auburn). Needless to say, this was the loudest (and most exciting) stadium that I have ever been in, and this includes Penn State and Ohio State. I'm sure it helped that the game I shot was a hard-hitting, back-and-forth game, that ended with a game-winning TD with 0:01 remaining in the 4th quarter....

Quite frankly, Death Valley put every other venue I have been to... including large and proud venues like OSU and Penn State... to shame. I will admit, is has been difficult to get geared up for going back to NU games after getting a taste of "Saturday Night in Death Valley." Heck, it made it tough to get super excited about the Saints game the next day. Crazy talk, considering the Superdome can be a rocking venue too. The Saints played a great game and sent the locals home happy with a victory.

So that was my trip to Louisiana and my first taste of SEC football... I cannot wait for the opportunity to go back to Death Valley or any other SEC venue for that matter!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On the Mark [3]

This past week, I covered two games: a college football game in Champaign, and then a college basketball game in Evanston. Nothing really out of the ordinary (except for Northwestern putting up 95 points in basketball... that was quite unexpected). What was different with these games was that I shot these games with a Canon 1D Mark III, which is Canon's newest DSLR.

So what's so great about it compared to the pair of 1D Mark II cameras that I've been using? The Mark II is 8 megapixels at 8 fps... What more could I need? You're right, I have been happy using the Mark II for a long time, and will continue to be happy using it. So why upgrade? The Mark III does 10 megapixels at 10 fps. That's the fastest frame rate of any DLSR out there on the market. However, in my opinion, the biggest reason to upgrade is the low noise at high ISO. There is a lot of user testimony out there claiming up to two, or even three stops difference in noise between the Mark II and Mark III. I don't know how they are judging the noise, but to me, that's a bit of an exaggeration. By my eyes, it looks like the Mark III is about a full stop better than the Mark II. In other words, a 3200 ISO shot on a Mark III looks like 1600 ISO on a Mark II. Still not bad, since the 1600 ISO on a Mark II has long been considered very usable.

So ironically, I decided to get the Mark III primarily for the wedding side of my business, not the sports side. An additional 2 megapixels or 2 frames per second doesn't really do a whole lot for me since that really isn't adding a whole lot. It's the lack of noise and superior image quality that made the decision for me. I have a wedding in December where I might as well just be shooting in a cave (the ambient light for the ceremony will be 1/30, f/2.8, 1600 ISO - it would be fantastic to be able to push the ISO to get a higher shutter speed). I'm sure there will be future weddings in equally poor light, so I figured I might as well throw down the dough now. And yeah, for an added bonus, it would be great for my sports work, especially all the indoor stuff I do over the winter :-)

Despite the impressive tech specs, professionals have not exactly been jumping all over the Mark III yet. Why not? Well, it would seem like Canon jumped the gun on their new flagship camera and released it too early - before all the bugs were fixed. The big problem was that the autofocus would not work under all conditions. In low light, it was brilliant. However for some reason, when using the camera under bright daylight, the camera would consistently fail to achieve focus. Not good. Canon initially denied any problems but said that they would "investigate." Nearly 6 months after its release, Canon finally admitted a mistake and issued a recall on the 1D Mark III to fix a "sub-mirror" problem. Any subsequent Mark III produced would have a blue sticker on the box indicating that it has one of the new sub-mirrors. The Mark III that I received does indeed have a blue sticker on the box.

So my first game with it was the annual Northwestern vs Fighting Illini football game. This year it was in Champaign, and the conditions were bright and sunny: exactly the conditions where the Mark III has previously failed. I would have to say that the AF on my unit was very good. I had about the same hit percentage of images as I normally would using a Mark II. I will go on and also say that any focus problems I did have were due to user error. Canon completely revamped the menus and button menu on the Mark III, so I was frequently fumbling around trying to figure out how to set things the way I liked. In any case, my Mark III passed its initial test.

The next game I had was the Benedictine vs Northwestern basketball game. Benedictine is a division 3 school, so Northwestern just absolutely spanked them. Final score was 95-63. I don't think I have ever seen NU shoot so well, and score so many points. I have also never shot at higher than 1600 ISO at Welsh-Ryan Arena, so being able to do 1/500, f/2.8, at 2500-3200 ISO was fantastic. Being able to shoot basketball at 1/500 instead of 1/320 makes a huge difference because I am no longer losing so many images to motion blur. Still noisy, but fantastic.

Friday, November 09, 2007

IFL World Grand Prix

About a week ago, an assignment editor called and left a message on my phone asking if I was available to cover the IFL World Grand Prix. When I got that message, I'll admit, I was a little nervous and hesitant to return the call and say yes. Why? Because I have never shot a racing event before. Not NASCAR, not Indy cars, not even go carts at a local carnival. However, because it was Getty Images calling, I wasn't just going to turn the event down due to lack of racing experience. Afterall, it couldn't possibly be that hard to pick up, right? So I Googled the event to see what I was in for. It turns out the IFL World Grand Prix is not a racing event... it was a mixed martial arts event. So apparently IFL is short for the International Fight League, and for some reason, they were out at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, IL. Hmmmm..... can't say I've shot that before either, although unlike with a potential racing gig, I was not worried about not being able to create solid images from an IFL event. After all, I've shot boxing and wrestling before, so how hard can it really be to go to an arena and photograph a bunch of crazies beating the living crap out of each other?

So after accepting the assignment, a couple of random thoughts popped into my head:

- Why would the IFL want to come to Chicago? And since they are in Chicago, why did they pick a venue in Hoffman Estates? That community is a bit more blue collar than maybe some of the surrounding suburbs like Barrington, but it certainly isn't going to be mistaken for a redneck community. (answer: probably because everywhere else said no)
- Is the IFL real like boxing, or fake like WWF? (answer: real)
- Why does Getty care to even cover this, let alone send three photographers AND an editor to this event? (answer: they have a contract to be the official IFL photographers)
- Do any women actually come and watch something like this? (answer: surprisingly, yes)

Anyways, onto the actual event. Like I said, I've shot boxing and wrestling before, so I'm not new to photographing events that pit two combatants in a ring, or circle, or whatever and have them go beat each other up. However, it was slightly more challenging than a typical boxing match. The big difference is that photographers are not allowed right on the ropes like they are in boxing (too dangerous I guess). Instead, we are set about 2 feet behind the ropes.

The problem with being away from the ropes is that they can sometimes creep into your photo (see above), especially when the action gets close to you.

As far as the actual fights went, it was pretty straight forward. Like I said, it's just two guys absolutely wailing on each other. As far as I could tell, there were not really any rules except for the following:

- 3 rounds, 4 min each.
- No biting or scratching. Only punching, kicking, body slamming, etc.

- If punched or kicked in the crotch, the official stops the match and lets you regroup.

- You win when you knock someone out, force somebody to concede (they tap the mat to concede or "tap out"), or win by decision after the three rounds are up, and the previous two scenarios have not happened.

It was really kinda interesting to see. I can't figure out why anybody would ever be an athlete in the IFL.... my only theory is that it's like a primal thing. As violent as the sport is, I'm sure a lot of the athletes are really nice guys in the real world.... getting in the ring against another human being is just a kind of a way to let the animal inside of you out. Although I suppose playing football, lacrosse, or hockey could probably accomplish the same thing.... and with less brain damage...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Yeah yeah yeah, I know it's November, and yeah yeah, I know this is pretty much a ripoff of my last post (as well as pretty much every headline in America), but I have been extremely busy recently. But in case you have been out of touch with civilization, the Red Sox won the World Series by sweeping the Colorado Rockies...

And I was there:

Baseball is baseball, but shooting the World Series is a bit of a different animal. Obviously, the biggest change from regular season games, and even the divisional and league championship playoff games, is that there is A LOT more media. I have covered the past two World Series as well, but I feel like there were even more this year than previous years. I guess this is what happens when you have the Red Sox in it, one of the sport's most popular franchises.

The challenge of having so many members of the media there is that space becomes extremely limited. They literally cram us into the photo boxes like sardines, if we're lucky enough to be even assigned a spot in the photo boxes. I happened to shoot from an assigned position in all four games, but there were numerous shooters who didn't get an assigned position and was thus forced to just roam the stadium and hope to find a reasonable spot to shoot from where they wouldn't block the fans' view of the field, and also not get blocked by the fans themselves.

Now, like the past two Fall Classics, I shot the Series for US Presswire. This year was especially challenging because we did not have a dedicated editor on site like many of the other wire services. Generally during these large events, photographers will pass their cards to "runners" who literally run memory cards from the field to editors in the press box or other working areas where the images are then toned, captioned, and uploaded to the respective wires. This year, Mark Rebilas and myself acted as the on-site editors for US Presswire, as well as serving as the primary two photographers.

In a way, it was advantageous for us to be able to upload our own photos. Instead of the time delay of having a runner send our memory cards to an editor, and then have an editor try to figure out what is going on in each photo, we were able to shave off a lot of time by cutting out that middle man and filing them in between innings. In this industry, speed is key. A lot of times, publications - especially web publications - will simply use whatever photos are available first. So as far as in-game action goes, Rebilas and I did pretty well.

However, there were two main disadvantage of us being our own editors. First, our focus was not 100% on shooting the game, whereas just about everybody else who was there was. The second problem was that after the game, we always got our butt's kicked by other agencies because we would always get stuck shooting the celebrations while other companies were already moving photos of the winning team's jubilation.

Oh well, all the challenges aside, shooting the World Series was a great experience as always. I got to meet a lot of top shooters in this industry, as well as cross off another city in America that I have not yet visited. And of course, was able to come out with some nice images :-)

Instead, fellow US Presswire shooter Mark Rebilas and myself acted as the on-site editors as well as photographers. After each game, we managed the work of the other photographers with us, as well as our own work. During the game, much like most photographers during a regular season game, we would edit our images in between innings and then upload them directly to the company's website. Although in a way, it was advantageous in that we were able to get the pictures up directly, it was also inconvenient because while other photographers could focus only on shooting the action, we were constantly scrambling between our editing job and our shooting job.

Feature photos are generally not really all that important during the regular season, but in the postseason, the swarms of fans and media, as well as the World Series signage around the ballpark is a storyline and can be worthwhile to photograph: