Sunday, April 12, 2009

BNP Paribas Open

For picture editors, March is arguably the busiest time in the entire sports calendar year because of the conference basketball tournaments and March Madness. It's pretty well documented that I'm not a huge fan of shooting (or even watching) basketball, so I will move onto something else that I worked on last month: tennis!

Of all the events that I get to attend, I think my annual favorite is the Indian Wells Masters (officially, the BNP Paribas Open, formerly the Pacific Life Open). How can that be? It's a random tennis tournament in the desert that's not even a major! Well, first off, the media accommodations are fantastic, the weather is great (in the two weeks combined I've been there, it was sunny every day except for one), and the crowd is knowledgable and friendly. But the real reason? Because the action is always good and the light is fantastic.

You might think tennis is an extremely easy sport to photograph, because you simply follow a player as the ball bounces from one end to another. In that respects, you are correct. But as in every sport, what will separate the average photographer from the good and the great, is attention to detail. To elaborate (as quoted from a fellow photographer I highly respect)... this means attention to backgrounds, good composition, and taking advantage of good light.

But let's start out with the average.... Follow the bouncing ball!

You follow the bouncing ball long enough, and eventually you might get lucky and get something a bit different....

So now that the ordinary stuff is out of the way (to satisfy the conservative clients), it's time to push things creatively....

The weather in Indian Wells in March is pretty much 85 degrees and sunny every day. The light beats down hard on the players all day long, and depending on the time of day, you can really work some creative angles based on the way the shadows are cast onto the court by the players or the stadium itself.

That said, early in the day (matches typically start at 11am), the light is actually quite difficult to work with. When shooting with the sun, players are very front lit and the images look very "contrasty." Shooting back lit leads to a bit more consistent colors, but washes them out a bit so they can look flat. However, there was one spot in the photo well that I discovered you can stand in where there is a completely clean background and if you underexpose the shot a bit, you can get a pretty neat rim lighting effect on the serves:

But later in the day is where you can really start to get wild. As the sun begins to make its way across the sky, the shadows gradually get longer and longer. The easiest way to utilize this natural prop was simply go into the upper deck and shoot it in such a way as to utilize the long shadows:

Shooting from the opposite direction yields a different yet equally interesting effect:

From that photo above, you can see that the stadium court late in the day begins casting a huge shadow over the entire playing surface. If you are patient enough, players may run into it in such a way that only portions of the athlete are lit, but the rest of them are in shadow. The effect is quite dramatic:

So that's basically what I did for a full week. Shoot the conservative stuff early in the matches, and start working the light and shadows as the day progressed. Tennis could be an extraordinarily boring game to photograph, but by taking advantage of the environment, there was always compelling photos to be had. That is why I enjoyed doing this event last year, again this year, and hopefully again next year!