Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How to take bout photos that don't suck

Everybody should read this. We need more bout photos that don't suck. I am working on it -- since I can't skate at the moment I am spending a lot more time taking photos. Via Roller Derby Diva:
I recently asked Cincinnati Rollergirls photographer Jason Bechtel, whose photos I'm constantly amazed by, to share some tips for those of us who are constantly frustrated with how our bout photos turn out (point and shoot camera + low light + fast action = blurry mess). So here's what he said (he gets a bit technical at the end at my request, but stick with it!):

In general, it's going to be really hard to get a good, crisp shot that actually represents what you were aiming for, with a point and shoot (p&s) at the roller derby. The two main weaknesses of p&s cameras are the shutter lag and the speed of their lenses. Shutter lag is that wait, short or long depending on your camera, between the point when you press the button on the camera and when it actually takes the picture. In general, that's not a problem, but when your subjects are moving at (however fast the average pack moves around the track), suddenly what you meant to take a picture of can be quite different from what you got.

You can help keep that from being a problem by tracking the skaters with the camera, but don't forget to keep tracking even after you press the button. Focusing quickly is also likely to be a problem for the p&s, so being mid-track where the distance from you to the skaters isn't changing quite as quickly will be best.

Lens speed is a separate problem. Without getting too far into the technical, faster lenses allow more light to come in so that they can take pictures at faster shutter speeds. To your eyes, it doesn't look that dark in the Gardens or Castle Skateland, but to the camera it is. P&S cameras aren't meant for taking pictures in low light, but they compensate by adding a flash. The flash on a p&s doesn't have a very long range, it's a lot less useful when your subject is 15 feet away than it is when they are 5 feet away. So in that respect, the suicide seating is a better spot than the stands to get a nice, clear shot.

The technical bits: For the most part, for my own photos, it's just a matter of finding the right manual settings for the venue and having fast (f/1.8 or f/1.4) lenses. I say manual settings because any camera will have a pretty hard time choosing the correct settings in an automated fashion. In general, because the lighting isn't terribly bright, my only real choice in the matter is the ISO (equivalent to the different speeds of film people used to buy). The apeture is set at f/1.8, letting the most light in and the shutter speed set to 1/125th or 1/160th of a second. Anything slower than that and there's too much motion blur. Anything faster and not enough light has time to get in, for the most part.

Getting back to that ISO, the lower the number (like 100 speed film) the less color noise in the final picture. Generally in the Gardens, I am either at ISO 640 or ISO 800 and even then the pictures coming out of the camera are a bit underexposed. I shoot in my camera's RAW mode, instead of jpg, because this gives me a lot more latitude on the computer to correct for intentionally underexposing the shots. In the end, it just takes a bit of juggling between those three numbers to find the right settings for a given bout and no matter how good the settings, there are still times when I can't track the skaters properly or the camera doesn't find the right spot to auto-focus on. That's the beauty of digital, it doesn't cost me anything (except time I
suppose) to be able to shoot 1300 frames at a given bout.
Thanks Jase! Anyone else have any tips they want to share?

On a related note, I recently found this article about a Montreal photographer who's exhibiting her derby photos. Hint hint, Jason and Jeff... :)

Also, ever wonder what rollergirls in New Zealand look like? Well, pretty much like they do here. But I imagine they sound cooler when they're yelling at each other.

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