Archive for October, 2008

Finally a D300 firmware update!

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

D300 + beat-up 50/1.8

It’s available here with a long list of changes, only three of which I care about at all:

  • The range of settings available for ISO sensitivity settings > ISO sensitivity auto control > Minimum shutter speed in the shooting menu has been increased from 1/250 – 1s to 1/4000 – 1s.
  • Focus acquisition performance in dynamic-area AF mode has been improved.
  • Auto white balance performance has been improved.

I’ve written about the Auto ISO thing before (twice). Better autofocus is always welcome – and I’ve never had a problem with D300 focus tracking, just initial acquisition. And while I’m trying to move away from using Auto white balance very much, that was in part because the D300’s Auto WB definitely left something to be desired, and any improvement must be good.

Now if only I could set either the Fn button or the DoF preview button to control manual ISO changing – thus allowing me to switch ISOs without having to use both hands. That’s pretty much the main thing I wish for at this point. It looks like this is possible on the D700 – though perhaps not the D3. Note to Nikon: make this option available for D300 users!

Early morning at Great Falls Park

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Great Falls 14

Despite having lived in DC for more than five years and having hiked and backpacked fairly extensively across the region (mostly in Virginia and West Virginia), I had never been to the Virginia side of the Potomac River’s Great Falls. So after chickening out on a solo backpacking trip this weekend – turns out seeing seven concerts in seven nights completely drained me and I needed a full Saturday of sleep to recover – I got up early on Sunday to catch the sunrise at Great Falls Park.

Except there wasn’t really a sunrise – the dense fog that blanketed the river didn’t lift until well after 9am, and sunrise was at 7:30am. So I passed a couple hours taking pictures of leaves and a spiderweb that I discovered near my shooting position. Good thing I brought a flash, otherwise there’s no way I could have gotten a workable image out of it. In the image below, the flash is sitting behind the web, slightly off to camera left, fired on manual at 1/64th power or so. I adjusted my exposure to underexpose the ambient light by about two stops and really bring out the web.

Great Falls 03

I also tried gelling my flash with a full CTO and using shooting with tungsten white balance to turn the background a deep blue. Not sure I like the effect in this case, but it was a fun little experiment. I’m not sure what the deal is with all the little floaters – dust picked up by the flash perhaps; need to figure out how to minimize that in the future.

When the fog finally lifted, I grabbed a few cliche shots of the falls – not really happy with anything I got, but the upside is that I found a much better shooting position in my explorations after I finished photographing, one that I’ll go to the next time I’m in the park for sunrise – which hopefully will not be too long from now. As for the shots I got this morning, well, I had to process them heavily to make them worthwhile in any sense, and even then that’s dubious:

Great Falls 07

Hint to photographers headed to this park: bring a long lens. You’ll want it for the compression and isolation it offers. I didn’t get anything worthwhile of the falls with anything but my 80-200/2.8. Although I did get a bunch of detail shots with my 17-55, most of which I like better than the standard shots I got of the falls. Next time hopefully the new (lower) vantage point I found will combine with some fortuitous mist/sunrise conditions and bag me some better shots.

Great Falls 12

Full set here – I’ll add to this whenever I go back next…

A different kind of pit

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

Amon Amarth 09

A few nights ago I shot Sweden’s Amon Amarth and Finland’s Ensiferum at Jaxx. These are two highly energetic metal bands; the former plays catchy, melodic death metal obsessed with violent Viking imagery, while the latter plays folky melodic metal and dress up in warpaint and kilts made from the Finnish flag. The crowd was equally energetic: the floor at Jaxx turned into a substantial mosh pit, and those of us in the front row had to exert substantial force to avoid getting shoved all the way to the side of the stage.

This presented some unique challenges for photography, of course. I was bracing myself against the crowd with one hand (clinging to the very convenient railing between stage and dance/mosh floor) while shooting with the other. That made framing shots and holding the camera steady tough, but I’ve encountered that problem before. Another problem I’ve had before is that it’s impossible to change ISO on the D300 without having to use both hands (it involves holding down a button on the left side of the camera while spinning the command dial on the right side). Also, I was unable to change CF cards, because my arms were pinned to my sides for the majority of the show and I couldn’t get anything out of my pockets.

The Absence 1

But by far the peskiest problem was one I’d never experienced before: it is damn hard to make precise adjustments using the D300 control wheels (particularly the main thumb wheel) when you are soaked in sweat and the camera is damp with it as well. It took supreme concentration to move the damn thumb wheel with my hands sweaty and the wheel slick with moisture. Sounds silly, but I definitely missed several shots because I wasn’t able to change shutter speeds fast enough to cope with the changing light.

I might have gotten annoyed at these shooting conditions if I hadn’t been fully expecting them – but luckily I was mentally prepared for a pretty wild evening. I left the club at the end of the show (leaving early would have been next to impossible) literally drenched in sweat – most of it not mine – but with some halfway decent photos on my camera despite all the difficulties.

Amon Amarth 06

Full set here. The first and last shots here are of Amon Amarth; the middle one is of openers The Absence.

Mistakes were made

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Lykke Li 11

On Sunday I shot a sold-out show at the Black Cat: Lykke Li, the Swedish pop chanteuse whose debut album somehow has become a hit among a diverse crowd of hipsters and indie-pop fans despite the fact that it was self-released. How these things happen is beyond me. In this case, though, the acclaim is deserved, as Li’s music is charming and her live show is even better.

I seriously fucked up the photography thing that night, though. For some reason I became obsessed with maintaining absurdly high shutter speeds and stopping down slightly from wide open. I don’t know what synapse failed to fire in my brain, but obviously that meant I was shooting at a high ISO – in this case, 3200. So naturally my photos are noisy, with an unfortunate prevalence of seriously unappealing chroma noise, as in the photo just below, which I otherwise would have loved. At least I froze the action! (Shit.)

Lykke Li 10

I guess I was in some dream world where I owned a D3 or D700 and shooting at ISO 3200 was ok. Most of the time I try to avoid 3200, but Sunday night I somehow thought it would work out for me. It didn’t so much. At least one thing did work for me, which was the rented 85/1.8 lens I used for this and several other shows over the weekend. It was the perfect focal length for this show (my usually favored 17-55/2.8 wasn’t quite long enough for where I was, given how Li’s black attire blended in all too well with the black backgrounds) and I used it the vast majority of the time.

So my photos are passable at small sizes, but for much better stuff check out Kyle Gustafson’s shots. Much cleaner and his color rendition is way better. He was shooting at ISO 800… ya think there might be a difference there?

Lykke Li 05

Sometimes I’m an idiot. Anyway, full set of photos here.

The three-song rule sucks a lot sometimes

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Aussie Floyd 11

Sunday night I shot The Australian Pink Floyd Show at the Warner Theatre, a beautiful space in downtown Washington, DC, with strict instructions from the tour manager: first three songs from the front of the stage, the fourth song from the soundboard, and then that was that. I asked if I could shoot from my seat (the promoter included a very good balcony-seat ticket with my pass) and the answer was a curt shake of the head. OK, fair enough; pretty standard, and the fourth song from the soundboard was a nice bonus added to the usual three songs.

The thing about this show, though, was that it was a narrative show: Aussie Floyd were performing The Wall in its entirety. So the first four songs would hardly capture a representative sample of the whole show. (I had a similar concern about shooting The Residents‘ show last week, but luckily I was allowed to shoot through the entire set for that one.)

Sure enough, for the first four songs the lighting left a lot to be desired. The Warner Theatre, at least for this show, had a massive lighting rig that was put to awesome use later in the set, but during the first four songs it was all monochrome washes of white, red, and purple. Sigh. Later in the set all kinds of cool effects started breaking out, including liberal use of piercing green lasers. It was killing me to watch this awesome light show after my four songs were up, knowing that I hadn’t been able to get anything nearly as cool on camera.

Aussie Floyd 17

Also, even aside from the lighting, the shooting conditions were tough. There was no pit, so I was scurrying back and forth in front of the stage for three songs, right in front of the folks sitting in the first row. It definitely helped that I warned them beforehand what I was going to be up to, and chatted with a few of them before the show about Pink Floyd (I used to be an embarrassingly huge Floyd fanboy, so I’m definitely conversant in Floyd-nerd-speak). This is a good tip for concert photographers: make friends with the people you’re getting in the way of.

More problematically, the performers all stood several feet back on the stage, behind a battery of monitors that obscured my view, especially since – given the lack of a pit – I had to crouch down at stage level for my three songs. So getting uncluttered wide-angle shots was nearly impossible; after two songs I switched to my 80-200 and didn’t look back. This telephoto served me pretty well when, for the fourth song, I moved back to the soundboard – at 200mm I could roughly fill the frame with the full stage. Would have been nice to have a teleconverter, but I don’t have one in my toolbox at this point.

And then that was that. I went up to my balcony seat and enjoyed the rest of the show, although I was constantly seeing great photos that I wasn’t allowed to take. For example: at one point one of the backing vocalists was completely backlit and submerged in deep green light, but a red spot from somewhere was lighting her face, and her face only, in warm tones. That would have been a gorgeous shot. Or: towards the end of the show the band member playing the part of “Pink” was stalking around on stage in his fascist uniform, wildly waving around a megaphone, lasers skittering off the surface of his shiny black trenchcoat. Uh, photo op!

Or not. Sigh.

What photos I did get are here at Flickr.

What’s in a shot?

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Regionals 073

Last weekend at Regionals, I got a sequence of four photos beginning with the one above that represent what I believe are the best Ultimate Frisbee photos I’ve yet taken. What went into getting those shots?

  1. Positioning. This was shortly after a dead disc, so I had time to move down the sideline and position myself slightly behind the thrower. This is my favored position – it makes it difficult for me to get good shots of deep throws, but I have opportunities for dramatic shots (like this one) of players cutting in towards the thrower.
  2. Knowing the players. The Los player (in white) is one of the team’s main handlers, who touched the disc a lot every time he was on the field. I knew Los would be looking to get him the disc. Similarly, the Truck Stop player is one of that team’s most explosive defenders, and any time the disc is thrown to his man there’s a chance that he’ll make a spectacular play. Knowing all this, I had my lens trained on this matchup even as I surveyed the field to track the play.
  3. Reaction time. Even having my camera trained on this matchup in advance, getting the right moment is always a challenge. I would have loved to have gotten an extra frame before the shot above, but alas. With the dramatic part of this play wrapping up in considerably less than one second, I’m pretty happy with how I did in this respect.
  4. Gear. It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer, or so goes the saying; but for sports photography, the camera matters. My D300 had sufficiently fast autofocus to get the focus right in each of the four frames it shot off in the space of half a second. Also, my 80-200/2.8 lens (stopped down to f/3.5) threw the background out of focus as per this post, and at 200mm got me close enough to get good detail in the faces – what you see above is nearly uncropped (and looks fantastic at full size).
  5. Luck. Always helpful.

More photos from Regionals are here.

Bunny Boy

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

The Residents 22

Despite having been around for nearly 40 years, touring multiple times and creating countless records (Wikipedia says they’ve released 60+ albums), avant-rock legends The Residents remain a mystery: no one knows the identities of the four members of the band. When they appear onstage, they wear masks completely hiding their faces. With all this mystique, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to get a photo pass for the band’s tour stop at the 9:30 Club here in DC, performing their latest opus, “Bunny Boy.” But I did, and it was a pass that came with no restrictions: I was allowed to shoot the entire set from anywhere in the club other than backstage and the stage itself. Awesome!

This show was seated, which meant a couple things for me shooting: (1) it was easy to move around; (2) it was easy to feel like I was being distracting and in the way. The stage setup was only about 3-4 feet off the floor level, so when I was up front I had to crouch down to avoid obstructing the view of the folks in the front row (and anyone up in the balcony could see me skulking around, but hopefully that wasn’t too distracting). This was similar to shooting the Nels Cline Singers at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater, except at least at that show it was pitch-dark. Not so at this one. In any case, the show was divided into two sets, and for each set I spent the first half crouching low in front of the stage and the second half sniping from the balcony.

The Residents 11

Feeling in the way wasn’t the only challenge – the show was also a technical challenge to shoot. The lighting design tended to deeply saturated, monochrome colors, the kind of colors that blow out channels completely without preserving detail. Most of this light was backlight, as well, so getting any detail in faces (or masks, as it were) was very difficult. And, finally, the light levels were changing a lot, such that my exposures were all over the place, ranging from ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/500th all the way to ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/50th. (That’s a range of over five full stops, for those of you keeping count.) I actually had to keep an eye on my spot meter for this show – usually at shows I completely ignore the meter, adjusting exposure on the fly based on little more than instinct and the occasional chimping.

All in all I think I did pretty well, although I made a conscious decision to sacrifice detail in favor of color saturation and contrast. Given the mystery surrounding the band, that seemed like an appropriate artistic choice anyway, and I’m pretty happy with what I got as a result, even if some of the shots are lacking the kind of critical sharpness and detail (loosely speaking – since I regularly shoot shows at ISOs 1600-3200, “critical sharpness” is a relative term) that I usually like to see in my concert photos.

This is my favorite shot of the set just for the creepiness factor:

The Residents 09

One more:

The Residents 04

Again, the full set is here.

Venue: Jaxx

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Virgin Black 10

Jaxx, just outside the beltway in Springfield, VA, is one of my favorite venues to shoot in. This is a little (capacity 500-550) metal club tucked into a corner of a strip mall, an intimate place where European metal bands – often those used to playing huge arenas and open-air festivals on the continent – regularly make their DC-area stops. It is not metro-accessible, but parking is generally plentiful, and it’s a 15 to 20-minute drive from DC with normal traffic. The club layout has a floor area immediately in front of the stage, with raised areas on the remaining three sides, each side with its own bar (at most shows, though, only 1 or 2 of the bars are open). There is limited seating in those raised areas – my hunch is that these areas are intended for parents who come to chaperone their kids, as many shows at Jaxx are all-ages with a fair proportion of high schoolers in attendance.

For photographers, the floor area is where it’s at, of course. The stage is extremely low – just a foot or two – and separated from the audience only by a metal railing. Jaxx has no pit, so getting to the club early is an absolute must for most shows. Being in the first row as opposed to the second or third is a big deal at a venue like this, not just for the unimpeded sight lines but also because being able to brace against the railing is a HUGE help when you’re in the middle of a raging mosh pit. Showing up well before doors open is advisable for popular shows and especially for sold-out shows (really, a good rule of thumb at any no-pit club). The club gets pretty packed in up front even at shows that aren’t anywhere near capacity, so I recommend going light with the gear – avoid having a camera bag, and just carry your body with a lens mounted, and maybe a small prime in your pocket.

Lighting varies wildly. Jaxx has a full-scale lighting rig, and at many shows it is put to great use:

Dark Dissolve 08

At others, though, especially for opening bands, the lighting techs get lazy and flash some backlights on and off while keeping one or two red-gelled front spots on for the whole show. Obviously, this is no good for photography. And as a general rule, the backlights tend to dominate, with frontlighting not nearly as strong as it could be. Still, for a venue of its size, I’d say Jaxx definitely has above-average lighting, particularly for big-name bands, many of whom bring their own stuff to add to the fun – strobes, floor lights, fog machines and so on. My exposures tend to fluctuate wildly at this venue as a result; sometimes I’m at ISO 800 and f/2.8 and getting good shutter speeds, other times I have to go to ISO 3200 and use my 50/1.8 to get anything good.

Policy-wise, Jaxx has this very helpful statement on their website:

Whether or not cameras of any type are allowed is up to the artist performing. In general there is usually no audio recording or video recording allowed at all. Most artists will allow small digitals or disposable cameras. Flash photography is usually frowned upon, however, all of this can differ from show to show. Professional SLR cameras are usually prohibited. Ask a member of the staff and they will find out for you. There are usually no such restrictions on local shows.

In my experience, bringing an SLR without a photo pass, or written permission from a band representative, publicist or tour manager, is indeed a dicey proposition. I have actually succeeded in shooting a few shows without a pass, using my D70 and 50/1.8, after clearing it with the bands, but anytime I bring in my much larger D300 and 17-55/2.8, the person at the door will say something like, “I hope you have an email or something saying you can have that thing here.” So, long story short: if you want to shoot with a DSLR, get a photo pass or permission beforehand. The good news is, once you’re in, you’re in – I’ve never had any problems shooting whole sets at Jaxx, as no one mentions or enforces any kind of three-song rule.

Unexpect 16

Unexpect 09

Ultimately, I love shooting at Jaxx because, even when the lighting isn’t great, it allows for incredible intimacy with very enthusiastic and active bands (as in the first of the two photos above, in which the bassist literally jumped onto the railing separating stage from audience, right in front of me – that’s a full-frame shot at 17mm). Metal is my favorite genre to shoot just because the bands are so energetic, and Jaxx provides a near-ideal space to capture their antics. Just get there early!

Wide apertures for sports photography

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Henlopen 77
mmm… nice creamy background…

There’s a common misconception that, when shooting sports on sunny days, an f/5.6 lens of a given focal length is just as good as an f/2.8 lens of the same focal length. That’s certainly true in terms of exposure, of course; when you can get shutter speeds of 1/1000th or faster even at f/8, who cares, right?

But the real technical issue here, once you can get an adequate shutter speed, is depth of field and subject isolation. Cluttered, relatively in-focus backgrounds are death for good sports photos, traditionally conceived: anything drawing the eye away from the subject is bad. Look at a professional sports photo and invariably you will see a strong subject and a blurred-out, indistinct background, with nothing to distract from the action. Look at an amateur photo – even one capturing good action – and you will often see a distracting background. In my opinion this is one of the main telltales separating the pros from the rest (assuming all is equal regarding composition and exposure).

This is also why, to capture a shot of some action happening all the way across the field, having something like a 400/2.8 lens is way better than using an 80-200/2.8 lens, like the one I use, and cropping the frame down. The longer focal length of the 400mm will result in much shallower depth of field and stronger subject isolation compared to the 200mm cropped down. Since I’m not a pro and I can’t afford to drop $8,500 for a 400/2.8 (or $4,000 for a 300/2.8, for that matter), I have to make do with the latter technique, and that ruins some photos sometimes:

Sectionals 70

This one would have been way better if the players on the sideline had been thrown more out of focus – either if the play had happened closer to me (and thus the sideline had been further from the plane of focus), or if I’d had a longer lens (thus giving a much shallower depth of field).

In general, I’ve taken to stopping down to f/3.5 or f/4 if the light is good, to get enough depth of field to keep two players in focus (and to avoid the problem I’ve had before where the disc and a player’s hands are in focus, but not his or her face), and because, like any lens, the 80-200/2.8 is a bit sharper when stopped down. At these apertures the background is generally out of focus enough to not be distracting, unless, as above, the action is far away from me, in which case I’ll sometimes be quick enough on my feet to open back up to f/2.8 before taking the shot.

To me, in terms of sports photography, subject isolation is the biggest reason to upgrade to a wide-aperture lens… shutter speed is secondary. Granted, I almost exclusively shoot Ultimate Frisbee outdoors during the daytime, when light is plentiful; shutter speed is a real consideration for indoor sports shooters.

Another season in the bag

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Sectionals 32

Well, with the elimination of my team from contention for Nationals, that’s one more Ultimate season over and done with. It’s been three years since I last made Nationals, and I miss it, although Ultimate is becoming less and less of a priority for me.

I got a few photos at the sectional tournament a week ago and a bunch of great ones from regionals this past weekend. The latter photos I’m hoping to get the UPA to purchase a few of, so those aren’t public yet, but a few of the good sectionals ones are here. Sectionals was played at what seemed like a plantation, out in gorgeous rural Virginia – quite the idyllic setting, literally with horses frolicking in pastures a little ways away from our fields.

Sectionals 78

I hadn’t shot Ultimate since late June, so I was a little rusty, but did end up getting a few decent shots at sectionals. Definitely had more success at regionals, with less time needed to get accustomed to shooting such fast action again. The above shot was the only really great action shot I got at sectionals; at regionals, I got what I think is my best Ultimate action shot ever – a layout D called back on a strip, in a four-shot sequence where I kept everything in the frame, got great facial expressions and major disc warpage. I’m hoping the UPA will want at least one of those shots, so I may not get to post them anytime soon. We’ll see!