The Atlantic Sectionals is one of four tournaments across the country that feed the National Championships, which for 2017 will be held in Phoenix, Arizona on April 20-22. The other teams that qualified for the Atlantic Sectionals were:
- NEP Wildcats, from Northeast Passage in Durham, New Hampshire
- Maryland Mayhem, from the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute in Baltimore, Maryland
- Magee Eagles, from Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Raleigh Sidewinders, from the North Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association (NCSCIA) in Cary, North Carolina
- Shepherd Smash, from Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia
- Brooks Bandits, from Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program in Jacksonville, Florida
- Tampa Generals, from Tampa, Florida
The teams with the top four records in the tournament are advancing to next month’s National Championships. They are the Punishers, Smash, Bandits, and Generals.
Over the three days of this tournament, I shot over 4,500 photos. I edited over 550, and I finally culled these down to 465. I compressed these JPEGs to less than 5MB each (for sharing online), and I delivered the entire set on a USB thumb drive to the point-of-contact for each participating team. A gallery of some of the best photos can be found at the link below:
I really enjoyed covering the tournament. I got to meet some great people, watch some intense rugby competition, and I learned a bundle about photography, both from professional photographers, and from my own experiments. The following is a synopsis.
I started covering the tournament by taking photos of the venue before most of the players arrived. I took outdoor shots, like the one above, using my Nikon D500 cropped-sensor DSLR, together with a DX AF-S NIKKOR 10-24mm, f/3.5-4.5G ED wide angle lens.
[Table of D500 and SB-5000 settings used]
For all of the action shots, I used the Nikon D500 DSLR, together with an AF-S NIKKOR 105mm, f/1.4E ED prime lens. I had the camera exposure control set to Aperture Priority mode throughout, so it would automatically adjust the sensor sensitivity to maintain the proper exposure as lighting conditions changed, and I tried to keep the lens off of its maximum aperture, in the hope that by operating closer to a nominal aperture it would give me a little more sharpness in the photos. I left the camera White Balance setting on Auto, because it seemed to recognize the proper setting, and I used Spot Metering to ensure proper exposure of the subject at the selected focus point, irrespective of the background. For autofocusing, I put the camera in the Single-Point Autofocus Area mode, because, since the large lens aperture was going to give me a shallow depth of field, and I didn’t want the camera to attempt to average the focus between the subject and the background.
Towards the end of the tournament, I experimented with my radio-triggered Nikon SB-5000 speedlight off-camera, just to get a sense for how much illumination it could provide at a significant distance.
For the photos that I took of my portrait backdrop/lighting setup, I used my Nikon D5100 DSLR with the 10-24mm wide angle lens. For the portraits themselves, I had my D500 mounted to a Manfrotto tripod, with an L-bracket to turn the camera to portrait orientation. The lens was an AF-S NIKKOR 50mm, f/1.4G. The speedlights were both Nikon SB-5000’s, one for key lighting and one in a softbox for fill. The backdrop was a roll of Superior Ultra Black 53″ paper, suspended from the same C-stand mounted hanger that I had previously used for portraits, both at Christmas, and at the Maryland Crab Pot tournament.
I used the JPEG files from both cameras, because the JPEG algorithm filters out some of the color noise that gets captured in the RAW files under low-light conditions (see https://www.cameralabs.com/nikon-d500-review/3/). I processed them using Corel AfterShot Pro 3. The main adjustments I made were to increase the exposure, and slightly increase saturation and vibrance. In order to minimally compress the files for posting to WordPress, I used the JPEG Optimizer feature in Corel PaintShop Pro X8 to dial-in (individually) just the right amount of compression to achieve a file size less than 2MB (WordPress constraint).
1. Prime Lenses are Not Just for Portraits
I went into this shoot intending to take some risk. Although at the Maryland Crab Pot tournament in January I had used my AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm, f/2.8G II ED telephoto lens almost exclusively, I had also experimented by taking a few shots using my new 105mm f/1.4 prime lens, and I liked the results. For this event, my intention was to focus on creating flattering close-up photos of the individuals who participated, rather than taking overall shots of the action. I figured that I should be able to make my subjects stand out more from the background if I was able to shoot with the smaller depth-of-field that I could get with the f/1.4 prime lens, and therefore I was willing to sacrifice the greater number of usable shots I could have gotten with the f/2.8 telephoto. The wider aperture would also give me a brighter image at the same shutter speed and ISO, making it possible to avoid using a flash, which could be a distraction to the players. But, because of the shorter focal length of the 105mm f/1.4 prime, as compared to the maximum of the 70-200mm telephoto, I would have to stay as close as possible to the action, and just wait for the opportunities.
Although I’m pleased with the results, one other compromise that I suspected, and have now confirmed, was that the 105mm, f/1.4 prime lens doesn’t focus quite as fast as my 70-200mm, f/2.8. This just meant that I had to take plenty of shots (which wasn’t hard using the D500 at 10 frames/sec), and I had to do a good job of keeping the focus point on the subject’s face as they moved. Outdoor, or other high-contrast lighting would have helped this as well.
I can’t really tell if working 2/3 of a stop away from the maximum aperture (f/1.8) provided any better sharpness than I would have gotten wide open (f/1.4), but I think I needed it anyway in order to produce at least enough depth-of-field to get most of the player in focus.
Although I didn’t have to make a lot of adjustments in post-processing, I think in the future I should stick with shutter speeds of 1/800sec or below, in order to avoid amplifying the sensor noise with a higher ISO. 1/640sec should probably be fast enough to freeze most of the action without blurring.
2. For the Best Sharpness, You Need Contrast
The facility where the tournament was played is unique, not only for its environmentally-friendly architecture and features, but also because the gym area allows some direct sunlight in from windows high in one corner. Some may consider this to be a distraction, but when you want to make your photos sharper and more interesting, some direct sunlight can be very helpful. The sharpness comes from the fact that the camera can more easily judge whether it is in focus if it is looking at a high contrast scene. Because by using the Single-Point Autofocus Area Mode, I was only allowing the camera to consider the output from the autofocus sensor at the selected focus point to judge focus, I needed there to be significant contrast at that point in the frame. But because I was setting the focus point on the subject’s face, there wasn’t that much contrast available across the skin tone unless there was highly directional lighting (as opposed to the gym lighting which is very diffuse). One of the professional photographers solved this problem by using studio strobes (large flash units) mounted on the second floor catwalk, and the photos she took through a 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens were very sharp.
I usually tried to position myself either in between the two courts, so I could split time between both games, or on the far end line, so I could use the light from the far windows as fill light. That light was especially flattering in the late afternoon, when it would reflect off the white wall on the left.
In some cases, I got some interesting shots by positioning myself in the near end line looking towards the window in the corner. This gave me some interesting back lighting, in addition to glare off the floor. The photos below show some of the results. The added contrast provided by direct sunlight certainly improved the accuracy of the camera auto-focus.
For most all of the shots, I got below eye level to make the photos as flattering as I could.
3. Follow the Player, Not the Ball
Some amazing collisions take place in wheelchair rugby, and most all of them are completely intentional. But while I was shooting the games, I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to be missing them, until I realized that I was focusing on the movement of the ball, instead of the movement of the players. The biggest teeth-jarring metal-on-metal collisions took place when one player was moving down- or cross-court with the ball, and an opponent was coming right at them. When the player with the ball would pass-off just before the collision, I instinctively kept following the path of the ball, and as a result, I missed collisions that lifted players and wheelchairs off the floor. This is something I’m going to have to concentrate on, not just for shooting wheelchair rugby, but for other contact sports as well.
4. Nikon D500 Autofocus, and the Rule of Thirds
As I was looking into setting up this weblog, I noticed that many of the images displayed on blogs are in landscape orientation (especially featured images in full-width blog formats). From this I figured that, even though I’m mainly trying to take individual portraits (albeit action portraits), I’ll need to place more emphasis on taking landscape-oriented shots.
But the fact that I typically apply the Rule of Thirds to landscape-oriented shots (where the subject is positioned at the 1/3 or 2/3 point across the frame), forces either myself or the camera, while tracking moving targets, to be much more active in selecting the point in the frame where focus should be optimized (the “focus point”). Well, as I learned the hard way, since I had the camera’s autofocus system set to Single-Point Autofocus Area Mode, where I have to tell the camera which focus point to use, the one doing the jumping around would be me.
In Single-Point Autofocus Area mode, the D500 autofocus system allows the user to select from any of 55 autofocus sensors (“focus points”) distributed across the autofocus sensor array (There are an additional 98 autofocus sensors distributed between these 55 that the camera itself uses in other Autofocus Area modes.). These 55 user-selectable focus points are arranged in 11 vertical columns of 5, and they are selected using a thumb-actuated joystick on the back of the camera. But when shooting sports, as the target subject changes (typically the one who has the ball), and the subject moves across the field of regard, you’re generally going to want to shift the selected focus point such that the subject is offset from the center, but facing the center of the frame. As I found out, this puts a lot of wear and tear on the old thumb, and on the focus point joystick. At some point while shooting this tournament, I started trying to predict whether I wanted the focus point shifted left or right based on the sequence of play, but of course I wasn’t correct in all cases, and when I wasn’t, I missed the shot.
So, at some point I changed the camera setting to just use just 15 of the available 55 focus points (5 columns of 3), which is the only other option. This saved me a few hits on the rear-mounted joystick to move the focus point around, but because it only allows you to select from the center column and the third and fifth columns from the center [wrong!], it forced me to position the subject in what I considered to be sub-optimal positions within the frame (With a hit to resolution, of course, I could have taken the shots with the subject focused at the third column, and relied on brute-force pixel cropping afterwords to put them at the 1/3 point.). Eventually, I ended up going back to the 55 focus point setting, just to retain the flexibility in how I could compose the shots.
In the process of taking these photos, I noticed that of the D500’s 11 columns of selectable focus points, the first selectable column away from the center is far too close to the center to satisfy the Rule of Thirds, and the second selectable column away from the center is a little too close to the edge. In addition, the second and third columns of selectable focus points define a region of the autofocus sensor array that only contains vertically-oriented linear sensor elements, which are really only good for resolving changes in contrast along that vertical line. All the other areas of the autofocus sensor array are populated with what are called “cross-type” sensors, which have linear sensor elements that are oriented both horizontally and vertically, so they are sensitive to changes in contrast in both directions. So, if you are using the Single-Point Autofocus Area Mode, then you probably don’t want to select focus points in the second or third selectable columns from the center, even though these are about as close as you’ll come to placing your subject to satisfy the Rule of Thirds.
So, the Single-Point Autofocus Area Mode may not be the best for what I’m doing. I may want to consider switching to 25-Point Dynamic Area Autofocus mode, to allow the 24 adjacent autofocus sensors to be considered as well. Another option would be to set the Autofocus Area Mode to 3D-Tracking with face recognition. Then I could keep the focus point centered in the frame, initiate focus with the subject’s face centered, and then recompose the shot, letting the camera move the focus point to maintain focus on the subjects face (See later post titled 2017 AHS Girls Varsity Lacrosse). Finally, I could set the Autofocus Area Mode to Group-Area AF, which is similar to the Single-Point AF mode, but this mode also considers output from the group of 13 autofocus sensors that surround a user-selected group of focus points.
5. A TV Can Serve as a Digital Photo Frame
After I had shot the Maryland Crab Pot tournament back in January, where I had gotten seven players interested in having me shoot posed portrait photos of them, I was trying to come up with ways to get more players interested, so I would gain more experience in shooting portraits. One thing I had considered was getting one of those digital picture frames, and displaying digital photos of the portraits I had framed for those players from the previous tournament. Later in January, while on business travel in California, I stopped by Frye Electronics, where I could take a good look at a number of these devices. Luckily I didn’t bite, because when I got home I took a look at a small TV we have in our house, and sure enough, it allows you to plug in a USB thumb drive, and it will display JPEG files in a continuous slide show.
Although after the first day of the tournament, I saw that the facility had large-screen TVs that I should be able to do the same thing with, I’m glad I brought this little TV, because it turns out that those large-screen “TV’s” were really monitors that display a video feed that is controlled from a different county facility. So, I ended up setting up my little TV in a lobby area, and it generated a good bit of interest, both in the tournament itself, and my photos.
6. Speedlights Can Light from Afar
One of the professional photographers that shot most of the tournament set up studio strobes on the second floor catwalk that hangs from the wall of the gymnasium. The additional lighting was definitely giving her the contrast to make her autofocus work very well. So, late on the second day, I thought I would give it a try using one of the speedlights that I brought.
Initially, I was considering mounting a speedlight to the handrail on the second floor catwalk, but I was afraid that someone walking the track on the catwalk would possibly contact it inadvertently. But then I noticed that the catwalk itself was suspended from the roof structure using 1″ metal rods that were just beyond the handrail. So, I attached one of my speedlights to a Manfrotto Super Clamp, as shown below, and I attached the assembly to one of those metal rods, with the light source facing the court below.
Leaning over the catwalk handrail to install the clamp was a little sketchy, especially because the speedlight was over the playing surface of the court, but it actually held very well. I’m glad that I brought this equipment, but in the future, I will also make that I have cord and carabiners to tether anything that I might want to hang in harms way.
7. Calibrate Your Monitor
On the last day of the tournament, the father of one of the players came up to me and asked if I would take a portrait photo of his son, an injured firefighter from Milford, Pennsylvania. He had seen a framed portrait that I had given to one of his son’s teammates, who had posed for it during the Maryland Crab Pot tournament back in January, and he was interested in the same type of thing for his son.
This was exactly what I had hoped for. In fact, one of the main lessons I had learned from those few portrait sittings in January (my first) was that it is hard to judge the quality of photos with a brief look at the small display on the camera, and you don’t want your subjects to have to sit through a bunch of shots before I have all the camera and flash parameters adjusted to get a good image. So, through the month of January I was in search of a way to display a larger version of the last image that the camera captured, that could be inspected more carefully to make sure that both the subject, and myself, approved of it.
My solution was to see if I could use the HDMI output from the camera to drive the HDMI input to a small flat-screen TV. I happened to have one at home (as mentioned earlier), but first I would need to find a way to mount the TV in the proximity of where I would be taking portrait photos. These days, most all flat-screen TVs have standard bolt pattern on the back that allows them to be attached to standard wall-mounted bracketry. In addition, most all of the available brackets have some limited roll/pitch/yaw adjustment capability. But for my application, I would need one that 1) was sized for a smaller TV, and 2) provided a full 90 degrees of roll, so that I could orient the TV in a portrait orientation. Luckily, I was able to find one on Amazon.com.
Then, unfortunately, I had to deal with the fact that, since the TV was never intended to be mounted sideways, the manufacturer offset the bolt pattern for the mounting bracket high on the back side, well above the center-of-gravity. This meant that if I mounted my TV bracket directly to it, then the offset mass of the TV would cause it to rotate from the portrait orientation back to landscape. I solved this problem by cutting and drilling a metal plate with holes drilled to mount the plate to the TV (a bandsaw would have been nice for this), and then mount the bracket to the plate at the TV’s center-of-gravity. But because this plate also covered the area where the power adapter plugged in, I also had to get a different power adapter that had a plug with a built-in 90-degree bend, and I also had to make sure that the plate was mounted a little bit away from the back of the TV to provide some clearance for the 90-degree plug.
Then I needed a way to mount the TV close by. My thought was to mount it to the C-stand that I was going to use to hold the fill light. Luckily, I had a couple of Manfrotto Super Clamps that could be clamped to the C-stand, and then located to line up with the two mounting holes in the articulating TV bracket. So, with a couple of bolts and washers, and two hex pins to engage with the Super Clamps, I had a mounting system that could be quickly assembled and disassembled.
At that point, all I had to do is set the Nikon D500 camera so that it would display the last image via the HDMI interface as soon as it was taken.
With all of this done, I had a pretty sweet tethered system to allow photos to be quickly and thoroughly reviewed, to ensure that they were exactly what both the subject and myself wanted. The final configuration is shown below.
But I give you all this detail in order to help you appreciate even more the critical detail that I omitted, and how devastated I was when I discovered it.
As it turned out, I was only able to get this system put together the night before the tournament started so I had almost no time to work with it. In briefly testing it out by taking remotely-triggered self-portraits, it seemed that the rendering of the photos on the TV screen looked a little harsh. It seemed almost as if the brightness on the TV was set too high. I thought this was unusual because, even though this TV got great reviews for its picture quality, I had always considered the picture to be a little dull. I attributed this to the fact that when we use it at home, it is on a dressing table in our bedroom that is right next to a window.
But just to make sure, I checked the TV brightness setting, and when I did I saw that it was set at 50%. So, I just adjusted it down to 45%, just to be safe, and I packed the system up for the next day.
I set the system up in a multi-purpose room at the facility while the player I was going to shoot was in his last game. I took the opportunity to take a good number of practice photos, but I noticed that I was having to adjust the key and fill flashes to their minimum 1/256 power settings. This was below the settings that I had used while taking photos at the tournament in January, even though the location I was using had less ambient light than this one did. I even ended up having to ask the player’s family to join me in blocking some of the ambient light from the windows in the far center of the above photo.
I ended up taking about eight photos before we ended up with something that looked pretty good on the TV screen, in focus, exposure, and expression. When I got home, the first thing I wanted to do was to look a these photos. When I did, I was aghast. I couldn’t believe how under-exposed they were. When I zoomed in to both the RAW and JPEG images, I could see that the skin tones were peppered with color noise, indicating that the image that I wanted was down in the noise, so much so that I would not be able to filter and retrieve it. The histograms confirmed this, and I was crushed.
As I pieced my thoughts together, I realized the critical error that I had made. I had placed all my faith in the system that I had assembled, relying on only that input to make judgments regarding the quality of the photos I was taking. In the process, I ignored the fact that I had never calibrated the monitor that I was using to the HDMI output from the D500 camera.
Although I had been aware of the need to calibrate monitors and printers to ensure the highest quality output, I had never known of photographers that actually did that. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a system that was built to standard specifications for output and input be so far off in its performance. And so I trusted that calibration was something that I wouldn’t have to concern myself with until I start attacking the finer points of photography. Well, I was dead wrong. This standard HDMI signal and monitor combination was grossly uncalibrated, and if I had any sense for how important this would be, there were simple things I could have done to check it. To begin with, I could have checked the histograms for each image, right on the camera. I also could have set the fill flash to Through The Lens (TTL) metering. This would have caused the speedlight to trigger a pre-flash, the reflection from which it would have used to set the gain on the actual flash to generate the correct exposure. Unfortunately, I had this speedlight set to its Manual setting, where I had to fixed the power level.
The reason this failure is even more humbling, is that I had worked on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) program for 14 years, starting in 1992, just two years after it was deployed into earth’s orbit, and it was famously discovered that, 11 years earlier, its main mirror had been ground improperly, because the measuring equipment being used to control the grinding was out of calibration.
I hope I, and others, take in and hold fast to this lesson. Although I have not yet, I will most certainly be calibrating my monitors and printers in the near future, and questioning the calibration of any output device I use to make decisions on proper camera and flash settings. But the higher purpose of this very personal lesson, no doubt, is to put me on guard to look out for this same error in the future.
To my regret, I will be sending the father of this young player a different framed photograph than the one he intended (action shot), and I’ll be looking for the next opportunity where I can make up for the mistake I made with this portrait.
8. Let the Camera Enter Metadata For You
After culling and editing many of the over 4,500 photos I took, I wanted to make sure that important metadata was stored with the final photos. In addition to the aspect ratio that I cropped the photo to, which I recorded as a keyword to be inserted into the filename during export from AfterShot Pro 3, for all of the delivered photos, I entered a location of where the photos were taken, and I set myself as the Creator (or photographer).
A much better way to do this would be to set as much of this information as I can in the camera itself, so that it would be entered when the photo is created. On the Nikon D500 DSLR, you can do this by setting IPTC > Auto embed during shooting …
[Table showing mapping of IPTC data to Nikon D500 field names]
Headline is the event.
Creator is the name of the photographer.
9. My Tagline is a Little Off
As part of setting up this blog, WordPress prompted me to enter a tagline for my home page. I really hadn’t thought about a tagline before that, but it was clear in my mind why I wanted to start pursuing and sharing my interest in photography, and coming up with a tagline would force me to try to capture this in as few words as possible.
In my life, I have seen how photographs can capture and reveal who people really are, and at the same time, they can give people a glimpse and a reminder of who they can become. My chance encounter with wheelchair rugby has exposed me to some people who are focused on making that transition. Not only the athletes, but all the people involved with the supporting institutions, the referees, the family members, the volunteers, and the fans comprise a community of people striving to make a difference in themselves and others through mutual support and encouragement. And, I have already witnessed this in action.
Having played, coached, and refereed competitive sports all my life, I know the pace at which skills and competitive attitudes can reasonably be expected to develop. But what I have never seen before is the sudden emergence of some of these players who, just two months ago played a much lesser role, yet now have become nothing short of forces to be reckoned with. This is a testament, not only to the character of the players, but to those of their community of supporters as well. A weekend that includes four hour-long games filled with sprints, evasive maneuvers, and bone-jarring collisions is not for the faint of heart! And nor is the degree of preparation and readiness that is necessary to deal with injuries, blown tires, and mangled wheels.
So in the end, what I’ve learned from this experience, is that, contrary to my tagline, it’s really not the “Images that Inspire”. It’s the People.