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Sporting Event Photography

I rarely have the chance to write an actual article for my blog – but I finally have a break in the action and the race I shot last weekend was pretty fun so I thought I’d put something together here.

My primary business these days involves portraits of families, wedding photography and some corporate photography. But I got my start in photography covering sports events and I still fit as much of that part of my business into my schedule as I can handle.

Last weekend Scott Stolarz asked me to come out to photograph the Stage Coach Century Ride. Although this type of job usually involves collecting some promotional material for the Race Director – it is primarily about getting a great photo of EVERY athlete for potential sale.

When I got the information about the job I pulled up the google earth images plus the Photographers Ephemeris (and of course the weather forecast) to get an idea of what I would be dealing with. My excitement after this research was mixed to say the least. The location of the ride would be across an absolutely stunning landscape in the Anza Borrego Desert. But unfortunately the logistics dictated that ALL my pictures be taken directly into the sun. As a portrait photographer taking pictures into the sun is just standard practice – but for this type of event photography, you typically want the sun to be directly on the athlete’s face.

When I arrived at a nice looking location the thermometer in my car read 2 degrees above freezing but the sun was just about to peak over the horizon and the sky was already a spectacular shade of blue – so I knew the temperatures would climb quickly.
sunrise

Given the spectacular landscape – but the difficult lighting conditions, I decided that I would bring 2 cameras for 2 completely different shots . You can see my setup below (click for enlarged picture)

I set a long lens on a tripod and I even used a teleconverter so I could get my first capture at a very long distance and then I would have time to pick up the second camera between shots. Shooting directly into the sun without the benefit of any fill lighting means that the wider apertures normally used for sports photography would only increase lens flare and add to the washed-out look of the image. So losing the stop of light caused by the teleconverter (turning an 200mm F2.8 lens into a 280mm F4 lens) was not a big deal. In fact as the day went on (and things got brighter) I started to close off the aperture even more. After a quick test frame with the long lens I could see that the image was going to be just as difficult as I had suspected. Even with the sun just barely peaking over the horizon I was already getting a very flared out image – and as the sun came up this was going to get worse.
highway

But with regards to the telephoto shot I was taking, there was really very little more that could be done about it at the time (there would be some simple “image developing” tricks that would fix these pictures up a bit after the race). The next thing to do was to set up the wide-angle shot for which I would be providing some high powered light to overcome the backlight situation. There were 2 fundamental problems that I knew I would encounter with this shot. First, riders would often come though in a “pack” – and lighting an entire group of riders was going to be extremely difficult. Second, with the harsh desert sun I knew I would be using a LOT of power in my light which meant that my recycle time would slow down. I was using an Alien Bee AB1600 bounced off a soft silver umbrella produced by Westcott and powered by the now out-dated Vagabond II (heavy battery packs are great for holding lights down in a breeze). I have used this combination many times before so I knew it would give me a lot of power with a pretty nice light… but I also knew that I would not be able to take 3 pictures in 4 seconds as the situation would sometimes demand.

Setting up shots at sunrise without a test subject is always a difficult thing to do because the light is changing so fast. As an event photographer you can’t just spend the first 10 minutes of the race trying to dial in your settings – you need to have everything as close to perfect as possible before the first athlete ever shows up. So to test out my lighting I went and stood in the road where I thought I would be taking pictures of the athletes and I checked my exposure with a self portrait. The results looked promising so I decided to run around in circles for the next ten minutes (gotta stay warm) while I waited for the first athlete
self portrait

The race had a staggered start that lasted 2 hours. The athletes crossed timing mats at the start and the finish – and their total time would determine the winner. With the very cold early morning temperatures I was not surprised that the early part of my day was VERY slow (only 3 athletes started at the official start time of 7AM). As the first athlete came into view I grabbed a test shot to make sure my settings were still OK since the light was changing very fast. At this time of day the newly installed Ocotillo windfarm was still visible in the shot, which I thought was pretty cool, but I knew that the harsh lighting would soon kill that part of my image
windfarm

As the rider got closer I grabbed a tighter shot of him with the telephoto lens and then I quickly picked up my second camera body to prepare for that shot. What became immediately clear to me is that I would have a problem that would last all day. I had been hoping that the athletes would ride very close to the edge of the road – but many of them were drifting all the way across their lane of road (maybe they were afraid of me?). In any case, the first rider had come and gone and I had a chance to see how my pictures were going to come out
rider1

I made some small adjustments to accommodate for a more diverse “rider position” (time for a new test frame…)
self portrait number 2

By the time the second rider came through I thought I had everything pretty dialed in
anza borrego bike race

The next thing to happen would really test one of my other concerns on the day – how would my setup do with teams of riders coming through. This team (3x champions) were MOVING – plus they were way out in the middle of the road. So as I snapped my long-lens shot I know I would need to make a tough decision with my second shot. I ended up shooting them from the side and focusing on only 3 of the 4 riders because my “beam” of light was not going to be nearly wide enough to catch everyone. I left the back wheel of the lead rider in the shot so he was not totally forgotten – but I simply was not going to be able to light up the whole team at once.
Team Broadcom
team Broadcom

After all that – the next 3 hours went pretty smooth. I ended up with about 1000 captures (600 athletes – 2 cameras) that pretty much all look the same (the primary goal of event photograph) so I was happy. I went back to the start finish area to grab some promo material and wait for the finishers, and then drove the 90 miles back home in time to take over with my Daddy duties so Mommy could go to work :)
Stage Coach Finishing Medal

If I end up with the same assignment next year I’m not 100% certain what I would do differently. One option would be to bring a second set of lights to light up the riders with the long lens. But that is a really difficult thing to do because you NEED to shoot everybody in exactly the same location (where the light is). I could also try to double up on the lights for my wide angle shot so I could run lower power settings and get better recycle times. It is all worth considering – but maybe next year it will rain and make EVERYTHING different so there is not much use in getting too strategic at this point.

Thanks to Scott Stolarz Photo Works and to Shadow Tours for having me out for this year’s event. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Posted January 13th, 2013.

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UCSD Photography Classes

Another section of Photography classes has ended at UCSD. I am currently putting together my “stuff” so I can assign grades – and I was just reflecting on what a great group we had this semester. As always – there was a wide variety of knowledge and skill coming into the first class. One student had JUST picked up his first DSLR camera and was eager to learn how to use it. Another student was recently retired and had been using SLR cameras for several decades. Yet another student was super keen to learn as much as possible as fast as possible and had already attended other classes and workshops. But by the end of the semester I think it is safe to say that everyone came away with a bunch of new friends and at least a few new tips and tricks to incorporate into their skill set as photographers. I can only hope that every class I teach has the amazing dynamic of this one.

During our class field trip I do a lot of “modeling” so we can learn about portrait sessions. I can thank Ed Brown for the newest collection to my personal portraits…
Chris Wood Photography

Posted September 12th, 2012.

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Venus vs the Sun

We had another one of those once-in-a-lifetime events this evening.  Venus will not transit across the sun like this for more than 100 years so it was cool to go out to photograph it.  To capture these images I used a Canon 7D with 560mm focal length and a 7 stop neutral density filter.  I used the “life-view” on the camera so I did not need to blind myself looking through the view-finder.
Venus Transit Sun 2012

Venus sun June 5 2012

Venus sunset

Posted June 5th, 2012.

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Lunar Eclipse

I remember sometime back in the 80′s when there was a Lunar Eclipse on my birthday – and it happened again today.  So I headed down to Del Mar to see if I could capture the event.  I grabbed my surf camera gear (600mm lens on a crop frame camera body) and I was heading to the beach when I decided that I might miss it if I kept driving, so I just pulled over on the side of the road somewhere on Carmel Valley.  It was a spectacular event to watch, but unfortunately the moon drifted into the marine layer before the show was completely over.  Still – I did not walk away empty-handed :)

Any camera nerds looking at this post who are wondering what the settings were… here you go

ISO1600, F8, 0.6sec

Lunar Eclipse

Posted December 10th, 2011.

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Photoshop Tutorial

This is a tutorial I put together a little more a few years ago.  I was talking to another wedding photographer about it yesterday so I thought I would revive the content and add it to my blog.  To all my future brides who don’t have the slightest clue what a 16-bit TIF file is… I’m sorry you had to look at this.  To any photographers who may find this useful… “your Welcome” :)

 

Most photographers are at least somewhat aware that a RAW file will contain more data than a JPG.  But I recently discovered a serious flaw in my own thinking that since RAW files are 12 or 14 bit files and TIF files are 16 bit… that most the data was retained.

This looks like one of those (rare? haha) occasions where I was wrong.  And I mean really wrong.

I’ll save all the technical jargon and get down to a great example of what TO do and what NOT to do.

I’ll start with the original image – straight out of the camera (Pentax k-7 DNG file converted straight over to jpg).  In some situations wedding photographers are simply asked to do the impossible.  In this case the dress was not “off white” or “champaign” – it was just straight up pure white and a small bit of it was in direct sunlight.  In this situation I knowingly under-exposed their faces in the hopes that I would be able to save the gown and fix it all later in post.  I know … I know – you’re supposed to get it “Right” in the camera but with fast paced action sometimes there is a little compromise (see also the yellow rope in the original photo).

 

Here’s a closeup of the gown.

 

If I export this picture from Lightroom into ANYTHING else (Photoshop, Viveza, PSP) the best the software is to convert the RAW file to a TIF.  If I do that in this case – and I try to recover the dress the best I can get is this (Tif file pushed 3 stops darker).

 

If, however, I adjust the RAW file directly this is the result I get from pushing the photo by 3 stops.

 

So how do I edit this photo to get the best of both worlds (properly exposed faces and properly exposed dress)?  The solution I have chosen is to export the original to Photoshop as a “Smart Object”.  Unfortunately my screen capture does not work properly so I can’t show you where to find this from lightroom but I can tell you to look in “Photo -> Edit in -> Open as Smart Oject in Photoshop”

 

Once you are in Photoshop with your smart object you want to copy this layer but not just by the normal method (duplicate layer or “ctrl J” ).  Instead you want to go to “Layer -> Smart Objects -> New Smart Object via Copy”.

 

So this next step is WHY this technique works.  The Smart Objects here are actually the RAW files.  Double click on the icon in the layer and you will get the Adobe RAW converter.  Take you top layer and darken it as desired – in this case I went down 3 stops.

 

Next add a layer mask to the darkened layer

 

And finally use a white brush to paint in the area you want adjusted.  I suggest using a low opacity brush with a hardness of around 10 or 20.

 

Posted August 7th, 2011.

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Engagement Album

Laura and Jon’s Engagement Album showed up at the end of last week.  This leather cover layflat book with silver embossing on the cover will be a great place to collect the well wishes from the guests at their wedding.

Engagement Album

 

Engagement Album

 

Engagement Album

Posted July 24th, 2011.

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Gallery Wrap Previews

Since I started producing Canvas Gallery Wraps I have discovered the value of being able to preview the image to the customer.  This is especially important because several inches of the photo actually disappear from the face of the image and end up on the side of the frame.  I started looking into software to generate these previews and I realized it was a fairly simple thing to create on my own- so rather than pay someone else $30-$100 for their software I wrote my own script tonight to create these previews.   Here is a look at the results of my efforts…  Perhaps I will market this script and sell it as others have done before me – but for now all my wonderful customers will be able to see what their images will look like stretched on Canvas.

 

Gallery Wrap Preview

 

Tofino Harbor Canada

Posted May 30th, 2011.

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Photography Classes at UCSD

I started teaching photography classes at UCSD almost 1 year ago and I’ve really been enjoying the job.  To help my students with useful resources – and to save photocopying thousands of pages every year – I developed a website providing a fairly comprehensive course syllabus.  At this point I have only taught 2 different classes through the program but I have 2 new classes to teach in the fall so the website is still under development, nevertheless here’s a look at its current state:

http://christopherwoodphotography.com/UCSD/

Posted May 11th, 2011.

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More Canvas Printing Products

I found a cool new framing system for my canvas products.  It works especially well with portraits that lack the “interesting” edges found on most landscape photos.  The product consists of a canvas print wrapped around a thin board and then placed inside a black or white wooden frame.  Here’s a look at the first one to come off the machine

 

 

Here’s a closer look a the edge

Posted April 7th, 2011.

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I’m in the printing business now!!

So after being disappointed with the price I was paying (and  the quality of prints I was getting) from some of the professional labs I had been using for producing gallery wraps, I was convinced that doing my own wraps was the thing to do.  While I was at the Wedding and Portrait Photographer International (WPPI) conference in Vegas this year I got talking to the guys at the Epson booth and I was left scratching my head as to why the Canvas they were using looked so much better than the stuff my lab kept sending me.  The next thing I knew I was heading home with a brand new printer weighing in at 400 pounds and producing canvas wraps at sizes up to 20×30.

Of course buying the printer was only the first step.  Then I had to buy the rolls of canvas and the HUGE containers of ink… in addition to a supply of stretcher bars, canvas pliers, cutting tools, squares and a rubber mallet.  After all was said and done I finally produced my first few gallery wraps tonight.  I’ll admit the first one was not perfect – I did not print wide enough to make it all the way around the edge and I had trouble getting the corners of the canvas wrapped perfectly.  But by the time the second print had come off the machine I had a much better system down and they were starting to look great.  Already the quality difference in the Canvas is noticeable and the new prints look much better than the old ones they are sitting beside.

Here’s a look at the second print to come off the printer :)  It is destined to go into my sons bedroom but he’s asleep there right now so I don’t want to be banging nails into his wall right now so I hung it on a free spot above my stairs.

Photo Giclee San Diego

Posted March 13th, 2011.

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