How I approach shooting competitive cheer

November 23, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

(or 10+ tips for shooting indoor sports)

By: Rick Johnson

Finishing a tumbling pass in styleFinishing a tumbling pass in styleMy daughter finishes a round-off back-handspring tumbling pass with finesse at a recent cheerleading competition.
 
 
I've been taking cheer photos at various cheer competitions for a few years now. Over that period of time, I've been asked time and again one of the following questions:
  • "I love your shots! How can I take pictures like you?"
    -or-
  • "What kind of camera do you use to get those shots?"
    -or-
  • "What settings should I use to get shots like yours? Mine turn out dark or blurry!"
First off, thanks for asking! Before you go further, it helps to understand the basics. Digital Photography School has some great tutorials on getting out of Auto mode, understanding the exposure triangle, and more. Learn the relationship between ISO sensitivity, Shutter Speed, and Aperture. Also, take the time to learn what the different modes will do on on your camera, as well as when to use them. Once you have a good understanding of why fast shutter speeds are good, but why you also can't turn it all the way "up to 11", you'll be ready to learn more.
 
Next, you'll need to understand what the right tools for the job are, and how to use them! In no particular order, you'll need the following to succeed at any sort of indoor action photography without flash:
  1. Shooting Indoor sports requires a "decent" camera. It doesn't have to be top of the line Nikon D4S or Canon 1D that many sports shooters will use (to the tune of $5,000-$6,000 or more for the body alone - that's without lenses!), but that entry level point-and-shoot or D-SLR kit from Costco may not do everything (well) either. A mega-zoom with fast (f/2-f/2.8) glass is okay, but a D-SLR or mirrorless with appropriate lenses will do better. A pocket point-and-shoot, or even your camera phone just doesn't have the sensor or optics that can gather enough light without a flash, and in most venues, flash is prohibited (or highly distracting to the athlete)!

    I shoot on a full-framed Nikon D750, which has recently come down in price to <$1900 USD. I chose this model as it's small and lightweight, has 24.2MP resolution, a reasonably fast 6.5FPS continuous shooting speed, and great low-light performance. The newly-released Nikon D500, Nikon D7200, and Canon 7D would all be good crop-sensor choices on a tighter budget, but will still run well over $1000 USD. I'd avoid the more expensive Nikon D810 and Canon 5Ds, as their higher resolution comes at a trade-off of slower continuous shooting rates, given the 36-50MP or higher files they create!

    Features to consider include a higher-performing auto-focus system that performs well in low light, high continuous shooting rate, large image buffer, and a high native-ISO rating (forget expanded ISO ratings - they're just marketing tools that don't deliver usable results in most situations). 
     
  2. GOOD fast lenses. Again, doesn't have to be top-end (though you do generally get what you pay for), but something with a lower maximum aperture (like f/2.8 or lower) will do FAR better than the telephoto zoom with a f/5.6 aperture that came with the camera. That f/2.8 lens is getting twice the light into the camera than the f/5.6 lens! In a relatively dark gym or venue where you can't use flash, you HAVE to have fast lenses to get more light in with higher shutter speeds!

    I use 3rd-party Tamron zoom lenses (a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8), and they perform very well! In some ways, they're better than their Canon or Nikon counterparts for sharpness, though that does come at the very slight expense of focusing speed (not a factor in most situations).
    Those lenses will usually start at $1250 or so new, though you can find decent copies on the used market for less. I frequently depend on vibration compensation or image stabilization (VR, VC, etc.) as I move from shot to shot, so avoid lenses that don't come with this feature if you want to avoid motion blur from camera shake.

    You'll also want an appropriate focal length. A 24-70mm zoom lens from up at the stage will give you the range for whole team and some individual stunt groups. A 70-200mm lens is good for shooting from the stands, or getting individual athlete action shots while up close. You won't have time to switch between the two (unless you have 2 cameras - 1 wearing each lens), so know what you intend to shoot and prepare ahead of time.

    Some choices to favor:
    • 24-70mm f/2.8 Zoom WITH image stabilization technology (Nikon, Canon, Tamron, Sigma, etc.)
    • 70-200mm f/2.8 Zoom WITH image stabilization technology (again, Nikon, Cannon, Tamron, Sigma, etc.)
    • 24-120 f/4 Zoom WITH image stabilization (Nikon makes one like this) - a bit "slower" (higher "f-number"), but still better than most kit lenses
    Some choices to avoid in this arena:
    • 18-300mm of 24-300mm mega-zooms. They have a maximum aperture of f/5.6-f/6.3, and are meant for outdoor shooting
    • 150-600mm f/5.6-f/6.3 long zooms. These are meant for outdoor shots, and just can't gather enough light indoors
    • Kit 18-55mm, 24-85mm, 55-200mm, or 55-300mm kit zooms. These are variable aperture, and usually are at f/4.5-5.6 at the ranges you'd use
       
  3. Get that camera out of AUTO or scene modes. Shooting in full manual mode allows the most control, but for sports, shutter priority is fine too (camera decides aperture and often ISO), as a fast shutter speed is mandatory to freeze action. For some photographers who are still learning, it's okay to let the camera make some decisions, but the smartest "Full Auto" modes can't always predict what you're after (and they love to turn on flash in most situations, which may be inappropriate). Many "sports" scene modes will set the camera in a fast-shutter, no flash mode with continuous burst enable. 

    I personally shoot manual to dial in my shutter and aperture settings (usually f/2.8-f/4 at 1/400-1/640 second or faster, depending on lighting and the lens). For test shots, I will turn on Auto-ISO and rely on center-weighted or spot metering to affect Auto-ISO decision, ensuring I don't have blown highlights or grossly underexposed images. I then use that ISO value from a good test shot to set a fixed ISO value to ensure shot-to-shot consistency. As long as stage lighting doesn't change drastically, this offers the best results and simplifies post processing greatly. While I used to rely solely upon Auto-ISO, it significantly impacted my post-processing workflow as I couldn't guarantee shot-to-shot consistency between images, and found myself making different adjustments for every image.

    That said, i
    f lighting is going to vary greatly throughout the event (moving spotlights, changing backlight colors, etc.), using Auto-ISO for the entire event may be a better choice rather than worrying about changing sensitivity all of the time, so long as a sane maximum is provided. Yes - sometimes Auto-ISO is handy! Just know your camera's limits (ISO 3200 on my D5100, 12,800 on my D750, for example) to avoid too much noise, and be prepared to provide individual attention to each image as a result. Also know your camera's metering modes to obtain the best exposure at the time. 
     
  4. Use a continuous auto-focus mode. For Nikon users, that's AF-C. On my D750, I'll use AF-C combined with the the D9, D21, or 3-D point modes, or rely on Group AF for really dark venues. Know how to move that focus point around on the fly. Read your manual to understand how each works, and know that each camera system may have something different. The wrong mode (i.e. single point set to the wrong side of the frame) will leave you consistently focused in the wrong area, and full auto AF will leave the camera deciding where to focus, and it may not be what you intended.

    It also helps to disable shutter-release locking in AF-C mode, though this may cause you to get blurry shots if the camera doesn't have focus lock. Again, consult your manual to understand whether your camera has this feature, and how to enable or disable it, but the idea is to allow the camera to shoot in continuous mode rather than to block the shot when it doesn't have a confirmed focus lock.
     
  5. Shoot RAW where you can. RAW files are larger than JPEG files, so you'll get fewer on a memory card. That said, they contain everything the sensor "saw" during the shot without any in-camera processing or harmful compression. RAW files can be processed later on (or in camera even) to recover lost highlights (bright spots) or shadows (dark spots) in the image, as well as to correct for white balance (color cast) if you or the camera didn't get it right ahead of time. You'll need special software to process RAW files (such as Adobe Lightroom or Nikon CaptureNX-D - the former which is $9.99/mo or less from Adobe, and latter of which is free for Nikon users, but not nearly as powerful). The flexibility in a RAW workflow later on is FAR better than letting the camera decide immediately, then writing a JPEG and discarding original information. That lost data can never be recovered in the JPEG image.

    Think of RAW files as digital negatives which can be developed again and again without further degradation. If you're worried about how to do this and just want images now, use the RAW+JPEG mode to start to have both file types, but understand this will further affect how quickly each image is written to the card (you'll fill that holding buffer more quickly), and reduce the total number of images that can be stored on the card.

     
  6. Use a continuous shooting mode. This can be a blessing and a curse. I fire off bursts (CH on more advanced Nikons or "Servo" mode on other brands) to get the peak of a stunt, dance, or tumbling pass, since the moment you first fire off the shutter may not be at the athlete's exact peak. That said, make sure you know the limits of your camera's buffer, which is the temporary memory used to store pictures before they're written to the SD card! For instance, my Nikon D750 will slow down from 6.5FPS (frames per second) to just 1FPS or less if the buffer gets full, which is about 11-14 continuous images in RAW mode, or 99 images in JPEG-only mode. Many lower-end cameras can only fit a few RAW images in the buffer before slowing down. It can take several seconds for the camera to clear the buffer to be ready again. Fortunately, many viewfinders and displays will show how many images remain before the camera must pause. 

    I struggle with filling the buffer to this day, and using a CL (lower speed continuous) mode if equipped or simply shooting less does help. Using the slightly smaller 12-bit vs 14-bit RAW format helps too (with some loss in post-processing dynamic range), or I can resort to shooting JPEG-only when I can get reliable exposure and don't need to process afterward (for instance that multi-second tumbling pass). There are also other ways to improve this performance, so read on!
     
  7. Use Fast and reliable memory cards! RAW and Continuous modes do require FAST memory cards. I use memory cards specified to write at up to 90MB/sec (UHS-1 Class 3). Slow cards will require the camera to spend more time flushing its buffer to the memory card, which means fewer shots before the camera has to pause, and ultimately, missed shots. High quality SANDisk Extreme Pro or Samsung Pro cards that meet this specification are coming down in price all the time.

    Important tip: Don't be lured in by the 95MB/sec READ speeds advertised on some cheaper cards. What really matters is write speed, and that can be as low as 40MB/sec on those same cards! 95MB/sec is great once you're getting images off the card with a USB 3.0 reader, but the write performance in the camera is what really matters during the event. Also, don't overspend! If your camera doesn't support UHS-II (really fast cards at hundreds of $$), don't waste the money on them if the fastest UHS-1 cards are all your camera can take advantage of. Check your camera's manual for full compatibility information on the type of cards. Specific brands and models change all the time, so take compatibility tables in the manual with a grain of salt, so long as the cards meet all other requirements. For example, the Nikon D750 only supports up to UHS-1 type cards.
     
  8. Know the sport! You have to constantly scan for and anticipate what's coming up next! Is a stunt group getting ready to throw a basket or a twist-up? Is a tumbler staged at the edge of the mat, getting ready for their pass? Aim, frame, zoom, and focus! Don't start shooting until the real action begins! If you know the tumbler runs before they jump, delay the first shot until they jump. If a cheerleader is going up with the back toward the camera, wait until they start to twist and you can see their face. 

    Also, if you're intending on sharing images with the whole team, try to avoid focusing too much on just your own athlete (trust me, it's harder than you think)! If you have the luxury of watching some full-out practices to understand timing, positions, etc., you'll have a strong advantage when shooting during the competition. It never hurts to ask, and trading free (or reduced cost) images to the gym owners or coaches can go a LONG way at getting a prime spot and information where and when you need it to be successful.
     
  9. Be prepared to edit and reject shots! Unless you capture perfect shots at every shutter press, KNOW that you'll have some rejects. Don't be afraid to be critical of your work, and reject those photos which are clearly mis-focused, where the athlete is turned or in an unflattering pose, or where exposure is just unrecoverably off. Minor things like under or over-exposure and color shift can be corrected in software. For the rest, learn from the mistake, and try to understand why you pushed the button when you did! Was it bad settings, bad aim, or something else? Doing is learning! That said, get your cheerleader involved in the process (if that's the situation). What you think is terrible may be perfect in their eyes as it shows them in the best pose, and, what may be photographically perfect may be in terrible form, and not flattering to the athlete.

    When editing, it's very likely you'll need to crop, adjust rotation angle, and occasionally, adjust exposure for lighting variations on stage. Don't be afraid to do this to make a good shot into a great shot!
     
  10. Have fun! Don't be so focused behind the camera that you forget to cheer and encourage your subjects! Unless you're doing this professionally for someone else, chances are it's your athlete out there in the crowd! They want to know you're there for them too, and not just hiding behind the lens. Cheer them on, and make eye contact without the camera up to your face from time to time.
Bonus tip: Know the rules of the venue. Some of the equipment I've mentioned may not be permitted at specific events. Some events prohibit reselling images. Others don't allow "professional cameras" while others permit cameras and not-for-profit photography, but only with lenses no longer than 70mm (those longer, heavier lenses can get in the way).
 
When shooting a cheer routine, there's a LOT that happens in 2m30s, and I can easily shoot 100-200+ images in that period of time. Not all of them are going to be keepers, but using the tips above help more of them to make it to the gallery vs. the reject pile by making the right decisions before and during the event!
 
These are just some of the many techniques I use at an event. Do you have a tip that helps you shoot cheer or another sport? Share it in the comments below!
 
(Edited 15-May-2016)

Photographers: Beware Of Email Scammers

July 15, 2015  •  11 Comments

Beware photographers! There's an apparently well-known scam running out there. Well, well known to many, but new to me up until today. 

I received an email stating that an individual was looking for photography services. 

Initial contact:

Date: Wed, 15 Jul 2015 15:39:45 +0000
Subject: Family Reunion Event
From: Krystal Collins <rdindiz@gmail.com>
To: rick@rickjphoto.com

Hi there!

How are you today? I was doing a little research online for an event
photographer for my family reunion that's coming up, I want you to capture
the wonderful event. My name is Krystal Collins and do you accept credit
card payment? Get back to me if you do, i will be looking to read from you
ASAP.

Regards,
Krystal

Ok, the grammar is a bit "off", as is their eagerness to use me without much discussion, and the inquiry about credit card payment. I Google the email address, and it returns a Facebook profile with the same name, but no legitimate photos and very few friends - also mostly lacking in photos. Ok, so I'll bite, as I had recently signed up with Amazon Local Register (It's cheaper than Square, and lets me eat from my own dog food, so to speak!), and can now accept credit cards for payment of session fees. 

I respond about 2 hours later:

Hi Krystal,

Thanks for reaching out! When is your event? Where would it be located? How
long would you want a photographer onsite?

I can accept major credit cards, as well as Cash, PayPal, and Amazon
Payments.

-Rick

Notice that I didn't mention anything about a retainer. 

Much later in the evening (just before 11pm MST), I received the following reply:

Date: Thu, 16 Jul 2015 05:58:02 +0000
Subject: Re: Family Reunion Event
From: Krystal Collins <rdindiz@gmail.com>
To: Rick Johnson <rick@rickjphoto.com>

Rick,

Thank you for the swift response. The dates has been narrowed down to some
weekends date in the month of August (15th, 16th, 29th & 30th) and
September (5th, 6th, 12th & 13th) but  it depends on which which of the
date you have available. I want you to check your schedules and get back to
me with the dates you have open.

The event is going to be held on a private property about an hour or two
drive from your zip code. I'm in the hospital (recovery unit) I had ear
surgery and the doctor wants me to stay away from phone at the moment till
I fully recovered but i can still text. That is the reason why i emailing
for this event.

The event consist of both indoor & outdoor activities. I want you to be
there for 4 hours (12pm-4pm) to take about 250-350 candid shots, I want the
candid shots burn on 3 DVD's. Also during the 4 hours that you are going to
be there, you will take one big family portrait shot that will be printed
in 3-16x20 regular matte print. The total numbers of 25-30 peoples will be
present at the event including children between the ages of 9-12 years.

I want you to work on an estimate for me and get back to me with the total
cost for this event but i will be making 50% deposit upfront to secure the
date you have open with my credit card. I'm looking forward to read from
you ASAP

Regards,
Krystal.

Ok. Now a few more things just feel wrong about this situation:

  1. Who plans their major life events around a single photographer's availability? 8 possible dates involving 25-30 people, and I get to dictate that to you?
  2. The location info is vague. A "private property" 1-2 hours is a big difference in AZ travel times (the difference between going to Scottsdale or Chandler, and Tucson or Sedona). Since most photographers quote round-trip travel mileage beyond the first 20-30 miles, that matters.
  3. I really didn't need to know the details of why they couldn't call, but being so forward with that information is a red flag! Ear surgery only affects one ear... And while she can text, she chose to email.
  4. No photographer in their right mind takes "just one shot" for a family portrait. Ok, so we deliver one perfect shot. And I know they "want" three 16x20 prints on matte finish. 
  5. Peoples? And should the kids play a factor in what I should charge? 
  6. 50% deposit is pretty steep. I'd only ask for 33%. And again, "with my credit card". Sounds desperate.
  7. The timing of the response indicates a much different time zone. 

I haven't replied. I first forwarded it to a trusted photographer friend, but then I realized - Google would also know! It sure did! And now, thanks to this blog post, there will be one more entry warning others about this scam!

I'm sure if I had replied, the next steps would have been a request to accept an additional payment, plus commission, then pass it onto a florist or caterer who isn't equipped to accept credit cards (do those still exist?!). The way this scam supposedly plays out is as follows:

  1. They pay with a fake or stolen card.
  2. I pass my real money via Western Union, check, or some other tangible and non-returnable means to said "florist" (scammer)
  3. The credit card charges get reversed out of my merchant account, leaving me out a significant chunk of change. 

Now Google "Krystal Collins Photography Scam", and you'll find the nearly exact text of the initial email in multiple articles, including some from a county sheriff in Colorado. Googling a broader search of photography email scam reveals many similar stories, with different names and event names, but the same end-result.

Don't be a victim! If an inquiry seems a bit too eager to hire only you, especially with multiple dates depending on your availability, it's probably too good to be true!


15 Tips for Better Fireworks Photos

July 06, 2015  •  1 Comment

It seems that everyone under the sun is writing tips about how to shoot fireworks! While I don't want to seem like every other photographer, I did recently shoot some fireworks photos (shared here) this past 4th using an amalgamation of tips from various trusted sources. Some of these tips stood out more than others, so I thought I'd reiterate them to you based on my own experience! In no particular order:

  1. Tripod. Use a sturdy tripod. Many of my shots were shot at small apertures, low sensitivity, and long shutter times which would make it impossible to hand hold my full-framed DSLR for seconds on end. Even the smallest vibration can ruin an otherwise fantastic shot. In fact, I had to scrap several images due to obvious vibrations (something bumped the tripod or my shutter release cable mid-burst). 
  2. Manual mode. When possible, set the camera to full manual mode. If not, try a fireworks scene mode for comparable results, but it's better to be in full control. Whatever you do, avoid auto mode which fires the flash. All you'll see is your foreground, and small amounts of dimly lit fireworks! 
  3. Use a low ISO sensitivity. Avoid using Auto-ISO in cases like this. Fireworks are fairly bright, and higher sensitivities are more likely to expose background subjects, introduce noise, or unnecessarily mute the colors of your fireworks. Most cameras have a native ISO anywhere between 50-200 (mine is 100). 
  4. For a painted look, use a long shutter speed. I use bulb mode (one click beyond 30 seconds in manual mode on most Nikons). This keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter or remote release button is depressed. More advanced models also have a "--" mode, to which the first press opens the shutter, and the second press closes it again. Either works well. Most of my shots ranged from 2-24 seconds. 
  5. Use a higher (smaller) aperture. f/13 worked best for me, but anything between f/8-f/16 (at ISO 100) should do just fine. You'll want to experiment to see what works best. Going too wide may blow out highlights. Conversely, stopping down too much will also underexpose your fireworks. Either way, avoid being wide open. You probably want to avoid overexposing the background, and the fireworks are intense enough to shine through the smaller apertures.
  6. Cable or remote release. To prevent shaking the camera, use a cable or remote release. This prevents unwanted shakes from the camera. If this is not possible, use a long shutter time, and mask the front of the lens with a black card to start and stop your exposure(s). My camera supports WiFi to my phone, however using this is a large battery consumer, so I prefer a cable release, such as this inexpensive version for Nikon: http://amzn.com/B0049D7FHK (there are others which cost more that include useful timer features - pick what's right for you). They come in handy for other tasks, such as macro and product photography too.
  7. Avoid exposing for too long. Avoid the temptation to keep that shutter open for tens of seconds. While some of my better images were above 20 seconds, multiple bursts can overlap each other, and make the image "too busy". Depending on the image you're trying to acquire, try to open the shutter just before the mortar fires, and close it immediately after the burst finishes. One to three bursts is usually more than enough - especially if they all fire in different directions. 
  8. Use a proper focal length/zoom level. Zooming out too wide may not keep enough detail in the fireworks. That is, unless the surrounding objects add desired dimension and size to your image. Conversely, zooming in too tight may leave you clipping fireworks that don't shoot along your desired path. If possible, bring more than one zoom range if you own one so you don't constrict yourself one way or the other. I only brought my 24-70mm, and found myself at 70mm the entire time, wanting 105-120mm.
  9. Manual focus. There's nothing worse than finding your camera attempting to hunt for focus at every attempt, only to give up and leave you with blurry images. Nail your focus ahead of time, then leave it be. It's very unlikely to change throughout the entire performance. If you're unable to check it reliably, use the focus indicator on your lens (if equipped) and pick the infinity setting. Note: If you use back-button focus, this tip is probably moot, unless you're prone to bumping the AF-ON button during your shots.
  10. Use Live View to double-check your focus. Single-point phase-detect focus rarely works in the dark or on quick moving objects like fireworks. Use live view and zoom to 100% on the first few bursts in order to grab sharp focus (manual or one-time auto), then keep the focus in manual mode (unless you use back-button focus). The first few fireworks are rarely the best, unless winds and smoke aren't in your favor (see #13). 
  11. Bring an extra battery. All that long-exposure, Live View or Wi-Fi tethering can quickly drain your battery. Even more so for mirrorless cameras with an always-on EVF. I lucked out with my D750 only using 20-40% the entire time, but not all cameras are that battery-friendly.
  12. Take off any extra UV filters! Nothing ruins a firework photo more quickly than the blue-green flare caused by the internal reflections of a UV filter, or the light-robbing photos of a circular polarizer. That said, there are some cases where using slightly wider apertures and neutral density filters can work in your favor. 
  13. Scout out a good location. There's nothing worse than discovering you have power lines, light poles with FAA-mandated red lights (like a stadium), treelines, headlights, or other distractions in your image, with little time to change your angle once the performance has started. 
  14. When picking your location, consider the prevailing wind! You want that smoke blowing away from your shooting location for clear shots! Sometimes weather changes, but for example, if winds are out of the west a few hours prior to sunset, chances are, they'll still be out of the west after sunset. That means you'll want to be west of the location where they're firing off the shells. 
  15. Shoot RAW! Or, RAW+JPEG. RAW files provide far more flexibility when post-processing any file, fireworks included. Recovering strong highlights in the center of the burst or shadows of your surroundings is nearly impossible without the extra data RAW can provide! Even if you don't have Lightroom or Photoshop ($10/mo for the Photographer's package gets you both! Why not?), many camera providers provide "some" sort of software that allows basic adjustments (such as Nikon's ViewNX-i and CaptureNX-D) that can rescue an image in a pinch.

Don't forget to enjoy the fireworks! Be mindful of pressing the shutter at the right time, but don't forget to enjoy the show too! Following most or all of these tips should yield great results! Here's one of my favorites from the evening (you can find the rest here):

Fireworks - Surprise, AZ- July 4, 2015Fireworks - Long ExposureLocal fireworks, shot in manual mode 24 seconds, f/13, ISO 100.

What tips work best for you? Do you have others? Share in the comments below!

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