Speed – The Key to Successful Sports Photography

Speed in sports is essential.  Speed separates the winning team from the losing.  Effective sports photography captures that speed in images.  The best of those images contain unobstructed views of action moments, with facial expressions, are properly exposed and have sharp-as-a-tack focus.  No easy feat. 

Assuming you have mastered the mechanics of capturing high-speed action in what is usually a low-light setting, you have a second challenge:  Quickly getting those images to your customer (e.g., teams, newspaper, photo bureaus, fans, etc.). 

As in sports, speed is essential in sports photography and a sound workflow gives you that speed. This article provides recommendations on how to produce high quality games images with a very fast turn-around time.  

What Creates the Challenge? 

The number of images taken during the game creates a challenge in timely processing.  The pace of the game requires that photographers shoot in burst, or rapid-fire, mode.  I find shooting in bursts of 3 or 4 images at a time is a good balance between getting the shot and not generating excessive images.  

Figure 1– These images were shot in burst mode.  Shooting in burst mode allows you to capture the single most impactful moment.  Burst mode also generates many images that will not be used.  (Round Rock High School vs. Cedar Ridge High School UIL Football game, October 16, 2015)

The sole exception to shooting is burst mode is then using strobes, which are used for the best quality images in an indoor venue.  Strobes are high-end flashes that mounted throughout the venue and are wirelessly connected to the camera. The recycle, or recharge, time for a strobe is usually one second, which requires shooting in single-shot mode. 

Burst rates for cameras range from 5 to 16 frames per second.  This rate is dependent also upon the pairing of the lens to the camera.  Difference combinations of cameras and lenses do not perform equally, even within the same brand. 

The upside to shooting is burst mode is it allows the photographer to be a fraction of a second off in their timing, yet still get a great shot (Figure 1).  The down side is it creates a lot of images that are not usable. 

The number of image taken depends upon the speed of the game, the number and proximity of players and officials on the field, and shooting location.  For sports like baseball, where the speed of the game is relatively slower, and the players are widely dispersed on the field, I take 500 to 1000 total images in a game. In sports like hockey, where is the speed is high-paced, and the paths of players and officials are continuing crossing, I take 1500 to 2500 total images in a game. 

This is the challenge: how to quickly review and edit a large number of images. 

Before You Leave for the Game

The age-old debate among photographers is do I shoot in Raw or JPEG file format? Purists will argue that shooting in Raw gives you the greatest flexibility in editing the images. Realists will argue that shooting in Raw generates huge file sizes and takes longer to edit.  I recommend shooting in JPEG for sport photography.  

Figure 2– Many images are not useable because they do not capture action moment and the player’s face, or are not properly exposed or focused.  (Texas Stars v Grand Rapids Griffins AHL Hockey game, January 31, 2019)

The real issue with Raw images is not the file size, but the time to download the file.  On my camera Raw images are roughly twice the size of JPEG, requiring twice the download time.  That additional download time takes away from valuable editing time. 

The other advantage with JPEG is the firmware within you camera does part of the image editing for you. This again saves time. 

Another timesaving task is setting up the metadata template before the game.  Metadata is information about the image.  The software you use to download and edit the images has predefined International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) metadata fields.  These data are added to the image as it is downloaded, including information on copyright, contact information and caption. 

Most metadata does not change from event to event. What will change are the captions.  Most professional photographers use the Associated Press format for captioning.  

Figure 3– Example of a game photo caption:  Drew Eubanks (14) of the Austin Spurs slam dunks for two points against George King (8) of the Northern Arizona Suns in an NBA G League at the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park, Texas on November 9, 2018).

Captions are generally contains of two parts, each composed of one or more sentences. The first part identifies the player and describes the action seen in the photo. The second part gives context to the image, including the event (name the teams playing), location (venue, city state) and date played (Figure 2). 

It is the second part of the caption that can be added to the metadata template before the game. The first part of caption is done while editing the image. 

Before the Game Begins

I arrive two hours before the game at new venues and one hour where I am known.  This allows time for introductions, finalizing logistics, and scoping-out shooting locations. 

One of the first things I do is get access to the wireless network.  There will likely be multiple networks at the venue, both public and private.  Be sure to get access to the private network and test connectivity and response time.  Use the public network as a last resort because the available bandwidth will decrease once fans begin to arrive.

Get team rosters from the press box before the games starts. Use the roster to identify the players by their number for the captions. 

I set a custom white balance for the indoor venues using a gray / white card.  This will save time in editing the image by not having to adjusting the color.  Some cameras allow you to store five custom balances, others require a new one be enter each time. 

I find setting a custom white balance to be a better approach to using the automatic white balance (AWB), which may vary by how much light is reflected or retained by the team’s uniform and the surrounding. 

During the Game

Firing in burst mode generates a lot of unusable images.  In my experience only 10% of the shutter clicks product images worth editing.  I identify the “keeper” images during the game. 

Most cameras gives you two ways identify the keepers.  You can either “protect” images you want to keep, or you can rate the image on a scale of 1 to 5.  I prefer to rate my images to protecting them.  A protected image indicates it is a keeper.  But rating the image indicates how good the keeper is. 

Some cameras have buttons that are programed to protect or rate the image.  Other cameras allow you to reprogram a button to do this action. Still other cameras have this ability embedded in the camera’s menu of options. 

I use a zero to five rating system on my camera in my editing.  These are my rating criteria: 

·     0 – Default rating.  May not be properly exposed, focused, or doesn’t capture anything of potential interest. This shot receives no consideration for edits.  These are 90% of images. 

·     1 – An image that is properly exposed, sharply focused, captures the player’s face, and contains reasonably interesting content.  This shot is a keeper that I will go back to after the game.  These are 7% of images.

·     2 - An image that is properly exposed, sharp-as-a-tack focused, captures the player’s face, and a significant game event. I will edit between periods, at the half or immediately after the game.  These are 3% of images. 

·     3 to 5 – I save these rating for post-processing on my computer.  

Figure 4 - Screen shot of PhotoMechanic copying images rated 1-star and above from the camera’s memory card (Austin Bold FC vs. St. Louis FB pre-season scrimmage, February 13, 2019)

At Halftime and After the Game

The real work begins during halftime and after the game. 

Most professional sports require images be made available during the game.  For example, in professional hockey, the league requires a minimum of ten images be uploaded during the 15-minute break between periods. And in professional basketball some teams require 20 images during the 15-minute break at halftime. 

These short windows don’t allow time to return to the press box to produce images.  I take my computer with me and process images courtside. 

DSLR and mirrorless cameras all have removable memory cards.  I recommend that you pull the memory card from the camera and use a card reader to import the images your computer.  This has a much faster transfer rate then using cables attached to your camera and computer. 

If only 90% of the images are not worth editing, then why take the time importing those images? 

I use PhotoMechanic to copy images to my computer.  PhotoMechanic has the unique ability to filter the images on the card and then copy the filtered images to your computer.  You can filter on either protected images, or images with a 1- or 2-star rating. PhotoMechanic can also import only the protected images

I spend less than 30 seconds editing an image.  My only edits are cropping and auto tonal adjustments.   I prefer using Adobe Lightroom for editing.  Lightroom has many advantages that are beyond the scope of this article.  Capture One is growing in popularity and is a newer rival to Lightroom.  Adobe Camera Raw, a component of Photoshop, is similar to Lightroom but without the comfortable user interface.  

Figure 5– Example of when saving all images comes in handy.  This composite image was used in a commemorative calendar: Two-time Cy Young Award winner and three-time World Series champion Tim Lincecum nervously drops his glove attempting a career comeback.  (Round Rock Express v Iowa Cubs, Pacific Coast League, May 7, 2018)

I finalize the first part of the caption by identifying the player, their jersey number, and describe the action after editing the images.  The final images are then uploaded directly to an FTP site, Flickr, DropBox or SmugMug using a plugin. 

I can complete this process for 50 publishable images in less then 60 minutes. 

Post Game Housekeeping

When I return to my home office, and not pressed for time, I will download all the edited and unusable images to a backup hard drive.  I prefer to download all images just in case a special need later arises.  Figure 5 is an example of a work product I developed long after the game, using images not originally tagged as keepers. 

The backup drive is configured using a Raid 5 protocol.  Under Raid 5, the drive is divided into sections called partitions, with each partition functioning independently.  The files are redundantly distributed among all the partitions such that if one partition fails, the other partitions still contain all original file information. The backup hard drive now stores two copies of the edit images and all the original images taken from the game. 

Once the files have been backed-up are they deleted from my computer and the memory cards reformatted.  

The key to doing any task quickly is to develop a repeatable process.  This process works for me, but not necessarily for you.  Hopefully there are ideas help you develop your optimized workflow. 

Copyright Andy Nietupski 2019

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