Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Preparing for the Winter Olympics: Photographing the San Jose Sharks vs. Islanders hockey game

As many of you know, in 6 weeks I will be heading to Sochi, Russia to photograph the Winter Olympics. Just like the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the primary sport I will be covering is ice hockey, for Team USA specifically. For most people, Olympic preparations means that you put aside some time to watch the game on TV or you set your DVR to record your favorite sports. For me, every Olympics means more than a year of planning. In the coming weeks I will include you all on the preparations and the process.

Part of the prep for the Games, is practicing my photography skills for the action that I will be covering in Sochi. So...last week, I shot the San Jose Sharks game, and it was a really good thing that I did. You see, even though I shoot photos all the time, each type of event has it's own unique challenges, and I needed to refresh myself on the best settings for hockey.  

I started shooting photos from a higher level. For these shots, I used the Canon 1DX with the Sigma 120-300 2.8 lens with a Sigma 1.4x tele adaptor. I know from past Olympics, that they have shooting positions from this level and I wanted to test my skills. It is easier to shoot from this high position, than from the glass. As long as I stand towards the center of the rink, I can capture action almost anywhere on the ice. But what I don't like is, this perspective does not bring the viewer into the action. We are above the action instead of being in it.

I shot the first period from up above, and then moved down to an ice-level position and changed to the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 lens. The NHL has holes in the glass which allow us to shoot nice clear images of the game. There are three problems with these holes. First, you have to be VERY careful shooting through them, since the hockey players often check each other into the boards and can smash that camera right into your face (and I have seen this happen). Secondly, that puck can come up high and hit and damage the front of your lens. Third, when shooting through the holes, you have a limited field of view which you can shoot. And lastly, there are not many holes, and it is difficult to get an open position if many photographers are there to cover the game.

But, as you can see, the photos are MUCH better because now you are "in" the game as opposed to being "above" the game.

For hockey (and most other fast action sports) I usually set the camera to aperture priority mode or manual mode, making sure that I am achieving a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. I also set the focus mode to AI Servo so that the focus is changing as my subject is changing distances from me. I also use back button focusing (where you set the shutter release button on the camera to take photos but not change the focus and then use one of the buttons on the back of the camera to separately control the focus).

My first mistake was not changing the focus mode of the camera. For the first part of the game, I was shooting with a single point of focus as opposed to a cluster of focal points. This made it more difficult to get sharp focus on the skaters face. Honestly, my take-rate (ratio of good shots to bad) was not acceptable for me. I also needed to hone my skills for when to fire off shots. As you see in this photo (and many of the others), it is good to have the puck in then frame.

Even though my lens would let me shoot the photos at f2.8, there was enough light to shoot at f4, which allowed me to get more of the athletes in focus. In this photo, the skaters and goalie are sharp, but the puck is coming towards me and a little soft.

One of the reasons that shooting at ice level is so much more appealing to me, is that you can see the intensity of the hockey player's eyes.

And get in close to the action.

One thing to remember when photographing sports, is to keep shooting even when the action is over. In this case, Thomas Vanek celebrates a goal late in the third period to tie the game.

As the game progressed, I started playing with the different focus refinements of the Canon 1DX, setting the tracking sensitivity for "subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly".

I love this shot of Brad Stuart passing the puck. When I first saw this shot, I thought, "this is a great shot of him concentrating on the pass, but it would have been better if the puck was in the shot." And then I looked closer and saw the puck flying away from him, just to left of the image.

As I have taught in the past, it is really important to know the nuances of a sport in order to capture the key moments. Since I play hockey, I know how important it is to get in front of the net to screen the goalie. This photo is a perfect example of how the Islander player is doing that and trying to deflect the shot, while the San Jose Shark player does his best to disrupt that attempt.

More practice and more preparation in the coming weeks.


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing Jeff! It is nice to see someone go through the process and explain what they are thinking and doing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing Jeff! It is really nice to be able to see your process and learn about your approach to preparing to shoot. A different event.

Rick said...

Jeff. Thank you SO much for sharing how you prepare for your "big game". Just shows the importance of detailed planning that good photographers, to be successful, must prepare for - just as do the athletes. As a new 5D3 user, I'd be interested in which point expansion mode you use for these shots. Best of luck at the Olympics! Rick from Maine

lf1881 said...

Hi Jeff, I'm just looking forward to see your photographic coverage of the games! great job!

Unknown said...

Thanks Bunches Jeff! I have a passion for hockey. To have the opportunity to shoot a game is a dream of mine. You are so lucky.

Thanks, Dave

Unknown said...

Thanks for the posts Jeff. I have a passion for hockey and to shoot a pro game is a dream of mine. Thanks for the explanations on how you gathered the shots.

Thanks, Dave

Glenn said...

Keep shooting after the "action" is over is a great tip. I shoot a lot of soccer and often stop after the ball is in the goal instead of shooting the ensuing celebration. Something I am resolving to correct in the future.

Unknown said...

Appreciate this play-by-play! I'll be shooting my first semi-pro hockey game in a few days, so this info is very helpful!

Best of luck in Sochi!