Sunday, July 17, 2022

Shooting for USA Water Polo: New environment - new challenges - new rewards!

On Friday evening I photographed an exciting match for USA Water Polo at Stanford University. It was the second of three meetings between the American men and the Italian team.  I thought I would take you through my photographic thought process, since this was different from the Olympics.

The game was televised on ESPNU, and my good friend Greg Mescall (@GregMescall) was doing the broadcast along with Chris Dorst (Two-time Olympian and Silver Medalist). Since most water polo games are not televised, I wanted to get images of them doing their national broadcast, since I knew they would want them. 

In the days leading up to the game, Greg told me that it was a sellout crowd. I knew that this was a big deal, so I made sure to go up into the stands to get images of the fans. I took my Canon R6 with the Canon RF 24-70mm lens for these shots.

I waited for the stands to fill before taking images of the packed house. I shot to my right since the stands to the left were half in light and half in shadow. Not great for photos.

As I always do, I looked for fans with good signs and emotion.

After getting images to support the "full house" story, I went back down onto the pool deck to switch cameras and lenses, preparing for the action shots. I even ran into some clients of mine down on the pool deck. 

I switched to my Canon R3 (because of the fast focusing and faster frame rate) and chose the Canon 200-400mm lens, which is my go-to lens for water polo at the Olympics. I looked at the light conditions and determined that the west side of the pool was less reflective, so I moved there to shoot.

I set the Canon R3 for the fastest burst mode shooting, IO Servo focus, and then determined the best ISO to get a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec. That ISO started at 1200 and went as high as 2000 as the light dropped. The one thing I forget to switch before the game started, was the focus point. For water polo, because the athletes come so high out of the pool, I need to lower the focus point so I can focus on their faces but still have the "head room" for their arms and the ball.

Then it was time to capture the action...

I have all my cameras set for double back-button focus. This means that one button on the back of the camera is set for face and eye detection (AF-On) and another button (*) is set for IO Servo single point focus. I would change modes depending on how much of the athlete's face I could see at each moment.  There are times when the face detection won't lock on, like this moment where the water was in front of his face. In situations like this, I find that I have a better chance of getting focus with the single point.

As you all know, the job of a photographer is to tell a story with our images. When photographing sports, the fan reaction is as important as capturing the athletics. When Team USA would score a big goal, I would quickly point the camera up and try to grab the peak of energy at that moment.

I tend to follow the player with the ball, since it yields great shots...

When photographing the teams at the Olympics, there are no mascots on the pool deck. So I saw this as a unique moment for the team and me. Unique for the team since they had a huge crowd at the event, and unique for me since the Olympics would definitely not allow a mascot from any particular country on their deck. I asked "Shieldy" to pose for me and got this.

Another difference from shooting an event like this, is that I could move around pretty freely. Not at the Olympics! This allowed me to capture images from different angles.

At one point, as I was walking around looking for unique photos, I realized that I could stand right behind the goal and get a wide angle shot from there. I used the Canon R6 with a Canon RF 15-35mm lens, prefocused on the goal tender, and then raised the camera over my head to get this shot. I kept my eyes on the ball, since it is not uncommon for the ball to come over the net and straight at me and the camera! I love this shot because it shows the action in the pool and the crowds in the stands. 

I also went across to the other side of the pool and saw a diving platform that was roped off. I asked for permission to climb that for a shot. and took this one facing the Stanford scoreboard.

Then it was back to the action...

For those of you who want to photograph water polo, I have a great tip for you. Keep an eye on the shot clock! I watch the shot clock and when it gets down below 6 seconds, I assume that the opposing team is going to shoot. I prefocus on the goaltender and wait for the action to unfold.

This allows me to get a nice sharp image of the goalie even with all the water splashing in front of them. 

The sun had dropped from the sky but the lights at the Avery Stadium at Stanford were quite good for capturing the action. 

And then yesterday I shot the same two teams at Santa Clara University. This was the third of three exhibition games and each team had one win. This was the deciding game. This time I decided to travel lighter and use the Canon R3 with the Canon RF 100-500mm lens

My friend, Larry, insisted that I get a photo of me with Shieldy, so...

The game at Santa Clara started a little earlier (7pm) than the Stanford game (7:30pm) and was in a much small venue. This meant that we had more direct sunlight on the pool for a period of time.

As the sun got lower in the sky, I started getting a combination of sun and shadows on the athletes. not ideal, but...

For the 2nd and 3rd periods I took most of my photos at the far end of the pool, where the sunlight remained.

I love capturing the "peak of action", that exact moment which tells a story. This shot shows the goalie clearly blocking the ball away from the net.

Half of this team were returning members from the Tokyo Olympic team, but that meant that half were not. I did my best to isolate shots of each athlete for the team. 

In the 4th quarter, ESPN went to commercial. They came back to the broadcast showing my images from the Tokyo Olympics and Greg Mescall was kind enough to give me a shout out on this nationally televised event. Thanks Greg!

This was a key moment towards the end of the game, when the US seemingly locked it up with a great goal. I got that key moment even though it was in really mixed light. We all thought the game was over at that point, but the Italians got two quick goals to send the game into overtime.

Since the sun had dropped and the lights at the pool were barely visible, I had pretty much stopped shooting. There was a break while each team decided which men would take their chance at the shoot out. During that time, I decided to bring the camera back out to shoot this. I pointed the camera towards the men in the pool and laughed. I would have to shoot at ISO 10,000 and even then I would only get them at 1/320 sec. I typically want at least 1/1000 sec to freeze the action, but I thought that this was give me a new challenge. 

I got lucky on this shot and caught the face of the American goaltender really sharp with motion of the oncoming ball (which he did stop by the way). I also love this frame since it shows all the guys on the bench watching intently to see how it would turn out.

This next sequence shows what happens when shooting at a slower shutter speed. There is more motion in the arms, the ball and the water. but I really like it. 

The key is to try and get the face sharp while having motion everywhere else. This means that the photographer has to focus correctly, hold steady and the athlete can not move his head too much.

One last shooter and it was a winning shot, for the team and me.

As soon as both games were over, it was crunch time for me. I delivered 60 retouched images to the team from the first game within 30 minutes of the end of the game. I should mention that this was the first time using the new 165GB CFexpress card from ProGrade Digital. This card is less expensive than their previous CFexpress cards. It is designed for photographers like me who do not shoot video, just stills. It is still wicked fast and more affordable. 

This card is combination with the ProGrade Digital card reader, the new MacBook Pro with M1 Max chip, Photo Mechanic, and Photoshop software really help to get that done in record time. 


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Anonymous said...

Jeff, is so nice to see you back in action shooting water polo and giving us excellent play-by-play.

Anonymous said...

great stuff!

Ian said...

I love your blogs and the detail you go into regarding your equipment and shoots. Thank you.

You mention that you were using the R3 but continued to use the back-button focus, focus points and eye-detection. I'm sure you have a good reason but why were you not using the eye control focussing feature of the R3 we read so much about?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information! I always appreciate your insights and information on how you approach each event!

ahmet özkan said...

You are my photograpy school. I am learning a lot from you. Thank you so much .

ahmet özkan said...

You are my photograpy school. I am learning a lot from you. Thank you so much .

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Anonymous said...

Do you think the canon 70-200mm 2.8 is sufficient for water polo pictures? Or is the focal length not ideal