Monday, June 13, 2011

Competitive Edge

10 tips to help you shoot sports like a pro
By William Sawalich, Photography By Mike Powell Published in Shooting
Competitive Edge


Peak action moments are always great, but fully exploring a story requires looking for tiny details as well as grand scene-setting atmosphere. For an image of a triumphant Rafael Nadal holding the U.S. Open trophy, Powell got close to show details.

"It's the polar opposite of the Turin [Lindsey Vonn] picture," he says. "I was quite close to Rafa, but rather than shoot the classic picture of him smiling with the trophy, I wanted something else. I shot his taped hands and the trophy with a 500mm telephoto. Picking out details to tell a story within the chaos of sporting events is a great way to cut through the mess and clutter."


The digital revolution has offered sports photographers many new tools to create images that used to be all but impossible. Low noise at high ISOs, back-button focusing, ultrafast shutter speeds and ultrasharp glass all help Powell create action-stopping images, like a close-up of Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon.

"The standard for digital is measured at 100%," he says. "If you ever looked at a piece of 35mm slide film this close, nothing would be sharp. The ISO can be pushed well beyond what was acceptable on film; this was shot on a bright overcast day at ISO 640 at ƒ/4.5 on a 500mm ƒ/4 lens. On film, I rarely shot beyond 1/1000th, while this was shot at 1/3200th. You need this kind of speed to stop this much motion. There's lots of great stuff happening in a very small area."

Adds Powell, "It's very important to take control of your camera. I always have my camera set up to focus on the back button with my thumb. This way, I can focus on a still point and recompose the image without the focus moving. Or during high action, I can switch between auto and manual focus when needed. If you have your focus set on the shutter button, you'll only be as good as the camera will allow. Take control, and master your gear.""


Powell photographs a lot of tennis, as evidenced by his new book A Game To Love: In Celebration of Tennis, and perhaps no sport is better suited to dynamic graphic compositions. The lines on a court combined with bold shadows from the sun can work wonders to create graphic arrangements within the frame. These options are also available in many other sports, and to find them Powell often seeks high ground.

"The basic premise is to find the high angle that can give you great graphic lines," he says. "I prefer the lines to slash at angles across the frame rather than at 90º. I've researched when shadows would be perfect for a particular court, and then had to wait for a sunny day and the right game to go work it. You can wait all game—or several games—for something really good to happen in the right spot. It's the combination of contrasting colors and graceful athletic lines that makes this work, but I know before I show up what I'm looking for."
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