Saturday, January 4, 2014

Holiday Hoops

Looking for work, a way to earn more income, and a chance to shoot sports (something I rarely do anymore), I approached the committee of the Macomb-Western Holiday Tournament about the possibility of photographing the event. And bringing along advertising banners to promote my business as a part of the deal. We agreed to terms, and I recently spent three days in Macomb, inside Western Hall, on the campus of WIU, photographing 24 games in three days.

The tournament has a long-standing tradition and reputation as a good one. It draws many strong Class A teams from the region, including my hometown Pittsfield Saukees. This was a bonus. I figured I'd see some familiar faces.

I shot my first tournament in 1979 for The Pike Press in Pittsfield, when I was taking a year off from college. Then later, when my first job out of college was at The Macomb Daily Journal, from 1983-1987. The tourney was something I looked forward to every year. Though it made for long days, it provided me with an opportunity to sharpen my sports skills. 
Circa 1985. No motor-drive. A single frame

Western Hall is a pretty good facility to photograph basketball. The lighting allows for a camera setting of 1,600 iso, 1/500th of a second at 2.8. This is NBA arena quality light. And it's daylight balanced. Games each day began at 9 a.m. The last game began at 9:30 p.m. The tournament is well-run. The schedule stuck, barring overtime in any games.

So. The action began. There are morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. The early games draw a thinner crowd and the energy in the hall lacks. As the day moves on, it all picks up.

My usual, and favorite place to shoot is along the baseline,  where the three point arch meets the baseline. I find shooting from the right side is easier. Referees seem to roam the left side and get in the way.

Though I use new, digital, Nikon D3 cameras, all of my lenses are old, manual focusing, Nikkor AI-S prime lenses. Sharp as tacks, tough as nails. Most are from the 80's. They fit the D3 bodies, and I use them because I can't afford to drop 15 grand or more in a new lens system. From the baseline position, I used my 105mm for short work, the 300mm for shooting the other end of the court.

I was soon reminded that the quality of a contest can affect the quality of the photographs made. Slow moving games don't provide the opportunity for great images in the same manner as when shooting two good, evenly matched teams.

Shooting from the seats. Photo by Steve Davis/Register-Mail
Western Hall has seats behind the baskets and an open balcony. When tired of shooting from the floor, I chose an "overhead" position to make fresh, different looking images. From these positions, I used a 180mm and the 300mm. Shooting from these areas made for some of the most solid photos during the three days.

I haven't shot sports on a regular basis for three years. I haven't shot sports on a regular basis with manually focusing lenses for 13 years. I quickly leaned there was "rust in the system."

The lack of practice, 54 year-old eyes, cameras with matte focusing screens, and a glitch on the 300mm that prevents it from focusing whisper smooth. And again, 100% manually focusing. These were legitimate issues and they all came together.

But to throw out a quote we used at The Daily Herald. "We can't publish excuses."

My overall percentage of sharp vs. soft focus was around 50% for the three days. It's a bit embarrassing to publish that. It would be a failure by most standards. It certainly wouldn't cut it for Sports Illustrated. Some of the images were so grossly soft it was hard to believe I had thought they were close to sharp to begin with. It's a sad, frustrating feeling, sitting there, knowing your eyes and reflexes may not be what they once were. That your livelihood is being taken away due to physical issues, but the passion for what you do is still there.

Taking a deep breath, concentrating harder, and reacting faster, I never thought of giving up. I'm really hard on myself. I expect a lot. 13 years is a long time to not manually focus fast moving sports and expect to shoot 90% sharp. What I did shoot sharp sure wasn't all luck. And when I saw that I nailed a good one, it was a confidence booster. I seemed to shoot better when the action was faster. Like The Sundance Kid when he was trying out for the pay train guard. Taking aim with his pistol, he misses a stationary target, but hits it when thrown. "I shoot better when it's moving, " Sundance said.

300mm under the basket. Full frame, no crop

Part of the agreement with the tournament was to provide  10 images from each game for their web site. I had wanted to shoot more feature work in the three days. But in trying to keep up with feeding them images from each game, with 15-20 minute breaks between each contest, didn't allow that to happen. It was just like the newspaper days. A lot of deadline pressure.

Metamora coach
I shot coaches, cheerleaders, and detail shots if they were there in front of me. I just wasn't able to roam around and look for them as much as I intended.

The days were long. Usually 8 a.m to 11 p.m. in the hall. The diet consisted of concession stand pizza and bottled water. I was subjected to lots of blaring music. My fingertips grew sore from focusing.

It became a bit tiring. I tried to keep up to the challenge. And the challenge was this. As the games grew bigger and more important. So did the fatigue and burnout. I tried to rise above it and produce.
Details, Details

I suppose I could do myself a favor, raid the piggy bank, and give in to auto focus lenses. Aren't we supposed to embrace those things that make our lives easier?

Not me. I like a challenge. I'll take Rand-McNally over GPS.

This is not meant to be insulting to anyone. This is not self-righteous. Deep down, my professional colleagues know it too. A monkey can pretty much make a photograph with an auto focus camera. Aim the camera, push the button, and bingo! Having used auto focus for many years when I was employed by The Register-Mail, I can say it IS a nice feature. Pretty slick!

I'm just one of those people who still look at photography as a craft. It takes hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes to nail a sharp photo. I feel a professional photographer should know how to manually focus a camera, and shoot the camera in a manual mode. Then, after mastering those two thing, use the "luxuries" of auto focus and program modes. By taking the hard way, the percentage of what I get sharp is not going to match auto focus. Not unless I shoot sports on a consistent basis again. Maybe never.

It's just so much more gratifying to know I've created a strong image with my own skill set, rather than letting the camera create the image for me with its mechanical technology.

I sat through, and photographed, 768 minutes of basketball. My sore fingers are fine again. Bring on the next tournament.

To view galleries of all 24 games, go to

Canton bench reacts to shot that sent them to overtime with Macomb