Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Never Leave Home Without This Stuff ... Sports Photography Equipment

Aside from being asked how one might go about getting credentialed for sporting events,  the next most frequent question I get is what gear I recommend for sports photography. Back in 2010, I wrote a guest blog post for Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider Blog on the topic of sports photography equipment that gets the job done (at least what got the job done back in the Fall of 2010). It's an article I usually pass along to anyone asking me for my opinion on gear and I thought I'd pass it along here for whatever it's worth.

As originally written and published, I started out with my Top 10 list of recommended, pro-level equipment, which inherently carries a hefty price tag. For those who shoot professionally, and/or those who have the financial means, cost is secondary to top-of-the line gear. Recognizing that there are many folks who enjoy shooting their kids in youth league sports or shooting high school games for the sheer pleasure but don't want to/can't cough up thousands of dollars for lenses or camera bodies, I devoted a section to sports photography equipment that will work under most conditions but won't break the bank.

Because the article was fairly lengthy, I've decided to break up into two parts for re-publication here. First, I'll publish the section on pro-level gear and in Part II tomorrow I'll follow up with the section on Average Joe gear.
One caveat - since the article was originally published in late 2010, it should go without saying that camera body and lens technology has continued to improve. For example, I now swear by Nikon's D3S camera body in lieu of the D3 I tout in my original Top Ten list. Nikon has since come out with its D4 model but I do not believe the D4 improved on the D3S enough to justify dropping $6,000 on it so I will wait to see what Nikon does with the D5. I would dearly love for Nikon to come out with a replacement for the D300 and when/if that happens, I'll give it a look as an alternate camera body, especially if Nikon continues to improve its noise levels and keeps it as a dx sensor format.

With the foregoing in mind, here's Part I.
Originally published on Guest Blog Wednesday in Scott Kelby's Photoshop Insider November 3, 2010
Wow. I feel like one of the hosts of Saturday Night Live when they are invited to come back for a second time. During their monologue, they are bubbling with excitement, honored at the thought of having been asked to reprise their appearance. I will never host an SNL show, but I have guest blogged on Messr. Kelby’s blog once before; and, here I am again, offering my thoughts to you folks on sports photography.  It just doesn’t get any better than this, or to put it in Scott Kelby’s words, this rocks!
A lot has happened since my first guest blog back in June of 2009. At that time, I wrote on the topic of how to break into sports photography. As time has passed, I can’t tell you how many people have contacted me to let me know that they followed some or all of my suggestions and they are now on the sidelines or have otherwise furthered their desire to become involved in sports photography in more than a peripheral way. Yeah, baby, yeah. So what do I do for an encore? Hmmmmmmm.
A few weeks ago, I was going through my gear in order to pack what I needed to get ready for football season. For me, that meant breaking out the rolling case I use, re-configuring the dividers and then deciding what to put into it. That got me thinking – every now and then, I receive e-mails or comments from readers of my Blog asking for advice on equipment purchases. So, why not write about sports photography equipment – a blog post on gear that I can’t do without in order to give me the best chance of taking good sports photos. Yeah, that’s the ticket – a Top 10 list of gear for sports photography.
From past experience, I know many of Scott’s Blog readers are avid sports photographers or at least enjoy photographing their kids taking part in sports. I also know that many of you are into wildlife photography, and in many ways, the equipment necessary for good wildlife images mirrors that used for sports photography. So, here goes…Mike Olivella’s Top Ten List of sports photography equipment.
Before getting down to the nitty gritty, a couple of overviews. For the most part, my equipment choices were made with the intent of shooting in any kind of light, i.e. daytime, under the lights, indoors or outdoors. Long distances between me and my subjects are often an inherent aspect of sports photography which dictates the use of long lenses. Many of you may not want to live on the sidelines or secretly wish to become staff photographers for Sports Illustrated. There are those who simply want to take the best possible photos of your kids at play. So, I will start out with my opinions as to professional equipment which yields the best bang for the buck and after going through this exercise I will follow up with the gear I would recommend for those of you who are on a tight budget or simply wish to get the best possible photos of your kids without breaking the bank.
Since I have been a long time Nikon shooter, my list will be made up of Nikon equipment. If you shoot Canon or any other type of system, you can pretty much substitute the other manufacturers’ versions of what I have chosen. Because I lack sufficient familiarity with, e.g. Canon, I will refrain from making specific recommendations as to other brands.
Here goes, in reverse order:
Photo courtesy of Nikon USA
#10 – Nikon SB900 Speedlight. You might be wondering why I would include a strobe within a list of sports photography equipment or how it could possibly make a list that rates it as a gotta-have item. I know, I know, using a strobe is typically taboo when shooting sports, but it is an item that is very useful for fill light and to lower the ISO on shots that don’t involve game action (i.e., post-game handshakes between coaches, press conferences, etc.). Indoors, it is extremely handy for any non-action shots, i.e. crazy fans and pageantry. I’ve used mine (or its predecessor, the SB800) with most of my short zoom lenses and even my 80-200mm. I never leave the house without this bad boy in my bag. You never know when it will make the difference between a good exposure and a marginal one.
Photo courtesy of Nikon USA
#9 – Nikon 300mm f/2.8, shown above without the lens hood. Extremely versatile lens which is why it makes the top ten list. The 300mm won’t get as tight as a 400mm (duh), but it is still very useful and it is definitely the way to go if you can’t afford a 400mm. A good, used 300mm f2.8 can be picked up for $3,000 with hood, caps and case (for the non-VR version that precedes the newer version). If you have money to burn, you can certainly consider upgrading to the VR version, but since sports photography involves the use of fast shutter speeds, VR is superfluous for me. Not a feature on which I spend extra bread.
The 300mm can be hand held if necessary (take the monopod mount off – it makes it a lot easier to handle) and really proves its worth indoors when shooting basketball or volleyball. It is not uncommon for this to be one of my lenses of choice when shooting these sports, mounted on one camera body with a shorter zoom on a second body. For day/outdoor events where I might need a little more reach, I simply pop on a 1.4X TC and now I’ve got the equivalent of a 420mm f4 lens on a full frame camera like the D3; on a DX (cropped-frame) sensor camera with a 1.4X TC, I have the equivalent of a 630mm lens at f4. One last tidbit – the 300mm is significantly lighter than a 400mm so it can be lugged around attached to a camera body with a lot less trouble than the 400mm.
#8 – Nikon 1.4X TC14E-II Teleconverter. Adds some reach to any lens that is fast enough to allow autofocus to function properly. Although I frequently read all kinds of reviews about how teleconverters result in loss of image quality, blah, blah, blah, I use this one all the time with no noticeable loss of image quality.  All the proof I need is in the pudding – my photos. I spent a week at Yellowstone a couple of years ago and took many wildlife images with a D2X set at high speed crop mode (providing a 2X factor but reducing the MP from 12.2MP to 6.1MP), my 300mm f2.8 and the 1.4X TC14EII. We’re talking a combination that gave me an 840mm focal length and I cropped/enlarged the images to boot. I can’t imagine getting images any sharper than what I got. I extracted every last ounce of capability from each piece of gear in a mind boggling combination of things and my images were tack sharp. There’s a reason why this puppy goes for over $500 new as compared to the off brands which are half as much - the quality of the glass. The glass used by Nikon is far superior to that of the off brands which is why there is little or no noticeable loss of sharpness. Remember – a teleconverter is nothing but a magnifier. Inferior magnification translates to inferior images.
You can pick up a used version of the TC14E (the 14E-II’s predecessor) for $250-$350. Used TC14E-II’s run slightly more. I’ve used my 1.4X on my 80-200mm f2.8, 200-400mm f4 (strictly outdoors under good daylight), 300mm f2.8 and 400mm f2.8. It will typically not work properly with lenses that are slower than f4, so don’t think you can pop this on an f4.5-5-6 lens and shoot away.
#7 – Nikon 20-35mm f/2.8. This is a great lens and better yet a great bang for the buck. For many years, this was my go-to lens for most wide angle shots, team photos, coaches’ handshakes, stadium shots, etc. I’ve seen these in used condition for $650. I got a steal on mine for $350 from a photojournalist who had switched to Canon years ago so it was well used. But until it finally died (autofocus), it served me very well. Compare this to Nikon’s newer version (17-35mm f2.8) which you typically can’t touch (used) for less than $1,400 and you can see why this is my top ten list choice. If you can tell the difference between 20mm and 17mm, you’re a better person than me, especially when all you have to do is lean a tiny bit backwards and you’ve got the same field of view. I must confess that I eventually switched to the 17-35mm f2.8 but only after my 20-35mm died. I struggled with either replacing it with another or biting the bullet and spending the extra dough for the 17-35mm.  Luckily, I found a used 17-35mm under $1,000 so I jumped on it, but if you can’t afford to drop $1,500 on something that you can essentially replicate with a $650 expenditure, the 20-35mm would be my choice.
#6 – Nikon 35-70mm f/2.8. Aside from the 80-200mm f2.8 lens, this lens ranks right up there in terms of my usage and it serves many purposes. Sure, you can drop $1,300-$1,500 for the newer 28-70mm version, but as with the 20-35mm, I’d rather spend $500 for a good used version of this lens and pocket the other $800-$1,000. If I had to shoot a basketball game (on the floor, along the baseline and at the near basket) with only one lens, this would be my choice.
Because it is an older vintage lens, it is a push-pull zoom as opposed to having a zoom ring to rotate but you get used to this quickly. The focal range is a versatile one, ranging from mild wide angle to mild telephoto (on a full frame body). On my D300, the focal range extends from approximately 50mm to 105mm. I can’t think of any sport that I shoot where at some point I don’t pull this lens out; and for some sports, it is always attached to one camera body or another.
Photo courtesy of Nikon USA
#5 – Nikon 200-400mm f/4 (above, without hood). Rapidly becoming one of my favorite lenses if there is enough light to generate a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster. For most outdoor sports that I shoot in the daytime, I’ll use this lens instead of my 400mm. I’ve used this lens with my 1.4X TC and it worked flawlessly (downside is f5.6, but with enough light, not a problem). For daytime soccer, football and baseball, the lens gives me the luxury of zooming in and out as needed instead of being locked in to one focal length. When Nikon first came out with this baby with autofocus, it was $5,000 new. The first permutation of this lens was a manual focus version that was not well received. Nikon appeared to be reluctant to take it to the next level – autofocus – because it was perceived there would be limited demand. Eventually, Nikon bit the bullet and added autofocus and VR. Much to Nikon’s pleasant surprise, this lens became the lens of choice for many folks shooting at the Beijing Olympics, and after the showing it made there mounted on D3’s, the lens became very popular.
With the recent dollar weakness and the dramatic increase in the lens’ popularity, the price jumped considerably (well over $6,300 new). More recently, Nikon just came out with a newer version which supposedly improved the VR. The price for a new VRII? – a cool $7,000. It’s rare to find the VR version of these in used condition as anyone who has one loves it, although with the advent of the VRII, it is getting easier to find used ones. Expect to pay at least $5,000 for a used one in good condition with hood, caps and case.
Photo courtesy of Nikon USA
#4 – Nikon D300 with battery grip (battery grip not shown above). Easily found now for just over $500 (camera body only) with the release of its updated version (the D300s which is basically the same camera with HD video capability), this is about as good as it gets for a second camera body and is used by many as a primary body. With the battery grip, you have essentially the same feel as with a D3, although some of the control features are located in different locations (nothing earth shattering). While my D3 serves as my primary body, the D300 does some things that even the D3 can’t do – like give me a 1.5X multiplier on lenses without altering the lens aperture. If I have good light and need extra reach, this becomes my primary body. Admittedly, the D300 generates some additional noise when compared to the D3 at ISO levels over 400, but even at ISO 1600, the noise level is tolerable with a little help from Noise Ninja. Amazingly, at 2/5 of the cost of a D2X (the D3′s predecessor), the noise level on the D300 is light years better than the D2X.
I highly recommend the battery grip, not just for the feel, but also for the extra 2 frames per second it will give you. Without the grip (and the larger battery which goes into the grip) you max out at 6 fps. With the battery grip you get 8 fps which is close to the D3’s 9 fps. That’s pretty sporty company for a lot less moohla. 2 fps may not seem like much, but it can mean the difference between a good sports photo and a great sports photo.
#3 – Nikon 400mm f/2.8. The standard in sports photography and an amazing lens. Originally (I don’t know what I was thinking), I opted for the 500mm f4, which I picked up used for $3,300. First time out, I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to be fast enough for anything other than day/outdoor events. For $200 more, I returned the 500mm and exchanged it for the 400mm f2.8 AF-I that I have now owned for six years and I couldn’t have made a better choice. If I need to reach out more and the light is good, I can add the 1.4X TC and turn the lens into a 560mm f4 on my D3. Nikon’s new version has the VR feature, but to me this is of little use when compared to the cost. A new 400mm f2.8 VR runs $9,000+. I can’t think of a time when I have ever needed the VR feature, as I never shoot this lens without a monopod or at a shutter speed that would make VR necessary, especially considering the cost. At 1/500thsecond or faster, who needs VR?
Until you have the pleasure of using one of these lenses, you can’t appreciate what a workhorse it is and what a fine piece of engineering/machinery you are holding in your hands. It is borderline bulletproof and makes my job much easier than one can imagine. I own the older AF-I version which precedes the AF-S and the AFS-S VR. Before I bought mine, I did a lot of reading and learned that the AF-I autofocus system Nikon incorporated into this lens was almost as fast as the newer AF-S system. During my test drive, the AF-I autofocus was lightning fast so I saw no need to spend extra bucks for the AF-S.
#2 – Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8. The most versatile, all-around lens you can own. My typical football setup is the 400mm on my D3 and the 80-200mm on my D300. You can use a 1.4X TC to goose this lens to 112-280mm at f/4, and on a DX (cropped-sensor) camera body (like the D300), that combo becomes a 168-420mm f4. In effect, depending on which camera body I opt for, with a 1.4 TC available for use, this lens can provide a focal length between 80mm to 420mm. That’s versatility. Nikon has new versions (70-200mm) with VR but a good used one will run in the neighborhood of $1,800. A good used version of the 80-200mm without VR can be found for $1,200. Depending on whether you need the VR feature will dictate which way you go. I don’t need VR to handhold this lens even down to 1/15 second, so I saved myself the difference.
That brings us to the piece of equipment that I rate as numero uno, top gun, prized by me right behind my wife, our two kids and our dog. That item is….
Photo courtesy of Nikon USA
#1 - Nikon D3. The most impressive camera body I have ever used. I have shot images at ISO 3200 and marveled at the quality. It feels good, it shoots well and it’s bulletproof. Comparing my D3′s images with those I shot with a D2X, I can honestly say that the noise level with a D3 at ISO 800 is better than that of the D2X at ISO 400. This is the first and only camera body that I have ever bought new, mostly because I knew that it would be a long time before it would be available used. I am so glad I splurged. Today, you can find these for just over $3,000. I was hoping that with the advent of the D3S and the D3X, used D3′s would come down below $3,000 in price, but the used value seems to have stabilized just north of $3,000. When Nikon comes out with the replacement for the D3 (the D4, whenever that may be), the price will certainly drop. At that point, you’d be hard pressed to find a better camera body for the money.

End of Part I. Part II to follow.

Many thanks to Scott and to everyone at Kelby Media for giving me the chance to reprise my appearance on Scott’s Blog. It’s always a pleasure to work with Brad and the other folks in Scott’s arsenal. Finally, my thanks to all of you for taking the time to read my post. I hope you are able to glean some information that is helpful to you.

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