Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shooting Basketball From The Catwalks

A view of the catwalks and rafters at the Leon County Civic Center in Tallahassee, FL

Normally, when one talks about being in the nosebleed section of a stadium or an arena it's usually not with a happy face. I love being in the nosebleed section when I shoot basketball but when I refer to that area I'm talking about the catwalks in the rafters.

Shooting from  the catwalks is not for the faint of heart. Many photographers set up remote cameras up there and then trigger them from the floor because spending one minute more than is necessary while perched on a catwalk sends shivers down their spine. Me, I can't trust a camera's  autofocus setting, or worse yet pre-focus on a spot and set the camera to Manual Focus, to ensure that these images will be sharp. I prefer to do it old school and  shoot from above.

There are some guidelines I follow when venturing up to the ultra cheap seats ... errr ... catwalks. As far as equipment, I only take one camera body strapped securely around my neck. My lens of choice is usually a 300mm f2.8 (hand held) and on occasion I will also take a 15mm fisheye for artsy stuff. If I take this extra lens it is stuffed deep into a pants pocket. I leave everything else on the arena floor and that includes camera bags, lens hoods, cell phone, monopod, and anything else that might accidentally be dropped from up above. Not only are these items superfluous, they pose a risk of serious injury (and even death) to those below if accidentally dropped.

The view from directly above the arena floor

The catwalks with which I'm familiar are scary and uncomfortable. Hand rails are usually low (maybe waist high?), the catwalks are very narrow (many are 30" wide or so), it gets awfully warm with all the body heat rising up and the lights all around you, the plywood decking has seen better days, and you have to step over all manner of stuff as you walk around - electrical cords, boxes, and burlap sacks just to name a few things that come to mind. Did I mention having to duck under ducts, beams, and cables as you move about? Oh, and there's the ever favorite, steep ramps and 5-rung steel ladders you must climb up and down to go from one spot to another.

The classic basketball sports image from up above - the opening tip
Tough duty? You betcha. Worth every scary moment? Absolutely, because the images you can get are amazing.

Team introductions with the fisheye (lens distortion corrected in Photoshop)

Most arenas do not have catwalks that run directly above either basket nor directly above center court but you can still position yourself to nab some cool stuff. I like to shoot the fisheye for team introductions but after that it is usually put away. The 300mm on a full frame camera body is ideal from up top because it lets me get close enough to the action while still allowing me to follow it so I don't miss too many shots. If I want to create a tighter image, cropping in Photoshop gets me what I need. Perspective can be altered somewhat in Photoshop to make images look more like they were taken from directly overhead.

Cropped and then perspective correction used in Photoshop
By moving around the catwalks and changing locations I get different vantage points and thus different images. I shoot some images vertically but most of the time I stick with a horizontal orientation.

To me the most desirable images are when the players are looking up at the ceiling such as the opening tip, going for a rebound or about to release a floater in the lane. But with a little imagination, other images that can add some pop to a set or a portfolio are there for the taking. I didn't know how the image below would look until I downloaded it and opened it in Lightroom. As soon as I did I was very glad I did not delete it while shooting.

I keep an eye on the game clock, anticipating the media time outs. When I know one is approaching, I'll boogie over to a spot directly above one of the teams and wait for the coaches to do their thing. Not your traditional, vanilla time out image but a unique one.

If you're fortunate enough to have catwalks available for use, my recommendation is that you give it a go. On your first visit, get there early and get a feel for what it's like up there and explore the vantage points that exist. Take plenty of test shots to dial in the right exposure and then get ready to create some pretty cool images.

No comments: