Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Love-Hate Relationship With Catwalks

The view of the Tucker Center's basketball court in Tallahassee, Florida from the catwalks above the arena in 2014
Normally, when people talk about being in the nosebleed section of a stadium or an arena it's usually a sarcastic reference to being relegated to crappy seats. When I tell people that I'm headed to the nosebleed section it's not with any sarcasm my voice, it's with a mixture of excitement and fear. You see, my version of being in the nosebleed section of an arena is a bit different and a lot higher than the cheap seats - it's the catwalks that ring arenas high above the facility.

The catwalks and all the steel girders that support the structure
While I'm climbing up and down ladders and ramps, negotiating obstacles, cables, and lights, I am scared beyond words. I don't like heights. Actually, I really, really hate heights. But when I sit at my computer after a game and look through the images that I get from the catwalks, I know it was well worth the effort and the anxiety.

The arena lights just in front of the steel grates that make up the floor of the catwalks
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 spines. I refuse to trust a camera's autofocus capabilities, or worse yet pre-focus on a spot and set the camera to Manual Focus, as a way of generating images. I'd rather not hope that a given shot sequence is in focus only to later see if the images are sharp. I prefer to do it old school and actually shoot from above.

The opening tip taken from the side
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 with a lens attached. Since basketball is the sport most frequently photographed from catwalks, I'll concentrate this blog post on shooting basketball from the heavens.

Rebound in the lane, taken from a side angle
For basketball, my lens of choice is usually a 300mm f2.8 that I hand hold. On occasion I will also take a wide angle lens or my 15mm fisheye for artsy stuff. If I take one of these extra lenses, 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 possibly even death) to the people below if accidentally dropped.

Another shot taken from a side angle
Some 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 or wide angle lens for team introductions or a shot of the venue 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.

The best shots from overhead are when players are looking up at the rim or at the ball
Even if you aren't directly over a basket, image perspective can be altered somewhat in Photoshop to make images look more like they were taken from directly overhead as in the four examples above that were shot from the side.

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.

Not your usual game action shots but still interesting images that help tell the game's story
If you're lucky, your arena will have a location from which to shoot that offers a view directly over one or both of the baskets, or at least close enough to being directly overhead that your looking straight down at the basket. That is the ideal situation as you can mix some shots from the sides with shots taken directly overhead.

The grate over the center catwalk supported by girders underneath. Top/center of the image depicts a small opening without a grate that is almost directly over a basket at the Tucker Center. That is what I shoot through over the railing
To me the most desirable images are when the players are looking up, such as the opening tip, going for a rebound, about to release a floater in the lane, or just before a dunk. 

Images shot from almost directly overhead of the baskets
But with a little imagination, other images can add some pop to a set or a portfolio and are there for the taking. I didn't know how the images below would look until I downloaded and opened them in Photoshop. As soon as I did I was very glad I did not delete either of them while shooting.

You never know what will take place on the floor below so you have to stay ready
I usually keep an eye on the game clock and 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.

Two versions of a timeout, one where the team uses its bench to sit (top) and the other where seats are placed on the court for the payers to sit (bottom)
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. If you're like me, your heart will be in your throat until you are safely back down on the court but when you download your cards and take a peek at what you got, you'll be glad you did.

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