Even a great artist needs a good paintbrush

Despite the headline, I’m certainly not implying that I’m a great or even very good photographer, but I can usually hold my own and deliver a few good images when I go out shooting. I certainly know my way around a camera.

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An Indiana State Police trooper looks down onto a public floor at the Indiana Statehouse.

But then I went to a few basketball games, and let’s just say going through the images on my card afterward was a humbling experience. Some of my initial mistakes were definitely errors on my part and led to some completely blown shots. But once I figured out where I went wrong, I could only get so far within the constraints of my equipment. And that’s nothing to feel bad about.

A primer on photography

If you’re uninitiated when it comes to photography, I’ll try to provide a quick primer. When you take a picture with a camera — film or digital — you are capturing an exposure. If you don’t get enough light in, the image will be underexposed. Of course, if too much light gets in, the image will be overexposed. There are a lot of variables in an exposure, but I’ll discuss three here. Even if you always leave your camera in auto mode, all that means is that you’re letting the camera decide how to manage these variables.

Bandit
This is my cat Bandit.

Aperture

The aperture is how wide you open the lens. The wider you open the lens, the more light you let in. Aperture is measured in f-stops: the lower the number, the wider the aperture, and the more light gets in at once. Opening the aperture also has an effect on the depth of field of an image. If you open the aperture wide (a lower f-stop number), your camera will only focus on objects within a narrow range of distance from you. If you’ve ever looked at a portrait where the person is crystal clear and the background is blurred, that was the result of a shallow depth of field. If you “stop down” to a narrower aperture (a higher f-stop number), your camera will focus on a wider range of distance. So in the portrait example, both the person and the background will be equally in focus…but the image will look flatter. Neither is necessarily good or bad, it just depends on what you want your image to look like. In the picture of my cat, I used a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field. The background behind her is blurry.

Indianapolis skyline at night
The Indianapolis skyline at night. Notice the blurred headlights from the cars driving by.

Shutter speed

The shutter speed is just what it sounds like. When you press the shutter button on your camera to snap an image, the camera opens and closes the shutter. The longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in…and vice versa. Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. You might have noticed pictures of cityscapes at night where the headlights on all of the cars are blurred. That’s because, in order to capture enough light at night for a properly exposed image, you have to set the shutter speed to a slower setting than you would during the daytime. Because of the slow shutter speed required to capture this image, I also had to anchor my camera onto a tripod and set a timer after pressing the shutter button in order to prevent camera shake from blurring the image. A faster shutter speed freezes action, a slower shutter speed blurs it. Again, neither is right or wrong; it just depends on what you want your image to look like. If I were to set the shutter speed faster, I couldn’t get enough light in, and the image would be underexposed.

Sensitivity/ISO

Back when you had to buy film for your camera, you could choose film with a wide range of sensitivities or “film speeds.” A group known as the International Standards Organization, or ISO, assigned consistent values so that ISO 400 film from one manufacturer was essentially the same level of sensitivity as ISO 400 film from another manufacturer. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film (or in today’s terms, the digital image sensor) became to light. The tradeoff for increasing the sensitivity — then and now — is an increase in graininess on the image. So, unless you really want your image to be grainy, you want to keep your ISO as low as you can so long as you can still get enough light in through the aperture and shutter speed settings.

Budget constraints and camera technology

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to understand these principles. You need to have camera equipment that gives you enough flexibility to handle the conditions you find yourself in when shooting. One of the biggest problems with my old point-and-shoot camera was that I could only open the aperture as wide as f3.5 — and when I extended the zoom lens fully, I could only open as wide as f5.6. That’s fine for a lot of situations, but getting a good portrait with a shallow depth of field simply wasn’t going to happen with that camera no matter what I did. Point-and-shoot cameras also have relatively small image sensors, and that limits their ability to capture clean images at higher ISO settings. The bigger the sensor, the more ISO and aperture flexibility.

But even a camera with a bigger sensor can’t take advantage of that aperture flexibility without a capable lens. Typically prime lenses (those with a fixed focal length, so you can’t zoom) are the most cost-effective ways to get images with wide apertures. Zoom lenses with wider apertures — especially those that do not degrade when you zoom in — can cost thousands of dollars. And even those professional zoom lenses (typically f2.8 throughout the focal range) can’t match the maximum aperture of a good prime lens (often f1.4 or f1.8).

My weapon of choice

In January, I upgraded my digital camera to a gently used Olympus PEN E-PL1, which is a mirrorless compact system camera based on the Micro Four Thirds standard. Both Olympus and Panasonic use the same standard, so I can attach Panasonic lenses on my Olympus camera body, and vice versa. The idea was that I wanted something with better image quality than my point-and-shoot camera but still portable enough that I would actually carry it with me enough to make use of it. A Micro Four Thirds image sensor is bigger than that of a point-and-shoot camera but smaller than that of most digital SLR cameras.  Plus the camera body and lenses are cheaper. Along with the camera body, I purchased three lenses:

Note that Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses have a 2X “crop factor,” meaning that if you’re comparing the focal length to, say, a 35mm film camera, you have to multiply the focal lengths by a factor of two in order to make an apples-to-apples comparison. So my 14-42mm lens would be equivalent to a 28-84mm lens on a 35mm film camera, and so forth. Most digital SLRs today have crop factors of 1.5x (Nikon) or 1.6x (Canon), but the high-end “full frame” digital SLRs have a 1X crop factor, meaning the focal lengths are already equivalent to those on a 35mm film camera with no arithmetic required.

The challenges of indoor sports action photography

Shooting sports action is a challenge anyway, but shooting sports action indoors — like at a basketball game — can be particularly difficult. It’s a perfect storm of problems that will test the limits of your camera equipment as it tested mine and make you understand why the pros have those big, fancy cameras with those bigger, fancier lenses.

I was sitting under one basket, and this action took place at the other end.
I was sitting under one basket, and this action took place at the other end of the court. Note that the image looks a little blurry and that this is one of the better images I got.

If you’ve ever taken a family snapshot, you might have had to ask people to “hold still” so that the image doesn’t blur. But you can’t very well ask an athlete running down a basketball court to “hold still.” They’re moving, usually as fast as they can because speed is a competitive advantage. If you take a photo and your shutter speed is too slow, then you won’t be able to “freeze” their motion. The image will blur. A fast shutter speed (at least 1/300 of a second if not faster) is critical to getting clear images when the action is moving.

Another challenge is the inability to get physically close to athletes when they are competing. As a photographer, you have to keep distance between yourself and the playing surface or else you could interfere with the game and possibly get tossed out. So using a short focal length — especially if you’re not physically very close to the action — is probably not a good option.

Dialing up the ISO can certainly help the camera be more forgiving of the low light and fast motion, but if you dial it up too much then your images will come out looking grainy and speckled. I might have been able to get better results outdoors on a sunny day, but the low lighting indoors at the basketball game created a real problem.

Here’s where my hobbyist equipment let me down.

When fully extended to 150mm (like toward the opposite end of a basketball court), the widest aperture setting that my telephoto lens could give me was f5.6. At that setting, even with my ISO setting dialed up to 1600, I could only set the shutter speed as fast as 1/80 of a second without underexposing the image. As I mentioned before, 1/300 of a second is the minimum for a clear sports action image. When the lens was set wider at 40mm, that bought me a slightly wider aperture (f4.0), which in turn bought me a slightly faster shutter speed (1/100 or even 1/160 of a second). But that’s still not fast enough, even after I maxed out the camera’s ISO at 3200. A pro camera would have bought me a bigger sensor with more ISO flexibility, and a pro zoom lens would have given me a wider aperture.

Autofocusing error
With the aperture open all the way to f1.4, I still couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. AND the shallow depth of field created autofocusing errors. (Shutter speed 1/100; ISO 200, cropped image.)

After some disappointment with my first round of photos, I made an adjustment for the next game I attended: trading out my 40-150mm f4.0-f5.6 lens for my 25mm f1.4 prime lens. The idea was that I could achieve faster shutter speeds in low light if I opened the aperture wider. I knew with such a wide focal length that I would have to crop out a lot of the resolution of the images, but what I didn’t account for was the risk of autofocusing errors created by opening the aperture too wide (due to the shallow depth of field) while still not getting the shutter speeds I needed to freeze the action. A pro zoom lens would have enabled me to zoom in closer for more detail while still maintaining a reasonably wide aperture.

(If I had bumped up the ISO I could have gotten some faster shutter times even if I stopped down to, say, f2.8 to reduce the risk of autofocus errors…but I don’t know for certain if that would have worked or not.)

The image to the left shows two players colliding in mid-air…but it’s still blurry. For comparison, check out what the pro photographer sitting right next to me at the game captured from exactly the same moment with his pro equipment.

Here’s the point

If you have enough ingenuity, experience and talent, you might be able to overcome your resource constraints to do great things. Perhaps with enough practice using this equipment I’ll be able to get better images…even at basketball games. But sometimes all the ingenuity, experience and talent in the world can’t make up for not having the right tool for the job. You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

How many talented painters, photographers, scientists, etc. out there can’t realize their full potential because of their resource constraints? Is the training too expensive? Is the right equipment unavailable to them? Constraints are an inevitable fact of all our lives, and I’m OK with mine since photography is just a hobby for me…but it does make me wonder how much human potential we’ve lost over our history as a result.

3 thoughts on “Even a great artist needs a good paintbrush”

  1. A lot of people will tell you not to bother shooting sports with a mirrorless =)
    That being said, are you sure you didn’t just miss the focus on that shot? The two players on court in the background look just fine. Or were they just not moving and therefore didn’t get any motion blur?

    1. Well I think both are true. Those players in the background were more stationery. But it’s also true that I was shooting at f1.4 just so I could as much light in a possible. But that also means very shallow depth of field…so more risk of autofocus errors. I honestly don’t know what all went wrong on that photo. If I had stopped down a little (like f2.0 or even f2.8) and raised the ISO up to, say, 1600, then I might have been able to get a usable shot there. Not great, but usable. I have seen examples of good basketball photos with mirrorless…but these have usually been with newer body models and sometimes with better micro 4/3 lenses. Which of course would set me back a couple thousand that I don’t really have.

  2. I’m double-takes on your photography article in trying to get professional shots using amateur equipment. It’s sort of like my trying to be successful in the NBA with insufficient talent to compete on the highest level and to satisfy the fans who go to watch a professional game of superstars. It’s somewhat interesting to experiment with inferior equipment to discover the extent the equipment and individual photography skill can take you, but you still discover at the end of the experiment what you probably concluded at the beginning. I think this has been true with religious understanding. Some can be more adept than others when it comes to discovering the “mysteries” involved in such a field of study, but no matter much money, time, education and experience thrown into the task, you fail to put together that one deciding, game-changing shot. Do we keep trying? Do we keep spending more money, more time and more of everything? Or do we try to achieve our purpose by different means? Maybe we keep coming up short because we keep looking for answers that don’t really exist. Or, maybe the point is not to fulfill religious faith after all. Maybe the point is we need to maximize the time and our present existence in every way possible, to make the best use of our resources while in the present, because this is the only time we are guaranteed. Sadly, though, much of our time in the present is devoted to preoccupation about the snapshots that did not turn out too well, which tempts us to waste our time fuming over things we regret instead of focusing on the subject at hand using the best lens and camera we can put together.

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