Traveling light - Part I

August 05, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After the trivial matter of getting the shot, the two areas I spend most of my time trying to perfect are the amount of weight I have to carry around and my workflow – the first of which, of course, is closely related to getting the shot and the second is all about turning the shot into an image – and getting it to the client in a timely manner. What started out as a short blog post on streamlining both has turned into an epic four parter, the first part of which deals with weight.

Leaving aside the 35kg of unnecessary body weight that I used to lug around – more than all of the photography gear combined - there are a couple of dimensions to weight – camera bodies and lenses, of course – but also laptops, card readers, backup devices and the other capture and editing paraphenalia. That second group is all related to workflow, of course, so we’ll come back to that. Camera gear first.

What I take on a typical sports assignment is always a compromise. If I had access to a van – and a couple of sherpa – it would be nice to know that I had all my lenses with me. You never know what opportunities will present themselves. In practice, I swing between a minimal outfit – the most minimal being just the Nikkor 70-200 – the next up being that and either the Nikon 24-70 or the superb Tamron 15-30 (or, before it was stolen in Colombia, the Nikkor 12-24) and, maybe, the 1.4 teleconverter.

The big kit is all of those plus 20mm, 50mm and 85mm primes (and my 300mm f4 before that, too, was stolen) and then either the Tamron 150-600 or the Nikon 80-400 (and, very rarely) both. Plus the 1.7 TC. And maybe the Nikkor 105 DC. For outdoor races I’ll probably have a selection of filters, too – and for the automotive stuff I’ve started doing, a range of strobes, LED lights, stands, reflectors and softboxes.

The next question is bodies. I usually take two – the D4S is usually first choice, followed by the D810. Sometimes I’ll just take one – and which one will depend on the assignment – and, occasionally, I’ll take the D4 as a genuine backup body.
Even with the full kit, the chances are the D4S will have either the 70-200 or one of the long zooms on it most of the day and the D810 will have one of the wide zooms and the rest will be split between my NewsWear utility belt and a backpack (outdoors) or a wheelie case (velodromes) and fitted as and when they’re needed.

The decision between the two long zooms is a difficult one and, although the Tamron usually wins out, they each have their pluses and minuses. 400mm is usually enough and in theory the 80mm wide end of the Nikon means that I don’t need the 70-200 (although Murphy ensures that I need to lose 10mm to frame the pic more often than I’d like) – but the Tamron is as sharp at 600mm as the Nikon is at 400mm and, while it has to be handled slightly more carefully, the IS is superb.

Either way, it’s a lot of kit and, inevitably, on any given day much of it doesn’t get used. I do try to plan ahead, studying the courses for outdoor races and checking them out using the excellent PlanIt!Pro for Photographers which will overlay sunrise and sunset times and directions as well as depth of field and angles of view for different lenses, cameras, apertures and subject distances on top of Google Maps. Brilliant for ensuring that if you have no choice but to shoot into the sun at the finish line, you at least have the option of some fill flash. It will also show you that there are no straights worthy of the 600mm or vistas that can be captured with the 15...

But some of you will be saying ‘You’re just playing at the margins – trying to find ways of taking slightly less obsolete, heavy DSLR kit when you could go mirrorless’. Sadly, for now, you’re wrong – mirrorless is great for travel photography – of which, more in Part II – but hopeless for sports photography for half a dozen reasons - AF performance is good in certain conditions, but not good enough in most; lens choice is far too limited – especially at the long end; electronic viewfinders don’t respond quickly enough; the bodies and lenses are starting to get some weather sealing, but they’re nowhere near robust enough; RAW buffers aren’t big enough (also a problem on some high-end DSLRs, to be fair) and on-camera flashes aren’t good enough. Oh – and poor battery life (because of small batteries, because of small bodies – ironically).

It will all come in time, but there’s no sign of it coming any time soon. And with two bodies and lots of long, fast lenses, the weight and size advantages will be way down the list of reasons to convert – and will mostly disappear on full-frame bodies.

But as we’ll see in Part IV – for some things they’re perfectly fine. For some sports stuff they’re fine, too – but  you have to work within the limitations. To try to avoid always taking the same shots at Monday night track league, I do a series of theme lights – one zoom night (the 70-200, inevitably), prime night (usually the 85mm f1.8 – but I’ve done it with the 300mm f4 and the 105mm f2 DC), black and white night and, more recently, Fuji night.

Pre-V4Before the V4 firmware upgrade for the X-T1, sports shooting wasn't so much hit and miss as mostly miss

The first Fuji night was all done using the X-T1 and the 56mm f1.2 – which is essentially equivalent to the 85/1.8 on the full frame Nikon. It was OK, but the relatively poor ultra-high ISO performance – and we’re talking relative to the D4S – and the lack of a decent flash system meant that it was only really feasible at midsummer, and even then the end of the evening was a real challenge.
The second time I tried it with the 50-140 (70-200 equivalent) and it was a disaster – the body/lens combo just wouldn’t track anything other than big objects on plain backgrounds in good light – fine for airliners on approach at LHR, but pretty useless for track cyclists in the setting sun. The keeper rate with the 56 was way down on shooting with the D4S (which is what you’d expect – but with the 50-140 is was close to zero. 

The new V4 firmware for the X-T1 changed that dramatically. The problems as the floodlights come on and the sun disappears completely remain – the low ISO range and lack of flash are compounded by the AF system giving up again – but in good light it works very well. The IS and the optics were always promising and the body is now up to the job. Bodies, in fact, because the new X-T10 worked almost as well. The frame rate is lower and there’s no grip, so portrait mode shooting is awkward, but it’s really very good.

If they want to play in the space occupied by the D4S and 1D X (sort of...), it’s there for them – if Canon or Nikon doesn’t get there first. But there’s work to do. I suspect the first really capable mirrorless sports/PJ camera will be competing with the D6 – or maybe the D5s.

So the conclusion to this ramble is that, if you want to travel light and shoot sports, the best bet is the old faithfuls – two bodies, a wide zoom and the trusty 70-200. In Part III I’ll talk about slimming down the workflow and there, in the field, at least, there is more hope. Part II, though, is all about the current workflow.


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