Parental Sports Photography – My most Fantastic Voyage

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Where do I start? Yeah that’s the same question I have been asking myself since Scott and Brad offered me the chance to be a guest blogger. First I am under no illusions that I am anywhere near a good enough photographer to share the same forum as Bill Frakes, Mike Olivella or any of the other fantastic photographers that have preceded me. I am just a very proud Dad who started out trying to take pictures of his son playing soccer. So I am both humbled and honored to have this chance and I hope that maybe a few of you will enjoy my ramblings and a few of my shots.

I started getting into photography about six years ago when my son was in the 6th grade and became starting goalkeeper for his middle school soccer team. I bought my first digital camera without much knowledge or thought. A Panasonic FZ-20, 5MP 10x zoom and I thought I was ready for SI! At first I was happy with my choice because I could take pretty good pictures of my son standing still in front of the goal.

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But as soon as I started taking action shots the ball was blurry or my son was blurry and I never seemed to get the shot I wanted.

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I wanted my pictures to just look better than they looked. I made that Panasonic work for middle school but I knew as my son entered High School that I needed a better camera and I needed to be a better photographer. So after saving my pennies and trying to learn a little more about cameras I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D80 with an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. Wow what a difference, my action shots actually started looking like action shots!
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I saved a little more and got a 70-300 VR f/4.5-5.6 lens to get closer to the action and the shots that I wanted.

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But still those shots were very rare for me. And at night they were horrible! What was I doing wrong? I wanted more consistency and really more keepers from the shots I was taking. I starting playing with all the settings and shooting anything I could shoot to see what it looked like when I changed certain things. But I still didn’t know all the things I need to know. I didn’t understand the difference between f-stop and a stop sign and what the heck was ISO?

I tried reading books about photography, and that’s when I first encountered the name “Scott Kelby.” I bought “The Digital Photography Book: Volume 1,” and there was this amazing section about shooting sports that I still refer to today. I finally understood what I was doing wrong, what I was almost doing right, and that I had to start saving and get some really good fast glass to get the kind of shots I wanted to hang on the wall of fame I had planned for my son.

So after more saving of even more pennies and doing some research I ordered the legendary 70-200mm Nikon VR f/2.8 lens and headed to a soccer game. I had read and reread the section in Scott’s book about shooting sports with the lens wide open, so I set my aperture to f/2.8. I knew from the book that I didn’t want my shutter speed to dip below 1/640 so I raised my ISO, took a reading, and settled in for the game to start.

I took my first series of shots and looked down on the LCD screen and literally took off running to show my wife the shot.

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They finally looked like I wanted! And I started getting more and more keepers every time I shot. But I did notice that I also had a lot of shots where the ball was just out of the screen or just coming in to the screen or just not where it needed to be for those SI type shots. This is when I learned what the two words “frame-rate” meant!

In case you haven’t noticed yet I am the type of guy who goes out and tries something first and then after I fail miserably I go and read the instructions! So again I started saving again and I bought a Nikon D300 and a MB-D10 battery grip, now I had 8 frames per second! And that has made all the difference in my shots.

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I could have saved myself a lot of time and money if I had read Scott’s book first, but I would do it all again because of all the things I learned on the journey. One of the first statements in Scott’s section on sports photography is that it’s expensive, so if you want the type of shots I did be prepared to shell out some bucks.

Along the way I have gotten some shots of my son that I think are really pretty good. I read on Scott’s blog about the “Shoot on the sidelines with Scott and Mike” contest and decided to enter really just as a way of honoring my son and what a fine young man and great goalkeeper he has grown into.

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I just wanted other people to see a good shot of him doing the thing he loves most in the world. I really gave no thought to winning, and that was reinforced every day when I would look at the shots that had been uploaded for the contest. There were so many amazing shots that I was just hoping to maybe get an honorable mention.

When the day of the announcement of the winner came around I had almost forgotten about it. I got to work and was involved in something when I thought to check the blog to see who won. The site loaded up and I saw my name and I was dumbfounded. I actually turned my monitor around and ask the guy in front of me if I was reading it right! I am still amazed and honored to have won.

Then I get the call from Scott about not being able to go to FSU and that whole debacle. While I was disappointed, I was instantly fine with it. I had won! Now thousands of people were getting to see my son and my picture! How thrilling is that? And all the comments and support from everyone who reads Scott’s blog overwhelmed me. But the phone call I got from Scott the next day was the surprise of a lifetime. Scott called to tell me that we were going to see the Chicago Bears vs. the Cleveland Browns in Chicago. What an amazing make up prize!

I had never been to Chicago, so I flew up on the Saturday before the game and spent the whole day walking around the streets of Chicago sightseeing. My thanks to Kathy Siler at the Kelby group for getting me in the perfect place to do some sightseeing and for getting me there early enough to have a whole day to explore downtown Chicago! I went to the Skydeck in the Willis (Sears) Tower and to the top of the John Hancock Building and saw everything in between. I even managed to get a few good shots along the way. Here is a shot of my feet standing on the glass of the Skydeck looking down 103 floors.

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The world famous Cloud Gate aka The Bean.

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And the Chicago River at night.

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On Sunday Scott picked me up bright and early. We went to breakfast and talked about our families and photography and I was treated like we had been friends for years. When we arrived at Solider Field we accidentally ran in Mr. Mike McCaskey, owner of the Bears, and we were taken up to the owner’s suite. Mr. McCaskey then wanted to find a special vehicle that had been adorned with Bears logos and things and we walked around all the tailgaters searching. We actually found the vehicle and Mr. McCaskey spent roughly 20 minutes with the owners.

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He stopped countless times to shake hands and take pictures with any fan that asked.

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Mr. McCaskey and his family are the most down to earth, hospitable and just down right nice people you will ever meet. As was the entire Bear organization. Then of course we get down on the field and start shooting the game and after about five minutes up walks Mike Olivella and we start talking. He gives me a few tips and we all start shooting. At halftime we were invited back up to the McCaskey’s box for a feast of a lunch and then back to the field for the second half. It was truly a magical weekend that I will never forget.

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Scott has remained in contact with me from time to time and I was floored when he asked for my advice on shooting soccer. I told him the restrictions he was shooting under were very limiting but I told him how I would approach the game and gave him the one real tip I have and use. I usually go into the auto focus menu of my D300 and lower the focus points to 21 and sometime even 9 when the action gets faster. It seems to help the auto-focus track faster and just makes crisper images overall. I also set the AFS-C setting to release but I think those are very well known tips.

I tried to give him the locations that I stand in to get shots of both field players and the goalkeepers. My son even told me to tell him a few players to watch and two of the four he mentioned actually scored the 2 goals for the U.S. Team. So at least one of us knew our stuff! To shoot any sport well you really have to know the sport pretty well and the more you shoot the better you will get.

Since I have discovered photography I have always felt challenged to make better pictures. It is the one thing in life that I have found you can constantly learn more about. You can always get better at making pictures. It’s that knowledge that I can always get better that makes me want to learn everything I can about photography.

I also love history, and photography is a way of freezing a millisecond of history that I can enjoy as long as I live. It’s why I wanted to make those pictures of my son the best that I could make them. So I could always enjoy that moment.

I want to thank Scott, Brad, and Kathy Siler from the Kelby group for everything they have done for me. I want to thank Mike Olivella for all the tips and tricks and fellowship at the game as well as for being a stand up guy during all the drama of the contest. And I want to thank Scott Bourne of photofocus.com for sending me the wonderful gifts he sent me during that same drama. I want to thank Mr. Mike McCaskey, his family and the entire Bear’s organization for allowing me the chance to shoot the game at historic Soldier Field. I also want to thank each and every person who made comments of congratulations and support after the contest.

I also want to thank my wife, Leisa for sitting by herself at a lot of soccer games and for allowing me to pursue my photography addiction. I promised her I would look into to rehab for my problem!

And last and most especially I want to thank my son for being the subject of some of my best photography work. He is an amazing young man who is not only an All-District , All-Region Goalkeeper , but also #1 in his class in his high school. He works so hard and puts 100% effort into everything he does both on the athletic field and in the classroom. I am honored every time someone comes up to me and asks me “Are you Austin’s dad?” He is graduating high school in a few months and moving on to college. I wish that like my camera I could freeze history, but I know I can’t. It’s just the beginning of another chapter of my photographic journey.