Wednesday night I got photo credentials (thanks to my buddy, sports photographer Andy Gregory) to shoot the USF Bulls vs. Pitt college basketball game and I absolutely stunk. So much so, I wasn’t even going to show any photos from the shoot, but there was one teaching moment in all of this mess, so I thought I’d show just enough to keep from totally humiliating myself.

First, a lovely iPhone photo of my gear
Here’s what I took to the shoot. Two bodies: A Nikon D3s and a D3. Two lenses: my beloved 300mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8 on my second body. It got there in my Think Tank Airport International rolling camera bag, and I remembered the all important basketball shoot collapsible seat. A lean, mean set-up. So far, all is well.

It Started Off With Such Promise
When you shoot basketball, in many cases the spots where you’re allowed to shoot from are pre-assigned before you get to the arena, and when you get to the photographers work room, you look at the seating chart to find out where you’ll be sitting. They only had 8 spots filled (and there’s usually around 16 or more), so I was pretty happy to see lots of open spots (my name wasn’t listed, but I figured somebody wouldn’t show up, so I’d take their spot).

About two minutes prior to game time, there were a total of only four photographers in their spots, so I just took a seat to the right of the basket, with the Bulls heading my direction. So far, I’m thinking “This is going to be sweet. I can shoot for just about any corner, or right up under the basket. Lots of room to move, stretch out. This is going to be a great night.”

(Above: He’s got a funky look on his face, but I like the frantic coach in the background. Not a good shot, but then, none of these are. Brad says it looks like the coach is slapping him in the head).

Then I Picked up my Camera
It seemed pretty bright in USF’s Sun Dome arena, but when I picked up my camera and pressed the shutter button half way down to get a reading at my usual starting aperture of f/2.8 at 1,250 ISO, I was stunned to see it read a shutter speed of only 1/200 of a second. I need at least 1/1000. Uh oh.

I cranked it up to 1,600. Oh oh. 2,000 ISO. Rats. 3,200. Still between 1/500 and 1/640. I wound up at 4,000 ISO and still couldn’t get much above 1/800 most of the night. This was the first time I had ever shot at f.2/8 and had to shoot above 1,600 ISO. I want to apologize in advance to every one reading this who is thinking, “I have to deal with lighting like that all the time.” If it’s any consolation—I truly feel your pain.

It wasn’t just the lighting
If there’s anything worse than bad lighting for sports photography, it’s probably empty seats, and on this particular night, there were plenty of them. The arena wasn’t full, and everybody that was there sat on the sides, which left the sections behind the basket nearly empty. So were all the top sections, so if I went wide, you saw lots of empty seats. If I shot down court you saw lots of empty seats. So, I tried to compose so you wouldn’t see a bunch of empty green seats. Bad idea.

It wasn’t just the lighting and the empty seats
It was me. I just had a lame night of shooting. I couldn’t get anything going. I was stinking—I knew I was stinking, and I still stunk it up. It was stink-fest 2011. My timing was off. I didn’t like the color of the images. I was missing stuff left and right, and absolutely had no excuse. Uggh.

Assigning Blame
Although I am totally to blame for this lame shoot, I think it’s fun to assign blame to others anyway. Let’s start with the refs. They were clearly out to get me. I saw this view more than any other all night. If I moved to a different shooting location, I swear I could hear one of the refs call out to the other refs—he’s over there now. Stand right in front of him.

Death From Above: Flash grenades
There was another photographer I recognized there, and he was shooting for the Bulls themselves. Nice guy, and we’ve talked several times at different events. He had some flashes mounted in the arena, and he used them against me, setting them off any time I might get a decent shot (as seen above). I’d look over and instead of shooting, he was watching me shoot, with one hand on the trigger of his Pocket Wizard. This was all part of a master plan to make sure I wouldn’t get anything decent. Their plan was working.

A Teaching Moment
Besides learning that I can really stink it up, there is something that might potentially help someone new to shooting sports, so here goes. For most sports shoots, I shoot in JPEG mode (don’t freak out—read this post first, then freak out). On my 2nd body (with my 24-70mm) I notice that the shots are looking really flat. I check all my standard settings, and take a few more test shots, and they’re just looking incredibly flat, so I go to my Shooting Menu to see what my Picture Style settings are. For some reason (Brad!) they had been changed from Standard to Neutral. Normally, if you shoot in Raw, Lightroom and Camera Raw completely ignore these settings, but in JPEG it applies them, and that Neutral setting is really flat.

During a time-out in the first period, I took the test shot you see above with the Picture Style still set on Neutral (I was shooting the floor, not the cheerleaders), and sure enough—the brightly painted wood floor looked pretty flat.

Then I switched back to Standard, and I could immediately see the image look much more contrasty and the colors look more vibrant. Of course, I could have switched to Vivid Light as well for even more vibrant colors (and I considered it), but I thought I’d stick with Standard, and from there on, the color looked much better. Of course, improved color can’t override bad photography, so while it didn’t help my case, at least this Picture Style thing is something you can keep in mind when you’re shooting in JPEG.

All in All, It Stunk
Getting bad shots is bad enough, but it gets worse. The USF Bulls are my home team (The University of South Florida is in Tampa. It’s where Matt graduated from), and although they were leading at the half, in the 2nd period Pitt just caught fire and we wound up losing by like 19 points. Yeech!

A Bad Shoot is Still Good Practice
It was still worth going, and I learned to make sure I check Picture Styles when things look flat. Most importantly, I got to practice some real world blame assignment, in which I was able to liberally assign the root causes of my lame shoot to everything from the arena lighting, the guy with mounted strobes, the refs, to even the JPEG camera settings themselves. All and all, I feel pretty good about spreading it around like I did, which is an art unto itself, and an important step in my growth as a blame-assignment photographer. ;-)