Freestyle Football Live at the Photography Show

A couple of weeks ago I spent a very energetic half hour shooting freestyle footballer Jamie MacDonald on the live stage at the Photography Show. There were a couple of hundred people in the audience, but I’m guessing not every reader of this blog was there, so I’ve packaged all the teaching points up with the pics into this post. I would loved to have videoed it, but as with the Nikon stage 2 days later, this turned out to not be possible. I wasn’t even able to get an audio feed from my microphone, but since it was such a visual thing anyway, it wouldn’t make much sense. Instead, let me try and impart some of the lessons I taught on the day.

First off, bear in mind that I’m shooting live, so there’s a lot of moving parts to consider and a small amount of pressure to perform. Secondly, since I’ve no idea how experienced the audience will be, I’ve got to pitch my info very carefully. Too technical, and I’ll lose lots of the beginners, but too simplistic, and many people will feel they’ve not learnt anything. Historically I’ve found that teaching anything technical to a group is very tricky indeed, as everyone learns at different speeds, so I tend to try and stick to talking about general principles, rather than getting too specific.

To kick things off, I start with just a “record” shot of Jamie doing his thing:

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show

This was taken on automatic exposure, auto white balance, auto ISO, you name it – I had it on auto. Essentially, it’s a shot you would get with a camera phone. I always call shots like this “record” shots, because all they do is effectively record what’s in front of the camera when you pressed the shutter. They offer no interpretation, or creative expression – just a shot that says “Here is a person doing freestyle football”. A record shot is OK to start with, but I think we need to take things further.

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show

Next, I add a light, in the form of a Profoto B1 with a beauty dish attached, and switch my exposure to manual. The auto exposure was 1/125s, f4 @ISO 6400, and the manual exposure was 1/250s, f4 @ ISO 200. Since I’m exposing for the flash now, and the flash is only really hitting Jamie, the rest of the NEC Hall 5 now goes dark. Great, that’s helped to focus our attention on Jamie and his skills, rather than being distracted by the crowd in the background. What the flash has also done is help us freeze movement in the shot. This happens because the duration of the flash itself is very short – something in the region of thousands of a second – and since almost all the light hitting Jamie is coming from the flash, the flash duration becomes my shutter speed. It’s the same trick I used for the “Moment of Impact” imagery.

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show

To take the aesthetics of the shot one step further, I added a second light, behind Jamie. This has the effect of backlighting and outlining him against the dark background. This is another Profoto B1 head, with a zoom reflector fitted. On a technical note, the Profotos were a superb choice for a shoot like this, as I simply had the Air remote on top of the camera, and the turned the various heads on and off, or the power up and down, as required. There was no need to run around the stage fiddling with all the settings. That is, until the finale, when I forgot to set the channels correctly!

I could stop here, as this is a perfectly decent image, and has met the brief of “Capturing Movement”, which is the topic I’m supposed to be covering. Instead, at this point I started talking about general principles that apply when shooting sports and action, and gave out lots of tips that anyone can apply to improve their chances of capturing those peak moments of action.

Freestyle Principles

The first thing I talked about was the theory behind the old saying “If you saw it you missed it”. What this means is that if you are shooting with a DSLR (this doesn’t apply to mirrorless or rangefinder cameras) then the physical nature of the camera means that you can’t see through the viewfinder at the same time as the camera sensor is exposed to light and able to take a picture. If you think about it, the mirror inside the camera body has to come up, to allow light through, and that blocks your view. The mirror then blocks the sensors “view” when you’re able to see. In practice, this means that you need to get into the habit of shooting something just before it happens – if you shoot exactly when it happens, then by the time you’ve pressed the shutter, and the mirror has gone up, the moment has now passed. This is a skill that takes a bit of practice, and it helps if you understand the activity that you’re shooting so you can get a feel for how the action will unfold

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show

So you need to learn to shoot something before it happens, and that brings me on to my next tip. Learn as much about the sport or activity as you can before you go and shoot it. Research where the best angles are, how the action unfolds, and you should be able to get yourself in position to get the best shots. This is particularly important with anything that’s happening live, but it can be just important with something you’ve got control over – such as photographing a freestyle footballer on a live stage! Jamie and I had spent a few minutes backstage rehearsing some of his more impressive moves, then when it came to the shoot, we had a “360” all lined up and ready to go.

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show
The “360” we came up with backstage. I say “we”, it was all Jamie really!

A couple of technical tips to wrap things up. Continuous autofocus is the best option for sports and action photography. Single shot will only allow you to shoot when the image is in focus, and won’t track focus as your subject moves, unlike continuous, which these days does a superb job of keeping a moving target in focus. To allow you even greater control over focusing, I suggest you start trying what’s called “back button focus”. This is a very old-school way of working whereby focus is activated via a button on the back of the camera, rather than when you press the shutter. It can take some getting used to, but its value lies in the fact that focusing and shooting become separate operations, allowing you to choose what to do when. This can be really useful for example when someone has a football in front of their face, but you don’t want focus to shift to the ball and keep it on them. Since the camera will only focus when you choose, you simply shoot without letting it focus, assuming you’ve already focused on the footballer behind the ball.

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show

A high frame rate is a really handy thing to have. The more frames per second you can fire off, the greater your chance of capturing that perfect moment of peak action. The Nikon D4 I’m shooting with will go at 10 frames per second, which is pretty decent, and with my Profoto B1s turned down low, they’ll be able to keep up too.

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show
4 frames from a 10 fps burst on the Nikon D4, with the Profoto B1s keeping up nicely

For the finale, I wanted to create a “stadium” for Jamie to play in, so I looked out from the back of the stage across the crowd, and got the audience to wave and clap as much as possible. I was hoping someone might have a football scarf, or a warm meat pie, but sadly not. I also had friends of mine who’d been patiently waiting at the back of the crowd with another pair of Profoto B1 heads, which they aimed back at the stage to create “Spotlights”. The magic of the Air remote allowed me to simply turn these heads on from the stage, and even adjust their power too. Of course, if I’d really been on the ball I would also have made sure that the 2nd light I added much earlier on was on the same channel as the other 3, which is why there’s no light on Jamie’s left in the final shot. Ah well, since that was the only cock-up I made during half an hour of shooting live, I can live with that!

Shooting Freestyle on the live stage at the photography show

Given that I only had a few weeks to prepare for this, and there were a few issues with the stage, I was very pleased with how it all went. Jamie was superb to work with, and there was a decent number of people queueing up afterwards to pick my brains, all of whom had pretty insightful questions. Keep your eyes peeled, as you may see me doing this sort of thing again at some point!

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