Photographers often stress too much on assignments about the job and overlook little things. I won’t pretend like I don’t do it myself. Especially when it’s a last-minute job or I’m working under a serious time crunch. So, I wanted to put together a blog post reminding us all to remember the little things that will in turn make our photos, and our work in general, better.
Synchronize Your Clocks
One of the first things you should do on an assignment, perhaps even before you leave for your assignment, is to synchronize your camera clocks to the local time where you will be shooting. Make sure all cameras are perfectly synced to each other, as well. When your assignment involves multiple cameras, everyone’s clocks should be synced. This will be a tremendous help for your editor(s) and is just a good practice for organization purposes. When you’re working for wire services, the less the desk editors have to mess with, the better. So if you send in files with correct dates that match the captions, they will spend less time processing the files and get them posted and out to clients faster.
Clean Up Your Background
This is something that I never really paid a lot of attention to in my early years, until I started working for Getty Images. I think a lot of photographers are the same. We all worry about the immediate subject we are shooting, rather than the whole scene. Sometimes, obviously, backgrounds can only be cleaned so much. You’ll notice a lot of my UFC shots have annoying bright-colored banners in the background. I try to eliminate them when I can, but there are just so many that it’s impossible to have a completely clean background. If I only transmitted completely clean background images from a UFC fight, I would have a take of maybe 4 or 5 photos. So, you have to accept that it’s not always going to be possible. But, you should also do whatever you can to put yourself in the best position to obtain a clean background. Some things you can do include shooting with a wide aperture to get a shallow depth of field, get low and shoot upwards, or get high and shoot downwards. Sometimes, the background helps make the shot too, so you have to always be looking for things like that. When a fighter jumps on the cage to celebrate after a big knockout, the first thing I do is grab a quick couple of frames of him that captures his immediate emotion. After that, I look in the background and start looking for pockets of light that hit the crowd who are also going crazy. It doesn’t always work out, but sometimes if I catch the light right and the fighter is looking in the right direction, it makes for a cool frame. Even though the background is not really clean. But, in general, you should always try to produce as clean of a background as possible.
AF Focus Points
This seems to be one of the more difficult concepts for newer sports photographers to grasp. I was guilty of this too, in my early days. For most sports, I would always suggest shooting with a single AF focus point. You want to make sure that focus point is sitting on whatever it is in the frame that you want to be in focus. Typically, this is the face of the subject. Obviously, it’s not always easy to keep the AF point on the subject’s face, and sometimes there is not much contrast in the face to be able to quickly grab focus. If you’re shooting football or baseball, you can put the AF point on the center of the player’s chest. There’s usually good contrast with uniform numbers and logos to be able to quickly grab focus, and most of the time, the depth of field is good enough to allow the face to still be pretty sharp. The main point of what I’m trying to say here though is that you should not just set your AF point to the center and leave it there. Learn the functions of your camera and move the AF point around. Program registered AF points that you can quickly switch between. You will see an immediate difference in your results if you’re accustomed to focusing with the center AF point and re-composing the frame.
Set The Correct White Balance
Again, this may sound like a given, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve ran into who don’t understand anything about color temperature and white balance. One of the first things you should do on an assignment is set your white balance correctly. Avoid using auto white balance (AWB) at all costs. Obviously, there are some situations where AWB might be the best option, but in general, it is not. Learn the color temperature of different types of lights and set your white balance manually. Use your preview screen for fine tuning. You can develop your own style and preferences from that too. For example, normal daylight color temperature should be somewhere around 5600K. However, when I’m shooting in direct sunlight, or with daylight balanced strobes, I prefer to set my white balance a little warmer and typically end up somewhere around 6300K. There are various tools on the market that allow you to “auto-magically” set a custom white balance, too. I don’t have an issue with these most of the time, but I would still recommend you learn about color temperature and know how to set the white balance manually.
Off-Camera Flash > On-Camera Flash
If you must use a flash, take it off camera when possible. Get an off-camera flash cable, wireless transceivers, or wireless flash. I’ll steal a concept from one of my mentors, Dave Black. Think of your lighting scheme in terms of a triangle. Your camera is one point of the triangle, the subject is another point, and the flash is the third point. If the camera and the flash are on the same point, the results just don’t look good. It could be as simple as hand-holding the flash and moving it a foot or two to the left of the camera. Just try it out and look at the results. Compare it to an on-camera flash shot. You will never go back once you see the difference.
Only Transmit Sharp Images
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people transmit images that are not sharp. Most wire services will reject images that are not sharp. Every editor has a different idea of what is sharp, but you should always make it a priority to send the sharpest images possible. If an image is soft, figure out why and work to improve it next time. You should get in the habit of checking your images on the back of your camera. Zoom in to 100% and check to see how sharp it is. Don’t think just because it’s only going on the web it’s ok. Soft is soft, and no amount of unsharp mask can fix that. And the solution is not to just shoot everything at f8. Whatever it is you shoot, whether it be fights, baseball, hockey, whatever. Take your camera and lens that you will be using. Set the settings to exactly what you will use for the assignment and under the exact lighting conditions you will use, shoot something or somebody that is completely still. Zoom into that image at 100%. Unless your camera or lens has some sort of issue, that is what a sharp image should look like. So as you’re shooting the rest of the assignment, review from time-to-time and make sure your images are relatively close in sharpness to that image.
Always Be Prepared
You should always do everything you can to be prepared for an assignment. Do your homework. Get to know your subject. Depending on the assignment, this could mean a number of different things. If you’re shooting somebody’s portrait, try to learn a little about the person. See if you can learn a little about their personality, their likes and dislikes, their quirks. Don’t be an ass-kisser, but it never hurts to be personable and try to make your subject feel comfortable. If you’re shooting a sport you’re not familiar with, doing your homework means you need to get familiar with the sport. You need to learn the rules. You need to know what to look for. Where do the big plays happen? When and where are you likely to see celebration? Who are the key players? Are there any records that may be set or broken? Point is, don’t just show up without having done some research and homework. You don’t want to be stressed trying to figure things out as the shoot unfolds. I see this all the time and I think it really hinders the quality of images the photographer produces.