Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fencing photography on a budget

I'm desperate to tell you about brilliant author Eimear Mcbride's visit to the university, but I haven't time yet to edit all the photos and video - a few more days.

Instead, I wanted to show you a few of my favourite photos from last weekend's British Junior and Cadet British championships: all weapons, age groups from U14 to U20s. As usual I wandered around with my camera when duties allowed. There are a lot of people taking pictures (some of them on iPhones and iPads, which won't come out well) so I thought I'd give a few hints about how to get some decent shots. (Click on all these to enlarge, and see the whole set here).

Fencing halls are the bane of the photographer. The pistes on which the fencers perform are very close together. The fencers and referees very disobligingly move up and down, while other fencers, coaches and parents get in the way. The photographer can't get as close as s/he would like, and the angles are hard. It's OK if you can afford a massively fast long lens, but I haven't got £4000 spare, and anyway, people would be walking in front of you all the time.

Shall we dance?
The lighting is always, always terrible in sports halls: artificial and low. Add to that the incredible speed of the action and things get hard. Autofocus struggles to find the piece of the action you want amidst all the movement, so you're always struggling with the tension between getting enough light for a visible photo and missing the action. A full-frame camera and very fast professional lens will do it for you, but for the rest of us there's a trade-off.

My camera is an ageing Nikon D7000 - very good when new but not a full-frame, so it doesn't have a high-end sensor (which is what really matters, not megapixels). Under most conditions, it's pretty good but sports photography is hard - if you have a D3 or D4 you're thinking of replacing, let me know). For fencing, I use an incredibly cheap but brilliant lens: the f/1.8 50mm, which I think cost me £80. Another £150 would get me an f/1.2 which is very tempting, but for now this will do. 50mm lenses are incredibly sharp - the quality is superb because there are no moving parts, just lots of glass. The drawback is the fixed width: you can't focus in and out. Instead, you have to move until you've framed the shot you like, or be prepared to crop heavily. The strength is the aperture: you get loads of light with a 1.8 so you can up the speed and ISO settings. For fencing, I have it set on 1/1000th of a second, ISO 800. Never, ever leave your camera on automatic.

How to choose your shot: watch your fencers. See where on the piste they like to mix it up and focus on it. Then switch autofocus off: if you don't you'll miss the shot you want while it hunts for perfect focus.

The curse of autofocus: what would have been a great shot ruined because the focus settled on the background

Then wait for the fencers to move into your shot. As you can see from my photos, 1.8 gives you an incredibly narrow depth of field: there's a central point of absolute focus and a lot of the shot is out of focus. It's a lovely effect, but not one I'd choose all the time - it's one of the things which would be solved by investing the price of a used car on a lens (if you'd like to buy me one, get in touch).

What should you look for? Go for the badly-behaved and/or technically deficient fencers, especially at foil or epee. The best fencers are calm, controlled and undramatic. A slight movement at the right moment gets results with the minimum of fuss. But that's rubbish for photography. What you want is great big moments of acrobatic, balletic skill. Thankfully, lots of British fencers rely on athleticism rather than brains or timing: lots of their coaches will be looking at these photos and wincing!

Another victory

Note the score: he then lost 15-14

An armourer, viewed from above


Defeat and consolation

Disgusted with herself

Hit scored, but disgraceful technique

I like the symmetry here: hits, score, position.

It's hard to get a sense of movement in a still photo, though it can be done. I didn't have a monopod or tripod with me this time, but if I had, I'd have played with slow speeds and pans to capture movement. There are two types of shot I particularly like: the moments when blades bend when landing on an opponent or are parried, which require high-speed and luck, and the moment a fencer celebrates or despairs: when fencers have their masks on it's hard to convey personality but the seconds after a match ends are good for this.

I didn't take too many shots of defeat this weekend: the fencers are young and probably wouldn't appreciate it, though one mother framed a shot I took of her daughter on her knees in front of the victor as an aide-memoire to never let it happen again!

In some age groups the size difference is enormous

The final tip: digital cameras are great. I couldn't imagine using film: every shot costing money with no guarantee that you got it right. With digital you can fire off 50 shots in 10 seconds, knowing that you'll keep only one or two of them. What a luxury.

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