Soccer – If you think it is a slow, no contact, low excitement sport, think again. The contact and grit is palpable, the pitch – feverish, and the action is quite explosive. It is emotional.
It is like a fine wine – you have to develop an appreciation for soccer’s spin on contact, grit, and action. For the faithful, it is no less than “a matter of life and death, except more important.” William “Bill” Shankley. It is the “ballet of the masses.” Dmitri Shostakovich.
Soccer presents at least three challenges for the photographer. First, the field is quite large. FIFA optimal dimensions are: 110–120 yards (100–110 m) long by 70–80 yards (64–73 m) wide, and therefore wider than regulation American football 53.3 yards (48.7 m), so there is more field to cover. Second, unlike American football, typically, the photographers are limited to shooting in one place – in Major League Soccer from behind one goal or the other. So, the shooter is largely stationary for each half. Because of that, the reality is that you shoot half of the field and wait for the action to come to you.
And, third, many of the games begin at dusk and end at night, and the timing of matches can wreak havoc with both the white balance setting in a changing light situation, and the interaction between the holy trinity of photography: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture as the sun sets.
White Balance: “The color of an object is affected by the lighting conditions under which it is viewed. Our eyes and our brain compensate for different types of light—that’s why a white object appears white to us whether it’s viewed in sunlight, under overcast skies or indoors under incandescent or fluorescent light. But digital cameras need help to emulate this process, to compensate for different types of lighting and render a white object white. The white balance setting is that help.” Nikon | Learn Explore, Setting White Balance. Thus, “white balance is nothing more than an adjustment to get the color you want.” Ken Rockwell, How to Set White Balance. The color conditions are measured as a temperature – called degrees Kelvin.
In the typical Major League Soccer summer match, play starts at 7:30 p.m. and the field is lit mostly by the early evening sun which the stadium lights supplement. As the match winds on, the balance between the sun and the lights changes constantly, with the stadium lights taking over most of the lighting duty – first the sun supplements the lights and later the sun fades completely leaving the illumination chores exclusively to the stadium lights. The color temperature of the stadium lights and the sun are quite different. The dynamic early evening blend between sun and lights presents a ever-changing color temperature until the sun completely sets.
While you can try to adjust the white balance of your camera many times as the mixture of sun and stadium lights changes, a better strategy is to just set the white balance to automatic and let the camera determine the proper white balance. The automatic function will operate faster than you could repeatedly change your white balance setting, and the modern camera’s auto white balance setting performs admirably under these conditions. So, so set it, forget it, and trust the camera to do its white balance thing. This will free you up to concentrate on the moments of the match and the best holy trinity settings. The auto setting is not perfect as it reflects the camera’s best efforts to determine the color temperature at the time of the shot and make the image adjustment, but, you shoot in raw, right? If so, you can easily adjust the white balance in Lightroom or Photoshop’s camera raw settings to tweak the color temperature to optimize your shots.
Manual vs. Aperture Priority vs. Shutter Priority: There are always three digital camera settings that work in tandem – the holy trinity of photography: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Properly configured, these settings create an image with the proper amount of light, the speed to freeze the action, and the aperture size to limit depth of field to isolate the subject. The shutter speed goal is to shoot at a shutter speed of no less than 1/800 second, and at least 1/1000 second or higher if at all possible. The aperture goal is to use an f stop setting as wide open as possible to make the background blurred and thereby ensure that you isolate your subject (large opening means a shallow depth of field and draws the eye to the in-focus subject of the image: see do :: or :: diso issue no. 2, May, 2014. The ISO goal is to shoot with as low an ISO as you can so that the image is not noisy (high ISO = noise in your image: see do :: or :: diso issue no. 8, November 2014) and the picture quality does not degrade.
To add to the challenge, since the sunlight is diminishing, the settings for the three components will change, often dramatically, as the match wears on.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, I am not a fan of shutter priority. True, a fix might be to set the shutter at 1/1000 second, and thereby force the camera to shoot at the high speed, adjust the ISO to ensure that the shot works at such a high speed, and then let the camera pick the aperture. When the 7:30 pm match starts, however, there is enough natural light that if you choose an ISO of 1000, and a shutter speed of 1/1000 second, the camera will begin to stop down the aperture to make this combination work and you will find, for example, that if the camera selects an f / 7.0 aperture, your image will have a greater depth of field, too much will be in focus behind your subject, and your subject will not pop because it will not appear isolated.
A better approach as the match begins is to use aperture priority, set the ISO at 1000, set the aperture at f / 2.8 and let the camera pick the speed. You will find that during the predominant sunlight period, shutter speeds will approach or exceed 1/1600 second – superb for freezing action. As the sun sets, the 1000 ISO setting and the f / 2.8 aperture can remain constant, and monitor the shutter speed as it begins to diminish. When the shutter speed drops to 1/1000 second, you can begin to raise ISO. By the time the sun is gone, ISO may be up to 2500, and the shutter speed may be under 1/1000 second. At this point, when there is only one, constant light source, switch to manual settings, try to set the shutter to 1/1000 second, the aperture to f / 2.8, and then dial up the ISO until you have an acceptable exposure. At most MLS and many college fields, the ISO will end up somewhere between 2500-4000, which in the modern cameras, will still yield a sharp image.
Enjoy the match. Keep shooting when it is over!
do :: or :: diso will take a month off (no September issue) and will be back in circulation with an October issue dedicated to the athletic body.