Sunday, September 28, 2008

The road less traveled

I remember the day when the paper I worked at in Turlock made the move to color photos. A then state of the art Leaf Scan 35 film scanner we dubbed “The Mr. Coffee” would spend 10 minutes grinding out one color image. It was a brave new world as we stepped from the grainy world of black and white film imaging for full color reproduction.

How the road has changed since those days. Digital cameras with high megapixel resolution have replaced rolls of film forever. And in the thousands of pictures I have taken since then I thought my days of black and white photography were gone forever. But in my photo explorations of late I have seen a path I haven’t taken in years, a path to think more about shape and form, texture and composition than just the quality of color and light.

With hiking partner Alice back from Africa we headed out for an easy hike to the Morgan Territory near Livermore. Our plan was for a short two-hour or so trek around the Coyote Trail. I brought my Canon 40D and 24mm to 70mm lens along with a special plan, I was going to try and shoot in black and white.

I have always admired Alice’s black and white photography skills. Her photographic eye switches effortlessly between color and black and white as she see shape and form better than I can. On the trail she sees images in front of her in the subtle tones and shades of black and white and I have been itching to push my skills to see if I could see the same way.

Anyone who has worked on a picture in Photoshop or a similar photo-editing program knows it is a simple process to change a color photo to a grayscale image. It is most often just a mouse click to remove the color information. But I am talking about something more, it’s about seeing the picture in camera as black and white. Selecting a subject and composition that favors the contrast and shades of gray over color. Some of the trouble is that you see everything in color, as a photographer you become enamored with the colors more than the content.

So hiking through the trail I looked for scenes that would be striking not for the play of their colors but more for their shapes. Dramatic lines, stark lighting and deep textures were some of my choices. On my 40D I have a monochrome mode programmed as a custom function so I can easily switch between color and black and white. In black and white mode I made use of the exposure compensation to help generate the level of shadow and highlights I wanted knowing I could fine-tune the picture in Photoshop.

Every now and then I would come across a scene that just cried for color, peeling park on a manzanita tree or a clump of berries by the trailside I thought could only be captured in color. But sights from tree branches falling to the brush to leaves by the trailside were worthy black and white subjects.

I don’t think I did very badly for my first serious attempt at black and white photography in some time. It takes a little bit of thought to free your mind from the idea of color and focus on the composition and tones of the scene. One day I hope to be brave enough to shoot an entire hike only in black and white. That will be a path in my photography I haven’t ventured in some time but a journey well worth taking.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hi mom! I stole a car!

A car theft suspect wishes me a fond farewell as he heads off to prison.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Old school

I found this relic while digging around in my desk at work looking for a DVD. This is a proportion wheel which was used to determine the amount of enlargement for a picture or graphic to fill a given space. You would find the size of the original picture then match it to the desired reproduction size and read the amount of enlargement or reduction. I haven't used one of these in ages.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Home sweet home

It’s strange to think but this story was 16 years in the making. Standing on the sidelines in Steve Lopez Stadium history unfurled around me as the West High Wolfpack took the field. Their own home field.

The bright lights of Friday night finally shined at West High. Years of every football game being a road game ended with one kickoff as the newly dedicated stadium saw its first action against the Oakdale Mustangs. A rocky start eventually led to a West High Wolfpack come from behind victory but the star of the game wasn’t a player it was the stadium itself.

I had many assignments as the construction work progress through the year. The bleachers, the new all weather track being installed and eventually the artificial field turf being sown in place. It all led up to a dizzying day of activities as the school officially welcomed its new field into play.

A morning rally that somehow managed to cram the entire West High student body into the home side bleachers kicked of the day. The students and faculty were all excited as the anticipation was growing for kickoff later that day. It was quite the sight to see the bleachers packed against the sky.

Pregame festivities that night included the official dedication of the stadium to head coach Steve Lopez. Alumni gathered to present him with a game ball before hugs and tears as the team prepared to take the field.

The Wolfpack’s field and stadium make it the class act of the league, looking more like a small college field than a high school. The lights are some of the brightest I have shot under since my college days and the looks is professional. It is probably an optical illusion but the field looks big, bigger than most fields I have been too. A rowdy cheery section and the numerous video cameras recording the game for broadcast gave it that college game day feel.

The West High team may have had to suffer through years of road trips, a stranger’s house and the lack of a true home field but the new facilities make up for that long wait. They finally have a true home field advantage when they head under the Friday night lights.

Late night blaze

I was just settling in for the evening when the sound of sirens nearby caught my attention. Turning on the scanner I found there was a 2-alarm structure fire close by. Most of the photos from the fire never made it to print or even online but I was still happy with my work work and quick response. This is what the fire scene looked like late Tuesday night.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A little bit of history

There isn't anything really remarkable about this photo, it's just another football player scoring a touchdown. What makes this picture significant is that this is Millennium High’s Izzy Shanks crossing into the end zone with a touchdown. The score was the first touchdown ever for the Millennium High team and will be written down in record books and school histories. Long after I am dead and buried and new Millennium players look back at the school history there will be an image associated with the record, this moment captured on a Saturday night, just a little bit of history but it is kind of cool.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Point and shoot

This is Canon's newest camera in their Powershot series of point and shoot cameras, the Powershot G 10. It features 14.7 megapixels, a 3" rear color LCD screen, real image optical viewfinder and built in optical image stabilization. It has a f.2.8 maximum lens speed and focal length equal to 28mm to 140mm with it's built in flash it tips the scales at just over 12 oz and is expected to retail for $500 in October.

I love my Canon G3 point and shoot I used it on my solo hike up Mount Diablo and I love the convenience of a small point and shoot. This is the latest in the G series upgrades and will probably have a place in my camera collection sometime in the future.

What I find sad is that only about five years separates the $500 14.7 megapixel Canon G 10 and the Tracy Press' first digital camera purchase, the Nikon D1 which recorded a whopping 2 megapixels and sold for $5,000. Yep we even bought two of them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Balancing act

When you think about sports photography what do you think is the biggest challenge? Getting the action in sharp focus? Finding that peak moment of action in a fast moving play? Those are all good answers but sometimes it isn’t the action that takes the most work. Sometimes the most difficult thing about a sports assignment is not what I shot but who I shoot.

You would be surprised how many people think the paper is biased toward one high school over the other. Stand on a West High sideline and I field questions why Tracy High gets all the stories. Cover A Tracy High game in Swenson Gym and they wonder why I spend all my shooting time at West High. I just can’t win.

If you want to raise the “you like the other school better” stakes higher head over to a crosstown rivalry match. Today found me doing the triple play of rivalry games as covered the crosstown tennis match and water polo matches hosted by West High. Whatever I do, whatever I shoot I have to balance out the coverage or I’ll hear about it for sure.

In some ways it is easier to shoot a crosstown match or any game where two of the hometown teams are playing whether it is Little League, youth football or any of the high schools. Think about it, anyone on the field of play is a subject, it doesn’t matter if I am shooting offense or defense or who has the ball, it’s always a local player so it is freewheeling with the motor drive, or so you would think. But that is where the issue of balance comes into play, the ideal of equal coverage to both teams no matter what the score.

So being a Tracy High graduate from the early 1980’s you might think that my heart lies with the Bulldogs so I will always bias my coverage towards them. Guess again. When I’m on assignment I have a whole set of priorities and absent from them is who I want to win. I am concerned with mundane issues like rosters, shooting positions, which spot has the best light, which spot is the safest to shoot from, how much time do I have to shoot, etc. The list is long and boring but nowhere on it is rooting for one team over the other.

Honestly I really don’t care which team or player wins. I am concerned about one thing, pictures. It’s all about capturing the action. I need to get a variety of pictures to submit what we call a “package” in the business. For example shooting the crosstown tennis match I really don’t pay attention to who is winning who is crushing their opponent, I just need a couple of good action shots to accompany the story. I planned to make thing as equal as could by shooting four players, two from each school by covering the #2 and # singles matches.

It may look like I am shooting one player more than another but sometimes I get things in focus faster than other times. I stayed with each player just long enough to make sure I had a nice shot from one player before I moved to the next. A lot of it is racing the clock as all the matches are going on at the same time so it is run-and-gun. Get a good shot and keep moving. The hard part is trying to make sure all four shots look different. Four backhand return photos would be a little monotonous for the reader.

Shooting the crosstown tennis and making things equal was easy but it gets a little dicey moving up to the action of the water polo games. This is the spot where the perception of bias creeps in. It may look like one team gets more coverage than the other or I took a photo of one team doing better than the other. It’s a snake pit and you just have to jump in.

So while shooting the water polo some things are just obvious. I shot the girls game on half from the end of the pool with West High on offense and one half with Tracy High on offense although I still shoot the opposite end of the pool catching the other team on defense. So the game plan is I have West High on offense with Tracy High on defense and then Tracy High on offense with West High on defense along with any mad scrambles for the loose ball from both teams. Sound a little confusing? The real fun is back at the office with the edit.

Like any assignment I never edit in the field. Shoot everything and then make decision about what runs back in the confines of the office. So in the hundreds of photos I shoot from the varsity boys and girls games odds are one photo may not be as complimentary towards one teams performance as another. Then the question becomes why did I pick one photo over another for each of the teams? The answer is simple, it all about the action.

So what are my criteria for a good sports photo? Top feature is it has to be in focus. Doesn’t matter how good the action looks if the focus isn’t there so a sharp picture is critical. Second is the quality of the action. Is it a peak moment of the game, does it capture a sense of speed or power of the sport? And lastly is it an accurate representation of the action in the game? That is a judgment call the photographer makes and probably the one that irks readers the most. “Why did you have to show that?” readers ask. Because it was a part of the game, maybe an important part- a moment that made a change in a scoring opportunity or the flow of the game. Whatever the reason I chose the photo it meets those criteria but I still have the balancing act to perform.

As I edit I start to look at how many photos have the West High player dominant in the frame with their face clearly visible. I try to keep an equal number of photos with Tracy High players as the prominent player in the picture. If I luck out and have a photo where both players’ faces are visible and appear about the same in the image then I call that a neutral shot and that can be part of an odd number submission. So maybe in the end I might three of each school with an odd number neutral. Then I have to make sure I have the same number of submission for boys and girls teams so I don’t appear to be sexist.

You may think I am a little paranoid toward the readers reaction to my work, but I have learned from the past what people think. From parents who count the column inches of the stories and then complain when one team gets an inch more than the other to the people who still think we have it in for their high school we are fighting an uphill battle against the perception of bias in the coverage. In the end I am only out for the action, I save my rooting for the important sports teams. Go 49ers!