Shooting sports with an EVF

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing my son play hockey at a tournament near Boston.  Of course, I brought my trusty Sony A77ii along for the ride.  As some of you may know, hockey is one of the most difficult sports to shoot.  The contrasts are sharp between the players and the white sheet of ice, you’re behind a piece of scratched glass, and the action just flies by.  Trying to track a single player is difficult due to other players passing in front of your subject at high speeds.  I won’t even mention the quality of the lighting in an arena!

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the lag between the shot and the corresponding image that is displayed on the EVF.  What hogwash!  Despite all the issues, I managed to get over 95% or better keeper rate on my pictures out of nearly fifteen hundred shots.  Let me share a few hints about how I shoot hockey.

First of all, gear.  Sorry everyone, but when it comes to sports, gear matters.  You can’t hope to get a good shot if you don’t have a good high speed camera body and good lenses.  A good lens is probably the most important part.  I put some money down and purchased a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8.  It’s big, it’s heavy but it’s also essential if you want to shoot hockey.

Lighting.  Arenas are notorious for bad lighting.  This usually results from mercury vapour lamps that are all connected on the same phase of an alternating current circuit.  This results in the lighting getting brighter and dimmer on a 60 Hz cycle.  You can’t see it with the human eye, but when you’re shooting at 1/1000th of a second at 12 fps, your images appear brighter and dimmer in the sequence you shoot.  This inconsistency makes using a preset in Lightroom next to impossible.  Not much you can do here, but I usually overexpose by about +0.3 to +0.7 EV.  Also, make sure your light metering is centre weighed.  Not spot metering in the middle of your shot but center weighed.  Fortunately, more and more arenas are opting for LED lights which don’t suffer from the 60 Hz cycling.  The light is white and even.  Try to shoot at these arenas if you can.

Point the camera to the ice and use it as a reference to set your white balance.  Look for an area where the lighting is even.

Set the drive to high speed shooting (I’m lucky, I can go 8 or 12 fps).  Set the camera to aperture priority and the lens wide open.  Then take it one step down to give yourself a little leeway on focusing.  Set the ISO so you can have a shutterspeed of 1/500th or faster.  Or, you can also go manual, fix your shutterspeed and set ISO to automatic.  With the A77ii, there is a high speed dedicated mode that works quite well but fixes the aperture at f/3.5.  Now you’re ready to shoot.

Now, you have to know the game.  Seems pretty obvious but essential when tracking a subject.  At first, I keep both eyes open with the camera pressed to my right eye.  Then I try to read the play, the same way a hockey player does.  (It helps if you’ve played the game. Especially as a goalie since you’re used to reading the play from a fixed position).  Once I feel I know the play being set up, I close my left eye and just follow the action on the EVF.  Any lag doesn’t matter to me since I’m watching the play like on television.  I’m following my favourite player.  Tracking the movement and zooming in or out to frame the view.  When the player gets a pass or starts to make his move, I start shooting and track the player.  I don’t get distracted by other players in the field of view.  Like a submariner looking through a periscope, I track my target.

If there is any lag in the viewfinder, it doesn’t affect me.  My hands may be ahead of my eyes and head that are a few milliseconds back but I still manage to track my target.  Kind of like a hand holding a pencil on a tablet on a horizontal surface but the eyes are tracking the cursor on the screen.  Like a drummer who does separate beats with the right and left hand.  It just takes practice and maybe a little skill.

I hate these critics who complain about EVF lag.  It is really minimal.  Like in all aspects of photography: Learn to adapt!

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