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Interview with Former Daily Cal Photographer Nathan Yan: Part II, Photography Tips and How-To

Without proper framing, this photo catches Riley as he hands off to a pair of mystery hands.
Without proper framing, this photo catches Riley as he hands off to a pair of mystery hands.

In Part I of this interview Nathan talked about the profession aspect of photography: what it's like shooting various sports, interesting moments while on the job, how to accommodate blueshift when photographing Jahvid Best.  In today's installment, he gives us some tips on how to improve our own photos.  He has advice for everyone, ranging from people with basic point-and-shoot cameras to those with DSLRs and advanced photo-editing software.

If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend you check out Nathan's four-part piece titled "Football Photography Xs and Os."  I found it to be a very informative piece filled with helpful examples.  Additionally, you can browse through the website for the photography decal he taught while at Cal.

After the jump Nathan gives us some advice and, following CGB interview tradition, tells us who he would love to punch in the face.  Many thanks to Nathan for participating in this interview and for sharing his expertise with us all!

CGB:  Your site has some great tips for using SLRs to take photos, but is there any hope for people taking pictures with point-and-shoots?  Any basic tips?

Nathan Yan: One of the biggest issues I see all the time is blurry photos from unsteady holding techniques.  A lot of people are very used to using flash to take pictures in lower-light conditions, which has the advantage of not exhibiting any blur (because a flash duration is very short - at most on the order of 1/10,000s or so - effectively operating as a very quick shutter speed).  So when they need to take images without a flash, or use a slow synchro flash mode to see more of the background, they just casually hold the camera in their hand in whatever awkward position that lets them hit the shutter button, and they shake the camera all around in this process and come out with blurry images.

There are a lot of ways to keep the camera steadier.  For most people, just considering the camera's stability and making sure you're holding it steady will go a long way.  You can also try a number of holding techniques - keep your elbows tucked closer to your body, steady the camera against your face (as if you were using an optical viewfinder, even if you don't actually have one), brace the camera onto a wall or shelf or some stationary object, and shooting after exhaling your breath (before inhaling the next one).

From a creativity standpoint, one of the most important things is to learn how to utilize a camera's zoom to change perspective.  Here's an experiment to try: take any object (a person's face is good), take a photo of it at the widest zoom, then zoom all the way in and back up until you get the object to be the same size in the image, and take another shot.  You'll notice a ton of difference between the two images - the long-distance shot will have a "flatter" perspective, and also have a cleaner background, while the up-close shot will show have stronger perspective distortion (closer things will be disproportionately larger), and also show more of the background.  Depending on how you want to shoot your subject, a certain perspective will look better, so you can use zoom creatively rather than just a way to zoom in when you can't get close enough.

CGB:  What about those of us who are SLR noobs?  What are some basic tips we could use to improve our photos?

Nathan: The experiment with zoom and perspective I mentioned above is a good starting lesson - I see a lot of DSLR users struggle with this as well.

With DSLRs, you have a lot more range not only in the amount of control you have over settings, but also how drastic of an effect these settings have on the final image.  A good example is the aperture value and its effect on depth of field (what range of distances you have in focus, which also affects how blurry the background and foreground look).  Even with higher-end point and shoots where you can control this, going from the smallest aperture value to the largest doesn't make much of a difference, while on even a basic DSLR kit, changing the value can turn a completely sharp image into one with barely anything but your main subject in focus.

So to fully utilize the camera, the first step is probably to familiarize yourself with all of the basic exposure settings (shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity), and the side-effects they have on images (blur, depth of field, noise).  The best brute-force way to learn this is to force yourself to use Manual mode and struggle with it for awhile, but shooting in something like Aperture-Priority mode is a good middle ground to give you control over the most important creative aspect (depth of field), and letting the camera handle the basic exposure calculations.

I do teach a photography class at Berkeley as well, under the student-taught decal program at Berkeley, and it's mostly geared towards the science of photography and technical camera operation. I have all the lecture slides and assignments posted up at if you or your readers are interested.

CGB:  Your website has a lot of information about taking photos during football games, when you're dealing with natural light or stadium lights.  Do you have much experience taking photos at Haas Pavilion?  Do you recommend any particular settings that allow for good pictures despite the wonky lighting in Haas?


The floor always seems to have a yellow/green tint at Haas...

Nathan: I've shot a few of the basketball games at Haas.  In general, indoor stadium lighting isn't too difficult because it's consistent - you can just dial in your settings at the beginning of the game and you're good to go (although that could be different, if you're in say a dilapidated high school gym where some spots on the court are better lit than others).

The only thing that makes these indoor venues tough is when you don't have the equipment capabilities to get your ideal settings.  The setup I use usually has an f/2.8 lens and ISO that I can ratchet up to 25,600, but if you've got a smaller aperture lens then you may have to crank up the ISO to deal with more noise, underexpose and deal with darker photos in processing, or (last resort) lengthen the shutter speed and deal with blur.

For Haas Pavilion specifically, I'm usually at f/2.8, 1/500s, and ISO1600, or sometimes at f/1.4, 1/500s, and ISO500 if I'm using my 50mm prime lens. But generally, you should just get to the game early and adjust the settings yourselves - even though these settings work for me, the ISO is calibrated differently for each camera, and the amount of light transmitted for a lens (t-stop, as opposed to f-stops listed here) varies as well.

An additional thing that you should preset (or just apply in post-processing, if you're shooting in RAW) is white balance to accommodate for the slightly "warm" color of the indoor lighting.  I find that a 4200K temperature (and a +10 tint adjustment towards magenta, based on Adobe Camera RAW settings) gets your colors balanced best.

CGB:  You say a wide-open aperture is great for capturing isolated subjects in a variety of lighting situations (and no blur with proper ISO manipulation!).  Are there cases when a wide-open aperture is less than optimal?

Proper depth-of-field settings help turn a picture like this:
Almost...(see how the subjects don't really stand apart from the background)

Into this:
Nailed it!


Nathan: As with anything there are tradeoffs. There are a few disadvantages to larger apertures, but there aren't really many cases where I'd set my aperture below maximum to get more depth of field.
  • Larger apertures are usually not quite as sharp. Most lenses, especially cheaper ones, will be sharper overall and have less optical problems like chromatic aberrations when used at smaller apertures - say f/5.6 or f/8 instead of the maximum f/2.8.  But for most purposes (making small prints, or posting images online), this effect isn't noticeable and certainly is minor compared to the effect it has on the sharpness of the background (which you usually don't want).
  • The shallower depth of field makes it harder to get correct focus. I've had many, many shots ruined by focus that is just a bit off, and it's one of the frustrating aspects about working with shallower depth of field.  However, I don't think using a larger depth of field as a crutch to mask focusing errors is a good idea.  For one, most focusing issues happen because the focus is set on the wrong thing (say the defender behind the subject, instead of the main player), so even with a larger depth of field the image won't look perfect, and you'll need a much, much larger depth of field to save even half the shots that are typically out of focus (you'd have to go from say f/2.8 to f/8).  And lastly, you'll never learn how to effectively react quickly and focus on the fly if you always rely on this to mask mistakes.
About the only situation where I'd use a larger depth of field is if the action between two subjects really spans a long distance in space - say a quarterback throwing to the receiver in front of him, or a striker facing down the goalkeeper.  Even in these cases, I'm usually more interested in one of the subjects and use the shallowest depth of field to isolate them.  For this shot, the viewer's attention is going to be on the striker, and they really don't care so much to see all the fine details on the back of the goalkeeper's jersey, so much as just knowing the context that he's there (which an out-of-focus goalie-shaped blob achieves just as well).

CGB:  Is there a certain shutter speed you can't seem to go below if you still want to capture great action shots?

Nathan: This is highly variable depending on the sport.  For most sports that only involve human motion, that limit is right around 1/500s or so - no one I've shot has had limbs or other parts that have moved quicker than that.

However there are a lot of other types of motion that often require much faster speeds to capture.  If you're shooting water polo, you're going to want to get crisp water droplets, so you're looking at the fastest you can get - 1/8000s or even higher.  One of the most underestimated actions in terms of speed is swinging something to hit a ball.  In sports like tennis and baseball, you get a ton of blur even at speeds like 1/2000s, because of the vibration in the racquet or bat after colliding with the ball.

CGB:  If we break photography into four categories: the camera, the lens, the photographer's intuition, and the proper settings, how much would you say each category contributes to a spectacular photograph?

Nathan: I don't know about breaking things into percents - to a certain extent, there are minimum requirements that you'll need in all four areas.

For a camera, more likely than not you'll need a DSLR, but beyond this the camera actually matters very little. You might get a little more resolution, or a little bit less noise, with a better camera, but these things just affect reproduction quality if you ever make large prints - they're never going to make or break a spectacular photograph, and there's a lot of software which does image enlargement and noise reduction anyhow.

There are some operational advantages of higher-end sports cameras that can help - faster autofocus and faster continuous shooting rates - but these features just help improve your keeper rate.  With more precise timing, you can get the same shot taking one photo at a time as another guy who relies on a 10fps machine-gunning method.  One of the best sports photographers shooting for the Daily Cal got by his entire college career with a Rebel XT camera, and I've shot mostly with the Canon 5D and later the Mark II version.  Any professional sports shooters would tell you these cameras would be unusably slow for their line of work, but if your priority is about getting the one spectacular shot to run in the paper, rather than coming away with a thousand keepers, they do just as well.

The lens is a fairly important piece of the equation.  For field sports you'll need a certain focal length to get you enough magnification to make usable shots, and from there a longer lens and larger aperture can always get you smoother backgrounds and further isolation.  The big 400mm f/2.8 super telephotos that sports photographers use really do create images that consumer telephoto zooms (say a 55-200mm f/3.5-5.6) can't come close to replicating.

Instincts, or perhaps more appropriately, "game knowledge", is probably the most important part, because it's what's going to get you the unique vantage point right in front of the action, or the perfect timing to capture the biggest moment in the game.  Ultimately, it's some special action on the field that's going to define a spectacular sports shot - even with the most technically perfect shot, a photo of a pitcher winding up, or a running back in the open field, is going to look like a photo of a pitcher or a running back from any other game.  Viewing it might illicit wows for its aesthetic qualities, but it'll hardly be memorable - tomorrow on there will be photo galleries full of the same type of stuff.  Visualizing a great feat that isn't seen often, or perhaps a historical event that everyone already remembers for its significance, is what makes the best sports photos, and to ensure you capture these moments, you need a certain amount of game knowledge to predict when they'll happen, where they're likely to happen, and how to get in the right position and timing to capture it best.

The settings are the settings - you need them to be correct to get the photo properly exposed, crisp, etc., but just having correct settings doesn't make a good shot.

I think one last important part that isn't mentioned much is processing.  Every photo that comes out of a camera can be improved by processing - even if you nailed all the settings correctly in-camera, the sharpening and the tone curve aren't optimized yet, and oftentimes the framing can be improved by cropping as well.  More than anything else, processing an image to give it the right tone curve for contrast, and also correcting for any errors in color or exposure, is what separates a polished, professional-looking shot you'd expect to see in Sports Illustrated, from a great shot that still looks like it was taken by an amateur.

Bonus Question (we ask this to everyone we interview)

CGB: Who would you most like to punch in the face and why?

Nathan: A guy named Ken Rockwell, who runs an eponymous photography site (which you absolutely should not link to, and should avoid like the plague if you ever stumble upon it during a google search).  There's so much hyperbole and plain wrong information there, but for some reason it's become one of the most popular sites around, and it's led to a lot of the misconceptions that take forever to clear up in photography classes and message boards.