Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spring Training Baseball - part 2

We woke up Sunday to beautiful weather that made up for everything we had gone through the previous day. It was sunny yet cool, with deep blue skies and puffy white clouds - perfect weather for anything outdoors. We had taken advantage of the free time in the morning to visit the Jupiter lighthouse, when normally we would have been traveling to a different venue for the day's game.

We were glad to see that many of the Cardinals regulars were in the lineup today, unlike what we had experienced yesterday. I had hoped to get some decent photos of Albert Pujols and others, so there should be a chance for that at least in the early innings.

With camera in hand, I'm drawn to baseball and other sports, because I am always trying to get that perfect shot - the one I feel would be worthy of appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated or some other publication. But usually those shots come only when you are really into the game. These are times when you check out the situation and ask yourself where the next play is likely to be. Is the batter right-handed or left-handed? Will the ball likely go to the left side or the right? Which fielder is likely to make the play? Will there be a play at 2nd base such as the pivot for a double-play? And for those times when you guess correctly you need to have the proper lens and correct settings, and also be ready ahead of time if you hope to capture the shot you envision.

I love to get the shot of a base runner sliding under the leaping shortstop, who has gotten the throw and gone airborne while in the process of making the relay to first to complete a double play. I've gotten several variations of those over the last couple years, and it always feels good to capture that action. It usually is best when anticipating such a shot to pre-focus on the area where the action is expected to be, and hold the focus lock so that you will start out with a well focused image. Another shot I have not yet gotten is one of an infielder leaping to snag a line drive that would have otherwise gone over his head and into the outfield. I've had several tries where I cut off the glove hand, which ruined the shot. If you haven't anticipated the shot and set up for it before hand, you'll surely miss it when it does happen.

39719 Hernandez

 In this photo from last year, during a stealing attempt Mets shortstop Anderson Hernandez takes the throw and leaps high to avoid the sliding runner while attempting to make the tag. It would have been a great play but the ball came loose and went into center field, so the runner was safe.

Even with a fast camera, it's always a challenge to time the release of the pitch when attempting to capture a good photo of the pitcher. I personally like position myself at an angle as close in toward home plate as possible for this shot, so the perspective is similar to what the batter sees. In some parks, that's not possible unless you are on the field because when viewed from the seats there is a protective screen behind home plate that gets in the way. I usually try to fire from just outside the screen. I find that it's best to fire a couple quick shots (2 or 3 at most) rather than spray and pray with a long burst. And sometimes I just fire one shot on successive pitches until I time it right.

62262 Todd Wellemeyer

The shot is more appealing if you are able to capture the expression on the face of the pitcher, and also time it at just the right time to show the best action. Often a good shot can be had prior to the release if there is something else in the photo that shows emotion. I like this one because of the expression on the face of Cardinals pitcher, Todd Wellemeyer. Below is another photo showing his follow through, viewed from the opposite side. 

62162 Wellemeyer

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it's very difficult to get a shot right at the release, that also captures a good expression on the pitcher's face.

62031 Albert Pujols
Since Albert Pujols is probably the most popular Cardinal's player, I naturally wanted to try and capture some memorable images of him. There are several different attempts below showing him at the bat and during a swing, and also standing at 1st base.

62034 - Albert Pujols

61937 - Albert Pujols
For baseball photography the first challenge is positioning myself to get close enough to fill the frame with the player, but at the same time framing the shot so that the bat or some part of the player's body is not cut off from the photo during the swing. Using a prime lens (fixed focal length), it's sometimes difficult to find a good position to shoot from that gives the best angle for the intended shot, without having obstructions in the way. I was using a Canon 300mm f2.8L IS lens, and for some shots, I added a 1.4x extender. Not having on-field credentials for spring training baseball, we were constantly having people walk in front of us while we tried to shoot from the standing-room only area of the aisle. And there's nothing that can be done about that.

Once you get into position, the next thing to do is make sure you have chosen a proper aperture setting to get enough depth of field for the shot you intend to make. I usually calculate it before hand, but I always carry my PDA which has a depth of field calculator, so I can also check on the fly if a situation arises that I had not expected. With baseball, you need a lot more depth of field for a pitcher's delivery than you need for a batter's swing, because the pitcher probably covers a distance of about 5 or 6 feet from the time he stands on the rubber until he finally releases the pitch. In other words, if you shoot wide open at f2.8 and lock focus on him while he stands on the mound, he will no longer be in sharp focus with those settings at the point where he lets go of the ball. I have tried using AI Servo focus to track the movement of the pitcher, but seem to get better results pre-focusing on the position of the pitcher during a prior pitch, and then holding that focus lock and waiting to fire on the next pitch when he is in the same position.

61454 -
A professional level DSLR can track a moving subject, but it needs some data to get started in order to be able to predict where the subject will be for each successive shot. Short movements like those of a pitcher winding and throwing a pitch may not provide enough data fast enough to accurately predict where the pitcher will be at the next shot in every case. It is usually recommended that you track a moving subject for a second or two in order to give the microprocessor in the camera a chance to calculate the distance to the subject, and how quickly and how much it is changing. There's not really time to do this with a pitcher's delivery because the ball is on the way to the plate faster than that.

This is why using a little narrower aperture makes sense. It gives a wider depth of field and thus provides a larger margin for error. One way to eliminate this problem is to shoot the pitcher from the side instead of the front, since the distance does not change during the delivery from that angle. But that's a different photo all together. I did that a lot on Saturday because the light was low after the rain, especially as it got later. And I was shooting at f2.8 just to get enough shutter speed to freeze the action. I like to get shutter speeds of 1/2000 or higher, and I try to never go below 1/1500. Late Saturday afternoon, I was only getting about 1/800 wide open at f2.8 and iso 400. That was already too slow for some shots, so it was not possible to stop down the aperture and still get properly exposed, sharp photos.
 When photographing the batter, I would much rather shoot from center field with a long lens, than shoot from the batter's side. When you are watching a game on TV, that is usually the perspective you get. But it was not possible on this trip.

62008 Mather

62417 - Pickoff
In this photo, the Orioles base runner was easily picked off at first base, but it was ruled that Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson had balked, so the runner was awarded 2nd base.

We didn't get to see any balls hit out of the park this weekend, but the closest was probably this long fly ball hit by Rick Ankiel, that was run down and caught in the warning track by Orioles center fielder Adam Jones.

62192 Adam Jones
I didn't feel like I got any real killer shots this weekend, but it was a great weekend none the less, and it is nice to know that the regular season is right around the corner. Without baseball, I would not have any sports to follow during the annual withdrawal I go through when the Stanley Cup Playoffs end and before the NFL football season begins. Click here for more photos.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Spring Training Baseball - part 1

Last week the brown grass in my yard had started to turn green and the cold gray branches of the crape myrtle trees were beginning to sprout with green miniature signs of new life. Soon my yard would be busting out with the colorful blossoms of four different colors of crape myrtle trees. Spring was in the air and that means sixteen major league baseball teams were in Florida tuning up for the 2009 season. And it was also time for my annual baseball trip.

Where I go depends mainly on which games I can get tickets for, as getting tickets for good seats has become somewhat of a racket in recent years. It seems that before the tickets go on sale to the general public, ticket brokers have already been allowed to purchase blocks of tickets for the best seats in the stadiums, which they in turn resell on their websites for about 3 times the face value. What it means is that you either swallow hard and pay if you want really good seats, or you roll the dice with everyone else who clogs up the Ticketmaster website at the very same instant that tickets go on sale, and hope for the best of the leftovers.

Since I am a person of principles, I go for the latter. My friend Terry likes sports too, and we usually make a baseball trip as well as a couple hockey trips during the hockey season. And I think my wife probably enjoys it when I get out of the house for a few days. This year we ended up getting tickets for games between the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins, and the St. Louis Cardinals vs the Baltimore Orioles. This was the first time we had been lucky enough to get tickets to see the Red Sox, although we were disappointed that Jason Bay was the only regular starter was in the lineup Saturday. Many players were still at the World Baseball Classic, and could not yet be present at spring training. Since both the Marlins and Cardinals play at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, we were able to conveniently see both games in the same venue, which made for one less travel day and allowed us to spend that time visiting the Jupiter lighthouse on Sunday morning instead.

As luck would have it, it began to rain prior to game time on Saturday, and we got ourselves and our camera equipment wet before we ever entered the stadium. We went in and ventured out into the open as the rain stopped. But the rain came back again and again and we watched the ground crew first uncover the infield, only to recover it again. Soon the 1:05 start time passed and it was clear that the game would be delayed if played at all. As the rain fell harder we went for cover and after a while we decided to go check in to the hotel since it was only a half mile away. We figured we could easily get back to the stadium in a few minutes if the game began.
That did eventually happen, but we did not arrive back at the game until the 3rd inning. We had been checking the (supposedly) "live game update" on the Internet, which showed nothing happening. But we decided to get in the car and drive back to the stadium just to make sure. When we saw the stadium lights on, we knew the game was being played. There had been a 2 1/2 hour rain delay. The good news was that the crowd had thinned out considerably and now we are able to pick a good spot in the standing room area of the aisle, and get a decent angle for photos. It was cool and breezy and it really felt great. And there was no sun to worry about so there was no need for sunblock. The bad news was that the light was a lot lower and decent shutter speeds were difficult to get, even shooting wide open with f2.8 glass.

We actually had good seats for this game, down in the 7th row a little bit behind 3rd base. But it is much easier to shoot photos from up in the aisle, where we were are not shooting from in between other spectator's heads in front of us, and not worrying about obstructing anyones view behind us with our oversized camera lenses. We shot for a while from the aisle, and later went down to the seats, but since the crowd was so thin, we just went down to the first row in our section, which was nearly empty. It was still drizzling rain, and you could see the raindrops in the photos (note the rain drops in the first photo at the top of this page). It might be difficult to get any pictures worth showing anybody this day, but who cares? We were sitting comfortably and enjoying the cool breeze, and it's baseball season again, so it didn't really matter.

As it turned out, I managed a few good photos the first day, and all things considered, we felt fortunate to be able to see baseball at all after the way the afternoon started.

(Continued in Part 2, above)

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Jupiter Lighthouse

This week while in south Florida with my friend Terry for some spring training baseball, I had the opportunity to visit the Jupiter Lighthouse. I enjoy visiting lighthouses and since I have only been up in three of them, I don't like to miss an opportunity when I am traveling in close proximity to one. I'll tell a little bit about this visit, but first I'll throw out some history I dug up on the lighthouse which I found interesting.

The Jupiter Lighthouse was designed by George G. Meade, an engineer and designer of many lighthouses, who later would command the Federal Army in the war between the states. It was he who led the Union Army against General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.
In 1853, the US Congress had approved the building of 6 lighthouses along the coast of Florida to aid in shipping, and it was thought that the Jupiter lighthouse could be built in a year with a crew of 20 men. But transporting the materials to the site proved difficult because the inlet had silted up and at low tide the water was not deep enough to get a ship loaded with heavy materials through to the building site. Instead, ships had to anchor 35 miles north at the Indian River Inlet and the materials and equipment were then offloaded to flat barges for transport down the Indian River. After various delays, it took 6 years to get all the materials, supplies and equipment in place before construction could begin.

Once construction commenced the project was completed in just 5 months, the building crew being led by the brother in law of the designer. It was completed in 1860, and first lighted on July 10th of that year. In August 1861 during the war between the states, the light went dark and the was not lighted again until 1866. The Jupiter Lighthouse has been operated by the US Coast Guard since 1939.

We scoped out the lighthouse grounds early yesterday morning, to try to find the best place to get some photos. A man we met who was fishing nearby pointed to the spot, across the river from where we were. This confirmed what I suspected since it would put the light off to the right side slightly behind us. We quickly drove back over the bridge and found the spot, and made some photos from there.

I made several different photos, both vertically and horizontally oriented so I would be sure to get one I liked. After we were satisfied that we had the photos we wanted, we went back across the river to the lighthouse grounds and waited for the museum to open. Visitors are not allowed up in the lighthouse without taking their tour. We spent a few minutes looking through the museum while we waited for the tour to begin. Then we were led around the grounds by a volunteer guide, who would eventually lead us up to the top of the lighthouse. We first stopped at a small building near the base of the lighthouse called the oil house. Since in the early days the lighthouse was lit by an oil lamp, this is where the oil was stored. It was stored as lard, and had to be heated to liquefy it, before being hoisted up to the top of the tower where it would supply the lamp.
The lighthouse is built atop a sand dune, with 6 feet of oyster shells serving as a foundation. Building it on higher ground meant that the tower itself would not have to be quite so tall. The tower itself is 125 feet tall, but the total height is about 150 feet when considering the height of the hill on which it sits. There are 35 concrete steps outside leading up to the entrance to the lighthouse, and 104 iron steps inside the lighthouse itself.

Unlike some larger lighthouses, this one has a center post top to bottom, around which the iron spiral stairway winds. In larger lighthouses, the steps wind around the perimeter of the tower leaving an open space down the middle. There is no open space in this one so it is not possible to get a photo showing the inside of the tower, top to bottom. There are 4 landings on the stairway, facing directions 90-degrees apart with a window at each. In the photo above I am looking up from under the stairs, and you can see some people standing in front of the window on the landing above.

The Fresnel lens installed in 1860 during the original construction is still in use today, although one of the 'bulls-eye' lenses was cracked during a hurricane in the 1950's. The angled glass facets of the Fresnel lens shown here bend the light and aim it outward into a concentrated beam, and that's what makes the light visible from so far away. This same principle is used today in many products, including the lens of the 'better beamer' flash entenders that many photographers use to increase the range of their camera flash. It was invented by the French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel.

The lighthouse was refurbished a few years ago and repainted in it's original bright red color, although it is already somewhat faded. There are two 1000-watt bulbs in this fixture, but only one of them burns at a time. If the first bulb burns out, the 2nd one lights. We were told that the bulbs last approximately a year.
Once at the top, you can see quite a distance. In this photo, I am looking toward the southwest.

This tour took a little longer than we had anticipated, so by this time we were ready to make our way back down and head over to the ballpark. We were in town for two spring training baseball games, and this was the morning before the 2nd game. I will be writing about baseball and sharing some photos from the ballpark in my next post.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Launch of Space Shuttle Discovery

After several delays, Space Shuttle Discovery finally lifted off yesterday to transport the last solar array to the international space station. The launch was orginally scheduled for March 7th, but was delayed twice due to technical problems.Photographing a shuttle launch is something I have wanted to do, and I took this opportunity to make another attempt at it. This was a trickier task than a day launch because in very low light the exposure changes dramatically when the shuttle engines ignite, and even more so when the shuttle clears the launch tower and the entire flame is soon visible. The last time I attempted to photograph a launch was STS-117 in June 2007 and that was a day launch.
The biggest challenge to getting good photos is finding a place to shoot from that is close enough. The perferred viewing spot is the NASA causeway, which is on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. It sits directly south of the launch pad and offers a view over water from only about 6 to 7 miles away, depending on your position on the causeway since it angles from northwest to southeast. But the problem is getting tickets, which has proven to be very difficult. They are distributed in a lottery of sorts, which is usually only announced an hour or so before it takes place. The price for tickets varies from about about $50 and $100 per person and they must be obtained either by phone, or over the internet. Once the sale starts, typically all tickets are gone in only 2 or 3 minutes. So it takes a bit of luck to get them. Since I was not able to obtain tickets for the causeway, I was forced to shoot from an area off Highway US1, in Titusville. I was on a rooftop of a building that according to Google is about 13 miles from the launch pad. Below is a view from this spot, made at 840mm, using stacked teleconverters. Due to the difficulty in shooting with multiple teleconverters, I removed one of them before shooting the launch, so the launch photos below are shot at 600mm. (Click on any image for a larger view) On this attempt, I was shooting with a 300mm f2.8 lens and 2x teleconverter on my Canon 1D Mark2N camera. It was somewhat windy and my lens was moving around in the wind, which made it even more difficult to get decent photos. From 13 miles away, even on a clear day there is some haze that degrades the image quality. Yesterday was no exception, and from the rooftop where I was shooting, I could not even see the launch pad without either looking through binoculars or through my camera lens. Since I wanted to get some wide shots as well as close-ups of the launch, I had my other camera with a 70-200 f2.8 lens hanging at my side while my main camera with the larger lens was mounted on a tripod. I had planned to use a cable release with the tripod, but due to the wind I abandoned that idea since it made more sense to stabilize the rig with my hands and press the shutter in the normal fashion.

As launch time approached, it was getting darker a lot faster than I had anticipated. With a scheduled launch time of 7:43pm, I thought it would still be light since it was just after sunset. But soon I discovered that if I followed the light meter in the camera, the shutter speed I would get was only around 1/30 second at f5.6. Knowing that it would get very bright as soon as the shuttle lifted off, I decided to start out shooting at 1/60 and f5.6, so I would at least have a chance of getting photos without blurring.
As the countdown on the radio got inside 10 seconds to launch, I got ready but did not notice the first spark until the smoke plume was extending out from the base of the rocket. So I fired my first shot later than I would have wanted. But it seemed like no big deal since I did not really have enough light anyway. I knew that things would be a lot brighter in just a few seconds. I fired several shots as the shuttle moved upward and finally cleared the launch tower, and I continued to shoot as it climbed skyward. The sky turned from blue to gold as the shuttle rose higher. It was very bright - too bright for the settings I had chosen, so I quickly dialed my shutter speed up to 1/200. This was even before the bottom of the rocket flame was visible above the launch tower. I continued to shoot at this setting and as the shuttle rose higher and was about to fly out of the frame, I hurried to remove the quick release plate that was holding my rig to the tripod so I could take some hand-held shots. As the shuttle climbed higher into the dark sky, I had to back down the shutter speed to 1/125 to prevent underexposure. I continued at this setting until the shuttle got very high and small in the sky. As the spacecraft climbs out over the ocean to the east, it appears to be heading downward when viewed from the ground. This always makes an interesting photo, as the color of the smoke trail changes as the shuttle climbs away. The orange, white and pink colors make an interesting contrast against the blue sky. Only about 3 minutes into the flight, the two solid rocket boosers burn out and are separated from the main fuel tank and shuttle. I was happy to see that this was clearly visible even to the naked eye, so I was also able to capture it in a few photos. The rocket engines are still burning as they separate from the spacecraft, and it is interesting to watch as they begin to fall back toward the ocean as the shuttle continues to climb away. In the photo at left, the solid rocket boosters have already separated and can be seen falling away from the shuttle. As the shuttle climbs into the sky, there is a delay in the sound and also the rumble from the engines at the distance I watched it from. So you don't hear it or feel it until the spacecraft is well underway.

After it is all over, there is usually an interesting show of color left behind in the sky from the different colored smoke. The photo below was made at 7:51pm, about 8 minutes after the launch.
Overall I was not happy with the results I got on this attempt. The photos are OK but they are not as sharp as I would have liked, and it's difficult to do much better when shooting from such a great distance. Due to the low light conditions immediately prior to the launch, it was difficult to tell if I was properly focused on the launch pad, and it was also difficult to manually adjust the focus. But the main thing is that even if I had not gotten a single photo, it was still worth traveling to witness such an awesome event.

I highly recommend this experience for anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to witness a launch. There are only a few more shuttle launches left before the program terminates. After that, there will be a lull of several years before the next manned space flights.

For more shuttle launch info, please see my other article here: 
Photographing the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis