Episode 57: Sports Photography with Jeff Harmon

In this episode I talk Sports Photography with Jeff Harmon. You can find all of the Show Notes for this Episode at the show’s website. You will also find the full text of this episode as well as Jeff’s Beautiful images he shared for this episode.

Check out Jeff’s work at

https://www.jsharmonphotos.com

Also check out Jeff’s two podcasts at

https://phototacopodcast.com

And

https://masterphotographypodcast.com/

Liam: 1). For those who may not be familiar, tell us a little about yourself and your photography background

Jeff: I bought my first “real” camera for Christmas in 2011.  A little over 8 years ago now, can’t believe it has been that long.  I have three kids, who were 11, 8, and 5 back then, and they were all participating in sports, plays, dance and other things where my wife and I were trying to take pictures of them.  We had a little Canon PowerShot point and shoot camera we were using for most of this and it just wasn’t producing the kind of results we wanted so that Christmas we decided our big family gift would be a DSLR.

I had no idea what I was doing when I bought that DSLR.  I didn’t know anything about shutter, aperture, or ISO.  I didn’t know focal length of lenses.  I was totally uneducated with that and with camera brands.  I chose a Canon 60D camera that came with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 and 55-250mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses mostly because our little Canon PowerShot camera seemed pretty good and because I had seen a lot of advertising for Canon cameras.

Not knowing at all what to do with a DSLR, I tried using it on Christmas day with my kids.  Nearly all of the houses here in Utah have basements in them, and we had a little play room down in our basement that had these big bean bags that the kids could jump onto and have a nice soft spot to land on.  The camera came set to auto and I held it with one hand while on the other hand I tossed a little football to my boys while jumped to the bean bag and tried to catch it.  

The photos were horribly dark and blurry.  Total disaster.  My wife looked at the photos and asked me if I made a mistake in the camera we bought.  I told her that I was sure it was just me not knowing how to use the camera and I would figure it out.  I dove in over that Christmas break and started my journey to learning everything I can about photography.  I had no idea it would turn into a serious passion of mine and be something I would enjoy so much.

All of my photography is a hobby.  It is a passionate hobby I spend a lot of time on, but I am not a professional photographer paying my bills with my photography.  I feel like I have made a lot of progress in learning how to get the very most out of my camera and create compelling images, and one of my favorite things to do is shooting sports, but I have a full time day job that pays the bills.

Liam: 2). What started your interest in shooting sports, and do you shoot only high school sports?

Jeff: There is a lot more to the story from there because I don’t just shoot sports, but with this episode focusing more on sports let me just finish up this intro here by saying that I learned a lot about shooting sports by shooting my kids in soccer and basketball games they were playing in.  I quickly figured out the 60D could do a lot, but the frame rate was too slow and I was missing the epic moment.  So I saved for a while and doubled the frame rate from 5 to 10 by buying a Canon 7DM2.  That new camera body, combined with some better lenses, and most importantly the learning I had done lead to me being able to create some really fun photos of my kids playing sports and other activities they were involved in.

I got good enough at it that through a connection I made with the women’s high school basketball team I shot the team, individual, and game photos for them in the 2015-2016 season.  In the 2016-2017 season we ramped that up a little more where I was hired to create “game day” photos the school could use to advertise the games on social media.  That year the men’s basketball team also hired me after seeing the photos the women got.  I was hired to shoot both teams until this 2019-2020 season.  The coaches turned over and the high school was split with a new high school that opened the fall of 2019 so I am working right now to do some shooting of the soccer team at the new high school because my son is playing.

Liam: 3).  What is your go to lens kit for sporting events?

Jeff: I love talking about gear.  I am a true geek and I love the technical aspects of photography.  I love that 9 years into my photography journey there is still so much for me to learn as a passionate hobbyist.  I don’t have anywhere near the 10,000 of experience to say I have mastered the art, but I am working pretty hard at it and I love to see the continual progress I am making.

I think that beginning photographers worry too much about the gear.  There are a lot of reasons for this that aren’t important for our discussion in this episode, but I am a very firm believer that entry level cameras from even ten years ago are more capable than a beginner knows and too many photographers push the easy button because they have more money than time and skill and buy expensive equipment hoping that will make an immediate impact on their image quality.

I am still a crop sensor shooter today.  I shoot the Canon 7DM2 and my wife shoots the Canon 80D.  We shoot together, including sports.  I am extremely fortunate that my wife has taken up an interest in photography too so that it can be something we do together.  She isn’t quite as passionate about it as I am, but enough that it can be something we do together and enjoy.  The lens I prefer to shoot on the crop sensor is the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 G2.  On the crop it is just about perfect at 24mm for the close action and the 70mm gets me a lot of reach for action that is further away.

I mentioned that the frame rate was a really important thing for action sports photography, and the 10 frames per second on the 7DM2 makes it a really good sports camera.  The 80D is not too far behind, offering 7 frames per second, but I tell you those 3 frames a second are a pretty big deal.  I would really love to upgrade that 80D to the 90D because it also goes 10 frames per second.

So many photographers make such a big deal out of shooting a full frame camera.  It is a massive discussion I find myself having all the time in our Facebook group.  There are a lot of great photographers who are telling people just starting out in photography that the difference is very large and they need to get to a full frame camera as soon as possible.  I say that is simply not true.  Knowing how to get everything out of the camera is far more important than the size of the sensor inside the camera body.  The Canon 5D Mark III for example, offers a frame rate of only 6 frames per second and I argue that frame rate is more important to capture the right moment than the size of the sensor in the camera.

Lenses are a huge for actions sports photography.  I will agree with the collective hive mind of photographers on that.  Once you have learned the exposure triangle, like really learned it, and how to get the very most out of your camera, it is literally stunning the difference really good lenses make to the quality of your images.  The kit lenses that come with a camera have almost no shot at being the tool a photographer needs to create good sports action shots.  Tamron and Sigma are both offering lenses for most cameras here in 2020 that are significantly less expensive than first party lenses and the quality is at least as good, I argue in some cases even better than those from your camera manufacturer.

I shoot sports with Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 G2 and the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 G2 lenses.  My wife usually shoots the shorter lens because it is so much lighter.

Liam: 4). What advice can you give to any of the aspiring sports photographers out there? 

Jeff: My basic advice would be to get out there and do it!  I mean that is my advice for any type of photography.  Don’t let experience or gear be a reason not to go and shoot.  If you don’t know how to do it, no better way to learn something than doing it!  I mean it is good to learn as much about it as you can prior to giving it a try for the first time, but if you wait until you think you are fully ready you may never do it.

Get in touch with a team mom or a coach, let them know you want to shoot a game, and then get it scheduled.  Go and do it no matter where you think your skills are at.  Now if you try to do that with the football team at the high school, you aren’t likely to get anywhere.  Football is in such demand by photographers it is highly likely there are not only the allotment of passes out for football games, there may already be an exclusive photographer for the team.

The way I think you can get something going is through the women’s sports.  It shouldn’t be the case, but there just isn’t the same demand of photographers to shoot women’s athletics and you have a much better chance of getting permission to shoot court-side for a women’s event than mens.  As I mentioned, that is how it got things going for me.  It really helped me learn a lot and now that I have worked with both women’s and men’s athletics, I really kind of prefer women because they are so much nicer!

As far as technique or settings, you really need to learn to use the focusing system of your camera.  I highly recommend learning back button focus and then going through your user’s manual and all the menus related to autofocus to make sure you know how to use it.  Learn the options your camera offers for continuous autofocus and if there are differences in the way the focus points work on your camera.  Practice at home as much as you can, maybe have your kids run around in a room and take pictures of them.  Or have someone roll balls around in a room and practice using continuous autofocus on those objects so that you can see how to make it work.

If you are going to shoot indoor sporting events there will be a serious battle between having enough light and freezing the action.  For most of us adding flash is not an option, so you have to do the best you can to use the light in the gym that is going to be somewhere between bad and awful.  Basic rule of thumb for settings to start with is Aperture open as wide as you can get it, Shutter no slower than 4x the longest focal length you are shooting with, and your ISO set to come close to getting that light meter in the camera to 0.

For me with my crop sensor cameras, when I am shooting the 24-70 lens then it is f/2.8, 1/400 second shutter, and ISO should be about 6,400.  More on ISO in just a second.  If I am shooting the 70-200 then it should be f/2.8, 1/800, and ISO now should be about 12,800 or so with that shutter being a full stop faster.

Those are just kind of a starting point for settings.  The light you have in the gym you shoot in is going to be different and you have to adjust to figure out the best settings for you and how you shoot.  That general rule of them to go 4x the longest focal length of your lens for the shutter speed is a pretty good one to freeze action, but you should experiment to see if your gear and shooting technique may allow you to cheat a little and go a little slower so that you can let in more light.  Some of you may find that you have to go faster than that with the shutter speed in order to not have a lot of motion blur in your photos.

Before we leave this topic, one more thing about ISO.  You are going to have to shoot with higher ISO settings than you want.  I can pretty well guarantee it.  Most photographers associate high ISO with noise, believing that the higher the ISO the more noise.  I have done so much testing around this and I can tell you that it doesn’t matter what digital camera you have it is not the ISO setting that is producing noise.  Noise comes into our photos because we don’t have enough light!  It is simply amazing what these modern digital cameras can do to compensate for the lack of light and just how much better image quality we can get today because of how good ISO has become.

However, there is a cost to using a higher ISO.  Again, it doesn’t matter which digital camera, both DSLR and mirrorless, you are using I can promise you that as you increase the ISO the dynamic range your camera can capture is going down.  This is a really complicated topic and I have an episode of my Photo Taco podcast (https://phototacopodcast.com/photographic-dynamic-range/) where I talked to a scientific expert on the topic who has invented a metric for this called Photography Dynamic Range where he has quantifiably tested most modern digital cameras to show they perform in this area as the ISO is increased.  

Kind of a deep topic that I don’t think we want to spend any more time on here in this episode.  Let’s just leave it at I very much on purpose UNDEREXPOSE my sports photos so that I can raise the exposure in post and end up with a better final result rather than cranking my ISO up to the point where the light meter in the camera is at 0.  It isn’t about noise it is about that dynamic range and when that gets too small the image starts to look “muddy” or soft, like focus isn’t quite there.  I don’t want my PDR number below 6 and that means I don’t take my Canon 7DM2 above ISO 3,200 and my Canon 80D above ISO 4,000.

To give you an idea of where I would limit the ISO on some other really popular cameras used for sports photography:

  • Canon 5DM3: 6,400
  • Canon 5DM4: 8,000
  • Sony A7RM3: 8,000
  • Sony A7RM4: 8,000
  • Nikon D850: 6,400
  • Nikon D500: 5,000

Photons to Photos PDR chart

Liam: 5). What was your favorite shoot from the last few years? Tell us the story behind it.

Jeff: This is an easy one.  My favorite shot by far is one from 2018.  I haven’t had a moment like it since.  It isn’t a tremendous action shot, but the emotion was incredible.  Brought tears to my own eyes as I was shooting.  Here’s the story.

About a week before the start of the regular season a senior on the women’s basketball team broke her leg in practice.  Freak accident, but she had to be put in a cast and they thought she wouldn’t get to play a single game of the regular season.  Her senior season.  The team did quite well and all year she was on the sidelines every game with her uniform on and her leg in a cast.  

This young lady did everything the doctors and physical therapists told her to do in hopes of getting back to play at least one game.  The leg had healed enough that the doctor’s took the cast off the week of that last regular season game, though she wasn’t really in any physical condition to actually play.  She suited up just like she had all season long with no expectation of actually being able to play.

The team did really well, they were blowing out their opponent that night.  The girls all wanted to have this young lady go into the game even though she couldn’t run and move the way she had for all the years leading up to this night.  The coaches didn’t want to risk her getting hurt, the doctors really didn’t want her to play that night.

With seconds left in the game the coaches decided to let her come into the game just to be on the court.  Even with a blowout win secured, the other team went after a loose ball on the throw in and when they grabbed it they called a timeout they didn’t have, which of course means the team I was shooting for got to shoot two technical free throws.  The coaches had subbed her in just prior to this, which meant that she was eligible to shoot the free throws and everyone in the gym knew that was exactly what was about to happen.

She slowly made her way over to the free throw line, tears streaming down her face as she was about to shoot two free throws in her final game of the regular season that she didn’t get to play in.  The only two shots she would take her senior year.  The first free throw was a little shaky, but it went in, and emotion just poured out of her with the tears making it hard for her to see the basket.  The second free throw was nothing but net.

The other team inbounded the ball and dribbled out the last few seconds on the clock and then the entire gym exploded running over to this young lady and lifting her up over their heads celebrating with her that she was able to get into the game and make two free throws.

Liam: 6). What is your favorite sport to shoot? What would you say is the easiest sport to shoot? 

Jeff: My favorite sport to shoot is basketball.  It is the sport I grew up playing and still play today on occasion.  I know it the best and it makes me really well suited to shooting it the best as I can anticipate what is going to happen.

I also love shooting football.  I have watched football for as long as I can remember, but I never played beyond little pickup games with family and friends.  I think that has put me at a severe disadvantage because I can’t be ready to shoot what I need there nearly as quickly without the same level of anticipation like I have with basketball.

I don’t think there is a solid answer to the question about the easiest sport to shoot.  I think your familiarity with a sport has a direct impact on how easy or hard it is to shoot that sport.  For example, I rarely watch baseball and have never attempted to shoot a baseball game, I imagine I wouldn’t do very well the first time I did try to shoot a baseball game just because I probably can’t anticipate things very well.

Liam: 7). Do you use Photoshop to create composites?

Jeff: I do use Photoshop for my composites.  Things start off with a template.  I create a lot of my own templates, but I have bought a few templates as well.  I start with that because the lighting in the template is the lighting I need to do when I shoot the athlete.  If the lighting doesn’t match then it just looks really fake and gimmicky.  Not that these backgrounds are remotely believable.  They aren’t.  But the final product looks so much better when the lighting of the background and the athlete match.

Once I have decided on my template, I design my lighting to match it.  Lighting athletes is much different than what you would do for other types of portraits like headshots, seniors, or family photos.  With those photos you usually want really soft lighting where the transition from the highlights to the shadows is very smooth and gradual.  With athletes you get a much more dramatic look with harsher lighting. The muscles show much better that way and the harsher look makes for a more intimidating feel, which most athletes want.

My favorite lighting setup now is having two strip boxes left and right of the athlete with the strip box ¾ of the way in front of them.  I like how that puts highlights on the edges of their body and transitions to darker areas as you move toward the center of their body.  Then I add a large softbox camera left that points at their face with the top of the softbox close to even with their head.  That softbox has less power than the strip boxes, I want them to produce the most light in the photo.  The softbox makes the shadow not totally dark and provides a good catch light in their eyes.

I use a white background for my sports composites.  Most people would think, as I did when I first started doing this, that green backgrounds would be what you want so that you can extract the athletes from the background and place them into the digital template in Photoshop.  I have done a ton of testing around this and I am convinced that a white background is better to work with.  

It could just be me, but no matter what I have done with a green background and lighting there is always a little green around the subject as I cut them out and it is more work to deal with it than it is with white.  I can leave the white there, getting more of the natural parts of the image, so long as the digital template I am going to put the athlete into has a light source that matches.

I light the background too, with MagMod MagBounce modifiers on speedlights to make it as bright as I can.  If possible, I love to have it totally blow out in the photos so long as I can have the athlete a few feet from the background.  This makes it easier to extract the athlete from the background on the computer.

After doing all of that, I do three steps to creating the composite image on the computer.  First, I bring the raw file into Lightroom and I do the majority of my adjustments there.  As I already said, I like giving them a harsher, more edgy look, and that starts by having a little harsher light as I am shooting.  I usually lower the blacks, add some contrast, add some clarity, add some vibrance.  Things like that.  Just play around with the image until I get the look I have in my head.  

Next I round-trip that photo into Photoshop.  There are a few tools and even some plugins you can use to help you extract the athlete from the background so that you can paste them into the digital template.  I have been playing with the new Remove Background feature that Adobe added to Photoshop 20 late in 2019, but I have found it to be buggy (crashes Ps a good portion of the time) and to not produce as good a selection as I can get pretty fast using the quick selection tool.  I give it a try to see if it might save me like 2 mins and give me a good selection, but I usually don’t like it as much as I get with the quick selection tool.  

After I get a rough, far from perfect selection I use the Select and Mask workspace in Photoshop to fine tune the selection.  Great tools in there to get a really nice selection, including the refine edges brush that can do really well with hair.  There are some tuning parameters in there two to smooth out the selection, feather it, and even contrast or expand it all a few pixels to get the right look.  You can change the view in the Select and Mask workspace so that you can have the selection show up on a black background or a white background too, which can be really helpful to better envision with the extraction is going to look like when you paste it on a dark or light background.  When I am happy with the selection I output the selection from the Select and Mask workspace to a new layer with a layer mask.

The final step then is to copy just the pixels from the athlete and paste them into the digital template.  I use the Copy Merged feature so that it will only copy the pixels that are in the masking of the layer and then I paste that over into the digital template where the athlete needs to be.  Then I add adjustment layers to the athlete there to help them match the background better.  Little changes to exposure or white balance are the biggest things.  I also add some image specific things like putting sparkles or light flares to match where they would be on the athlete if they were standing in a background like I have them in now.

Here is my latest example:

Liam: 8) Where can my listeners find your work?

Jeff: My website is at https://jsharmonphotos.com.  I also do a couple of podcasts that listeners may be interested in called Photo Taco (https://phototacopodcast.com) and Master Photography (https://masterphotographypodcast.com).  I am also going to be presenting at the Create Photography Retreat (https://createphotographyretreat.com) this October where I will be doing a pre-retreat workshop on a crash course for flash photography and sessions during the retreat on Sports Composites.