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Custom functions for sports: F1 and golf

Custom functions for sports: F1 and golf

© Steven Tee/LAT Photographic

May 2009

In the inner recesses of your EOS DSLR camera there is a bounty of untold treasures that can be tweaked to your exacting needs. Amongst these gems is the range of custom functions that allows photographers to alter the way their EOS cameras operate to suit their needs. Mark Alexander speaks to two photographers about how they fine-tune their camera’s custom functions to shoot specific sports – high-speed action from F1 and the more sedate world of golf.

Steven Tee (LAT Photographic) – F1

Steven Tee behind a monster telephoto.

Steven Tee behind a monster telephoto.

Steven Tee started his photographic career as a darkroom assistant in 1984 at his grandfather’s specialist motor sports agency, LAT Photographic. Within three years he was travelling the world shooting the glamorous world of F1. Since then, he’s shot every conceivable sport on two and four wheels and has never missed a F1 race. “It’s a funny sport,” he says, “You’re either in it or you’re not.”

He now heads up the LAT agency, as managing director, which not only covers motorsports events but also owns the world’s largest motor racing photographic archive. The agency supplies images to consumer magazines and commercial clients, including half of the F1 teams on the grid and some of their sponsors. As a result, F1 race weekends are ferociously busy for the agency; often requiring six out of LAT’s stable of 10 photographers to cover both editorial and promotional duties.

© Steven Tee/LAT Photographic

Steven Tee ups the AI servo tracking sensitivity (C.Fn III -2) to keep the focus point on the target.

Steven leads the way and often pulls pitstop duty. To cover every eventuality, he carries three Canon DSLR bodies – an EOS-1Ds Mark III, an EOS-1D Mark III and a 5D which he uses for remote shots. He uses a number of prime Canon lenses which include the EF14mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, the EF20mm f/2.8 USM, the EF35mm f/2.0, the EF50mm f/1.4 USM, the EF135mm f/2.0L USM, the EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM and the EF600mm f/4L IS USM, most of which fall below f/2.8.

Despite the weight implications of shooting with prime lenses instead of zooms, Steven says that his array of fixed focal length lenses are indispensable. “I really can’t do without the 600mm telephoto,” he admits, “but increasingly I’m using my standard 50mm. I absolutely love it. I don’t use zoom lenses. I prefer the simplicity of, say, a 50mm lens and having to think about the composition a bit more.”

© Steven Tee/LAT Photographic

Steven Tee uses the expandable ISO function (C.Fn I -3) to slow things down for slow shutter speed pans.

He might keep things simple, but Steven doesn’t shun progress. Far from it. “I’m not a Luddite,” he explains. “Although I come from manual cameras and still use manual functions, I’ll use technology as it comes along. I started using custom functions when they were first brought out. As Canon present them, I use them where and when I think they’re applicable. It’s like autofocus; when it was first introduced it was ‘pooh-poohed’ as if no real sports photographer should use it, but now it’s here and it does a better job that I can most of the time, so I use it.”

As with all Canon SLRs the EOS-1Ds Mark III is bristling with customisable options that can release the true potential of the camera. Perhaps surprisingly for a photographer in such a fast-paced sport, Steven highlights the expandable ISO function (C.Fn I -3) as a way of slowing things down from ISO 100 to ISO 50 (L setting). “The camera will go down to ISO 50, which is useful,” he explains. “Having an extra stop when you’re taking a slow shutter speed pan on a bright, sunny day is really handy. You can only slow it down so much with the shutter speed and when you run out of f-stops, that’s it, so the extra stop is an advantage.”

© Steven Tee/LAT Photographic

Making the AF-ON button initiate autofocusing (C.Fn IV -1) is critical in F1 and is described by Steve Tee as: “by far the best custom function for what I do.”

More predictably, he ups the AI servo tracking sensitivity (C.Fn III -2) in order to keep the focus point fixed on the racing target. “It’s a bit of a placebo effect,” he says openly. “Since it’s been available, I’ve always had it, so I’m not sure if it’s any better or any worse. It just works for me.”

The most critical adaptation for Steven is making the AF-ON button initiate autofocusing (C.Fn IV -1). “I use the shutter button just to fire the camera and my thumb operates the autofocus on the AF button on the back. It’s a bit like a driver learning how to left-foot brake; when you first use it, it feels a bit alien but it gives you an instant on/off for the autofocus that you control rather than having to hold the shutter release button half-pressed. It’s by far the best custom function for what I do. All the F1 photographers use it.”

David Cannon (Getty Images) - golf

David Cannon shoots from the long rough.

David Cannon shoots from the long rough.

In the high-pressure world of football photography, the back-button operation is key, as senior Getty Images staff photographer David Cannon explains. “It all works with your thumb, so it’s ergonomically friendly but I only use it when I’m in total control of it. Football is unpredictable but I know that I’m going to use autofocus all the way through the game. If you can get used to the back button, it’s amazing.”

While David admits that nothing can beat shooting football for thrills and spills, his passion actually lies in the undulating fairways and manicured greens of the golf course. Once a scratch player, David had ambitions of turning professional when he left school but instead he opted for a career in sports photography. Thirty years later, he says that his knowledge of the game has helped him to get pictures that other non-golfing photographers would have missed.

© David Cannon/Getty Images

To ensure an instant reaction, David increases AI servo tracking sensitivity (C.Fn III -2). Shot with the EOS-1D Mark III was a ‘grab’ shot almost full frame.

“There are guys who’ve worked for me who weren’t photographers but loved golf and golf pictures and now they’re amazing golf photographers,” he says. “I don’t think you can become a great golf photographer unless you love the sport. It also helps if you’re a sportsman because you’re natural timing will come into the photography. It helps a lot. Sports photography is all about timing.”

To help David to maximise his timing he increases the AI servo tracking sensitivity on both of his EOS-1D Mark IIIs so they are able to react faster (C.Fn III -2) and also applies high ISO speed noise reduction to improve his low light shots (C.Fn II -2). While these adjustments are particularly useful for capturing action, there are other ways David fine-tunes his camera for scenic shots.

© David Cannon/Getty Images

Adjusting the number of bracketed shots (C.Fn I -6) helps David get the right exposure for shots such as this taken at Turnberry golf course in Scotland.

Adjusting the number of bracketed shots (C.Fn I -6) on his 1Ds Mark III is certainly one of his favourites. “Bracketing is a good one,” he says. “I use it on course shoots; a stop either side of what the camera tells me. So, say I shoot in one third-stop exposures, it’s amazing how a third of a stop on a scenic can make the sky look so much better and then you can use Photoshop to raise the foreground or vice versa. I shoot seven frames on one image and choose the best exposure – the beauty of digital is you can shoot 25 times as much as you did on film. Before, I would have shot half a stop either side and that would have been it. With digital, you get miles more options.”

David also modifies the user-selectable AF points (using C.Fn III -9) on his EOS-1Ds Mark III to ensure that he follows the 'first rule' of sports photography – filling the frame. “I use the inner nine points so they’re weighted towards the centre of the frame,” he explains. “One of the first things that I was taught was to fill the frame. There’s an argument that people are shooting looser because of the cropping that's availability when using digital, so maybe I’m a bit old fashioned in that sense.”

© David Cannon/Getty Images

David modifies the user-selectable AF points (C.Fn III -9) so they are weighted towards the centre of the frame. This helped him to isolate golfer Rory McIlroy and two trees from the background.

Less conventionally, David uses the AF point brightness function (C.Fn III -13) to help when he shoots directly into the light in order to capture the shadows cast by the contours of a course or a heroic portrait of a golfer. Increasing the AF point brightness ensures his focusing remains accurate despite the high-contrast scene in his viewfinder.

The advent of digital photography has fundamentally changed the world of sports photography by offering up more options and added flexibility. The growing number of custom functions is evidence of this but as David points out, some things never change. “The more digital photography I do, the more I realise how important it is to expose as accurately as you did with film. Before, it was mega critical to have the exposure spot on, and it’s still the case with digital.”