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Champions League final: settling scores with EOS-1D X Mark II

Champions League final: settling scores with EOS-1D X Mark II

© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

June 2016

Top photographer Kai Pfaffenbach (Reuters) has shot 18 of the last 20 UEFA Champions League finals and this year he took four EOS DSLRs, six EF zoom lenses and a couple of key accessories to capture the full story of the event as it unfolded. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to reveal how he shot the 2016 final between Madrid’s two football giants – Real and Atlético – in the famous San Siro Stadium in Milan, Italy...

As a lifelong Bayern Munich supporter, football is in Kai Pfaffenbach’s blood and speaking down a mobile phone line – whilst travelling in a cab to a Milan airport the morning after shooting the 2016 Champions League final – the senior Reuters’ photographer reveals his plans to cover the match hit an early snag. “I dropped my 24-70mm [lens] just beforehand – it couldn’t be fixed in time, so I changed my plan a little bit. I was mainly shooting on the 200-400mm [zoom lens] and I had a 70-200mm and a 16-35mm ready. So I just was using three EOS-1D X Mark II [DSLRs] and I shot more than 80 percent of the game on the 200-400mm, including really nice ‘jubos’ (celebrations). Only at the end, when it came to celebrations on the pitch, was I shooting a couple of frames on the 70-200mm as well, including the shots when they [Real Madrid players] threw [their coach] Zidane up in the air.”

With his three EOS-1D X Mark II cameras handheld, Kai was also operating one remote camera: “…a normal 1D X, with PocketWizards to trigger it, which was on the side on the corner of the goal, and [fitted with] a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Unfortunately it [the camera] was hit by a ball very early, so I half cut off the [Sergio] Ramos goal but I fixed it at half-time and it was fine for [capturing] the [Antoine] Griezmann penalty, which hit the crossbar, and the Atlético [Madrid] goal, so it was all cool.”

Editing in-camera and sending pictures

Kai was part of a Reuters’ team of five photographers and explains: “We wired the cameras this time. We used ethernet cables in Milan – it was really good and worked, even putting into consideration that Italian communication telecoms are different to the rest of us. It was fine and worked really, really cool, which I was surprised by.”

© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Real Madrid’s Ronaldo (white strip, centre) jumps in the air to try to win the ball during the 2016 Champions League final v Atlético Madrid in the San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy, 28 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 236mm; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/4, ISO 3200.

He adds: “I decided to go with selective sending [of pictures] but you could also do it live just by enabling the cameras to transmit live. We decided not to do this because we had four guys on the pitch and one guy in the tribune [in the stands], who are really, really good at editing their stuff through the back of the camera, so we just basically used the SET button to transmit the pictures back to the editors. They had a turnaround time, from when the picture landed in their machines and hit the wire for clients, of something like 20 seconds, which is really fast, and in ‘heavy traffic’ it took a maximum of 60 seconds. In total the [Reuters] team produced almost 650 pictures which hit the wire, of which I actually shot more than 240, so I got quite a large portion of them!”

To capture some of the match action Kai customises his cameras slightly. “I basically increase the contrast and colour levels just slightly, a little step, because that avoids somebody having to touch it big time in Photoshop. Then I manually expose everything. I use the big AF button on the back and I have a different setting for a slow shutter speed to shoot motion blur on the little star [button], which I actually used for shooting motion blur of Ronaldo, and I think that worked quite nicely during the game.”

As for his image files, he reveals: “It’s all JPEGs – I don’t even bother doing RAW. The quality of these cameras these days is just massive. I have a couple of examples of when you crop a picture and you crop into one third of the frame and the quality is still outstanding – there is nothing blurry; it is just really amazing. The camera technology in the EOS-1D X Mark II is not a revolution but I would call it a great evolution on what the 1D X already gave us, which was almost a perfect tool. The [Mark II] buttons are slightly bigger and all these small little adjustments fit perfectly for me.”

Faster frame rates

With regards to the increased frame rate on the EOS-1D X Mark II, which offers up to 14fps continuous or up to 16fps in Live View mode, Kai reveals: “Even for football I’m not a ‘Kalashnikov shooter’; I don’t hoover around [for pictures]. I used the maximum rate that I can use but I don’t have a ‘heavy finger’. But it is actually quite good because when it comes to a situation like a close-up header and you used to have one frame, or maybe two, now you have the perfect choice when the ball goes in and out, which is really nice. There were not that many of those scenes from my angle at the final.”

© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Atlético Madrid players celebrate after their team scored the equalizing goal – to make it 1-1 on the night – during the 2016 Champions League final v Real Madrid in the San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy, 28 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 200mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/4, ISO 3200.

He continues: “The best example is when Atlético Madrid scored its equalizer – even with the guys [photographers] just leaning over the advertising board and I got slightly blocked – I have a really, really wide range of jubilation [shots] of them celebrating, which would have been two or three frames in the old days. Now it makes about 10 or 12, which is really, really cool because you get a close-up, you get a wide shot, you get full length, which is really nice; especially when you use it [the Mark II] in combination with the 200-400mm lens. Then you can just zoom in and focus and hardly ever lose track; it’s just when he [the goalscorer] was really close I lost it [the subject] for a frame, but that was no big deal because I got the pictures that I needed just before that quite easily.”

He has been shooting with the EOS-1D X Mark II since February 2016 and says: “The funny thing is the camera never let me down. I was using ISO 5000, 6400 and 8000 on other occasions and it was always really, really usable. What is key is if you set your exposure right basically nothing can go wrong and you can go up to the highest level that the camera is offering you.”

Quality of images and AF

The key moment of the Champions League final provided Kai with the best illustration of the image quality photographers can achieve with the 1D X Mark II… “The quality is really massive – you can see it when you shoot across a pitch and it's getting a bit darker. I have an example picture – the decisive penalty when he hit the goalpost, which is at 400mm on the 200-400mm lens, across the pitch and then slightly cropped – there’s just so much detail in it, which is absolutely amazing.”

© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Atlético Madrid’s Juanfran (20, right) watches as his penalty hits the post as Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas (left) dives during the penalty shootout of the 2016 Champions League final in the San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy, 28 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 400mm; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/4, ISO 3200.

As for the faster and more accurate AF offered by the newer version of the 1D X, Kai explains: “I’m using autofocus all of the time. For a few pictures you have to manually focus; when it comes to [lifting] the trophy and all of the confetti is flying down you have to adjust focus a little bit and you might adjust when you’re shooting across the pitch but I trust the autofocus 100%. Most of the time I use the box with the nine dots or just the ‘cross’, the five [AF points], and use the joystick heavily to go through wherever I need it [to focus]. I put it [the focusing point] on the left hand side when the corner is coming from the other side so I get the attackers on the left hand side of the frame and the goalkeeper in on the right hand side. I use it very instinctively when I need it, but I trust the autofocus absolutely 100 percent.”

One aspect of the EOS-1D X Mark II that is beginning to prove a bonus for photographers who rely on autofocus is what appears to be the camera’s innate ability to work incredibly well with almost any lens, without the need for any specific focusing calibration. Kai notes: “Autofocus is super, super fast and very precise. I haven't had a single lens so far which needed any adjustment – basically whatever lens I put on [the camera] was working spot-on and was absolutely fine. All my Canon [lens] gear – from the 8-15mm up to the 500mm; everything was just absolutely top.”

Key differences

When quizzed on the key differences between the original 1D X and its Mark II successor Kai states: “As I said, I think it is more of an evolution than a revolution. What I really like is the tactile factor; a few buttons, like the AF button, are a tiny little bit bigger. The camera feels like it is made for my hands; like a customised grip, which is maybe just lucky that my hand fits like that, which I really like. Of course, frame rate is an issue – not necessarily for football but for shooting athletics, or things like that, I think it makes a big, big difference. I’m really looking forward to using it in Rio for certain things in the athletics which I was not struggling with, but you always needed a good portion of luck to hit the right moment and the bigger frame rate definitely gives you bigger chances [of getting pictures].”

© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

The San Siro Stadium reflected in the sunglasses of a fan before the 2016 Champions League final, Atlético Madrid v Real Madrid, in the San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy, 28 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 560mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 2000.

He continues: “The 1D X in the hands of a talented photographer was like a diamond but the Mark II is like a fine, polished diamond in a platinum ring. That’s how I would put it – it’s really superbly fine-tuned. They [Canon] were really listening to what the professionals were asking for. When you look at it and you send a JPEG from this camera, even compressed to increase the speed, every magazine in the world could use it for a double page spread and it would look great without a doubt.”

As for build quality Kai freely admits: “It’s superb. It was already great on the 1D X but it feels really, really solid. When you talk and discuss it [the camera] people say ‘yeah, but it’s heavy’ but for what we use it for… when you have 160 colleagues running with you on this lap of honour, or for a victory ceremony, you’re banging into people here and there and these cameras are not affected at all. I’ve used it in rain, though not at the Champions League final luckily, and so far it’s never let me down. I think it’s a very, very solid build which is not only fine for using it but also gives you great confidence to use it even in rough conditions.”

Overall thoughts on covering the final

Despite his unexpected difficulties when covering the Champions League final, with a damaged lens and his remote camera being knocked sideways early in the first half, how was the overall experience of shooting the event for Kai? He reveals: “UEFA tried to arrange the after-match celebration a little bit differently and they let us [photographers] on the grass in a row but that also killed the emotions a bit because the players were basically ‘caged’ by photographers and stewards and couldn’t really reach out to the fans. Anyone who knows [the San Siro Stadium in] Milan will know this is a pity because you have these big barricades which mean the supporters are not going to enter on to the pitch anyway, so mostly it was a bit quiet.”

Kai notes: “Picture-wise there is not one picture you would say ‘wow, this is a killer or an exclusive’ but from the news point of view it is very, very important that you document the whole story – the goal from [Sergio] Ramos, then the emotions, the referee, because apparently the goal was offside; then the equalizer, penalties and missing a penalty. I was shooting the penalties – it was not at my end [of the pitch], so it was basically from the other side of the pitch getting the back of the kicker and the goalkeeper front-on. I was not where the ‘jubo’ [celebration] went on as Real Madrid fans were on the other side [of the stadium] so I basically concentrated on the dejection of Atlético Madrid, which is as important for our clients as the celebration of Ronaldo and his comrades. Then you need a decent ‘cup shot’, which was really nice because [Real Madrid midfielder] Isco almost dropped the trophy from the balcony so they really have funny faces when he caught it, so it’s a decent shot.”

© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
© Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Real Madrid midfielder Isco (centre) almost drops the trophy after his team won the 2016 Champions League final 5-3 on penalties (1-1 AET) against Atlético Madrid in the San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy, 28 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 400mm; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/4, ISO 4000.

He adds: “For me, the whole documentation of the event went really, really smoothly and well… I have to be grateful for the equipment [for that] because it worked absolutely spotlessly. If you're struggling with your gear, you're in trouble but if you just can concentrate on what you’re doing that makes life a lot easier and you won't miss a special moment if there is one. They threw Zidane up in the air for just five seconds and then the trophy lift always needs a special shot. To wrap it up for me it was more to tell the story from Alicia Keys performing before the game to the last guy I got walking down the stairs – [Real Madrid player] Casemiro flashing me a nice victory sign.”

Having used, and relied on, three EOS-1D X Mark II bodies to cover such a huge sports event would Kai recommend the camera to other photographers? “Absolutely. If you don’t have a 1D X [camera] yet or you need to upgrade and you really want to have something that is superbly fast and solidly built… this is the camera of choice. I have a lot of German colleagues who have asked me ‘hey, you’ve used it for a while, what do you think?’ I have no problem telling them straightaway… this camera is more than reliable, it is great fun and a good choice to work with. It is definitely a very good partner to offer your clients brilliant pictures, which is the most important thing, because this is what gives you money back.”

KAI PFAFFENBACH’S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL KITBAG

Cameras:

3x EOS-1D X Mark II
EOS-1D X

Lenses:

EF11-24mm f/4L USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x

Accessories:

PocketWizards (to trigger remote camera)
Speedlite 600EX-RT flashgun

EOS-1D X MARK II – KEY FEATURES

  • Continuous shooting at up to 14fps for full resolution RAW or JPEGs; up to 16fps in Live View mode.
  • Burst rate of up to 170 RAWs in continuous shooting at up to 16fps and 4K movies using CFast cards in new CFast 2.0 card slot.
  • New 20.2 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO range of 100-51,200; expandable up to ISO 409,600.
  • 61-point High Density Reticular AF II system with 41 cross-type points; improved centre point focusing sensitivity to -3EV and compatibility down to f/8.
  • Accurate subject tracking for stills and video with new EOS Intelligent Tracking and Recognition AF with 360,000-pixel metering sensor.
  • View and control over stills and video via the 3.2-inch touch panel LCD with 1.62 million dots.
  • Increased resolution and fine detail with lens aberration correction and diffraction correction via new in-camera Digital Lens Optimizer technology.
  • Built-in GPS provides geotag information including auto time syncing with Universal Times Code (UTC) via satellites.
  • New optional Wireless File Transmitter WFT-E8A is compatible with IEEE 802.11ac/n/a/g/b; supporting both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands.
  • Durable and rugged magnesium alloy body with dust and weather resistance.

Biografie: Kai Pfaffenbach

Kai Pfaffenbach

Despite having no formal training in photography Kai Pfaffenbach’s work was spotted by the top German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zietung and he became a regular freelance contributor to the paper in 1994. He started shooting for Reuters as a freelancer in 1996 and became a full-time Reuters’ staffer in 2001. Although arguably best known for his stunning sports photography Kai has also covered major news stories, including wars in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as the British Royal Wedding in 2011. In 2013 his images changed the course of sports history as they proved that German shot putter David Storl had not fouled on one of his throws during the Men’s Shot Put Final at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow – thus ensuring that Storl won the gold medal. Based out of Frankfurt, Germany, Kai is now one of Reuters’ most senior and respected photographers and was named Reuters Photographer of the Year in 2014.



Showcase

Real Madrid players throw their coach Zinedine Zidane into the air in celebration after winning the 2016 Champions League final 5-3 on penalties (1-1 AET) against Atlético Madrid in the San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy, 28 May 2016. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 88mm; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/3.2, ISO 2500.