Harrow Sports Day
I’m not specifically an events photographer. I’m not the go-to guy in Beijing for photos of corporate functions, restaurant openings, or whatever DJ played last weekend at Haze club, and nor am I particularly trying to build such a reputation. My longer-term photographic interests ultimately lie in documentary, fine-art photography, filmmaking etc, so I’m not putting much time into chasing and hustling after event work. However, I do get offered these events jobs now and again, and I’ll generally agree to shoot them. Even if the photos I’m shooting aren’t what I would choose to put on my walls or browse in my spare time, the adrenaline of jumping into the photographer’s role make such shoots worthwhile. An evening with my camera on my shoulder is always preferable to one sitting in front of a computer, and if the shoot gives me something a bit different for my portfolio, then better still.
On this occasion I switched into events-shooter mode to shoot a sports day for an international school in Beijing called Harrow. It’s affiliated with the prestigious London school of the same name, and markets itself in Beijing in such a fashion, their school buses featuring a logo of a pupil in straw hats and blazer. For myself, having attended my local government-run school in Fife, this world of elite fee-paying education is rather alien to me. My pre-shoot preconceptions were like something from a Harry Potter film: debating chambers, dungeons, BBC accents, secret clubs, and an evil headmaster wearing a cloak.
As it turned out, the school was nothing of the sort. As I always saw it, one advantage that state school education has over private education is that it draws pupils from a range of backgrounds, giving pupils a broader understanding of society they live in. This may be true when comparing comprehensive schools with elite private schools in the UK, but for an international school in Beijing it seems quite the opposite is true. Although the children’s parents may be CEOs and diplomats, they are diplomats from every corner of the world. The general atmosphere was of the kind of multiculturalism and tolerance often talked about in theory, but seldom realised in practice. In short, it seemed a really good school, and with some enviable sports facilities. International schools from several of the main Asian expat hubs (Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Seoul) had all travelled to Beijing for this sports event, lending the day a competitive atmosphere to match the surroundings. Evidently, taking an 8-hour international round-flight to attend sports day is not considered unusual in such expat circles.
My brief was to take two kinds of photo, one kind which featured the Harrow logo prominently, and with strong horizontal composition for the school to crop to a panorama and use in its website, and secondly some vertical action shots for publishing in Beijing Kids, an expat magazine. Lens-wise I brought my full range of lenses, 24-105/f4 and 70-200/2.8 zooms, and the 24/1.4, 50/1.4 and 85/1.8 fast primes. Additionally, there was a 100-400mm/4.5-6.5 L-lens with a push-pull zoom, if I needed it.
I found that the push-pull zoom was awkward in operation, and not suited to quick adjustments, and also shooting at 400mm means a lot of camera shake, which requires using a monopod for stability. I did have a monopod, but of course stability generally means less mobility, and after missing a couple of candid shots due to not being able to get my monopod into position fast enough, I mostly didn’t use that lens. As it turned out, there weren’t many restrictions on how close I could get to the competitors, not like say a shooting action on the other side of a football field. Mostly I could walk up near the action with the 70-200mm zoom and compose as I wanted. One time I did use the 100-400 was when shooting runners coming down the finishing straight. The best angles for shooting sports often involve getting down low to the ground, but if doing so on a running track, with runners coming your way, you need to allow yourself enough time to stand up and get off the track before they arrive. The 70-200 would not allow me enough time, while the 100-400 did. The bokeh, or out-of-focus detailing produced by the 100-400 is really nice and creamy, so naturally I did want to use it more. I tried using it indoors to shoot the swimming events, but really there wasn’t enough ambient light. The lens has a variable minimum aperture across its zoom range, and when zoomed in at 400mm that fastest aperture is a fairly slow f6.5. Even when pushing the ISO up to the Canon 5D2’s usable limit of around ISO3200 and underexposing slightly, I still wasn’t able to use a fast enough shutter speed to be able to freeze the action properly. Again, getting close poolside access wasn’t an issue, so provided I wasn’t worried about getting myself or my camera equipment a little wet, I figured I was better using the 70-200 where that f2.8 aperture would allow me to shoot with faster shutter speeds. I later tried out some of my prime lenses too for a bit of variation.
Aside from technical issues with lenses and image quality, the hardest part of shooting sports action photography is knowing the event, knowing how the competitors will move during the event, at what stage of their movement they will produce the most dynamic posture, which angle to to take the photo from to best showcase the action. Experience of shooting other types of photography certainly helps, but I still relied on a fair amount of trial and error to get the shot right. My ratio of successful to unsuccessful shots was fairly low, maybe only 10 % of shots capturing a moment which suggested some kind of athleticism, but of course if shooting 2000 images in the day, that’s still 200 usable shots, plenty for the client to choose from. The other problem to overcome in this shoot was that my subjects were not actually athletes, they were schoolkids, and often of limited sporting ability. At times, there was no “perfect timing” that could disguise the fact that a kid was splashing around in the pool doing doggy paddle…
Anyway, here’s a link to a little series of athletics and swimming shots from one of the more enjoyable events shoots I will do in my career.