Busted

November 18, 2010 

I used to bristle when people gushed about my staff-issued cameras, but with my gear’s current state of disrepair, all I can do now is shake my head and laugh.

It's not funny "ha-ha," but more of a "I have to laugh on the outside to hide my crying on the inside" kind of funny. No amount of explanation on-scene will ever dissuade camera gear heads from the seemingly pre-destined conclusion that what I have hanging around my shoulders is the bee's knees. Sure, they look impressive, and some of it is super sweet. A lot of our sports coverage would be impossible without strobes (which aren’t always allowed) without the incredible, and unfortunately discontinued, 200/1.8, and I love the 24-70/2.8 pool lens that has defaulted to my wide angle in lieu of another working wide.

Our usual workaday wide angle lens is the 17-35/2.8, the older version of the 16-35/2.8. Shooting every day in a wide variety of conditions and hustling around like we do means our gear gets put through the ringer. Obviously covering war or drag races can be much more harmful to your gear, but we probably put our cameras and lenses through more wear and tear than any professional photographers who don't work in extreme conditions or do a lot of underwater or rock climbing work. Over time, these lenses start to get loose, for lack of a better word. The barrels start wobbling and focusing becomes a challenge as the once precise alignment of polished glass is free to bend light in unintended ways. We'll combat this as long as possible by forcefully pulling the lens taut against the camera body as we shoot, but that only works until it really goes south.

My last wide reached this point early this year, though I was able to use it for the Toyota Center conversion time lapse, since the images were going to be used at a very low resolution. I also stopped it down to f/22 to maximize the depth of field. I took Rich Dickin's wide that was waiting in the queue of gear to be repaired. After Paul T. Erickson's wide angle joined the injured reserve, he took the one I had been using. Sometime around Water Follies, the box that holds the switch to select either manual focus or autofocus popped off, so the lens is literally held together by Scotch tape. Unaffectionately known as "Old Tapey" now, it’s a good thing we get little rainfall here because it's a far cry from weather-sealed:


The pool 24-70/2.8 has been my full-time wide angle since then. That's fine by me since I generally avoid the widest end of the 17-35 anyway because I don't like the funky distortion. It's still in good shape, it's generally considered to be Canon's sharpest zoom and I like its close-focusing and the ability to zoom to 70mm. That's especially handy since my second camera body is the Canon 1D. Released in 2001, ours are still clicking away. The images it produces, however, leave plenty to be desired. Its resolution is low (4.15 megapixels) and low-light performance at high ISOs is pretty sketchy. Generally, it serves as a lens holder, though I keep it at the ready in case I need a different lens and don't have time to swap it onto my other camera, the 1D Mark IIn.

Still, the old workhorse gets a few snaps every now and then, especially while covering football because the large 200/1.8 is too unwieldy to quickly switch when the situation calls for it. Back in September, Richland was a bad host to Pasco, shutting them out 21-0. I opted to go wide in the red zone, and pushed the old girl up to 1600 ISO, which, at f/2.8 gave me a reasonable exposure at 1/160th of a second in the dark endzone at Fran Rish Stadium. In layman's terms, that's pretty dark area and a slow shutter speed to stop action. What I was hoping for was a nice run up the gut, which is a safe bet with Richland's strong offensive line and running game. A well-timed shot of somebody coming at me could be reasonably sharp, and sure enough, Gage Reynolds soon obliged. You can see the motion blur of the players moving horizontally. It was serviceable enough to run as the main photo on the sports front that night, though:

You can see the noise even at this low resolution, but if you'd like to take a closer look, click here to see the full-resolution photo straight out of the camera. While it’s not the most fair side-by-side comparison, you can click here to see a full-resolution, unedited shot from my “good” camera. It’s not that fair because it’s a shot from a better-lit part of the field with a different lens, but as a comparison of how both cameras function at 1600 ISO, it's as serviceable as the quality of the photo of Reynolds' touchdown. Newsprint reproduction can be touchy with dark or saturated images, but the relative lack of sharpness you get from printing photos on smooth paper towels hides a lot of technical deficiencies.

What it can't hide is a total lack of focus, an increasingly frustrating issue I've been encountering with my "good" camera. Despite being five years old, the 1D Mark IIn is a great camera. In fact, I recently bought a used one for myself from Sarasota, Fla.-based photographer Chip Litherland in the hope that some of his mojo had been imbued in it. My work-issued body, however, has had focusing issues since July. Something is wonky with the focusing screen, so things that are in focus don’t appear to be when I'm looking through the viewfinder. This means I can’t manually focus, making certain types of shots very difficult to get. Compounding the problem is the flabby focusing on my work-issued 70-200/2.8 and the loose mounting means it often has connectivity problems on my camera, negating my settings by going into a "00" aperture, which throws off my exposure and doesn't allow me to autofocus.

It's really fun to deal with, especially last weekend while covering the state volleyball tournament at the Toyota Center. I prefer the flexibility of focal ranges the 70-200 offers for volleyball over longer glass and I thought I had it under control. Keeping the lens wrenched tight on the camera keeps it from uncoupling, but that can be hard to do while zooming out in a lefty-loosy direction. This meant I generally picked my focal length and stuck with it, avoiding my urge to try and snipe the action as it bounced around. Even so, I encountered a lot of grumble-worthy moments, even while snagging very easy plays at the net as CYAs of non-local teams for other papers around Washington:

Pre-focusing on the front line to get these types of shots is only reliable if you can do it yourself or tell the autofocus has done its job, and man, was it letting me down. I kept my composition wide and thought I focused on the Auburn Mountainview players as their impending victory over Bishop Blanchet was looming, hoping to juxtapose their excitement with Blanchet's disappointment and featuring Auburn Mountainview’s cheering section in the background:

It's not the strongest composition or juxtaposition, but frustrating nonetheless. Knowing that I can’t trust my focus means I'm hammering away a lot more on my AF button and leaning heavily on the motor drive to boost my chances. I was able to get something as they gathered to cheer:

Because if there's one thing you can count on in volleyball, it's more celebration.

The focus monster even rears its ugly head in less active situations. Jackson's Leigh-Ann Haataja, right, had to settle for a handshake with her mother Petra after Jackson won the 4A championship. It's kind of a funny moment and I tried to focus on her mom. It's not wildly off, but it's off:

None of these hurt as much as a blown photo while covering Kennewick's first trip to state, however. Focusing on Kennewick's front line, I had hoped to snag a shot that showed Meadowdale missing the ball in the foreground as Kennewick celebrated behind. The Lions student section made a nice background and everything lined up just right. It felt good as I clicked the shutter with the celebration in focus and the missed ball bouncing up to give some context. But what I saw when I checked the back of the camera nearly drove me to self-immolation:

You can click it to see a larger version that highlights just how out of focus it is. This hurt even more than my incident at last year's tournament.

I tried to get a similar shot but things never lined up as perfectly again. This was the best I could manage, but you can see its compositional deficiencies:

Only a poor craftsman blames his tools, but it’s hard not to in situations like this. To do it all right and have your frame fall short, with another photographer as the only thing in-focus, is maddening. Friends and family who frequent my ramblings often tell me that I'm too hard on myself, so I'll absolve myself of blame this time. In addition to missing out on moments, I end up shooting a lot more frames than I would like in an attempt to pad my chances, spraying and praying my way to a level of production that's hard to be proud of. It's no secret that times are tough in the industry, though, so I'm not holding my breath for the necessary repairs or new equipment. Until that glorious day comes, however, hobby photographers beware. The next time you jokingly say, "Trade ya!", alluding to my apparent wealth of photo gear, I may just take you up on it.

~~~~~

kyau@tricityherald.com
(509) 585-7205
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