Photographing FIRST Competitions

For all of you “REAL” photographers out there, I am curious as to how you shoot FRC events, specifically settings and equipment. I am an amateur photographer who has been shooting FRC for 4 years and think I get decent results (see for examples), but I am curious as to how others approach the challenges of low light coupled with action and reflective surfaces not conducive to flashes (ie the driver windows). Below is how I do it:

Camera: Canon 40D
Format: RAW for Saturday, LJPG or SRAW for practice and qualifications (mostly for scouting, saves space on the PC and cards)
Lens: Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 DC HSM II (Best bang for the buck)
ISO: 800 generally, but some venues have forced me all the way to 1600
Short Lens: Kit Canon 28-135 f/3.5-5.4 (hate it, shopping for something around a 17-55 f/2.8)
Flash: None (Shopping, considering Canon 430EXII or Sigma EF530)

The challenge, as I see it, is getting the right aperture and ISO combination to allow the 200+ speeds to stop the action. Is this along the right track, or am I missing something??? Any recommendations on a short zoom for general shots (like team portraits and wide angle field shots) or flashes? As this is a hobby to me, I have a problem dumping >$1000 for a lens or >$500 for a flash, if I can get similar results for half the price. The Sigma lens is a perfect example, it was around $800 - almost half the cost of the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 at the time - and on a I get the bonus of it being smaller and very effective. I appreciate any responses in advance!

This will be my first time photographing a FIRST event. These are my specs:

Camera: Nikon D3000
Lens: AF-S DX VR Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G
Wide Lens: AF-S DX VR Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G
Flash: Nikon SB-600

And here is what I think I will be using as far as settings go:

ISO: Hopefully 800 (The D3000 doesn’t handle ISO 1600 and 3200 (Hi 1) very well)
Format: Large Fine quality JPEG for field shots, RAW for scouting and team photo
Flash Angle: The high roof of the stadium will not allow for very much bounce flash capacity, so 0 degrees
Flash Mode: Manual (Automatic wouldn’t know a good fill-flash setting if it bit it from behind)

I’ve never really photographed in a large, open indoor area before and I expect it to be a challenge, and I’m open to suggestions for adjuestments to the above settings from photographers more experienced than myself.
And to all photographers, good luck! Light conditions will be tough to deal with!

You may find it a challenge to get driver shots with the zoom at f/5.6, as the flash will not help much through the glass… Before I got my 40D and f/2.8 zoom, I used a digital rebel with a similar f/4-5.6 zoom, a way to cheat and retain some speed is shoot RAW a few stops low and then adjust the exposure on the PC… Give it a try if the arena is dim!

I (and my wife) were shooting at GSR mostly from the stands, as I was the drive coach and couldn’t get down closer much. I found that I had to push it all the way to ISO 1600 often. I was using the Tamron 28-300 VC which is a great lens, but f/3.5-6.3 so was still a bit slow at ISO 1600 in a lot of cases. Still, better to get the shot than miss it.

For a shorter lens, I highly, highly recommend the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8. I’ve used it for 18mths now and it is almost permanently attached to my camera. Only when I know for sure I need more reach do I use the 28-300. But the quality of the glass in the 17-50 with the constant f/2.8 gives stunning images.

My Canon 50mm f/1.8 is also great for team member photos etc. One of the sharpest images out there, and the best $130 (Australian) I ever spent for my camera! :slight_smile:

I’m thinking that adjusting the exposure compensation could do something to the same effect. I won’t be using RAW format for field shots because of memory limits. My team demands I take a lot of photos, lol

Also Dan, I highly reccomend getting a Flash. Like most photo equipment, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get something that works well. I don’t know much about anything not made by Nikon, but what I do reccomend is getting one by Canon. Because it is made by the same manufacturer as your camera, it will most likely integrate better with it, particularly with TTL and i-TTL modes. I can’t say I know this for sure, but it’s what my common sense suggests.

Ive found that it depends on the location whether or not I have to bump it to 1600. I was shooting with a Canon 70-300 IS f/4.5-5.6. In Ann Arbor I had no problems, at West Michigan I had all sorts of problems.

I will second the Canon 50mm f/1.8 BEST money ever spent. Build quality may not be way up there but it is a cheap flexible lens. (Plus, once you start shooting prime you hate shooting anything else)

You guys with the 50mm prime have full frame or 1.6x digitals? My understanding is that for the 1.6x cameras, a 35mm is better prime… Thoughts?

yeah for the not FF cameras you rather get the 35mm and not the 50mm.
(btw im talking about nikon but im almost sure its the same with canon…)
f/2.8 lenses are great for indoor photographs and fo course for taking photos of robots and matches.

Those who talked about 1600 ISO - i dont know what kind of camera you have, but you should have a really good camera if you can take 1600ISO pics without lots of noise :confused:

Last year taking photos with my Nikon D60 with the kit lens - 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 with SB600 flash worked really great. A better lens will make the photography much easier and much more comfortable :slight_smile:

Unfortunately my Canon 400D starts to bring in some noise at 1600. You can remove some in post processing, but it’s just not the same.

The available light changed during the awards presentation so they were a bit better, and some possible at 800. But during the matches was a bit darker so I was out of luck.

Sorry, meant to add I’m using a 50mm on a 1.6x sensor. Not ideal, but it’s still a beautiful lens!

I also highly recommend one of these white balance lens caps . I would be sure you can get this brand in the US. They are cheaper than some of the big-name brands.

One shot with one of these under the lighting conditions you’re in, set your camera’s custom white balance using that shot, and you’re away. It’s not 100% perfect (I notice a slight blue cast on my Canon), but you can tweak it either in camera or in software later. And most of the time it’s near enough to not worry.

My Dad and I both switch between a 24-70 and 70-200. I typically use a flash pushed up about a stop, in the neighborhood of ISO 800. Typically F 5.6.

Check out this post from a mentor from the Killer Bees with a few years experience of photographing matches. It’s not all about equipment, photography is an art. Jason allows some blur to create action in still photos, but also describes how to avoid “bad blur”.

In a subsequent post, Jason addresses lighting and white balance. Some of this can be compensated in post-processing software (PhotoShop), but getting the exposures right when you take photos reduces unintended distortions in the corrections. Looking at the referee’s shirts and seeing something other than pure white with black stripes is an indicator that the original exposure wasn’t quite right.

Why’d you have to link me to those posts, now I want to get back into photography…

Format: Large Fine quality JPEG for field shots, RAW for scouting and team photo

Just curious, and I could very, VERY easily be off seeing as I haven’t used an SLR in quite awhile. Wouldn’t you want your field shots to be RAW so you can play with them more after the event, and your scouting shots to be JPEG so you can send them to teammates or view them with a variety of programs right away?

Can’t be 100% sure why you would use RAW for scouting pictures but as for Field Shots, RAW is a larger file and therefore takes more time to process. Most SLRs tend to have the ability to shoot at high rates for a short period of time. You would use this when you want a series of shots. Shooting in RAW means this period of time is significantly smaller.
Plus, you take a LOT of field shots.

I hope I’m not being presumptuous jumping in here to give advice. I hope some find it helpful. If not, feel free to let me know.

Where do I start?

There’s so much to this subject, and every photographer has his or her own vision of what he or she wants to convey with his or her photographs. All good photography is an art, so there is no right way to do things. There are technical mistakes, but mastering your equipment and knowing how to adapt to the situation virtually eliminate those. I can tell you what works for me, but it might not work for you, so take what I say with skepticism, and find your own answers through trial and error.

First of all, a little background. I’m not a professional photographer. I’ve been taking photos all my life. They were mostly just average snapshots until a few years ago when I got interested in really advancing the quality of my photos as I started taking photos for my son’s robotics team. I started by covering just the team, but was asked to cover a whole event, and discovered how much fun it is. From there things took off. I’m now the somewhat official (no one yells at me to get out of the way) photographer for FIRST in Michigan events, and cover events in my area every weekend they are held.
I’ve always loved photography, and learned mostly on my own, through trial and error. Some basic photography books got me jump started. Most important though were the silent mentors. These are photographers whose photos I admire and study. I’ve tried hard to mimic aspects of their style, composition, lighting, you name it. Once grounded with a thorough technical knowledge, I think I’ve learned most from looking at great photos and incorporating what I like into my own style. I highly recommend this approach. At the very least, you try different things, and at best, put together something all your own that works well for you.
I mentioned starting with books. If you don’t understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and iso, get yourself a good book, such as “Understanding Exposure” by Peterson. For some good basic tips, if you can stand his lame humor, Kelby’s “The Digital Photography Book” has some descent advice. User feedback on Amazon is great for finding a few good photography books from among the hundreds out there.
When I started taking photos at FIRST competitions, I was new to action event photography. I made a lot of mistakes at first. A huge inspiration to me were the photos by Adriana Groisman. Anyone who has been to the Atlanta Championships has probably noticed her. She takes wonderful photos. Find them on the FIRST site and study them.

Great equipment is important, but not absolutely essential. If you recognize the limitations of your equipment, you can compensate and take great photos in many situations. The key is knowing when what you have is just not going to work.
Regarding those limitations, the biggest problem with photographing most FIRST competitions is light and movement. At best, the light is usually marginal at most venues. There just isn’t enough of it, and it’s often uneven. Combine that with all the action, and you have to start making compromises. It would be nice to be able to use low, noise free iso settings and really fast shutter speeds to stop the sometimes really fast (soccer ball in flight, kid jumping for joy) action, and have the margin to adjust aperture to suit artistic intent. Well, until competitions are held outside under consistently bright, with a light overcast, conditions, that’s not going to happen.
I set my cameras to iso 1600 or higher, knowing I’ll get some noise in many circumstances. I put the cameras on aperture priority too, and open lenses up as wide as they go (2.8 in most cases). Only when I know it’s going to work adequately will I close down the aperture, such as when I’m taking a group shot, no one is moving, and I need the depth of field to get several rows of people in focus. Otherwise it’s 1600 and 2.8 to get as fast a shutter speed as possible. All for one reason. I HATE BLUR.
Some people like some blur. I hate it. Show me two photos of a field of robots with a soccer ball in flight, one blurred, one sharp as a tack. I find the tack sharp ball mesmerizing. This is still photography after all. If I want motion, I’ll use a video camera. Sharp, still photos can convey action. It’s in the eye of the beholder. You know it’s moving even though it’s been captured frozen in mid space. I’ve taken some photos of robots up on their back two wheels. You know it’s either on its way over, or it’s doing a wheelie. There’s no way it can be in the position it’s in for more than an instant, and it looks great. I also have photos of a ball seemingly stuck to the glass in front of the driver stations. These are visually stunning shots, and the less blur, the better.
Of course, this is just my opinion. There are some great photographers who like blur, and some do it well. It’s a personal choice or preference. So no offense meant to those who like blur. (Did I mention I hate it?).

Now, even with high iso and wide open aperture, it’s tough to get really fast shutter speeds under the feeble lighting at most venues. I feel lucky to stay above 1/120th when getting some shots, such as anywhere off field where the light drops off. Anything 1/60th or below is likely to be unacceptable. I love capturing the emotion after a match in final rounds, especially the last one. I usually follow the teams as they celebrate. They are usually very lively - jumping, hugging, high fiving - and it’s a struggle to get a really sharp photo under those conditions.
Some may be thinking that the obvious solution is to add your own light; with a flash. That works for some. It doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it. There are so many reasons I hate flash. Red eye for one (because I’m not going to use a big, cumbersome flash bracket, and bounce is not an option in most venues). Diffusers help, but that doesn’t help with the most important reason I don’t like flash. Flash, in my opinion, makes photos look unnatural. Now I’m just talking about flashes in this kind of situation. I have three flashes, and when used on stands, with umbrellas, and some very, very careful and time consuming setup, the results can be very stunning. But in wide open spaces, I hate how flashes light the foreground and darken the background. I’ve used that kind of effect outdoors purposely, to great effect, but that looks like art. In a stadium, it just looks like someone forgot to turn on all the lights. I much prefer the ambient lit scene at robotics. To the human eye, most venues are quite adequately lit. I try to convey that feeling in my photos. And I do that by using the available light.

Okay, so now I know the limitations imposed by the conditions of the venue, and there I usually am, with the iso cranked up and the aperture wide open, trying to squeeze out the fastest shutter speed possible. Now, focus is going to be critical. Depending on the lens, I’ve got to make sure the focus is dead on where I want it. And I’m talking about focusing on the eye, versus the tip of the nose. It sometimes makes a huge difference. When I’m using my long zoom to capture a speaker during opening ceremonies, I’m often using autofocus because the person is pacing, making it hard to keep them in focus. In these situations, the camera is faster than I am, but I have to be sure that my autofocus point is right on their eye. I used to get lots of beautifully sharp photos of the FIRST microphone, in front of a blurry face, because the autofocus system assumed I liked the microphone so much.
During matches, taking photos with my long lens, I expect the focus to be narrow, and I compose for it. Knowing in your mind how your photo will come out based on the conditions and settings of the equipment you’re using results in getting many more of the shots you intended to. Know the limitations of your equipment and adapt to it. Do not assume that what you see in the viewfinder is what you’re going to get.

Now to the equipment.

I’m a Canon photographer. Nothing against Nikon, but once you start with a brand, you usually stick to it. I started with a 20D and a kit lens, and quickly learned the limitations of my equipment. The first thing I did to improve my setup was buy a really good lens; a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM. What a difference that made. I had followed some advice to spend money first on a great lens. That was very good advice. You can take great photos with a great lens and a mediocre camera. It’s much harder to do it with the opposite.
I still use that 24-70. It’s my workhorse lens at competitions. Having that relatively large aperture allows me to maintain adequate shutter speeds, and that lens is superb in quality, yielding sharp, beautiful photos.
My next upgrade was a 5D because I wanted a full size sensor, both for the increased sensitivity, and for the no apparent change in focal length of the lenses I was using.
Not satisfied with wider angle shots all the time, I knew I wanted a longer zoom. Having seen first hand how important lens quality is, I splurged on a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. My two zooms maintain the same wide aperture throughout their focal length ranges. That’s important under the low light conditions at competitions. Also, the image stabilization built into the longer zoom cuts way down on the blur caused by unsteady hands.
So I had my two dream lenses. They were a perfect combination to have at robotics competitions. I would shoot matches alternating between the shorter lens and the longer one. And that worked fine, until I started feeling like I wanted the shorter lens when I had the longer one mounted, and vice versa. I had noticed some photographers had two cameras, and all they had to do was grab for one or the other. That was my next upgrade; another camera body (a 1Ds Mk III, another full frame). And that’s the way I usually shoot to this day, with two cameras and two lenses. I have some beautiful fixed lenses, but I find the range of 24mm to 200mm spanned by my two zooms to provide me with most of the flexibility I want. Occasionally you’ll see me with my Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM on a third body, but it’s massive, and I just can’t carry around all that weight for too long, so it gets put away after a while.

A few minor points (or major, depending on your opinion).

I shoot raw exclusively. I have lots of memory cards, and storage is cheap. I’d rather have the resolution of full sized files, and the flexibility of raw, than saving some space by saving to jpeg. If I need to tweak a photo, I’d hate to have to do it from a jpeg.

I’d rather use a bunch of 4g or 8g cards than fewer 16g or 32g cards because if something goes wrong with a single card, I’d rather lose half as many photos. (Lower capacity cards are also usually cheaper than the equivalent space on higher capacity cards). Just keep an eye on the room left on your card between matches, and switch before they’re full so you don’t miss a great shot. Also, I use fast and high quality cards because in some situations, like at the end of a tightly contested match, I’ll be taking several photos a second, and I need the card to keep up with the camera.

When I arrive at a venue, I use a white balance card to set a custom white balance on the playing field (and sometimes also in the pits). That way the warmth of all my photos will be accurate and consistent. If you leave it up to your camera to decide for each photo, you’re going to get noticeable variation that gets frustrating to fix later. (And by the way, saving in raw format at least makes fixing mistakes like that easier).

I go as light as I can all day. I use a small waist pack to hold my memory cards, notepad, pen, etc. I’ve never needed a battery change, so extras stay in the car. I leave my camera bag in the car or on the sidelines. I once carried around my bag, but I was so much less maneuverable, and I kept hitting people with it when working in crowded areas, such as the pits.

I typically take 1,000 to 1,400 photos a day at competitions. There’s no way I can take the time to individually tweak that many photos and get them posted in a reasonable time, so I go for getting everything right when I take a photo. Then at my computer, I quickly sort out the photos I don’t like, or don’t like as much as another, I crop a few, I adjust the exposure of a few that really need it, and then I export and upload. I don’t Photoshop anything. In Lightroom, I crop and adjust exposure at the most. That’s all I have time for, and all I would want to have time for. If that prized shot I thought I captured turns out to have problems, too bad, I throw it out. I try to be my own worst critic. No one wants to look through hundreds of photos when there are groups of very similar motordrive shots without a purpose, or badly composed shots, or uninteresting shots, or blurred shots (unless you like blur… did I mention…).

So there you have it. My opinion of course. Sorry it turned out so long. (Blame Randy. He compelled me do it).

I hope this helps those interested in taking photos at competitions. I’d like to see more people covering whole competitions and posting their photos (as opposed to just their team).

If you care to look at any of my photos, go to and click on the Media link, or go to and look for the FIRST groups and sets. Groups are by year, sets by competition.

I’m still evolving as a photographer. I welcome feedback. Please feel free to comment, critique, argue, dispute, agree, question, harangue, etc., etc.

And by all means, if you see me at a competition, please introduce yourself.

Hey Dan,
Just wanted to let you know that the Bedford Now did use one of your picturs. Will you be at states? If so, I will bring up a copy of the article for you to have! :slight_smile: Thanks so much for sharing! :slight_smile:

Great idea to compare notes. I am another amateur, fortunate enough to be in Atlanta last year. Lighting in Atlanta is better than some regionals but as other noted, far from ideal.

At Atlanta, if you have your team’s media pass, you can get close, and flash can really help. In you are in the stands, forget it. (And remember no team media passes are allowed for the finals on Einstein.)

I use a Canon 40D. I use the 28-135 up close, and the 70-200 F4 with a 1.4 from the stands.

Here’s my favorite action shot from up close. Note it’s only 1/125 second.

Here’s my favorite from the (back of) the stands - right as 971 won on Einstein - now ISO is up to 1600.

See you in Atlanta

Thanks for making it so long, I read it all, and I probably will read it again and again in the upcoming days