A Strange New World

For those of you who read the first issue of 'Life on The Sidelines' or whomever has done official photos for sporting events before, you're aware of how surreal of an experience it can be.

Then along comes 2020.... Need I say more?

Like most things this past year, sports photography has experienced an unprecedented departure from what we would typically consider as 'Normal'. In fact, very few sporting events even took place this year due to the pandemic, including the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which is one of the biggest sporting events of the decade for professional sports photographers, only to be postponed until 2021. For those of you who solely work within the Sports Media Coverage industry (photography/videography), I truly empathize with you (referring to those who make a living solely off of sporting event coverage, as many have had to reassess business structures to make ends meet during the tough times). The good news is, that we are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

SO....with that being said. Enough talk about 2020 and the COVID pandemic. If you wanted to hear about those things you would have just turned on the TV. But you're here! And this is now! Time to focus on what's upcoming and all the excitement that the future holds now that SPORTS IS BACK AGAIN!!!

More specifically, College Basketball was back!!

Well...It took them a while, but it looks like the Big Ten Conference and NCAA finally got things organized enough that they felt comfortable with putting together a full regular season for 2020-2021. If you were a follower of this website/my socials back in February of 2020, you most likely are aware that I had the fortunate opportunity to cover the Purdue vs. Michigan game in Ann Arbor, MI before we all went into "hiding" right as March Madness was about to begin. That game was just about as good as it got in the realm of covering college basketball: two top Big Ten teams going at it for two highly contested halves, as well as two additional action-packed overtime periods with the deafening noise of a crowd packed all the way up to the rafters.

Fast-forward ten months to the new season and we found ourselves in a COMPLETELY different scenario thanks to our good ol' pal COVID-19: the viral gift that just keeps on giving while taking away just about every sense of familiarity away from us (hopefully only for a short time). We've all had enough of it, and it's time to look forward to new and better things while taking precautions("and that's all I have to say about that" -- Forrest Gump).

Now it's time to look forward to a new season of sports that will hopefully still be exciting to watch, even if it is from the comfort of our own Laz-y-Boys in our pajamas. Fortunately, sports photographers and the media outlets still have a job to do so that everyone can react to the in-game coverage. Thus, thanks to our trusty ol' friends over at ISC Purdue, we can dive deeper into today's adventure on the "sidelines" -- including images and experiences from an early season matchup featuring the Indiana State Sycamores vs. Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, IN.

Hallowed Ground

So to preface, I think it's important to note that being a former Boilermaker myself, there's something about being back home again in West Lafayette, Indiana. It's even more enthralling to have the opportunity to be back in the arena where you first learned the meaning of a true collegiate basketball environment. Back in college, my roommate, my closest friends and I would occasionally camp out all night for a chance at obtaining lower bowl seats to Purdue basketball games. Oftentimes, given that key games often fell between the months of December and February in the dead of winter, we would have to ensure that we didn't neglect our post as part of our version of The Knight's Watch when it came time to have your tickets inspected every 2-4 hours in the freezing cold temperatures, which meant very little sleep and quite a few shivers in a rickety $20 Wal-mart tent with a used futon cushion as the underlying support and hand warmers all around. If you didn't know any better, you'd say that basketball in Indiana isn't just a sport....it's practically a religion.

Every time I return to Mackey for a game, I'm constantly reminded of the good times and the roar of the crowd that made the experiences so joyous.

I'm sure this will not be the last time that I will experience one of those moments....but it will hopefully be the last times that the crowd isn't present.

Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, IN prior to the Indiana St. vs. Purdue Game in Dec. 2020 (Sony a6400 with 10-18mm f/4 Lens)

Hey Rob...Enough with the Nostalgia! Get to the good stuff!

Ok, ok.... To kick things off, I started by packing the following equipment:

Primary Camera Gear Setup

  • Sony a6400 Crop Sensor Camera Body w/ Extended Battery Grip
  • Sony 200mm-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Telephoto Lens
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4 G OSS Zoom Lens
  • Sigma 105mm f/1.8 Art Prime Lens
  • Sony 10-18 f/4 OSS Wide Angle Zoom Lens
  • Monopod/Tripod

Secondary Camera Gear Setup

  • Nikon D3300 Crop-Sensor Camera Body
  • Nikkor DX 55-200mm f/4-5.6 ED VR Lens
  • Nikkor FX 50mm f/1.8 ED VR Lens

As I learned from the last big game I shot, BRING A SECOND CAMERA and DON'T FORGET THE MONOPOD/TRIPOD!!

Game time for this particular event was scheduled for 7:30p. Naturally, you're supposed to get there 1-2 hours early so that you can fully get setup with all your gear and catch warmup pictures. This step was crucial, as the seating setup for this game was completely different from other basketball games I've covered in the past. This made a huge difference as to the gear that was used, as being up close and in-front really does make a huge amount of difference. All non-athletic department affiliated media members were confined to the Mezzanine level for photos, which made it where telephoto zoom lenses were very handy (more on that later). This also made it where you actually had a 'comfy' folding chair that you could sit in as opposed to sitting indian-style on the hardwood like you normally would.

Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, IN prior to the Indiana St. vs. Purdue Game in Dec. 2020 (Sony a6400 with 10-18mm f/4 Lens)

"The Sound of Silence"

As warmups came to a close and the starting line-ups began, I noticed something was completely out of place. As a casual visitor to Purdue games for years, I had become accustomed to seeing a packed crowd all the way up to the rafters that stirred with the anticipation of what was to come as the Pulse of Mackey Arena ("The Paint Crew" Student Section) began to come to life as the jazz band egged on the crowd to get to their feet and engage as one unified fanbase. This was the story for just about every single home game for the past 15 years.

Not this game however -- All of those things were gone this time:

  • No Band
  • No Paint Crew
  • No fans in attendance (other than family members of players, coaches, and official athletics department personnel)

I would dare say that Simon and Garfunkel would have even been feeling eerily sad in seeing empty major sporting events such as this one take place in the fashion that it did. It was truly an adjustment to make from a mental standpoint. Still...it's better than no sports at all.

Here's what you did hear instead:

  • Sneakers Squeaking
  • Coaches Yelling
  • Camera Shutters going off
  • Pumped in White Noise mimicking Crowd Noise (which was extremely monotonous and annoying -- providing for a decent headache after a while)
  • Speakers echoing off of the cardboard people cutouts that filled the lower level of the arena

Many of these things that would normally be considered as negligent noise that went into the greater game experience -- now they were now center stage. To be honest, it kind of felt like watching a practice scrimmage in full uniforms.

Less Distractions

The nice thing about the new enviroment was that you found yourself much less involved in the visceral emotions of the game and could focus more on the composition and timing of your images. It actually made it a lot easier to adjust settings on the fly, despite the viewing angle of the seats being substantially higher. This all came full force when you took time to realize the settings on the images.

Image Settings for the Sony a6400 with the 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Telephoto Lens (aka "The Bazooka")

  • ISO = 4000
  • Shutter Speed = 1/800 sec
  • Aperture = as low as the lens will allow

Image Settings for the Sony a6400 with the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art Lens

  • ISO = 1600
  • Shutter Speed = 1/1000 sec
  • Aperture = f/1.4 - f/2.8

Image Settings for the Nikon D3300 with the Nikkor 55-200mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens

  • ISO = (Too High to produce good images on this camera -- anything above 1600 ISO)
  • Shutter Speed = 1/800 sec
  • Aperture = as low as the lens would allow

If you're noticing a trend with those settings, you can probably tell that the lighting inside a basketball arena was less than stellar for capturing things in action. This is why most photographers who shoot basketball use lenses with apertures below f/2.8. The reason for this is that you want to let in as much light as possible without blurring the motion of your subjects, making it where a higher shutter speed is essential to image quality. To make the balancing act even more complicated, you have to make sure that the ISO of your camera remains as low as possible in order to ensure that your images don't sustain large amounts of noise or graining in the final product. Needless to say, the Nikon didn't get used much at all for this game given the overall conditions.

Now, if you recall the seating location from earlier, this now becomes an increasingly more difficult task to accomplish in order to get player closeups in the middle of the action. Most telephoto lenses for sports and wildlife are 1) prime lenses, 2) massively large, and 3) astronomically expensive for what typical up-and-coming photographers are willing to pay unless you're getting paid well for sporting gigs on a regular basis. Thankfully, Sony introduced the 200-600mm lens last year in a price range that is much more acceptable to the average consumer. Lucky for me, I was fortunate enough to invest in one of my own in full preparation for all of the sporting events that 2020 had to offer...that never happened...

SO....no better way to test out the lens' capability other than to put it through the wringer in conditions that it's normally not suited for (at least on paper), right? Right...

Here's a few images captured with the Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS Telephoto Lens:

As you can see, it did rather well (surprisingly) for getting some of the closeup images that I wanted to get of the players and coaches. But it was often too close of a lens to use for this setting unless the action was taking place at the opposite end of the court.

For most of the remaining shots, the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 ART Lens helped to counteract the difference in between. The difference with this lens, is that the strategy behind it is completely different from that of the 200-600mm in that you could lower your settings enough to get more detail in the images. This particularly came in handy for when players were on the near side of the court and you wanted to get some clear shots of the action while not being too close to not see what all was going on in the surrounding areas. You also have more potential to crop into those images when it comes to post processing, as there is less grain and the lens is a beast when it comes to quality detail in lower lighting conditions. Biggest downside to the 105mm lens is that it is such a SOLID lens -- Solid in the aspect that it comes in at an overall weight of 3.62 lbs. without a camera body attached, which is quite hefty for handheld shots; however, is still very manageable to hold because it happens to be very well balanced. Worse comes to worse, it comes with a monopod/tripod mounting arm affixed, so if you do manage to get tired, you can always put it on a kickstand for support.

Here's a few of those images from the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 Art Lens:

Not too shabby, right?

However, the lens that really stole the show for me though was the Sony 10-18mm f/4 OSS Wide-Angle Lens.

As you saw in the earlier photos of Mackey Arena, this thing is incredible for capturing sporting venues in their prime. I had used this lens once at a football game in the past and was just enamored by how wide of view you can really get and how well it does in most lighting situations despite having an aperture of just f/4. All I have to say is that the results speak for themselves and I intend to get more of these shots in the future for the next sporting events that I am fortunate to cover.

In Summary

Even though this had to be one of the more bizarre and unexpected environments in recent memory for sports photography, it was still something that I would be happy to go back and do again (and fortunately got to in March 2021 when Purdue traveled to Lansing, MI for a matchup against Michigan State). If you'd like to check out the full game gallery from all of these games for the 'ultimate 2020 basketball experience comparison', fell free to check out the following links:

Life within Photography is highlighted by the strange and peculiar events and occurrences that make you scratch your head in wonder; however, it's usually always a worthwhile experience to get out there and get more exposure with your camera to master your craft. If you happen to be curious and have any questions in regards to sports photography, or just photography questions in general, please feel free to reach out via the Contact Page or my Instagram page and I'd be more than happy to connect with you.