Saracens v Harlequins

Last weekend I made my way to Wembley Stadium to watch a game of rugby.

Now, I’m not the biggest rugby fan in the world, but when you live as close as I do to Twickenham Stadium you have to take some sort of interest in it. I don’t follow rugby as closely as I do football (that’s ‘real’ football to my readers in North America, not the pansy-arsed namesake you play over there which is basically a girly version of rugby for people with the attention span of a toddler) but I enjoy watching the game and consider myself a supporter of my local team, Harlequins, who play at Twickenham Stoop just down the road.

The match at Wembley, as betrayed by the title of this post, was between Harlequins and the Hertfordshire side Saracens, who are supported by Catherine from CJ Trigg Photography. So it was with her, my wife, and a few other friends from work that we headed to Wembley, hoping for a good match as Harlequins and Saracens were occupying the first and second spots respectively in the Premiership.

Saracens were the home side. Around this time for the last few years they’ve played one of their home league games not at their usual ground but at Wembley Stadium, the highest capacity stadium in the UK (Twickenham is second on that list, I’d like to add) with 90,000 seats.

We found ourselves sitting on the second tier, about halfway up the stand, but facing perpendicular to the pitch, affording a decent view of the whole field. Ultimately this location gave us a reasonably high angle on the field below.

1/400sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, 300mm

The traditional technique for shooting sports photography is to shoot with the aperture wide open, allowing in the most amount of light whilst giving the background a nice blur and focussing the attention on the action. You can see it in just about every shot ever taken professionally at a sporting event.

So, I shot in Aperture Priority (as I do most of the time, to be honest) with the biggest aperture possible (which for my telephoto is f/4-5.6, depending on the focal length) and adjusted the ISO to get the desired shutter speed for capturing the action. I also set my camera to full burst mode, which can capture 5 frames a second for about three seconds, to try to ensure I didn’t miss anything good.

However, with our position, all of the action was a bit of a distance away and, as we were reasonably high up, all of the shots had the grass of the pitch as a backdrop, instead of the more traditional crowd. The pitch being closer than the crowd meant that the bokeh was nowhere near as pronounced as you would hope.

1/250sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, 300mm (cropped to portrait)

I decided early on, a way to deal with the amount of green was to add a digital vignette. It ups the contrast of the image a little but also helps focus the eyes towards the action. Most of the photos in this set have a vignette added; most of the time it is hopefully subtle enough you don’t immediately notice it.

Another problem was created by the distance; a lot of the images as-shot from this match were a little poorly framed due to the 300mm limit of my telephoto simply not being able to get me close enough to the action. With a pitch full of players a lot of shots looked at times a bit cluttered or, at times, just a bit too green. Many of the shots in this post have been cropped; some (like the image above) have been cropped from landscape to portrait to better frame the action.

1/400sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, 300mm (cropped)

Much like at the women’s rugby a month ago, I struggled a bit with the white balance here. Unlike the other match, which was played at night entirely under floodlights, this game was played on a grey, overcast day, but there were a few floods on for reinforcement. This meant that neither the ‘shade’ or the ‘cloudy’ presets (nor the auto setting) were really right. I ended up manually selecting a temperature, which I settled on at 6000K after firing off a handful of test shots and seeing what looked best. Although for some reason this was represented as 5874K in Aperture, I didn’t have to adjust the white balance for any of the images shot with this setting. That will be made up for next time I go out shooting and forget to change my camera back to auto white balance.

Despite the action on the pitch, I was still able to find myself distracted by atypical shots to be had.

1/250sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, 300mm

I find this image particularly ironic as the Saracens have a victory song called ‘Stand Up for Saracens‘ that plays as they run out onto the field and whenever they score any points. It is, for the record, one of the world’s most annoying songs, enough to make you cheer the opposing side no matter who they’re playing (although I was doing that anyway, of course).

Back on the pitch, there was plenty of action going on. Both myself and Catherine were there not just for the rugby but also for the photos, making choosing between watching the game and photographing the game difficult at times (Catherine, by the way, beat me to the punch with posting her photos). Still, there were times when you knew things were about to happen – for instance, any time a player cleared the ball high downfield, you just looked out for a player looking like he was about to catch it, and focus on him (Catherine managed to get a great shot of a player failing this and getting smashed in the face). For this next shot, when the ball was kicked my camera was at rest in my hands with the lens cap still on. The ball spent enough time in the air for me to remove the lens cap, zoom in all the way, and focus in time to take the shot. The ball has gotten a little lost in the melee but I like the action captured.

1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33 (-0.38), 300mm (cropped & straightened)

As well as the times of action, there were more sedate times. Saracens, by the way, had decided to play in their red away kit, despite being the home team, presumably purely to aggrieve Catherine and I, who have had trouble with our 60Ds and the colour red. I find I need to adjust the hue and luminance of the red channel in shots that contain areas of all-red. Like most of these shots.

1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 800, exposure bias -0.33 (+0.19), 300mm (cropped)

One of the most common shots I took at the match were of the throw-ins. That’s probably because they are easy to prepare for, as the teams assemble around the throwing point you have the time to consider your shot, and then when the ball is thrown you have a little more scope to time the shot. Quite a few of these shots have made it in, mainly because each one looks a bit different and have done a good job at capturing the moment.

1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 800, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped)

This match was quite physical; three Quins players got sent to the sin bin for various offences during the course of the match, and at least a few minor brawls broke out. It was almost like watching the women’s game.

This was one coming together, which looks more like a wrestling move than something from a rugby match.

1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped to portrait)

The physicality wasn’t limited to members of opposing teams; even guys on the same team had collisions on occasion.

1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped to portrait)

This guy, meanwhile, was left on the pitch after a collision whilst the play carried on upfield.

1/320sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm

At times, though, the match settled down a bit and behaved a bit more traditionally.

1/200sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33, 235mm
1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped)
1/160sec, f/5.6, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.33 (-0.47), 300mm (cropped to portrait)

At half time, there was a competition for someone to have a go at kicking a rugby ball through a whole in the Domino’s Pizza logo to win £250,000 (it used to be a crossbar challenge, in which you only had to hit the crossbar to win the cash, but someone managed to do it a few years ago so they made it harder). The guy failed this time, sadly, but I liked the shot of the setup.

1/400sec, f/4, ISO 500, exposure bias -0.67, 70mm

Right, back to the action with the second half, and the teams have now changed ends.

1/400sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped)
1/50m0sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped to portrait)
1/320sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm (cropped)

A try for Harlequins! There had been a few others scored up to this point in the match but this is the only one which was clear cut enough for me to get this sort of shot. The red of the rugby posts has also caused a bit of issue, they look a bit wrong to me, like much red from my camera.

It wasn’t long before some of the brutality returned. Whilst the match was off being played at the other end of the pitch, these two got a bit entangled. I’m sure it was an accident.

1/32m0sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33 (-0.26), 300mm (cropped)

Meanwhile, back at the other end, the Saracens were pushing hard to get a try. Here, they came close, so very close, but not close enough, Sarries.

1/320sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33 (-0.19), 300mm (cropped)

Still, the home crowd stayed in good spirits, buoyed by the free flags everyone got.

1/200sec, f/5.6, ISO 640, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm

Towards the end of the game, I decided to try some wider shots, having taken hundreds of closeups. The stadium was a little big for my 18mm lens but I was able to get some wider shots with my telephoto.

1/500sec, f/4, ISO 800, exposure bias -0.33, 70mm

And one for balance:

1/500sec, f/4, ISO 800, exposure bias -0.33, 85mm

And with that, the match was over, with Harlequins running out 19-24 winners.

1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 800, exposure bias -0.33, 300mm

It was interesting to photograph like this, in a very restricted location and environment. I enjoyed the challenge of turning distant, potentially uninteresting images into more interesting ones with a bit of cropping and a vignette, which seems to have done wonders for the images. It’s nice to do some more minimalist improvements and alterations to a photo, rather than the more obvious post-processing that has become the hallmark of a lot of my images as of late. Each has their place, of course; I find sports photography like this needs colour detail much more than many other types, not least so you can tell who is on which team.

I’m going to sign off now before I start rambling. As ever, any comments are very welcome!

3 Comments

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  1. Just a note to say I’m really glad I found your blog! I used to live in St Margarets so in particular I like your local photos but all of your photos are a great reminder of happy days in London. Now I live near Edinburgh which is another interesting city. Keep up the great work!

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  2. Apologies for beating you to it and forcing the post out of you when you could have been taking more photos!

    The ‘wrestling move’ photo really stands out to me, and the sequence of the penalty being taken, there’s also one of the later shots of the line-out (rugby-cased correction – it’s not called a throw-in!) which is beautifully crisp and I love being able to see the Quins player’s eye so clearly focussed on the ball.

    The vignetting is very, very good, it really does give the photos a ‘pop’ and I’ll no doubt be pinching this tip at some point! I found that I quite liked the plain green grass background because it makes the action really stand out without the distracting background. I had a few photos of players running with the ball on the far side of the pitch which were in focus and not bad photos, but I didn’t like the fact there were match officials, the crowd, advertising etc. cluttering the background. I think I’m a purist at heart!

    At some point, probably next season now, you and Holly should come up to a Saracens match at their normal ground where we can get cheap tickets that are unreserved seating and therefore you can get right down next to the pitch for good photos.

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