Kat: You're In The Loop - we're here to discuss the ups, downs and sideways of the sport of figure skating, and maybe give you +5 GOE along the way. Let’s introduce this week's hosts.
Lae: Hi, I'm Lae. I'm currently trying to process that the JGP is happening, and crying about my baby Juniors. You can find me on Twitter at @axelsandwich.
Kat: Hi, I'm Kat and I am so thankful that the figure skating season has finally started again. You can find me on Twitter at @kattwts.
Gabb: Hi, I'm Gabb. I'm your costume enthusiast. You can find me on Twitter at @tegomass.
Becs: Hi, I'm Becs, and I am counting down the days until I can actually photograph figure skating in person again. You can find me on Twitter at @becsfer.
Lae: Cool, so we're really excited to have this episode because it's all about something that we can all rant for hours just casually about. It is the photography episode, and we are your resident photography enthusiasts - along with a lot of other people in our team. But I think we're being tasked to represent all of that love and bring it to you guys.
Becs: We would also like to give a quick shout out and thank you to the listener who suggested the concept for this episode to Kat. We had such a blast putting this episode together and we really value listener suggestion and will do our absolute best to figure out how to implement them or incorporate them into future episodes. So please, do send us suggestions, feel free to. Thank you so much for sending this one and we really hope that you enjoy the end product! Thank you.
Lae: So, the way that we're going to structure the episode today is a lot of listeners have really kindly sent in some really cool questions, so we'll be going through them and, in the process, hopefully giving you a good rundown of all the basics that you need to know for figure skating photography. And there will be some more resources and extra things in the show notes as well if you want to find out more information - and we're obviously happy to answer follow-up questions as well. But before we do that, I guess it would be good to just give a quick introduction to ourselves and a little bit about our experience in all of these areas. So, Gabb, do you want to go first?
Gabb: Yeah, sure! So I started photography when I was in college, and I took photography classes. It was something I always liked doing and then I actually learned it. I applied my knowledge in photographing cosplays, and then I thought "Why not photograph figure skaters when I go to competitions?" So that's basically how I went about it. Just like "Yeah, why not?"
Lae: And you're also a graphic designer, yeah?
Gabb: Yeah, so I'm a graphic designer and I also do banners - which I'm sure a lot of people have already seen last season and I'm doing more this upcoming season as well.
Kat: Your banners are so iconic.
Becs: I'm so excited for their debuts.
Gabb: Oh yes, there's going to be so many good ones. I'm really excited.
Kat: So I basically started photography in high school when my dad decided one day that he wanted to buy one of those starter DSLR kits from Costco and he was like "Oh, I want to do photography," and then, in the end, I ended up falling in love with it instead. He never took his camera out and I took it instead and then it just kind of went from there. So then, in college, I took a lot of headshots and senior portraits, did a lot of photos for formals and sororities - those kinds of things. It's mostly recreational for me, and then I just like taking photos of people, and figure skaters are people. Beautiful people! So it's, again, a natural extension of what I loved shooting.
Becs: So I probably have been doing slightly more serious photography the least amount out of everyone here. I have always really loved photography, but I was a tragically poor uni student who couldn't really justify indulging in the expense of good gear - which I made the mistake of not doing before I went to uni. So I pretty much actually used figure skating as a challenge to cut my teeth on getting better at photography and a really good motivator about a year and a half ago. So I actually learned a lot about photography on the fly while trying to shoot competitions, in-between using it a lot recreationally to photograph - I love photographing nature, if anyone has ever talked to me [they know]. To photograph people in nature, and just try to improve a lot of different areas that I like. But it was a really good high-level challenge for me just to be like "Okay, I'm going to start tackling and really use this as a motivation to improve my photography game since I know that I'm going to be at several competitions this year." So I mostly just started more seriously about a year and a half ago, but I've always loved it for ten years or so.
Lae: Great, and how did you become our resident flower crown queen?
Becs: By wanting to save money! Because Kat and I were watching Skate America last season, we saw someone give Kaori [Sakamoto] a flower crown and we were like "We should do that, we're going to be at Skate Canada shortly. We should do this!" And Kat was linking me on Amazon, and I was like "Girl, we can just make this ourselves!" So that is how I spawned a terrible addiction between Kat and me, and now we've made probably about 70 flower crowns each. It's kind of a shameful status, honestly, but hopefully, people still enjoy the prettiness and the silliness. It's quite a happy antic to engage in.
Kat: We are probably Michaels' top patron, at this point. (Hosts laugh)
Lae: Cool, and just to introduce my photography background, I've been shooting for about six years now. I got my first DSLR, proper camera that was mine - half of it was paid by my parents as a reward for good uni results, and I paid for the other half. And it was probably the worst camera to buy as a beginner because my dad went full Asian dad and was like "If you're going to get a camera, it better be a good one." I bought a Canon 5D Mark II, so anyone who knows [cameras] will know that is a professional-grade camera. And then my Asian self kicked in and was like "If I'm going to pay so much for this camera, I'm going to use it." So I started off shooting events at uni and then that kind of snowballed into fashion, into portraits, travel, food, and also a wedding that I shot. So it is a little business that I have on the side, but I hadn't shot sports photography before so figure skating was a completely new area for me. But it was something that, again, I love shooting beautiful people, I think this is a common theme. So that's how I got started with it. So what we want to do then is we'll move onto all the different photography questions that people have asked and, I guess, the first one that we'll go into is, someone has asked "Is there a good point-and-shoot camera that you can recommend for photographing skating? And any beginner tips on how to get started?"
Kat: Well the most important thing we want to emphasize is that photography is for everyone. Anyone can do it, you can use your phone, you can use whatever cheap camera you have lying around. There's more to photography than just having the best camera or the best lens. Most people have their smartphone, a little bit higher up than that will be your typical point-and-shoot, and then, if you want to upgrade more, there's also mirrorless and DSLR, and then there's also different types of DSLR. There's a full-frame and then there's crop-sensor, like APSC. So that's usually the trend that people move up in, in terms of buying your cameras and then, once you invest in the DSLR, you also have different types of lenses and then you can upgrade your camera bodies. There are lots of different ways to improve your gear as you move forward through photography.
Lae: But I think what people mean when they say "I really want to get into photography," as opposed to getting better at the photographs they already take, is when you make that leap from using your phone and point-and-shoot, which are cameras that don't have detachable lenses to swap out your lens, because that opens up your possibilities to different types of photography. Because essentially, what makes photos very different on a technical level is the type of lens that you use, and so that's usually the biggest jump from a financial perspective and also from a commitment perspective. So that's mainly what we're going to focus on, under the assumption that people who are asking these questions are interested in kind of delving into the world of DSLR and mirrorless photography. But if you want any tips on phone photography and how to get better at shooting on your phone, I have written up a guide in my own blog and will write a short introduction as well for the In The Loop website, just giving you some tips on getting better at your phone photography as well. We'll be talking later in the episode about how you can make this entire journey of buying a camera more affordable because you don't have to buy things new, so stay tuned for that. But first we'll talk a little bit about shooting specifically for figure skating.
Kat: So I think that all of us really started photographing figure skating more frequently last season. I think the first figure skating event I shot anything for was Stars on Ice in April of last year, and that's completely different from competitions because it's stage lighting. So you have spotlights and a dark background, so [you have to adjust] a lot of the settings in stage lighting versus the competition, regular rink lighting.
Becs: And how would you normally recommend alternating your settings for that, for people? Because I think one of the difficulties of photographing shows straight off too is the fact that if you go to a competition, you can go to the practice for most places other than some competitions in Japan and stuff. It's generally pretty normal, you know what's anticipated. But for a show, if it hasn't been aired or if you haven't had fan reports, hasn't been covered that much - you don't necessarily know the programs people are skating, you don't know the group numbers, you don't know what the lighting is. So how do you generally tend to anticipate that, or do you just - I usually shoot on the fly, personally, and like lift up my camera and take interesting shots.
Kat: Let me just say that shooting group numbers is the worst thing in the world.
Becs: It's terrible!
Kat: You can't shoot group numbers properly from the audience.
Gabb: There are too many people!
Becs: It's like synchro in group numbers are the bane of your existence, there's just no way to pull it off well.
Kat: So I end up using those intro group numbers during shows and galas as my opportunity to try to get the setting right. Because you can't focus on one person in a group number, it never ever looks good. So that's what I usually end up doing. As for the settings, all of us shoot with a mirrorless or a DSLR, so we all shoot manual. If you shoot manual, that means that you adjust all the settings on the camera yourself. It's not like the auto, where they kind of optimize the settings based on the environment in which you're shooting. You have a lot more control if you shoot manual, but that also means that you have to know what all of those different functions do. So when I'm shooting at a gala, I try to keep my shutter speed pretty high because you already have low light. So if you have a low shutter speed, a lot of your images are going to be blurry because the longer your shutter is open, the more light gets through and you're going to end up with this kind of blurry image. I also try to keep my ISO as low as possible, but it's pretty hard when you're in a dark setting, because the lower your ISO is, the darker the image is because the ISO is the sensitivity of your sensor. The lower the ISO, the less grain you'll have in your images, but it's also going to be darker. So I try to keep the ISO somewhere between 1000 and 1600, so it's not too grainy but I also get enough light in, and the aperture is largely dependent on what lens you get. You just keep your aperture as high as you possibly can, which is a low F-Stop number. I try to play around with the ISO and the shutter speed as much as I can and keep my aperture on the largest possible aperture which is, again, the lowest F-Stop.
Becs: And side note, sometimes galas can snake you just a tiny bit if they have really wonky, inconsistent lighting or if you're like me when I was shooting Grand Prix Final, from the seats that Yogs and I were sitting from, the spotlights were angled horrendously for us and it honestly ruined a lot of my photos just because of the angle of the light. So that can be quite hard to control for and you kind of just have to deal with it or wing it or cry and try to move to another seat, if it's not a very crowded event. But mostly, there will be a lot of challenges so keep checking your photos and just adjust as best you can to try to get something. But they're a lot of fun to shoot because they have a lot of dramatic variances in lighting and setting than you'd get at a competition.
Kat: Gabb and I had that issue at Grand Prix Final, [Gabb: Yeah] because we were sitting at opposite sides but the same end of the rink.
Becs: Yeah, we were both kind of short side towards the Kiss and Cry, and that was sort of rough. Lighting was not in our favor so just roll with it.
Gabb: And in general, at GPF it was just weird.
Lae: In what way?
Becs: So regarding lighting, I've shot in a decent amount of rinks by now. Probably the best rink that had the best lighting where I've looked at it and was like "Oh, I can keep my ISO so low, it's so bright. The white balance is great. I don't have to do too many adjustments," was probably the one at US Nationals because it was a super new rink. But Grand Prix Final was so wonky. It felt like a rink where they had the lighting and - you know when you go to someone's house and a light goes out and they screw-in whatever random lightbulb that they've found that someone donated to them, so it's all different sorts of lights? That was very much how Grand Prix Final was. You shot one way and the light was completely different, the white balance was super wonky and then you shot a slightly different angle down the rink and it was totally different. So editing and adjusting for white balance for just shooting one program or one run-through was an absolute nightmare in that rink.
Kat: Yeah, during practices is our time to usually get an idea of what the lighting situation is. It's a good opportunity to also become familiar with the program as well so that you know what parts of the program you'd be interested in shooting. But yeah, Grand Prix Final, I basically gave up taking photos.
Gabb: Yeah, I remember I would take pictures towards where Becs and Yogeeta were sitting and it would be super yellow, and then I'd take pictures on the complete other side and my white balance and lighting would be great, and then I'd shoot towards where the Kiss and Cry was and it'd be super dark. So it was just a real nightmare.
Lae: I think one thing to consider sometimes, I think a lot of skating fans when they're buying tickets for an event to sit at, they're like we have to within this many rows, we have to be judges' side, or we want to opposite judges' side but we want to be long side, and that's not necessarily, depending on what you like to capture when doing photography, those aren't always necessarily the best seats. I would much rather side short side to capture a lot of disciplines than sit opposite judges, [Becs: Right] because short side, you can be by the twist corner, you can get step sequences - if someone has a straight step sequence, and comes down the rink, you can get amazing shots and so much eye contact or set-up or lifts look gorgeous, but sometimes when you are opposite judges, even if your seats are generally quite fun or more central for actual ice coverage and other aspects, you're just going to get a lot of backs, or the choreography isn't going to be really presenting. It's really quite rough for Ice Dance, if you want to shoot Ice Dance, probably don't sit opposite judges.
Gabb: I was at a competition two weeks ago, a local Quebec [Canada] competition, and since there was only one side for the seats, basically I only got shots of people's backs for Ice Dance, it was really bad.
Kat: Ice Dance is one of those disciplines - well, really all of them - but Ice Dance is one of those disciplines you want to be on the judges' side because otherwise you will just have two backs staring at you. [Hosts laugh.] At Four Continents, I was sitting opposite the judges' side, because apparently all of the seats were opposite the judges' side, in the corner too. So, I did not get a lot of good Ice Dance shots that were during the programs because all I saw was their backs, and usually people were doing crossovers in that corner, so all I get is them doing back cross-overs in that corner past me. So a lot of pictures I took of Ice Dancers faces were during warm-ups as they were stroking around the rink.
Becs: One thing you can do, if you don't have ideal seats for photography, one thing that's really useful sometimes is... Okay, you have two options. You can either sit in your actual assigned seats if you do go to practice or if you decide you want to, and sort of figure out, okay, someone runs through their program, and you're like oh my gosh. When I was at Grand Prix Final, I'd look at someone and be like 'this lift!' I can get this part of the choreography perfectly from my seat, it's great. But, you can take advantage, especially if it's a complete mob of something, like Yuzu[ru]'s not practising, or something. You can kind of flit around the arena, and be like okay! Well I want to see what other programs look like, or I'm not in the twist corner. I didn't take a single photo of a twist during Grand Prix Final, so you can kind of flit around.
Lae: I think for photography purposes, what the key take away then is that number one, the best photography seats are not necessarily the best seats for actually viewing a program, and secondly, I think don't underestimate the good shots you can get in practise, especially for like Ice Dance practise where they're pretty much made-up already, it's such a good opportunity to take photos of the very fact that you can vary where you are sitting during practise, so you can get better seats. Also, I think it's just a more relaxed time, and you have a better chance of a skater practising an element in your corner, where you are sitting, for example, when they're in practise because they're not necessarily cleaving all the time to their actual program. They could be practising an element or a spin, and so definitely would recommend people attend practises if you're wanting to get good photography, if you're able to.
Kat: In general, just a couple of constant reminders because you never want to be stuck in these situations. Bring extra SD cards, make sure you have enough storage for all your photos. There is literally nothing worse than realising that your SD card is almost full and you're in the middle of shooting competitions, and you're doing burst mode and shooting in RAW and you're just frantically deleting a bunch of photos.
Gabb: It's hell. Also, check! If you've been shooting a competition for a whole day. Check that you've transferred you're photos, but check that you've formatted your card before you started shooting, because I did this, my last day at Skate Canada practise, and everyone knows I was having a meltdown because I had 100GB of photos on my card, 120 and I had transferred them all and backed them up, but I hadn't formatted and then I had taken shots of Shoma [Uno] and Piper [Gilles] and Paul [Poirer] and was desperately trying to mass-delete everything so I could use the card, it was a disaster. So, don't do that!
Kat: If you don't have enough storage, try to get a card - especially if you’re shooting in raw, you need that extra storage. I would recommend having at least one 128GB or maybe 64GB SD card to use for the day- if you like to live on the edge. A 128GB will give you around 5,000-6,000 photos which should be plenty for a day if you’re not crazy which we all are. Try to have at least 128GB for shooting and then be able to back up your photos and reformat. Also, know what your camera’s battery life is! Know if you need to bring extra batteries and have one fully charge, or if you know your camera can last a day on one battery, just make sure to charge it every single day. Be vigilant about your camera’s battery. Be aware that sometimes rinks are cold and batteries can underperform in the cold.
Lae: You might witness your camera actually- my camera was jumping from full battery to one bar, then back again in the cold. If you have that happen, don’t panic. Go outside and warm your camera up as lame as that sounds. You sometimes will be taken aback by those. It needs warmth to survive.
Becs: It’s like a sad plant.
Kat: If you can get an extra battery, it’s always highly recommended to bring a backup for whatever reason. Batteries will deteriorate naturally as you use it. Check your battery setting too. Like if it has 70% capacity at full charge, it has 70% of the change if it were brand new. Be aware of that as well.
Becs: Also, it’s just hellishly hard to find a place to charge a battery if you do have a crisis at a rink. It’s worth even buying a cheaper backup just so you don't have to run around hunting for that.
Lae: So we have some questions around picking a camera and the differences between camera bodies, what cameras we use, and what we do and don't recommend. We really wanted to sort of break this down into several key points. First, when you’re picking a camera, what factors you should be considering beyond your figure skating photography needs. Becs, I think you had some insight about that?
Becs: Initially, one thing obviously was budget just because these [camera] can vary quite a bit. The camera, if I wanted to go from a four framed DSLR, it would have been all or nothing, it would have been about a thousand dollars more than my current body. One thing I strongly considered was that I wanted to photograph more candid photography and take my camera everywhere. I love to hike. Obviously I could lug a tripod and a massive DSLR and a lens and stuff on every hiking expedition, but I probably don't want to considering I like to travel quite light. This is especially if I’m country-hoping or going to multiple different destinations. I ended up opting a very light and small mirrorless. I shoot a Fuji X-T20. I would probably actually recommend now that they’re on sale, going with a T2 or T3. Basically I went with a cheaper and lighter body and I did invest in different lenses so I have quite a large telephoto that’s quite heavy and stuff. I also have smaller lenses so if I was going to pack for a trip, it’s pretty versatile. I tried to incorporate, okay I want to do some photography in terms of portraiture for friends, and I want to do some more promotional shoots, and some macro, and I love to photograph nature. When I was selecting what sort of gear I really wanted to invest in, I wanted to think realistically. Like, what really suits my lifestyle in addition to taking figure skating photos. Those may not be the most professional, but still would be something I could improve on and be quite proud of.
Kat: Obviously what we’re trying to say is that photography is a pretty expensive hobby. You’ll get out of it what you invest. Photography doesn't have to be expensive but if you're looking to create high quality photos, you're going to have to prepare to foot the price. Everyone has different limits for what that might be. Some people might think that spending $2,500 on a lens and camera body is insane, and I don't blame people who think that. For some people, that's just reality and what you have to deal with when you want a nice body and lens that lends you a little bit better versatility and better quality in your photos.
Lae: Also take into account that there are repairs that you may have to do and most investment that stacks up. It really does depend on your budget and I would really heavily recommend people really do their research around the body and range of lenses available because it will serve you well to have a long term plan for where you want to take your photography. If you do really want to work yourself to a place where you’re shooting professionally and getting paid for your photos, then it might be worth investing in a good quality camera from the outset because you're depending on that return once you actually hit the stage of being able to be paid. For most people, I think if you want to keep it as an amateur hobby, it then really depends on knowing what you're going to predominantly use your camera for. No one is expecting to go to figure skating competitions every single day of the year, but it is a pity to leave your camera languishing in the cupboard, so I do really recommend a camera that suits your needs.
Becs: Right. One thing I would recommend is really researching and comparing across brands such as the range of lenses and how much they cost. Fuji is relatively expensive in glass. I’ll look at comparable lenses for Canon sometimes and i’m like, “oh, I could get a much cheaper used lens.” In terms of actual compactness and lifestyle, I really research the lense range. I think to do landscape, and marco, and sports. These all have pretty accessible lenses I could switch in and out and try to work towards investing. Almost construct a mini plan in advance in the sorts of photography you’d like to aim for if it’s going to be a bit more serious. I would even go and play around with the cameras and trying them out to figure out if that’s what you like to shoot with- that’s really helpful.
Lae: Just to talk a little bit about the difference between a full frame and a crop frame camera, I would say that a full frame camera are professional grade cameras that you see official photographers at competitions using. I wouldn't recommend them for beginners because they are so expensive. They are genuinely such an investment. When I bought my Canon 5D Mark ll, that was brand new in 2011, that came with one lens, I paid $3,500 AUD for it. I believe that’s the rough equivalent of high $2,000 USD. It is a huge investment and it only gets more expensive because an average red ring lens, or professional L lens for a full frame camera in Canon is easily in the thousands if you want to get really fancy lenses. There are some cheaper lenses, but they’re all in the hundreds. I think people can genuinely get taken aback by the prince- photography is a very expensive hobby. I do recommend that if you’re going to invest in these sorts of cameras, then you should be thinking about getting to the level where you can get paid for the photography. It took me probably about four years of shooting and being paid for my photography to sort of pay off that camera. Now that it is, that's where the return investment actually happens.
Kat: Just for a basis of comparison, Lae and I use a similar camera- we both have Canon 5Ds. When I got my first camera, it was a Canon 60D Crop Sensor APS-C, I paid between $1,000-$1,200 at the time, and it wasn't even the newest model I think. That one came with an 18-135 mm. That’s a lower quality lens with a lower quality body, and that’s still a thousand dollars for every a Crop Sensor DSLR. That can be pretty expensive too.
Lae: That can be something to take into consideration but I do that that if you're going to be serious about it, then Crop Sensor and Crop Frame is what I’d recommend for starting out, and Gabb can attest to that.
Gabb: Yeah. Crop Frame is something I'd recommend using because it’s cheaper, you can get the same amount of zoom or more compared to the full frame, it’s more versatile, it’s lighter, and you could easily upgrade. For me just to compare, I use a Panasonic G7 and I bought that one second-hand because I already had an Olympus which uses the same lens, the Micro Four Thirds. For my body since I got it used, I got it for around $700 and that included a microphone, extra batteries, an SD card, and I thought that was a pretty good deal. After that, I got a Telephoto lens which is my holy grail lens and that is the 35-100 mm F2.8 and I got that for around $700 just because I was searching on Ebay, looking at listings for 3 or 4 months until I got a really good deal on it. I think if you bought the lens new, it would cost about $1200, I would say, I think that’s about the price. But yeah, crop frame could come pretty cheap but I just want to say that with my camera body, it broke during Skate Canada on the last day which was very sad.
Kat: That was so tragic!
Gabb: Yeah, so it broke on the last day and I went to Panasonic to get repairs and the thing is that it took them ages to quote me back on how much that would be and when they did, they told me it would cost $695 just to get it repaired.
Becs: Which is what it cost to buy!
Gabb: Yeah basically! Since I was like ‘yeah I’m not paying that, I’m just going to buy a new body.’ So I was able to get a new body on eBay - no lens, no nothing - just a body with some extra batteries that came with it and I got it for like $300, which is really good! So you can still get really good pictures and not pay as much as you would for a full frame with just a crop sensor.
Kat: And it’s good that you mention that too because one thing that is important to note is that a lot of the photo quality is determined more by the lens you use and not the body. So if you had the option between investing in a high quality lens or a more expensive, better body, always go for the lens first. The lens has longevity. Usually lenses don’t deteriorate as quickly as camera bodies do which is why Gabb was able to find a body for pretty cheap. But lenses usually retain the same quality and you usually get better photos if you invest in a lens than if you just go for the most expensive body
Becs: Yeah, I would also agree with that because that was one of the deciding factors in why I chose to get not as quite of a premium of a body for Fuji because I looked at it and compared it and was like ‘I know I want to buy this very specific lens so I can photograph figure skating in addition to some other things’. I looked at the pros and cons and the better body I wanted was like $600-$700 more, so I just went with the cheaper body, which has excellent performance so you really can get a lot out of it if you do your research.
Kat: Be prepared for how expensive lenses can be. A lot of people that don’t know a lot about photography might be surprised by that but you really have to invest in lenses if you want to produce better quality photos. So a lot of the more professional grade lenses are easily in the thousand range and that’s usually not even the most expensive ones either. There are a lot of lenses that are in the couple hundreds range but the best quality lenses with the higher apertures and longer focal range will tend to be in the thousands. If you can get a 70-200mm for $1000 USD, that is good, that is amazing, jump on that.
Becs: Just as a really quick tip if you’re researching what sort of camera system to invest in, there’s always like ‘Canon makes this glass, Fuji makes this glass’ but check out what other lenses work with the mount for your camera or an adaptor because - if you’re thinking more ‘I want to balance lifestyle photography and figure skating photography’ - you can get some really great lenses for cheaper if you don’t necessarily buy the name brand for your camera. You’ve got a lot of much cheaper options; most of them will be more manual lenses likely so if you’re not comfortable shooting with manual focus and other things, you might have to get more comfortable with that but that’s definitely something you also want to quickly investigate on the side to double check your other options.
Lae: And then just finally to quickly give an overview of the two key brands at the moment, Nikon and Canon are still the two giants of the photography world. One of our ITL team members Clara shoots with a Nikon D7000, also with a 70-200mm lens. What Nikon tends to be famous for is their lenses are generally more affordable than Canon’s and usually if there’s a particular type of Canon lens, there will always be a Nikon equivalent. If you’re going down one or the other, look at the different characteristics of the brand and what they’re known for. And obviously, as Becs and Gabbs have mentioned, you can look into other brands like Fuji, Sony, Panasonic and other brands as well. And obviously don’t forget the special lens manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma.
Lae: Another one of our ITL members Gina uses the Canon 7D Mk 2 setup with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens so that’s definitely a great lens for Canon as well. What Gina does additionally does is utilise the AI servo continuous shooting function with autofocus on for rapid multi-directional movement tracking. Basically this is function within EOS DSLR camera bodies that basically allows you to analyse and track movement and the camera focuses the image based on where it predicts the subject will be at any given point in time. This is often used in sports photography where the subject is continuously moving and this increases the likelihood you’re going to get a series of shots in focus. If it’s something you’ve enabled in your camera, it’s definitely a useful function if you can get your head around exactly what it involves.
Becs: Moving on, we got one question from a listener regarding what sort of lenses and cameras you should avoid if you don’t want security all over you. This is…relatively…
Kat: It’s a loaded question.
Becs: It’s a very loaded question and honestly, one thing you have to understand is to think about where you’re going to competitions because different feds have different standards and within those feds, different competitions have different standards and different security guards for the competitions have wildly different concepts of what’s appropriate. So let’s quickly run over some of the basic standard specs in terms of permissible lenses that they formally say, and then what our experiences have been in actual relation to that.
Kat: So the most common rule you will see about photography is ‘no detachable lenses’, which is one of the stupidest rules ever. (Lae: It really is) Barring the fact that no one ever enforces it, and most security guards don’t know a thing about cameras anyway and don’t realise they’re looking at a detachable lens camera like 80% of the time
Becs: It’s tragic like at Skate Canada once, someone tried to rip off a $1500 telephoto lens off my camera because they thought it was a tumbler. Not anything against the security guards but their knowledge of basic photography gear can be pretty tragic so be prepared to explain things a lot.
Kat: But yeah so a lot of competitions will have a rule you can’t have detachable lenses, some will say no focal length of over 200mm, or they’ll ban lenses that are more than 6in in length which is the stupidest thing ever because if you’ve ever seen one of those really big white lenses, that’s the 70-200mm and it’s over 6in in length but it’s 200mm so it’s technically within the rules.
Becs: One thing to be wary of is the fact that sometimes, if you have a fully contained zoom for a much nicer, higher level lens with fixed aperture, your lens is going to be much bulkier than if you have a lens that extends out. So you might have a lens that has a 300mm zoom that security will just wave by but for the 200mm, they’ll be like ‘No no no no’ because it’s technically a bulkier lens even though it technically fits their stats more. So basically in general, in terms of a rundown, Skate Canada says no detachable lenses and they have their really strict 6in and 200mm [policy]. We talked to our team member Gina who was at Pyeongchang for the Olympics and she said it was basically as long as you didn’t exceed 300mm. And then the US Federation is probably the most lenient but the most inconsistent and Kat has a lot of anecdotes about that. And then I think in general, European federations tend to be kind of across the board have less explicitly stated photography policies or be more lenient, and then Japan is just…don’t bring out a camera, don’t bring out your phone and even try to take photos. No. (Kat: Do not even try). Don’t make any effort. In fact, I started going to figure skating competitions in Japan and was so used to not photographing a single thing that then 6 weeks after I moved back from Japan, I went to ACI and completely forgot to even bring my camera because I had forgotten that one was actually allowed to photograph skating competitions in the US so that was a tragedy.
Kat: But yeah, these kind of security things…there is no right answer to get past security. It just depends on what the situation is. Like Gabb - because her camera is pretty small and even her telephoto is pretty small, she can probably get in a little bit easier
Becs: It’s a lot daintier than if say if you’re shooting a Canon 70-200mm.
Kat: Gabb did you ever get stopped by security?
Gabb: No, never!
Kat: Yeah! Which is like, again, crazy to me!
Becs: Because she actually has longer range in some cases. Lae I think has been a little bit fortunate in that she’s mostly shot Milan Worlds in 2018. Tell us about Europe because that’s the real unknown for some of us.
Lae: Europe was honestly very chill. I think they were more concerned about our water bottles not having caps than with my gigantic lens and camera body that was easily 5kgs. I can only speak to one experience where I went to Milan Worlds but they were fairly lax about letting in cameras, I don’t remember there being a very stringent policy on not being able to take taking cameras in. While we would never encourage any listeners to break the rules and to flout these things, I think the thing that you have to be aware of is the reason why they ban these lenses in the first place is that they don’t want to cause disruption to other people in the audience, they don’t want the perception that we have a whole bunch of professional photographers in the crowd and I think the key thing is just around the optics of how you’re shooting. So unfortunately if you do have a full frame camera and you have a bulky DSLR, even if you’re technically not breaking the rules or you’re just on the allowances, the optics to a security guard, to these event organisers who don’t know the finer details around photography...if you’re looking like you’re kind of disruptive or you’re very prominently visible with your camera, that’s probably what’s going to get you the knock. And so that’s where having a smaller and more discreet camera can really be in your favour. So definitely read up on the rules. I will just say you do have to just see how the situation is on the day. Sometimes they’ll be really lax, sometimes they won’t be. You just have to be polite and understanding if you’re told to put your camera away, don’t fight them on that.
Kat: Sometimes it’s also a lot of miscommunication too between the arena or the rink management and the ISU and also the security because sometimes security is just private security that’s not for the rink. So there’s three levels of miscommunication that can happen.
Becs: The general rule of thumb that we found when attending competitions - at least in North America where we’ve tried to do more photography - is that it’ll get stricter as the competition goes on. So, for example, at Skate Canada, Gabb and Kat and I and several other people we know had been taking photos with our standard gear and not sneaking our gear in really at all, just going through normal bag checks and they waved us in for Thursday and Friday. And then once we hit Saturday, the day of the FS, they were doing much more extensive bag checks and being much more suspicious of our gear, even though they had basically waved us through the two prior days. Or for US Nationals once, I ran in and Saturday, they didn’t even glance at my camera gear and then Sunday, they were like ‘What? You can’t use this’ and I had literally emailed the US Fed four times to request their camera policy so I just politely told the security guard that I understood and that it wouldn’t be a problem and proceeded in and they didn’t give me grief but generally, rule of thumb, it’s going to be stricter as it goes on so just be aware of that and try not to be too upset.
Lae: I think just never go into the competition assuming that you’re entitled to take photos but definitely bring your camera because you don’t want to be there, see security being really lax about cameras and then not have your camera there. Just always be prepared - prepare for the best case scenario but if the security is truly giving you grief and not letting anyone shoot, then just accept that and enjoy watching the competition with your actual eyes because at the end of the day, that’s it.
Kat: Trust me, we totally understand the frustration of sometimes being denied your camera but then you look out in the audience and see someone shooting with a massive lens
Lae: Oh yes, we totally get that!
Becs: We understand the agony, just try to be patient and you know what, if you’re not having to shoot you can actually focus on the competition better, which is not always the best comfort but it can be nice.
Kat: That was my experience at Four Continents because the only event I did not get to actually shoot at Four Continents was the Pairs Free. So I did not get any Sui and Han free photos at all.
Lae: So another key theme in the questions that came out was whether or not we get to actually enjoy watching the competition while photographing. Specifically we’ve been asked “do you see jumps when you photograph and does photographing skaters help you with insight on their tech abilities?” So I think, personally from experience, I try very much to watch the actual competition as much as I can with my own eyes. The camera is your second eye - all it does is really just focus your field of vision. So when you’re seeing jumps as you’re photographing, if you’re photographing on burst mode, you won’t see them necessarily when you’re in the moment of taking photographs but it’s also not as though you go completely blind either, you just see it in a different way to if you were watching with your own eyes. This is where I think having a zoom lens with a really high zoom such as a 200mm or 300mm is amazing because it actually gives you more than what your eyes can see - or at least me because my vision’s super poor. So if you’re sitting far away, you can get a close up view on details you won’t be able to see with your own eyes so I actually really quite enjoy that experience. But yeah, it is hard to get a holistic picture if you’re focused on taking a close up of a jump or a spin.
Kat: I personally hate shooting jumps or spins. If it's in midair you do get funny faces and stuff, which is kind of amusing while you're going through all of the photos. Or if you're taking may be like a burst of a jump then you can get the entire takeoff and landing. But in general individual jump photos are not as aesthetically pleasing. You can maybe if you're looking at takeoffs, like Lutz edges and flip edges from a proper angle, those can be nice to look at.
Lae: It's rare that you get it.
Becs: My advice basically if you want to photograph people in the air, photograph Pairs. Because you can get some really cool twists and really cool throw photos as long as the man isn't grimacing too much *laughter* which is unfortunately common. But you know if you want to really photograph kind of a dramatic aerial shot, pairs is a better discipline than singles. If you're seated in a corner that's really fantastic the landing of a jump that can be really fun to get because you can really see a skater's extension and the angle and really capture the fierceness and moment of a landing. So I wouldn't necessarily discount that, but in general shooting jumps is just like additions to your private comedic gallery. To be fair if you like photographing spins, I would say jumps are a lot iffier. Spins can give you a lot of appreciation for position and also a lot of appreciation for skaters who have amazing...who have not even funny faces but amazingly serene faces. And increase your respect. I think one of the most fun things about shooting a full competition, especially if you go to practices, is finding a skater or two who you didn't really care about that much or you weren't that impressed by just watching on a screen or whatever. And then you sit down and you photograph them a bit and you review the photos and you're like "Wow they look perfect in every photo, like their expression is amazing or their lines are amazing". Like okay I wasn't quite a frothing at the mouth Alina [Zagitova] fan, and then I went to Grand Prix Final and I photographed her a bit and I was like "She photographs so well. Her expression, her extension in spins is gorgeous. Or her lines are beautiful." It can really give you an appreciation for a skater that you don't anticipate. Or you photograph a junior and you're like "okay well I'll just take a few shots", and then you review them it's stunning. So I think that just adds a lot of appreciation for the sport in general.
Kat: In terms of insight on tech abilities, I tend to avoid jumps and spins but it's really telling which skaters have produced the most aesthetically pleasing lines and figures if you shoot through their step sequence or just shooting a program and looking at their lines. Skaters that produce aesthetically pleasing lines, every single frame are the ones that you kind of have an appreciation for just how beautiful they are when you look through the photos. Like there are some skaters where you can complain about posture or those things and they don't become apparent until you look at their photos.
Lae: So the next question we had was "whether we had figure skaters we like to photograph more than others?"
Gabb: For me I just like photographing any skaters that I really like. So I really like photographing Jun Hwan, there's no surprise there. But if I don't have anyone I particularly like to photograph in a group who is on the ice I do like to photograph whoever has the most interesting costume. So whether it's like the sparkly stuff or just anything with any interesting detail, I would end up photographing them a lot.
Becs: Good costumes are such a draw in terms of just being like "Yes yes you are worthy!"
Gabb: Especially if they're sparkly!
Becs: Yes sparkles please!
Kat: Aka Ice Dance ladies.[Gabb: Yes!] 90% of the time deliver with their costumes.
Becs: Yes. One thing that is so beautiful about picking who you're going to photograph is ah Ice Dance ladies and ladies in general show up looking usually fabulous most practices even so...
Kat: And then you have the men with like 80% black costumes or monochrome.
Becs: Yeah it's tragic, it's a tragic contrast.
Gabb: And ladies tend to have better expression too when photographing, so that's always nice.
Lae: Unless you're Yuzuru Hanyu, sorry. [everyone: Yes!, Kat: Of course]
Becs: No he's a dream to photograph.
Kat: Genuinely, like I tend towards skaters that I think have beautiful lines and have expression that goes through their whole body from their head to their finger tips. I am really drawn to the way that skaters use their hands so I love photographing skaters like Yuzuru, Sui and Han, especially Wenjing, and Satoko Miyahara, Alyona Kostornaia. They have such beautiful hands. It really comes out in photos I think. Their lines are gorgeous and I love photographing them. Even Shoma too.
Becs: Yeah, Shoma is very charismatic. Also Shoma gets points for usually having extremely good expression.
Kat: Although he is very... he's quite fast.
Becs: Yeah he is! This is another thing that you get with photographing is that sometimes you actually start to...like Wakaba, Shoma, Yuzu etc. are really fast. So sometimes it's actually easier to get a better shot of a slightly slower skater. Or someone who is just taking their time a bit more.
Lae: They nyoom pretty fast.
Becs: They nyoom by you and you're like "Hang on hang on I had that framed perfectly". And then you review it and you're like "Ah yes....".
Lae: So sort of quite related is also the question of how difficult it is to take good photos of skaters? I would actually say my top tip, especially for skaters that you really want to photograph, is to study up on their programs and really know when they're hitting those photogenic moments. So like for Yuzu for example, I will focus on his hydroblade, on his ina bauer, on the jumps landings. So that actually gives me time to know when to pace myself when I'm shooting so I'm not constantly just photographing whatever and wherever and just following him around with the camera. It's about knowing like "Okay the moment is coming" and really almost prepping your composition and your camera to where you know that he's going to do that move and then just taking lots of burst mode photos while he's going through that and then just putting your camera down. I think that really helps. Because you have a higher chance of really focusing on that one shot. Rather than splitting your attention throughout the entire program.
Kat: I completely agree with becoming familiar with the program whether you already know the program or you're watching it in practice. Like when I was at Four Continents I knew specifically that I wanted a shot of Rika during the step sequence. I knew that she was going to be right in my corner facing me when she did the little arm thing right at the end of the step sequence so I really wanted to get a shot of that from my corner and I did get that shot. Also I wanted a photo of Kaori's spiral as well, her spiral sequence, her Y spiral right in my corner as well. So I was really happy that I got that as well.
Lae: Yeah so it's a lot of that is about watching for the program and going to practices is also that's where it's really helpful because you can get a preview of where all these key moments are happening. So if you know that the hydroblade is happening on the other side of the rink don't even bother photographing that, just use that energy to prep for the moment that the moment that you will be able to capture well. I think that's a key way to be able to ensure that you're still enjoying and processing the program and not just frantically trying to keep up with your camera and shooting wherever.
Lae: So a quick question from Courtney Milan I think addressing our previous point about point and shoot cameras. So people who really don't want to dive into this very expensive world of DLSR photography, there are definitely still options available if you want to more than just your iPhone. So what Courtney has asked is "Last season my iPhone only takes very blurry pictures", and she wanted something better but doesn't want to spend a huge amount so she's wondering "Is something like a 40x zoom going to be enough?".
Gabb: So basically anything is better than an iPhone especially just having a camera that has a bigger sensor than your iPhone helps a lot. And also if you just want to use your iPhone we could also recommend just using your camera on video mode and then taking screenshots of your recorded video. Because sometimes those end up way better than what your camera would take while it's zoomed in. So for point and shoot something like a 40x zoom would definitely be enough but sometimes the quality won't be that great. I used to have a point and shoot and that one was 26x zoom and it was an optical zoom. The thing about that is that it had no IS [image stabilization] so it was not stabilized. So even if I was in maximum zoom and my settings were alright, the slightest shake, even just me holding it as steady as I could, would still have some motion blur in it because it just couldn't [handle it].
Lae: So I think from experience what the best thing to do is actually to go to a camera store, like physically go there. There will be experts whose job is to help you and you can hold the camera. It really does make a difference because you can read up on all these articles online but the fastest and best way is to just actually go talk to someone about what you need and they'll have recommendations as well.
Becs: So moving on, one listener asked us just generally what we use for editing and posting our photos, I think we are all pretty unified in that we primarily use Adobe Lightroom?
Kat: And Photoshop sometimes. But yes Lightroom is the best if you have a ton of photos that you want to edit on the fly.
Becs: Yes so it's very handy in that regard and integrates pretty well. You have a lot of flexibility with it in terms of how you choose to process your photos which is wonderful.
Lae: We will just flag obviously that Adobe Lightroom comes at the moment with a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud so it isn't the most financially flexible and accessible program to use. But if you are serious about shooting more it's definitely the program to invest in if you're going to be seriously editing your photos and shooting a lot. Because it just has everything in the interface designed to help you organize and edit your photos best.
Kat: But also if you're a student a lot of universities will offer discounts of a free subscription as well so keep that in mind too. So if you're a student go check your university's free software and downloads.
Lae: I'd also just take this opportunity to really emphasize the importance of editing your photos. So I think that's actually the one quality that I find is different from any other person with a phone camera versus someone who is starting to learn about photography is the fact that editing is what gives your photos your own distinctive character. So you should absolutely edit your photos. All photographers do so don't ever feel like it's lying or not authentic because no photography that you'll see on advertisements or out in the world has not been edited, even if it's just color correction or what not. You can even start if you don't have access to Lightroom or professional editing software there is free software available. There are things like GIMP, and FireAlpaca and all of these programs online that you can download that kind of dupe photoshop. So things like editing the contrast and the highlights and shadows of your photography is very easy with those programs. I also recommend that if you can transfer your photos to your phone and you're not looking to have really really big files and you're just looking to post on instagram or twitter an app like VSCO or SnapSeed.
Gabb: Yeah I just want to add in that last year during Autumn Classic I was helping Karly on how to edit her pictures. I just recommended SnapSeed and she's been using it ever since.
Lae: If it's just simple editing there's a lot of really good mobile apps as well. So definitely look into those. Editing doesn't have to be inaccessible but you definitely should edit.
Kat: While we're talking about editing if you do want to take your photography and editing to the next level we always recommend shooting in RAW. So there are two main photo file formats that you probably are familiar with: JPEG and then the other is a RAW photo. So basically a JPEG file is usually...if you shoot with JPEG basically your camera is processing the image already into a smaller compressed form so it takes up way less space in your memory card. So if you want to save space, shoot in JPEG because you can take thousands of more photos if you shoot in JPEG. But the RAW photos is basically just your camera taking the info from the sensor and just leaving it uncompressed so you have all of the raw data essentially from the image. So what that lends you is a lot more flexibility while you're editing because you will have way more range in what you can edit, like the saturation, or just any quality of the photo you can kind of play around with a lot more readily if you just shoot in JPEG. But the downside is that they are very very large files. So they take up a lot of space in your memory card.
Becs: Yes so post processing yeah you'll be a lot less frustrated but in general buy an extra card or something.
Lae: Yeah and don't be put off if your RAW photos look kind of weird or dimly lit or whatever, they're designed to because they're saving all that information they're waiting for you to edit so a lot of people will be like "Oh but my JPEG images look so much better". That's because the computer has already made those decisions about contrast and lighting and highlights for you. Whereas if it's RAW it's like a blank canvas essentially for you to work off. So definitely look into shooting that.
Lae: So I think we've run through a lot of our insights obviously as amateur photographers. As we may have hinted through talking about our very very expensive full frame cameras, the story is quite a bit different for professional photographers who are officially licensed and qualified and accredited to shoot competitions. And I think a lot of people who do follow figure skating will know this next photographer that we are about to interview. His photos are much beloved by many in the fandom. So I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview him and here it is.
START: Interview with Joosep Martinson
Lae: So thank you so much for joining me in this interview, Joosep. Is that how you pronounce your name ? Would you be able to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background ?
Joosep: Yes Joosep is how english speakers call me. When I lived in Australia people called me Joseph, Jesup, Josep, Joe [Lae: laugher] and stuff like this so. Actually yeah I lived in Sydney for awhile and Joe was the named they used there because Aussies always shorten everything [Lae laughs] and I was fine with that. I don't really care how people call me because if they try to speak with me, I get the point, so it doesn't really matter much, so Joe, Joosep. In Estonian, it's actually Yosep [Lae: Yosep?] which sounds a little different, but it’s awkward when I hear it from my english-speaking person, so Joosep sounds better. I didn't know the answer to that question, to be honest, but anything will do really.
Lae: Right, so you've got several names! [Joosep: Exactly.] But, I totally understand. It sounds strange to hear the native pronuncation when speaking English, right?
Joosep: Exactly. English-speaking people can never get close to how Estonians pronounce it, so I am okay with everything.
Lae: Okay. So shall I call you...
Joosep: Joosep is fine.
Lae: Joosep? [Joosep: Yeah.] Alright. We'll call you Joosep from now on then. So, I hear you're from Estonia originally? Is that where you grew up, and where your background and family are from?
Joosep: Exactly. I'm from Tallinn, Estonia, which is the capital of Estonia, and yeah, born here and been here for 24 years and then I left to Sydney for 4 years, and then I came back and now I'm living in Malaga, Spain for the winter season, and Tallinn, Estonia for the summer season, so I don't really have a home at the moment.
Lae: You're my country man!
Joosep: Yeah, exactly.
Lae: Well, perfect. And how did you go to Sydney and Malaga? What was the reason for leaving Estonia?
Joosep: Leaving to Sydney started when I shooting sports in Tallinn for 6-7 years and I achieved everything I could in this tiny country of Estonia, and I just felt I needed to test myself [to] prove I could do sports photography in an international level, so I figured I had to leave and go somewhere else, and try my skills out and I thought maybe U.K, the [United] States or Canada, or Australia, and in the end I just picked Australia because it's the furthest. So if I don't succeed, there is no way in coming back, I need to grind as hard so I eventually succeed, so that was the reasoning behind choosing Sydney. [Lae: Amazing.] I went to Sydney as a backpacker first, because it's not first to just jump into a new country and start getting work for profession, so I had to all the jobs backpackers do for a little while, invested in equipment, got some contacts and eventually I got a free-lance contract with Getty Images in Sydney., so yeah! It's actually a long story, but that's the long story short for now.
Lae: Oh my goodness. That's amazing! Did you pick fruit and stuff as all backpackers in Australia tend to do?
Joosep: Oh yeah! I picked fruit. I did removals, construction, all that type of stuff, and the funny part is I was a Basketball referee first, when I was 14/15, and after that only photography. So when I went to Australia, and started doing all this construction and removal and fruit-picking and stuff, it wasn't the easiest of times, to be honest, but yes, I managed, and in the end it worked out so I'm actually proud of it. You know? I didn't collapse in the stress, I just kept going, kept going, kept going and it worked out in the end.
Lae: I manage you must have hustled very hard from a young age in the photography business, how did you get into photography at the start?
Joosep: My dad is a sports journalist so I'm a big fan of sports overall. I used to do, and I'm still quite active doing different types of sports, and it all started when I started going to different sporting events with my dad, being a toddler pretty much, so this is where my passion for sports started. I think I was around 12/13 years old, and I always loved drawing and artsy type stuff, and in my school we had arts class where we had to do some different assignments, and all the other people drew and painted, but I thought, being a lazy person obviously, there could be an easier way of doing all that, and then I discovered photography, and from day one, I couldn't see it myself but all the other people who saw my images said I kind of had a creative eye, and I could see the patterns and lights and darks, and contrasts and all this type of stuff, composition. After that, it all started quite quickly. I could just follow other photographers from the newspaper where my dad worked, kind of hang around with them and see how they do stuff. I had my own camera at the time, it wasn't really a [professional] camera but it made sharp pictures, so I started shooting at different events and after maybe a year or so, I started showing my images to the newspaper when journalists came back from the games, especially when I had something good. I remember I always printed out my top 5 pictures or something and put them on the keyboard of the journalist who was writing the story, so [Lae: Laughter] so he couldn't keep on typing because he saw my pictures, and sometimes some of those pictures were better than the newspaper's photographer had so they kind of had to use mine because they showed the moment better than the editorial photographer of the newspaper. This is how it all started, and at one point, I think my skill got to a point where the newspaper thought it was a better idea to hire me because I was making better pictures than the other photographers in the newspapers so I was 15/16 at the time, so when I got hired.. [Lae: Amazing!] it was part time first, because I had to attend classes and school as well, but anyway, early start for my profession, yeah.
Lae; Very early and impressive start, and what was the tipping point for you deciding to make photography your full-time profession?
Joosep: I don't think I've ever really thought about now, that's the point where I'll become a professional sports photographer. It's just I really love being in the sporting environment, in the stadiums and seeing the big games, so with or without a camera, it didn't really matter much at first, but once my skill got to a point where my pictures started to look good as well, I felt like I could keep on doing that, and make money and a career out of it, so there wasn't really a tipping point, it's just a smooth transition from being a school kid to being a sports photographer.
Lae: Amazing, not many people go through such a nice transition, but it sounds like it was very natural for you.
Joosep: True, but one thing is I'm kind of hyper-active, so I really need to do something all the time, run around and that's why I really love sports myself. I can just switch my brain off and throw a ball or play golf, or whatever, so if I really love doing something, I give 110% so this is how I think it was easy for me with photography, because I did it 24/7 pretty much. I even thought about when I was sleeping, so I got better at it real quick, so I think it's like everything. If I decide that I want to do something, then I either do it, or I don't. With this mindset, it's easier to get there faster.
Lae: Sounds like a good philosophy. So, I just want to move quickly onto a little bit about photographing figure skating, specifically. So, I know that you cover a wide variety of sports, and you shoot a whole bunch of different tournaments, is there something unique about photographing figure skating compared to the other sports that you tend to photograph?
Joosep: Of course! Well, with all the team sports and stuff, there's the peak moments where they score a goal, or in athletics, when they cross the bar or cross the finish line, but in figure skating, it's more an artistic flow if you get my idea. It's more about resonating than one peak moment, at least for me. I feel like they're artists, just like myself, and dancing with skates pretty much, and arts of movement, if that makes sense? [Lae: Absolutely.] So, me being a more artsy person myself, I really like shooting Figure Skating because it's more than a sport. It's not just who crosses the finish line first, it's about what skaters do on the ice, what they do after they've competed, what they do before. It's the whole environment of that.
Lae: Absolutely. The entire process right? I guess because Figure Skating is partially about performance as much as it is a sport. Do you set out when photographing Figure Skating competitions with sort of a goal in mind in terms of which shots you are more eager to take or which shots you are really looking for when you're following a competition.
Joosep: As I'm shooting this for the ISU that means I have better access than other photographers so my main goal is to have different pictures than everyone else. I'm willing to miss peak moments but if I get different pictures of that same routine then I'm happy so my main idea is to use my access as much as I can, so get really close to the skaters, and get some portraits and stuff because I know other photographers can't really move that much. I really want to capture the vibe of the skaters before they go on the ice, and obviously the performance itself, and then when they've finished their skating. So, it's more about trying to reflect on the vibe they're having before and after they've skating.
Lae: You say as an ISU photographer you get greater amount of access? Does that mean, because I think I know at least for Japanese competitions for example, the photographers are assigned to a specific place, and they must sort of stay in that area. Do you get more room to, I guess, move around? Is that what you mean by access?
Joosep: Exactly. I can move around. I can't step on the ice when they're performing, but that's about it, like I can go wherever. I just need to be sure I'm not in the way of TV cameras and such, so I really try to make myself invisible, just for safety. But, I can move around freely everywhere, also dressing rooms and stuff, so that's what I've been doing for the last two seasons, trying to get really intimate shots with the skaters, and show behind the scenes more than just a performance itself.
Lae: Absolutely. I think something you are very known for, I guess, amongst Figure Skating fans is the very fact you have these very distinctive warm-up shots of the skaters and very unique framing of the pictures, so a lot of the time, a lot of shadow in the foreground for example, and all of that. So, is this techniques that you apply specifically to Figure Skating or stuff that you like to shoot in other instances as well?
Joosep: This is just my style. I don't really think about it when I'm shooting, I just do it. How these dark background pictures happen is usually when I scout around the warm-up areas. I try to find spots where for some reason there is more light than in other places, and I try to expose for that specific spot, and I really hope for someone to walk into that spot. So that's how I go about the business.
Lae: Hope and Pray.
Joosep: Exactly. It's all about light anyway, if there is no good light, even a good moment, it doesn't look that good. If there the light is good then I can just have someone walk in the light and it works. I get the picture, and that's different. So, that's really my approach to shooting all these warm-up shots, and everything else. Try to find good light and if I have good light then good pictures will happen.
Lae: Right. And, what's sort of the most challenging part of photographing Figure Skating in particular? What do you do to overcome those challenges?
Joosep: Well, sometimes if the skater does a step sequences and all these things where I know I can get good pictures of but on the other side of the rink than I am then sometimes it's tricky to get the shots that I'm not known for - the standard action stuff, but if it's not just happening on my end, then sometimes it's tricky. I sometimes get a few anyway but if it's Yuzuru Hanyu and he's on the other side skating there for 3 minutes and then 30 seconds he comes to my side, then obviously I'm not happy about that whole situation, but I've managed so far. I carry lenses that reach the other half as well, but the quality isn't really the same, so I can get pictures, but they're not the pictures I would really want to get, so I think that's the most challenging part. Do you have any ideas on how I could overcome that?
Lae: [Laugher] You're the expert here.
Joosep: Have a chat with Yuzuru before the competition...
Lae: Tell him to stand in a particular place.
Joosep: Yeah, exactly. Hey, Yuzuru, can you skate on the other side this time? [laughs]
Lae: Have you spoken to skaters, like while you're photographing? Because I know for example you've taken portraits of Shoma Uno, and a whole bunch of other skaters that look very intimate. Did you talk with them before taking it or was it very much candid?
Joosep: A lot of those pictures are candid, but some of them, if I have time on Sunday before the gala exhibition and the skaters are warming up, then they're relaxed and if I ask them to pose for me then they're usually cool with this. I haven't had a skater who said no if I asked them for portraits. I do speak with them quite a lot, not during the competition, but before and after.
Lae: What do you usually talk to them about?
Joosep: As I've shot a lot of really famous people, so I don't really get, how do you say that, starstruck? Is that the word?
Lae: Starstruck? Yeah, yeah.
Joosep: Yeah, like, last year I was shooting Fifa World Cup, I shot you know Putin and Macron, had a chat with Macron actually.
Lae: Oh my goodness.
Joosep: So having a chat with skaters, I just take them as professionals like I am, so we're equal. I try to feel like we're all equal, and that's how the chats are really organic. It looks like they tend to like this approach, so they're really cool with me and it's really easy to talk to them and get some cool portraits, because I think they know as well what I'm doing, so if I ask them for portraits they're happy, because they can see these images and use these images later themselves.
Lae: Yeah, I find, sometimes shooting portraits, a lot of people are quite awkward because they are nervous and they don't know what to do in front of the camera. I imagine for skaters, they're very used to being performers and know their angles, does that make the process easier?
Joosep: Yeah, exactly. This is one of the reasons I really like shooting figure skating, because they're all artists as well. So it's really easy to get the idea across what I'm trying to get, and for them it's pretty easy to understand what I'm after. They're really good at giving me the poses or expressions that I need for these photos, so that's one of the big things I love figure skating for. Because trying to shoot some other athletes, say footballers or basketballers, it's not as easy to get these nice portraits, intimate portraits. Because they'd be in the studio, just crossing their arms and just looking at the camera, and like "what do you want me to do?". You know, it's really tricky. They're so stiff, but figure skaters are so much better. But that's their job, anyway. To look like they're flowing, or something, right? Makes my job easier.
Lae: Yeah, absolutely, they're actors as well, right? So it's very different. Just related to, we mentioned before you said a lot of shots you take were candid of figure skaters, how do you in an competition decide when to shoot and when to hold back? Because a lot of the time, photography is about knowing when the right moment is. So do you have any thoughts on when do you know it's the right moment to be taking that particular shot?
Joosep: I think it all has to do with the motion, when they're preparing for competition, then you can see the focus in their eyes, so it's worth taking a shot. Because you can actually see on the image, the tension, and concentration. And obviously after the performance, when they walk off, you can see emotion in their eyes if the performance went well or not. I mainly try to grab shots when I know that the image shows emotion. So this is the best time, when there is emotion, when they're feeling something. This is the perfect time I think. When they're just a few days before the competition, training or practicing, you can't really get these tense portraits, if you know what I mean?
Lae: That's when it's most intense, right?
Joosep: Exactly, then you can feel the tension watching the image.
Lae: Just a few more questions. Just curious about - we were talking before about the frustration of having great moments happen across the rink. I believe we have seen you on Japanese news in the background, and you've been walking around with multiple cameras. So just quickly, what's your set-up in a typical ISU Championship? Are you carrying multiple cameras, what sort of lenses do you like to use?
Joosep: I'm carrying three cameras, they're all Canon 1DX, and my main lens for the action, everything happening on the ice, is 200 mm lens f/2.
Joosep: I also have 400 mm f/28, just in case they're all skating on the other side of the rink, so I can at least use my 400.
Lae: For the beads of sweat, right, on their foreheads if they're standing close?
Joosep: Yeah, but the thing is, I only use 400mm as a back-up, because its image quality is obviously really good, but my 200mm f/2 is better. So I really try to use my 200mm f/2 as much as I can. But obviously if it happens on the other side of the rink, I just can't reach with the 200.
Lae: So that's two cameras. Did you say you had a third as well?
Joosep: My third one I usually use either 35mm f/1.4, or my 85mm f/1.4. So I'm only using fixed lenses because the quality is so much better. I have to work harder to get sharp images with these lenses. But once I get a sharp one, it's good. I can't do it better with any other set-up than the set-up I have.
Lae: Are you shooting at 2.8 and 2 when you're taking the photos?
Joosep: Yeah, I'm wide open all the time.
Lae: Oh yes, that would be tricky.
Joosep: It is tricky. But I like challenges. I want every competition, every time I go shooting, every assignment to be a challenge. If it's too easy, if it's too comfortable for me, it's boring and when it gets boring it's no good. I really try to make it as hard as possible. I get nice pictures doing that as well. I miss a lot of moments, but the ones I get are good.
Lae: Yeah, and I guess natural flow-on from that, what's been some of your favorite figure skating moments or photographs? You have any memorable stories that come to mind?
Joosep: I think Yuzuru Hanyu must be the skater who's photographed and the photos turn out really good because of his emotions. Especially preparing, just maybe 30 seconds before going on the ice, his focus and his aura, he's just different. I think he's the most famous figure skater as well, so having good pictures of him, I know that people will love these. So I really try to get some cool stuff of him, and it has worked out a few times, and hopefully it will work out in the upcoming season as well. But nothing super special. I take an event at a time, every event has its moments. Overall, there is nothing that stands out that much. I can't really remember.
Lae: Have you been lying on the ground or in crazy positions to get the shot?
Joosep: I'm always in a crazy position, so that's nothing... I always try to get as low angle as possible. Actually, on Instagram they call this my signature style.
Lae: Oh really?
Joosep: Yes, just lying on the ground as low as possible on my tummy, have all my lenses around me, have my headphones on, because it cancels one of five senses so I can concentrate more on the visuals. I can't hear the fans screaming and stuff. If people ask me "what music are you listening to when you shoot figure skating", then yeah... I don't listen to anything, these are my noise-cancelling earphones that just give me that focus or edge.
Lae: That's fascinating, I might have to try that actually.
Joosep: Oh yeah, try it out, it's good.
Lae: Okay, great! One final question, I know I've had you here for quite a while, but... As, I guess, an amateur photographer myself, what we've noticed is that in competitions where photography is allowed, it's becoming quite accessible in general. A lot of professional grade cameras can be bought by amateurs and it's quite common to see audience members taking photographs in the crowd at figure skating competitions. Is that something that you've noticed, and do you have any particular thoughts on that phenomenon? Is it unique to figure skating, to see audience members taking photographs?
Joosep: Well, I think it's good for figure skating. The more photos people are publishing, the more outside world can see these cool images, but I haven't really noticed, because I'm in my own zone during the competition, so I don't really look around and try to find 400mm lenses in the crowd.
Lae: I'm sure they're there.
Joosep: Probably, yeah! But I haven't really noticed, and I hope they're getting good pictures, but I know I have better access and if they're not next to me, their pictures will be good but it's really hard to get something that no one else has.
Lae: I suppose if you were to give advice to enthusiast photographers in the crowd or people wanting to get into sports photography, what would be a piece of advice that you would give them?
Joosep: I think it all starts with the ABC, really. The basics. You need to get your technical stuff right, your shutter speeds, your ISOs, and apertures quite balanced, you know, focus. And then really, what I do is I listen to the music a bit when they're on the ice, and try to feel the rhythm. And when you feel the rhythm, then you know when the peak moments are going to happen. Like the butterfly, jumps and stuff, it's always bom bom bom jump, you know, it goes like that. Really try to shoot less but feel more. I think that's how I do it. When I started, I shot maybe a few hundred frames per skater, now I'm down to maybe a hundred or something.
Lae: In total?
Joosep: Yeah. Maybe 150 or something, but yeah, it's not much. I'll shoot next to some of the photographers, and I hear their shutter going all the time, and I could say they shoot around 5, 6, maybe 700 frames per skater. And I only do 100, so after the event I'm usually the first one who leaves the press room.
Lae: The fastest to edit through your photos as well, surely.
Joosep: Exactly, you need to push when the right moment happens, and shoot before that or after that - there's no reason to take it. But it comes with experience, trying to feel when the right moment happens. It takes time to shoot less.
Lae: Absolutely. I think that's the journey that all photographers go through. Starting out shooting a lot, and then being able to have the experience to narrow it down all the way.
Joosep: Yeah, exactly.
Lae: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for your time, I think there was some really great insight and advice in there, and it was such a pleasure to speak to you.
Joosep: Yeah, no worries. Thank you. So my first podcast in English is done!
Lae: Oh actually, one more question: which competitions will you be at in the coming season? Have you decided or has it been confirmed?
Joosep: Yeah, it was confirmed last week. I'm doing four Junior Grand Prix, then I think around four Senior Grand Prix, starting with I think Grenoble for me, in Moscow, and I'll be at the Worlds in Montreal in March as well. Overall I'm doing 16, 17, events this season, but it includes speed skating and short track as well, so I think I'll be around 12 figure skating events for me this season. I think that's plenty.
Lae: Yeah, we absolutely look forward to you being there and all the photos that will come out of it.
Joosep: I do look forward to this season myself, because I have some ideas that I haven't really tried before, and trying to get more intimate moments, portraits. At some events I'm probably going to grab some of my lighting gears as well, so maybe we can get some cool portraits and a more studio look lighting in there as well.
Lae: Oh my gosh. Well, that's an exclusive for us! I'm so excited! I will hopefully be making the trip to Montreal too, so if we see you in the distance crouching on the ground we'll give you a yell.
Joosep: Yeah, no worries, I'll see you in Montreal, right?
Lae: Yeah, fingers crossed! I have a thirty hour flight before that happens. Fingers crossed that that will go smoothly, and wishing you the best time at all these competitions, and good photography!
Joosep: Yeah, thank you!
Lae: If you haven't seen them already, you can find a lot of Joosep's photos on his Instagram. Follow him on @jmfotoz. You'll also find a link to his website there, which will tell you more about him and show you more of his portfolio. Well I think that pretty much sums up our entire episode on photography. So I think we just want to thank you, first of all, for listening, and a special thanks to Gina and Clara from the ITL team for their additional advice, our entire transcribing and and quality control team, Evie for editing, and Gabb for graphic design.
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Becs: and Becs. Bye!