Shooting baskets in Amsterdam with Sony and Nikon By Andrew Paquette

Shooting baskets in Amsterdam with Sony and Nikon

By Andrew Paquette

About a month ago I received an email from a basketball organization asking if I would be interested in shooting an event for them. This is the first time anyone had offered to hire me as a photographer and the event itself sounded like a lot of fun to shoot, so of course I accepted. The reason they sent the email is because I had shot a preliminary event last year and sent them some of the photos, which they liked. Now I actually had a job as a photographer to do the same thing during my summer holiday from working as a university lecturer. Was I looking forward to this? You bet!

The event was the Streetball Master 2014 semi-finals and finals, held in Amsterdam at the Olympic Stadium. At least, it was on the first day. Due to rain, the second day was held indoors at a large basketball complex. Streetball is a half court three—on—three competition. It is very fast and very close. Last year I got knocked over a couple times by players because I had to sit near the foul lines to get my photos. This year would be different—I thought—because it was at the Olympic stadium. Every stadium I’d ever been to, even basketball courts, have a substantial buffer zone around the play area. This meant to me that I should get a longer lens than I usually used, a Sony/Zeiss ZA 135mm 1.8 to mount on my A7r. I also decided to bring my Nikkor 85mm 1.4G to mount on a D800, and then tossed a Zeiss Otus 55mm in my bag in case I had any decent portrait opportunities. My primary concern was getting the best action shots, which meant fast auto-focus (AF). I shot some of the basketball shots with a 35mm AF lens the previous year, but half of the shots were taken with a 15mm Distagon at extremely close range (almost touching the foul line under the basket). This year I wanted to use AF for pretty much everything and that meant the 135mm and 85mm were going to do all the heavy lifting, then the 55mm Otus might get pulled out at the end for a couple of portraits. Is this what happened? Not even close!

When I got to the Olympic Stadium, I found that the venue was in a plaza outside of the stadium, not inside the stadium. What did this mean? No buffer zone, exactly like the previous year. Because of the way it was set up, I could shoot from within a few inches of the foul line to not more than about two feet from the foul line. Any further away and I’d have to shoot through the crowd of spectators. As it was, I more than once wanted to get in front of the referee, who kept standing right in front of my camera. Trying to get AF to work in such a tight space, with players constantly zipping in front of or behind each other was very difficult. The 135mm got a few nice head and shoulders shots, but the difficulty of using the AF made me holster the camera after about an hour. The 85mm was worse. While the 135mm did occasionally get things in focus the way I wanted, the 85mm almost never did. The couple of times it worked, the subject was standing still for a portrait shot. In those situations it worked perfectly. So the 85mm went back in my bag for the rest of the weekend. For the first day, I used the only other lens I had left, the Otus, and it worked beautifully.

Sometime during the afternoon, another photographer came up to me and we talked a bit about the event. I said I was disappointed with the results I was getting with my long AF lenses, so I was going to switch to MF wide-angle lenses the next day. He looked horrified. “But we only care about the action, and that all happens in the arms. I don’t care about the legs, you can just cut those off and I don’t care”. The 135mm that I had on the camera during the conversation was the right lens for the event, he said. He was using a Canon 70mm-200mm for his shots. I figured he had more experience shooting like that, but I liked to see the legs in a shot also because they can be very dynamic. With some reservations, I decided to follow through with my plan of using wide-angle lenses the next day.

On Sunday, I took my 55mm Otus, a 35mm Summilux ASPH, a 15mm Distagon, and the Nikkor 85mm 1,4G. I used the 85 about three times (and got one good portrait shot out of it). Everything else was shot with the other lenses. The day before, the Otus was the workhorse lens. The same was true of Sunday, though the Summilux handled the low light in the gymnasium better than the Otus. I don’t understand why that happened because they both have the same aperture, but the Summilux shots were all brighter at the same shutter/aperture/ISO than the Otus. This meant I could shoot at lower ISO and a higher shutter speed than the Otus, which was a real advantage. I assumed this was a matter of the difference between the displays of the D800 and the A7r, but during processing, the difference in exposure remained. In the end, almost all of the best shots were taken with MF lenses. The wide angle shots, including the ultra-wide angle 15mm, yielded some interesting pictures, the advice I received to the contrary notwithstanding. Below are some selections from the shoot.

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (66 of 107)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (184 of 29)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (190 of 29)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (123 of 55)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (174 of 29)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (13 of 107)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (54 of 107)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day two (141 of 55)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (90 of 66)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (88 of 66)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (74 of 66)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (294 of 17)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (234 of 70)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (200 of 70)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (189 of 70)

Streetball 2014 Amsterdam Day one (263 of 34)

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  1. Picture #7 is good. The rest are not really.

    Not that it’s super easy, esp with slow focusing gear. Still doesn’t make the shots great.

  2. Absolutely wonderful shots! I don’t think those first couple of commentators even read your article. The 70-200VR would have been a horrible choice and you would have gotten the same old boring sports shots everyone gets. Plus, Love seeing the feet and the stadium behind. Makes me want to have been there! These tell a story, the colors are wonderful, the timing fantastic. You should be very proud of this set and ignore the haters. These photos are wonderful, love every one of them!

  3. Amsterdam street ball, in a very backlit environment. Challenges don’t come any harder. So. Exposure’s great every time. Focus (AF) is very difficult; no surprise there. A D4s or D810 might have proven more reliable in that respect. As for the intensity of the images, yes the longer fl shots, getting up close, work, as they should. Not so sure about the wide angle shots. Perfectly exposed, perfectly sharp, everything perfectly in focus? Maybe they remind me too much of the time when I played basketball in the Rotterdam Cruise Terminal hall, just arrived passengers walking through the game in play with their luggage.

    Thanks for sharing Andrew!

  4. The toughest part of shooting BB is shooting above the rim and rebound play. One technique is to pan the ball leaving the shooters hand and then shooting the rebound.

    Takes lots of practice

  5. @Roger: there were a lot of fouls. Keep in mind, this is “streetball”: it is intense, close, and fast. There are a lot of things that you wouldn’t see in the NBA. I have one shot of a humongous player on the Turkish national team shoving another player to the ground from behind.


    • This is the stuff that movies are made of; your image set plays out that way. The documentary nature has already been mentioned and IMO that’s a strong theme to follow when presenting these images.

      If I had to pick, I’d vote for #3, 5 and 7. Each I’m sure is surrounded by a story that is worth telling in detail. #3 is purely athletic but begs the question if the player was just surprised from behind and lost the ball or is chasing down a free ball. #5: the middle player appears to be pushing off and throwing an elbow at the same time – taking out two players. He doesn’t look that big. #7: What an athletic move and the combination of tension and nonchalance of the observers adds to the story.

  6. When I see these images as a group, I hear the blast of a whistle in my ears. Whoops this is likely by international rules, I guess the bandage is appropriate – but even in sandlot ball, blood gets a whistle.

  7. Very good work, Andrew. I’m sure your client was pleased, and you’ll be getting follow-on engagements.

  8. Very dynamic shots, great variety, and the players’ personalities come through very well.
    More like documentary photography than sports reporting. Very enjoyable!

    • Thanks! Your comment makes me wish I’d posted a series on the Russia vs Nederlands game in the quarter-finals. To do it justice, the images would need a lot of strong captions, but this is what happened: The Dutch team had a very strong player named Chip who was also quite a gentleman when it came to fouls against him by the Russian team. In one of the first photos in the series, he gets an elbow in the eye while shooting a basket, but shrugs it off and keeps playing. In another shot, a Russian player has his whole hand in Chip’s face, but the shot was OOF so I deleted it. Chip shrugged that off also. Then the Russian player Pavlov started pushing Chip around, but he was a big guy and ignored him. A little later, Pavlov started getting extremely aggressive, tried knock Chip over, but fell over himself instead. This prompted some verbal abuse in heavily accented English directed at Chip, presumably for not allowing himself to be knocked down. You could see in Chip’s face that he didn’t like this, and the other members of the team didn’t like it either. Up until then, when the Russians fell, the Dutch players would help them up with a smile. After this incident, they stopped doing it. Also, they started jostling the Russians more, and really ganged up on the Russians. In one shot, two Dutch guys squashed a Russian between them and took the ball. The rest of the game went like that and the Russians lost, but only after getting tossed like a salad.

      • Funny story. :^)

        Some people have criticized you for not shooting like a sports reporter, with the typical gear.
        The thing is: sports reporting is a commodity — like taxis, or sugar. There are a million sports reporters, with all the fastest NikCan FF boxes with huge zooms. They work like dogs to keep selling; and their shots have to conform to the expectations of the sports press.

        The best thing about your work is that much of it doesn’t look like the typical shots in newspapers or sports websites.
        Your perspective and framing are fresh and un-homogenized. You haven’t reported games; you’ve documented a bunch of passionate, interesting people in action. That’s why so there are so many comments (critical or complimentary): The photos are interesting enough that people payed attention.

        So keep using your own judgement and your own taste in gear, and send Steve more pictures soon!

    • Speaking of “up close”, when I was shooting the 15mm, I had to be so close that I had to dodge the ball and players a few times. Once the ball hit the lens hood dead on and punched the Zacuto viewfinder into my eye pretty hard. In shot #3, the player is only inches from the lens. I was amazed I got that shot, but it was a matter of time because I was trying to get something like it. Every time I saw a player about to run directly in front of me I fired off a burst, and had it focused on the foul line.


  9. I love these shots, and I’m usually very bored with sports shots. I think they are just wonderful.

  10. Some interesting shots, however, the horizon is a bit tilted in a lot of them. I’m not someone to go and put a level on every landscape shot or anything too anal, but some of these do make it look like they are playing on a 20 degree slope. I also find the framing feels a bit claustrophobic on some of them. Seems like very tall players squashed into wide horizontal framing. Sometimes that can’t be avoided though, especially if the client request a certain dimension. Some of my NCAA clients have websites that are 16:9 and its a huge pain trying to shoot a sport like basketball, which I like to shoot vertically in there.

    I certainly would of gone with the industry standard tool of a 70-200 f2.8 and an AF DSLR, but my images likely would of looked like the typical take any professional sports shooter would do. That isn’t to say that is a bad thing, it certainly keeps my newspaper and magazine clients happy, but its kind of a generic style.

    Your equipment choices required you to think/shoot outside the box a bit, and it did create some different images.

    That is likely why the client choose you in the first place, they liked your style. That is a great thing.

    • Jeff, You’ve obviously not heard of the term ‘Dutch angles’? They can be a bit clichéd if used inappropriately, but I think they’re totally at place with this kind subject and add to dynamism of each shot. Google the term and you’ll see what I mean. I also think the framing adds to the intensity of image, it creates a real sense of drama and emotion..

      Great shots by the way Andrew, you’ve got balls to shoot this assignment mostly manually! ( pun intended)

      • Thanks Luke,

        As it happens, the angles are there on purpose, though I didn’t consider how it might look to have a bunch of them together. I was a comic book artist a long time ago and got used to composing figures that way to add to the action/imbalance of a frame.


        • That explain why sometimes you like to focus manually, you use to work manually-drawing. Although now with your kind of art it’s more immediate or easier if you don’t mind imperfection.

          • I always prefer manual and it is for the reason you state. When I use MF and set aperture/ISO/Exposure manually, it feels more like I am making something, like when I draw or paint. When it is all automatic, I feel disconnected from the result. This doesn’t mean I haven’t checked to see if auto settings are better than manual. Most of the time, whether they are better or not in someone else’s eyes, I like the results I get from manual settings better than what I get with auto settings–though it isn’t always the case.


  11. Hmmm… a D800, an A7r, a Sony/Zeiss 135, an 85/1.4 Nikkor, an Otus, a Distagon, a Summilux — that’s an impressive collection of gear — I hadn’t realized being a university lecturer pays so well 🙂 — but none of it seems like a logical first choice for shooting a close-in, fast-action event such as 3-on-3 basketball.

    I realize there’s a lot to be said for sticking with gear that’s familiar to you, but I’d have thought renting or buying one of the more sports-oriented Nikons plus some high-performance AF wide lenses would have been a more productive strategy.

    Frankly, considering the gear he was using, I’m impressed that his results are as good as they are. Good job of choosing an approach to the subject that fits with the limitations of your gear.

    • The beauty of being a lecturer in a country where cars are optional is that if you opt for bicycle instead, you save a fortune. My salary in the US (as a VFX artist in film industry) was a little over double what I earn now, but I always had less at the end of the month. Oh yeah, and then there’s health care, forgot about that…

  12. Really hard to pull off some of these with manual focusing. I would love to be able to do it some day. Should be a great exercise.

  13. I try to never post anything negative but, why shoot with the worlds highest resolution camera and lens combos at the expense of the minimum needed focus speed? All the pixels in the world won’t help if you can’t get the shot in focus!

  14. I think the wider angle lenses were the right choice for this setting – 70-200 is too long in my opinion and I think some of the best shots from this set are the ones that are capturing the whole scene…..To the photog that simply suggested to stay within the 70-200 at the event I think you’re missing out on the perspective of being in the crowd…

    • Waydago, you’ve detected technical imperfection in the work of an amateur photographer — mostly focusing manually on fast moving players very close to him!
      Did you notice the shots, the variety, the intensity of the players he captured?

        • Are you using a modern system, I have an old window system. So what you shd. do is right click on the image to make it larger and the images would look sharper. This website is always criticized to having people to nice comment, these are great sport images and great portraits in my opinion.

    • Was just gonna say that. This event was made for the NIkkor 70-200VRII 2.8, and it’s a tremendous optic.

      Some solid captures, nevertheless, however. It’s true that sports photography like this isn’t easy, and I would say even more challenging using an A7r.

  15. Nice creative shots. Your intuitions was spot on. This job is not as easy as people think. I have tried on a number of occasions to shoot my Masters age ball cronies without a whole lot of success. Great work Andrew.

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