Now don’t you worry, I haven’t been near any armed conflict, thank God. But competitive sports in Youth classes can get a bit of a mini war, and in this particular type of eventing (horse jumping), the pace is fast and screwed enough that, for a beginner like me, it definitely has the rushed flavor of a PJ assigment
So let me set the background for ya : yesterday, Marla and I put on sunscreen, light clothes, hats, packed the Think Tank Retrospective 7 (best photobag, ever, though I haven’t given up on the Moore&Giles Waxwear Rangertan, yet), and headed out in the 30°C heat and blazing sun to support our riding team, “Les Ecuries d’Has”, at a nearby club competition. By club I mean the level wasn’t hugely high, those contests are mostly training grounds for both kids and ponies aiming at competing at a higher level later. The rules are slightly loser (one of her teenage girl riders, for instance, had a rather embarrassing “white pants leakage” issue (welcome to woomanhood, baby), and the jury made no objection that she could show in dark colored pants. However, the schedule and organization are still pretty tight, and once you’re in that arena, dude, God help you because no one else will. Riders get a little over two minutes of show time. As a photog’, that’s your window of opportunity, and tha’s that
They come in once the competing pair is getting the Go ! bell, try to familiarize their pony to the place without being in the way of the former, and once this one is done and out, it’s their turn to go, while the next pair comes in. And so on, until their is no one left to go. Considering the average running time is around a minute, that makes a lot of pressure and stuff happening in a very condensed amount of time. And those kids are anywhere between 11 and 18 I’d say, while later in the afternoon another leg of the competition has no age or size (for the horses !) limit, and I’ve seen adult riders on full grown horses, just coming there to be gently introduced to competing.
Let me back up here a minute. I mentioned my photo bag, but failed to describe what was *in* it. So here goes : first and foremost I took the D7000 that my friend Charlotte’s father, M. Toing, has so nicely accepted to let me have for a week. A pretty nice gesture as, being a friend of his daughter, he still doesn’t know me, I met him briefly once for a few minutes. I guess that the numerous pictures I’ve taken for Charlotte before have been useful ambassadors of my dedication to the craft, and now a shiny D7000 has made its way to me (planned to be returned next Wednesday). I initially thought he owned the D7100, which is the model I an eye on, as I considered upgrading my 4 yr old D90 (excellent model which has actually been in circulation for *six* years, which is a LOT of digital time…). Turned out he had the D7000, but I was still thrilled to get to borrow it. I figured if it beat the D90 by a good margin, the D7100 would only build up on that yet, and would then be a pretty safe bet
Truth be told, I didn’t expect the D7000 to be such a leap from the D90. The latter is a much, much loved camera for me, and I hold it in very high esteem. But there was no way around accepting the obvious upgrade in IQ, namely in high ISO and more specifically color fidelity at higher values. The D90 loses color really quick as you go up the ISO scale, but the D7000 handles it quite gracefully. The 39 AF points module is also a welcome addition, though it’s been documented to be finicky on some units, and it can indeed, be a little capricious at times. That being said, it didn’t give me a single AF error yesterday during the contest, which I’m grateful for. Other than that, and the fantastically pleasurable to hold grip texture, it’s very much another D90. Dang, I even almost left with the D90 yesterday as I got fooled by their similar looks !
So, the D7000 was there. Of course, a body is nothing without a proper lens screwed on it. And I had high hopes (that have NOT been disappointed, quite the opposite) for the Sigma EX 50-150 F:2.8 HSM II I was bringing along. I’ve dubbed it the “Baby Bazooka”, and boy does it stand well the comparison with its much loved bigger brother, the 70-200 F:2.8 HSM DG Macro II ! Both lenses are fantastic, fast, silent, optically superb, and capable of crispy detail and buttery smooth bokeh
Okay, okay, I hear you object, so where was the NEX7 ?? It was there alright. In the bag. With the SEL35/1.8 mounted for quick “candids” and really shallow DOF capabilities. Except it never came out of the bag. Not once…
Because once you’re outdoors, 50-150 on APS-C is a pretty darn versatile focal range. Sure, 35-200 would be even better, but so is winning the lottery, yet neither is going to happen, right ? (at least not in *my* world)… This is what the grounds looked like when we got there. As you can see there was not a square inch of shade ANYWHERE
I actually heard a mother tell her daughter, gesturing to the pony “But don’t let it stand there in the sun, get it in the shade !!”. She was yelling. And I thought “WHAT shade”, you stupid ?!? Don’t look for it, there was NONE
Which made me so happy I had litteraly lathered my kiddo in sunscreen, and imposed the hat ! I wasn’t smart enough to go all the way and lather *myself* as well, and came back home with an shiny, angry red bosom 😉
Which is always a good opportunity to grab some candids. Stick around people with pets or children long enough, you’re usually bound to get some pretty cool moments. Another reason the NEX stayed in the bag : the Baby Bazooka was perfectly suited for nailing those as well
Please take a minute to note the dynamic range in this shot. This was about the worst, over contrasty conditions, you’ll ever encounter. 2:30pm on a baking hot summer afternoon. Sun as its peak. Yet, save for a rather limited area on Doudou’s back, there are very few burned highlights, the sky has retain ALL its detail (heat clouds included) and Yanne’s face, despite being shaded by his hat, is also clearly visible. I always raved about Sony DR, because it is such a strength for their cameras, but the D7000 delivered about equal performance… if not even better. I was seriously impressed (I must specify I had Active D-Lighting turned to Auto. I usually set it to Low, but under such duress, though Auto was a good bet… and it turned out to be)
And those are not even processed from RAW !! Having absolutely zero trust in any metering system that isn’t my eyes, I doubled the *whole* session in RAW format. I thought I’d probably have a bunch of misexposed shots that’d need some salvaging in PP. Guess how many I processed in LR, then ? Zero 🙂
A word on the dual SD card slot on the recent Nikon cameras. The D7000 is 16mp, but once you set it to RAW+jpeg in L size, the two cards are gonna be a must. And I’m not even mentioning the D7100’s *24*MP files ! Knowing that Nikon now offers 24mp across the board, starting from its one SD slot, entry level camera, is a little head scratching. I guess if you get a body with only one slot avalaible, you can either shoot smaller size files (S and M are available, along with L), or buy gimongous capacity SD cards… With the D7100 on order, I’m starting to consider getting a couple of really big cards myself !
Meanwhile, the competition went on, in the previous category. My eye was caught by this good looking pair (notice the matching red jacket, leg wraps, and stirrups !). Riders love to compete in style 😉 Also note the superb subject isolation, clarity and perfect color rendition the D7000+50-150 delivered
They certainly were a treat for the eye, and the camera seemed to love them too. As a photographer, the main rub in such an event is positioning. There was only one accredited photographer allowed in the ring. The rest of us (one guy other than me being seriously equipped, the rest just casual shooters with entry level gear, come to grab snaps of competing family or friends) stood outside of the fence, and had to make do with whatever angles we could secure
I looked at the pattern for a couple of runs, then decided on the one position that I felt was letting me in on as many jumps as possible. It was all a matter of choice. Running from one vantage point to another with speed demons traveling like their tails are on fire is not even an option !
So sure, some angles are pretty screwed, but overall I had a pretty desirable spot, and I didn’t complain. Plus, it was my first attempt at this, and overall I’m not unsatisfied of how the shots turned out
The “reconnaissance”. That’s a fun moment I always like to watch. Riders, horseless, go through the course on foot, to memorize the order of the jumps. Once in the arena and when the bell has rung, there’s no space for any doubt or hesitation about where to go !
Emilie was first of the team to go. Marjorie would go second, and Camille, last. Doudou is a 4 year old stud that doesn’t have that many events under its belt. Emilie has yet to turn 13. So it’s a pretty young, and overall not very experienced team. The run they pulled was very, very good. Not to mention the horse is being quite behaved, for a stallion (they can get very rowdy and hard to manage in presence of others horses, namely, mares)
Scoring is done on a dual base of points per fault (you lose 4 for a fallen bar, for instance), and time. The faster, the better. Unless there are a lot of faults, you’d better do none to hope a prize. So the whole thing goes pretty fast
That kind of situation is when you truly need a background blurring lens. Those show grounds are always swarming with parasite stuff. People, gear, buildings, fences, there are always a million things polluting your frame. A longer focal lens, preferably with faster aperture, can blur all that to acceptable mush, bringing focus back to your subject. I’m even considering getting the excellent Nikkor 70-300 F:4.5-5.6 G VR again
This was the first of three jumps in sequence. The mare showed all signs of stopping dead in front of the third one, but Yanne, who was sitting fenceside, yelled at the top of his lungs, and she looked stung and just went over. We all sighed with relief, Camille included !
Lady photographer in the background. I couldn’t quite make up her gear, but I assume it was a gripped semi-pro Nikon body with what might have been a Sigma 100-300 F:4 lens. Only guessing here, though
Unfortunately I had not stayed to watch the prizes being handed. It was dog hot and Marla was nearing exhaustion (she had a blast, though). I was also eager to get home, transfer the pictures on the computer, and see what. The whole experiment was crazy fun, and I can’t wait to go support either Gwen or her team again (I have plans for more coming very soon). In the meantime I’ll be handing back the D7000 to Charlotte in two days. All that goodness has convinced me to order the D7100 (which I’ll review quite thoroughly). And while I am addicted to full time exposure preview via LiveView on the NEX cameras, one thing remains : when you’re faced with demanding shooting conditions, you want the fastest and most reactive tool you can get, with the widest availability of lens choices possible. Trust me, when those horses come stampeding towards you, nothing but pro grade AF is going to cut it. Sure, I can already hear some of you guys remark how “nobody ever took a sports picture even before the rise of autofocus ?!”. Sure, they did. They were plenty limited, too. I had no real assignment here, hence no real pressure, but I wanted to see if I’d be able to come up with a handful of reasonably professional looking images. And I think I did. Had I used the NEX7, even with the LA-EA2 SLT adapter, I would have had considerably less success, for sure, as its AF module is quite basic.
I’m hoping to have the D7100 delivered by the end of the week. I bet you guessed what I’m gonna say next ? Yup, stay tuned !