How I Got the Shot: Chris Nicholson on a Leap of Faith by Gaël Monfils US Open

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The US Open is happening right now. Some photos really blow us away, like the one above from Chris Nicholson. He previously wrote about other tips for shooting tennis, but we decided to talk to him about how he got the shot above of Gaël Monfils taking a dive.



Gear Used

Camera: Nikon D2x

Lens: Nikkor 300mm f/2.8

Monopod: Bogen 3218

Lexar Professional 600x 8GB

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4

Chris’s Plan

Gaël Monfils is perhaps the most dynamic and athletic player in professional tennis. Just about every match he competes in involves some sort of acrobatic play that fans of the game hardly ever see from other players. Leaps and dives are part of his daily repertoire—and that’s what I wanted to capture. In particular, my aim was to photograph Monfils making a diving volley with the ball in the frame.

Even though you can usually count on Monfils to give you a great photo op or two, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to photograph. Waiting through a few hours of a tennis match for just a couple of chances at a great shot is a task that requires patience and fortitude. The mental persistence required to maintain a ready and sensitive trigger finger for that long can be more exhausting than the physical toll of holding the gear.

But during this match at the 2011 US Open, I was determined to get a great photo, no matter how much time and how many wasted frames I needed to invest. One variable in my favor was that Monfils was playing this match in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the best spot at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for shooting from an aerial angle. (Incidentally, the angle I was shooting from is accessible without a tournament credential.)

How Chris Shot the Photo

Another variable in my favor was that the match lasted almost five hours, making it one of the longest battles of the tournament. That’s about 50% longer than the average men’s match, which meant I had 50% more opportunities for this kind of photo. The final variable in my favor was that Monfils was in exceptional form that day, jumping and diving around the hard court as if he was impervious to scrapes and bruises.

Even so, there’s only so much a photographer can do to prepare for this type of play. Success depends on a good measure of luck. However, there were measures I was able to take to maximize my chances. First, knowledge of the game was critical—I had to know when Monfils was likely to rush the net rather than stay with the more common practice of hitting from the baseline; when he hits a ball wide and deep to the opponent, that’s prime time for net play. Second, I also needed to be on the right end of the court. Players switch sides after every  two games, which means I had to either miss half of the opportunities to get the shot, or I had to switch ends of the stadium at every changeover (which gets exhausting after the first 20 times). I chose the latter; dedication and madness can be quite similar qualities.

So yes, every time Monfils switched ends so did I, each time aiming across the net with my 300mm (the equivalent of a 450mm f/2.8 on the D2x, which is exactly why I still use this camera for tennis). During every point, I waited for him to approach for a volley, hoping his opponent would try to pass him, causing Monfils to dive one way or the other. Then I had to hope that my reactions would be quick enough to accurately adjust my framing, and that the action was aesthetically sound.

Technique

Using a monopod is critical. It’s not for reducing blur (in tennis, you’re shooting at very fast shutter speeds) but for preventing fatigue. Hand-holding a long telephoto lens is not only bad form, but also gets tiring in short time. That, in turn, inhibits keeping good aim. So my camera was mounted on my longtime companion, the Bogen 3218 workhorse of a monopod. The monopod was resting on the ground between my feet, so no one could bump my setup. One hand was on the camera body, finger on the shutter release; the other hand was holding the barrel of the lens from the side, allowing for mild, even pressure at both ends of the setup, for maximum stability.

My shutter speed was set to 1/1600. Though I normally like just a little blur in my sports photos (to convey motion), in this case I preferred to freeze the action completely, to really showcase Monfils’ acrobatics. Though I could have gone as fast as 1/3200 at ISO 100, my distance from the subject didn’t require the extra speed. Moreover, keeping the aperture at f/4 gave me just a sliver more depth of field, enough to maintain both Monfils and the net in focus.

However, astute light-stalkers may notice that 1/1600 at f/4 seems like an underexposure. If you average tones of the scene, it is. However, if I’d shot at 1/800, the bright lines of the court would have blown out (a common issue in tennis photography). But 1/1600 allowed me to keep the lines bright white, while not overexposing them. The rest of the photo was dark, but all the image information was within the histogram, meaning I could adjust overall brightness in post-production.

Though Monfils gave me three chances to get the shot that I envisioned, I didn’t nail it until the last one. The previous attempts all had something wrong with them—either my reactions weren’t quick enough (have I mentioned that tennis is fast?), or I over- or under-compensated for his movement in the composition. Even on the last dive of the day, I still needed three frames. In the first, I cut off his lower legs at the edge of the composition; in the third, he’d already hit the ground. The middle frame was my sweet spot—the culmination of 4+ hours of work to capture a 1/1600-second slice of action.

Post-Production

Back at my desk in the Media Room that night, I dumped the day’s cards to my laptop using Lightroom. (Though LR3 was the flag-bearer at the time, I have since re-edited this photo in LR4 to take advantage of its improved controls.) I’d made 545 frames during the match, but knew which one I was looking for. I found it, double-checked the focus, saw it was good, and then started working on the image.

The first change I thought about was to the White Balance. I was shooting all my work at the “auto” setting (we can argue about that in another article) to see what the camera thought about the scene. Once in Lightroom, I experimented a little with other settings. For this photo, though the sky was only barely overcast at midafternoon, “daylight” white-balance wasn’t cool enough to reproduce the true, vibrant color of the blue US Open courts accurately. I played with some other settings, but nothing looked as right as what “auto” had determined, so I decided it was dead-on at 4750K.

I don’t have my Nikon do any other adjustments to the RAW files in-camera, so that always leaves me some work to do once the files are in Lightroom. First, I cropped to center Monfils in the composition (leaving his eyes, the net strap and ball near the legendary rule-of-thirds grid). I increased the Exposure to compensate for the dark mid-tones I suffered while saving the whites of the lines, then dialed back the White point to re-compensate. I bumped up contrast a bit through use of the Contrast and Shadows sliders, then set my Black points. Then I added some Vibrance, nudged up the Saturation, sharpened a tad, and I was done.

Chris Nicholson has been photographing tennis for 17 years, and is a former editor for Tennis magazine. His book Photographing Tennis: A Guide for Photographers, Parents, Coaches & Fans (Sidelight Books, www.PhotographingTennis.com) is available on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and through other booksellers.


Chris’ Links

Website: PhotographingTennis.com

Facebook: Facebook.com/PhotographingTennis

Twitter: @ShootingTennis

US Open Photography Workshop: PhotographingTennis.com/Workshop.htm