Wednesday, September 12, 2012

So, I fell down the stairs...

So, I fell down the stairs... no,wait, back up. The whole in media res is fine and dandy, but I need to set some context first. The Texas State University Bobcats, playing their first game as a Division I-A football team (you can tell I'm an old-school sportwriter by my refusal to use the nonsensical "FBS" acronym) upset the University of Houston in a big way. So their home opener, in newly-expanded Bobcat Stadium, against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, suddenly became a very big deal. We expected more than 30,000 fans to pack the stadium, nearly double the previous record. Traffic, parking and crowd control were major issues. Because of the expected crush, the university took an all-hands-on-deck stance. I needed to be there to deal with media if anything non-sports related happened. Since I had to work the game anyway, I got a sideline photo pass so I might practice my sports photography until I was needed.

Some of you may remember The Wife got me a vintage Canon FD 500mm f/8 mirror reflex lens for Christmas last year, which I converted to Canon's modern EF mount. In theory, since the lens is fully manual with a fixed aperture, the conversion is an easy one. Naturally, I ran into a host of technical problems, and inflicted nerve damage to my left index finger before I was through. But I did convert the lens to EF mount, and added a focus confirmation chip as well so that the camera beeps whenever the image in the viewfinder achieves, well, accurate focus. Since modern digital DSLRs don't include focus assist split screens like old film cameras did, this is a very handy feature.

So, I made the decision to shoot a bunch of the game with a manual focus mirror lens, much like old-school photographers did back in the 60s and even into the 70s. After watching my Aggies put a whoopin' on the Florida Gators for the first half of their first SEC football game (and thinking, "Boy, I hope they don't have a second half collapse like last year!") I went upstairs to change into my gameday clothes so I could drive over to campus for the game. When I came back down stairs, my feet suddenly shot out from under me. Fortunately, I broke my fall with my back, hip and elbow. In retrospect, this was probably not a wise course of action. Actually, falling on the stairs was probably not a wise course of action. I sat motionless on the floor for about 10 minutes, in quite significant pain. I had the wind knocked out of me, which wasn't a heap of fun, either. Fortunately for me, I've broken so many bones in my life that I could tell within seconds that I hadn't managed to break any this time around. There's a distinctly sharp pain associated with broken bones, that cuts through even the numbness of shock. I've got a huge goose egg on my hip now that's turning ugly yellow, and bruise lines coming up on my back. My left elbow really, really took a nasty shot, so once I recovered enough to walk, I loaded up on ibuprofen and finished loading my stuff into the car. Then I stopped at Walgreens and bought an elastic elbow sleeve. The pressure helped a great deal. Seriously.

Hobbled but not daunted, I drove to San Marcos and parked in the single remaining parking space outside my office. This surprised me, as this wasn't a well-know parking lot. Then I realized the city was doing some kind of construction work in the adjacent park, and had closed the bridge across the river there. This sucked, because that's my most direct route to the stadium from my office. I had to walk around to Sewell Park and cross the river there, which was a significant hike, given my battered and bruised condition. Once I crossed the river and got to Bobcat Alley, I was amazed at the tailgating going on. Folks, I'll not mince words--these Texas State students and alums--along with a scattering of Tech folk (official Tech tailgating took place on the opposite end of campus)--really outdid themselves with a huge street party that covered acres. I exaggerate not.

Texas State Bobcat tailgating prior to the Texas Tech game

Texas State Bobcat tailgating prior to the Texas Tech game

I've never seen anything like that tailgating-palooza at Texas State in the decade I've worked there. For a school just moving up into the D-IA ranks, I think they're getting the hang of it pretty quickly. Likewise, they nailed the pageantry at the start of the game with a dramatic flyover of Air Force jets. That certainly got the crowd pumped up. (I point out that I didn't use the mirror lens on either the top two nor the two following images).

Air Force fighter jets flyover at the Texas State vs. Texas Tech football gameAir Force fighter jets flyover at the Texas State vs. Texas Tech football game

The new stadium itself, with ribbon boards between the first and second decks, didn't look too shabby either. It seats approximately 32,000 right now, but once the various expansion phases are completed over the next decade or so, it'll be a very respectable stadium in the 45,000 capacity range. Not huge, but certainly comparable to Kansas State and others.

Texas State Bobcats vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, September 8,2012, San Marcos Texas. Lisa On Location Photography, New Braunfels, Texas.

Alas, the game itself wasn't so impressive, unless you are a Texas Tech fan. As you can see on this ESPN 3 video of the game, the Bobcats actually looked pretty good early on. They forced and recovered a Texas Tech fumble, then promptly marched down the field, feeding off the crowd's energy. Then a Tech defensive back picked off a terrible throw and ran it back for a touchdown. You can literally see the State players and fans deflate when he scores. After that, they pretty much fell apart and the game was over. Had the Bobcats scored on that drive instead, I suspect it would've been a much closer game in the end, something like a 30-21 final score.

Aside from that, I did indeed get to practice using my FD 500mm mirror lens. Did I mention it is a fully manual lens? That means I have to focus by hand. If I hadn't realized it before, I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that accurately photographing college athletes running full speed down the field, dodging would-be tacklers is hard. I have tremendous renewed respect for the old-school photographers of the 50s, 60s and 70s who worked in the pre-zoom lens, pre-autofocus era when they had 24-36 shots per roll of film and had to make every shutter click count. I got several good photos (the two following were taken with the 500mm, and the final two were shot with a traditional 75-300mm telephoto zoom once the lighting grew too dim for the mirror) with the mirror lens, but I also had a bunch more that I either missed focus on or just weren't very interesting (tackle piles look cool on the field, but they're kinda dull in stills). A 500mm lens also has a super narrow depth of field--you've got maybe a plane of focus a foot deep to work with, and anything outside that narrow sliver is going to be progressively blurrier. And if that's not enough, out of focus highlights turn into circular donuts. That's a distinctive trait of a mirror lens--it can be a neat effect if used properly, but more often can be an ugly distraction. So yeah, I'm still learning that part.

Texas State Bobcats vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, September 8,2012, San Marcos Texas. Lisa On Location Photography, New Braunfels, Texas.

Texas State Bobcats vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, September 8,2012, San Marcos Texas. Lisa On Location Photography, New Braunfels, Texas.

All in all, it was a fun learning experience. Some other photographers I know came over and checked out the lens. I'd not taken it out before, and a 30 year old lens like this is a novelty. It's light and works well in bright conditions, although 500mm is a focal length I have a hard time hand-holding steady enough for stable shots. It's really a small telescope when you get down to it, using a Maksutov–Cassegrain design, and gives the best results when I have it mounted on a monopod. I've also come to the conclusion that it's somewhat brighter than a true f/8 lens--maybe by a third or half a stop. I have the auto focus confirmation chip programmed to tell the camera the lens is an f/5.6, because the camera won't operate its auto focus system for lenses slower than that. Initially, I increased my exposure compensation by a full stop to make up that difference when shooting in aperture priority mode, but those images invariably came out slightly overexposed. So I shoot as an unadjusted f/5.6 and only have to increase the brightness of the image slightly in Photoshop to bring it up to par.

Ultimately, I've gained a lot of confidence in this little lens. It's certainly not out-perform Canon's 500mm f/4 L lens, but it's more than $10,000 cheaper, six pounds lighter and about two feet shorter. I'd say, for what it is and what it can do, quite a nice little bargain.

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  1. Cool shots! And be careful on the stairs.

  2. Thanks. It was a fun experiment. I expect I'll get more keepers as I practice more with it. And I'm pretty much all healed up now, except for a massive nasty bruise on my butt.