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Alan and Mario serve up the US Open with the Olympus E-510
Taking note of the lesson learned last year when we did a road trip to Fashion Week in New York, this year we opted to fly and save our energy for the main event. Our attendance was required on August 28th to participate in the events planned by Olympus for select press during the first round of the US Open. This may well be the best time to see tennis in New York because during the first week most of the people in attendance are true, hard-core tennis fans who are there to see great tennis without the sky high prices of the semis and the finals. Tennis was the buzz all throughout town (conversations in elevators, posters throughout the city, TV and over-sized tennis balls throughout the grounds).
On our way into Flushing Meadows, and during our escort by Olympus staff into Arthur Ashe stadium, we immediately noted the tight security in place (supposedly put in place by the USTA). Badges are checked, double-checked and even triple-checked before getting to your seats. Our final destination was a wonderful box seat which, assuming a sunny day, delivered the best lighting conditions possible within the stadium. There were many Olympus staff on hand to greet us, some old and some new, but all extremely courteous and friendly. This alone gave us the impression that the company is doing well and that morale at Olympus is high - perhaps they're excited about something that we've been anticipating for some time.
At approximately 11am, professional photographer Jim Sugar took the stage describing his 20+ years at National Geographic to the dozen members of the press who arrived that morning for the US Open safari. What stood out most during his talk, other than his aerial photograph collection of course, was his encouragement to tell a story with your photos. Composition and the technicals must also be accompanied with the goal of telling a story to give the photograph(s) meaning. His personal examples cited the documentary of his friend's airplanes which he designs (a collection of photographs) and his family's custom Christmas greeting cards which tell his friends and relatives a story all their own every year.
As Jim concluded and Olympus staff took over explaining to the journalists in attendance how to best use the E-510, we eyed the table full of lenses and quickly grabbed our personal favourites, the 7-14mm and the 90-250mm. Later in the day we were both using the 90-250mm, and at times the 300mm, sometimes even with the 1.5x converter attached. We were also excited to see the E-510 IS system in action. It wasn't extra sunny that day in New York - we were simply grinning from ear to ear.
Our first stop on the safari was the roof of Arthur Ashe stadium; a vantage point not easily accessible and sometimes occupied by police and snipers. The view was stunning, particularly at 7mm. While the two of us wanted to work as a team, we also want to get our own shots with our own CF cards. This eventually led to our tag-team system of removing our own personal CF cards and swapping cameras with lenses attached as opposed to swapping lenses. It worked for our purposes.
If you can imagine it, the follow two photos were taken from generally the same vantage point - one at 7mm and the other at 300mm.
Next was the piece de resistance. We were led to the bottom of the stadium so we could shoot the players from up close; specifically at the end of the court at surface level (next time you watch a tennis match, take a look at the wall behind the player at the far court - you should be able to see lenses behind the two cut outs in the wall). We were all told to be very quiet so as not to disturb the players, who happened to be Martina Hingis and Mathilde Johansson. Cramped into the small space, sometimes squeezing your lens between the heads of other photographers, getting a good shot, let alone a great shot, was not as easy as we had initially thought.
Let's first define what we believe is a great shot. This should be a 3/4 to 1/2 length body shot of the player, swinging their racquet and having the tennis ball included within the scene, neither of which should be covering the player's face. However, when professional athletes move and you're holding a long lens, these individuals will quickly get out of view, and very often, have some portion of their body or racquet out of the frame. A lot can be said for full length body shots, 10MP of the E-510, and some cropping.
Speaking of the E-510, we're somewhat ashamed to say that after about a dozen shots, we both quickly put the camera on its "sports" setting and left it there for the remainder of the day. Fidgeting with ISO, aperture and/or shutter speeds is utterly useless when so much effort is needed to be spent on composition and timing. Therefore, on a positive note, after viewing the final shots, the camera performed very well by truly giving us the results we wanted (i.e. fast shutter speeds and appropriate ISO to maintain picture quality). Kudos to Olympus and the E-510.
After only fifteen or twenty minutes in the pit, our time there was up. Having felt like only two minutes, our pleas to stay longer fell on deaf ears. Leaving was the biggest disappointment of the day because at such a vantage point, the opportunities were endless yet the situation took some time to get accustomed to.
The safari concluded at the side courts where unfortunately no match was underway and players in casual sweats were practicing doubles. Shortly afterwards, we returned to the Olympus box in time to catch James Blake begin his match on centre court. This would be a true test for the Olympus system because the photographers would now be significantly distant from the courts. As we mentioned earlier, we strapped on the 90-250mm on one camera and the 90-250mm in combination with the 1.5x converter on the other. The question now was, how well would the E-510 IS perform?
As the players practiced, we each focused in on a stationary object; in this particular case, the camera man. Each lens had a monopod strapped to it, so with three consecutive shots of our subject with IS off and IS on, we noticed a significant improvement using the E-510's ability to view photos at 14x. To quantify what we saw, we could only best describe it as a one-plus stop improvement (forgetting about our requirement to tell a story, these images were unfortunately deleted on site). Not having used other camera systems utilizing lenses with IS, we cannot state how well the E-510 compares to the offerings of other manufacturers, however we are obviously happy to have the option to buy into a camera body with built in IS and not have to upgrade all of our lenses. This is a wonderful benefit!
To comment on Blake himself, he was a joy to watch in person. The match was hard fought as Blake covered the court with speed and pounded the ball with immense power (former Andre Agassi fans appreciate his play). Passion like this doesn't ooze from every professional tennis player. If only we could have been in the pits.
As luck would have it, Olympus offered us front row tickets at Louis Armstrong stadium to watch the women's sixth seeded player, Anna Chakvetadze. We now had no excuse but to execute given we now had more time and were within close distance of the players. As such, we dedicate the following photo to all the Olympus staff in attendance during the US Open.
To emphasize how tough the game of tennis is, even though Anna's match was more or less a blow out (6-1, 6-1), emotional and physical fatigue is nevertheless ever-present. Evenly matched players are truly differentiated by mental toughness typically synonymous with golf.
At this point we feel the need to discuss two weaknesses of the E-510 given the circumstances we were placed into. The first is obvious. As we sat trying to capture at three frames per second the fast paced action that occurs as a 115+ mph tennis ball approaches a swinging racquet, other individuals using cameras manufactured by other brands were shooting at speeds whose sound would be best described as a thumb flipping through a deck of cards. The other weakness is more subtle. When attempting to zoom in on a player waiting to return serve, imagine the following composition: a) head at the top-left of the frame, b) torso along the top and to the right of the frame, and c) arms and racquet along the bottom and towards the left of the frame. This leaves a big gaping hole in the middle that three-point focus cannot handle appropriately. Without switching out of continuous focus to focus and recompose, the shot is lost. Fortunately for Olympus , the E-510 is not a sports photography camera and rumours about their next high-end camera (from non-official sources) suggest that more focus points will be available later this year.
As the "day matches" came to an end at approximately 5pm, "evening matches" wouldn't begin until 7pm and the USTA ensures the stadiums are empty for clean up during that time. This left us with two hours to visit some of the on-site stores, including the Olympus shop which had several cameras and lenses available for demo and sale to the tennis fans on the grounds of Flushing Meadows. People were constantly flowing in and out of the store checking out the gear and asking questions. Of particular interest that day from our observations on the grounds were the Olympus Stylus 790 SW (which apparently wasn't on sale in retail outlets just yet), Wilson over-sized tennis balls which were going for $40 USD, and Ralph Lauren shirts with over-sized polo logos (as worn by all USTA staff on attendance - brilliant marketing).
The buzz in the stadium came back with more fury than ever at 7pm. Last year's US Open women's champion Maria Sharapova approached centre stage to play her first round match in her new Nike "Big Apple" red evening dress (which we Googled to learn it contained over 600 Swarovski crystals). Tennis was never averse to having its own prima donnas. As such, fans were in attendance in all forms, shapes and sizes to see today's biggest female tennis star.
At this point the sun was beginning to set and stadium lights were used to make play visible to the audience. This turned out to be even more of a test for the E-510 IS system and sport mode setting. We were quite paranoid that the length of lens we were using would not be able to produce sharp pictures with the amount of lighting available. To add to our pressure to deliver, sitting behind us was a couple representing Vogue and they had requested we post an image to their new website www.ShopVogue.TV showing off Maria's new red tennis dress. Fortunately the results upon our return were better than we had anticipated - both the photographers and the camera system produced the results we needed.
Back to the tennis match, in typical fashion Maria steam-rolled over her component (Roberta Vinci) leaving the crowd in a stunned silence at the one-sided affair. Game after game, Maria dominated 6-0, 5-0. The following game, served by Roberta, turned out to be the highlight of the match. With each point played, the crowd cheered Roberta on to win a game against last year's champion. Serving at 40-30 with the noisy New York crowd as loud as ever, Roberta pulled off the game and lept into the air in a manner typically only seen when a player pulls off an entire tournament victory. The crowd went wild and Roberta's smile lasted for a full minute. Here's a toast to Roberta and anyone else who finds glory in the little victories of life.
As the match came to a close with a score of 6-0, 6-1, we put away our cameras and watched Roddick play Gimelstob in full enjoyment. Being able to watch some of the best players in the world at an event of this magnitude was certainly special, and we thank Olympus for the opportunity. Using some of the world's best glass and the latest in camera technology wasn't bad either. ;-)
[Alan and Mario reserve the right to update and append the contents of this article. Your feedback is more than welcome.]
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