I tought I had a couple of hours to spare but a planning misunderstanding had me pack my kit and take off in less than three minutes – and I managed not to forget a single thing ! I did not even know I was that well organized… But you will surely be disappointed to learn that there is no secret about it : I just happened to have everything sown about the livingroom, grabbed a large bag and I threw into it about anything in sight…

I then had to catch the metro and run across Paris carrying all that on my back… I’m glad I choose to rent the 300/2.8 + 1.4 TC instead of the 400/2.8 that would clearly have broken my spine.

Everything set for aperture priority at 2.8, 1600 or 3200 ISO, partial metering, AI Servo (or at least I thought so…) and my new darling : custom function 4-3 (AF and AE on the ‘*’ key, AE lock at half shutter press, shutter priority at full shutter press). Now let’s get those pictures !

The first impression is that the Canon EF 300/2.8 L is one hefty chunk of glass. I rented it this morning and barely had time to get to know it. Its handling is a new experience in every way. The whole assembly is a solid chunk of metal, rather more like a blunt as a medieval blunt weapon good for knocking out bovines than like the delicate optical machinery that it actually is. It certainly feels quite enduring but I don’t really want to find out how much considering the enormous deposit check I had to leave to its owner. Even the lens shade is really built for abuse – nothing like the flimsy plastic appendages for use with my f/2.8 L zooms.

In fact, compared to the EF 300/2.8 L anything I have handled before now feels flimsy. I thought that the 70-200/2.8 L was pretty nice but the 300/2.8 L is just from another world. I cannot comment about image quality because I had to use high ISO and the noise precludes any meaningful judgement. But the autofocus I can comment on : it is the fastest I have ever used. Even the 1.4x teleconverter does not slow it down noticeably !

This is also the first time I use a fixed focal lense. Fixed focal makes framing much harder but the AF speed and the aperture are worth it. But keeping track of the action at a focal length of 420 mm while framing correctly is a major challenge.

From the end lines, 420 mm is fine for action two thirds of the way. From the side lines maybe I should also have tried it with no teleconverter, especially as night fell the extra stop would have been very welcome.

Depth of field at 420/4 is very short – so short that it makes me painfully aware that focusing skills are not up to snuff. Setting the correct AF mode could have helped too

As usual the best frames are the ones that could have been… I sometimes managed to have the subject in the frame and sometimes I managed to have it in focus… But rarely both at the same time. When I succeeded it is most often because I have been able to anticipate the action. I pays hugely to understand the game your are shooting – and alas my understanding of football is still at its beginning. I am beginning to notice more details but the feints still get me : for example it is hard to anticipate when the player purposefully looks in one direction and then shoots in another completely unpredictable one…

Constantly changing light conditions during the game were a pain to adapt to. From direct sunlight and shadows in broad daylight to dusk to badly lit at night there was no way to just meter and forget. Checking the histogram from time to time was more important than ever. And don’t even mention color balance : I relied on the camera’s automation and I was way off 80% of the time. A gray card to use maybe four times during the game would certainly certainly be the cheapest and easiest way to improve the quality of my images – it is now on top of my shopping list. I also experienced a few errant exposures dues to incomplete flash recycling during bursts, but that is not yet worth getting a Canon CP-E3 for. Overall, exposure was not that bad compared to how bad my focusing and framing were.

The framing was pretty bad but I know that the only way I am going to improve it is to shoot more football and learn to anticipate better. Maybe I also need to accept that I am not going to nail every single possible shot and that I must concentrate on selected parts of the game. Better framing will also give better image quality in the end product : better framing means less cropping. Less cropping means more pixels to work with and also better results from Neatimage : my Neatimage profiles are designed for the camera’s nominal resolutions and give pretty mediocre results at lower resolutions.

Blurry images are also sometimes partly caused by camera shake, but since subject movement is at least as great as camera shake I do not think a tripod would be a good idea compared to the monopod I am using. But the video people are doing it so maybe I’ll give it a try. If I do that I’ll have to thing a suitable head for that purpose – for now I’m quite clueless about tripod heads. And if there is enough light a higher shutter speed makes that a moot point.

So to sum up, here are the axis of improvement along which I am going to work :
– Focusing : exercise on anything that moves fast and impredictably… In that matters, kids playing are surprisingly comparable to football.
– Framing : shoot more football at the same level.
– Color balance : use a grey card.

I am not very happy with the end result of my work on that day, but to me it was an excellent learning experience : I am beginning to understand where I want to go and the path to get there…