Pink in the Rink

It was Pink in the Rink weekend at the HEB Center this past Friday and Saturday. The Texas Stars wore special jerseys that featured a good dash of pink as they faced the Chicago Wolves both nights. The jerseys were auctioned off to raise money that gets donated to the American Cancer Society. I was asked to help out with photo coverage and I enjoyed the frenzied set of games. The Stars won Friday's matchup and the Wolves came away with the win on Saturday. 

Here are some highlights from the two games. All images were taken with my Fujifilm X-T2 with the XF 50-150mm lens or X-T1 with the XF 18mm lens. 

Fujifilm X-T2 Hockey Update

I've got a few more games under my belt since I last wrote about my experience using a Fujifilm X-T2 as a dedicated sports camera for covering pro level hockey games. It has taken me a while to get things dialed in and I'm happy with the results I have been getting. As I've said before, the X-T2 is not a purpose-built sports camera. However, for my use in covering games for the AHL Texas Stars hockey team, it is working well enough that I no longer own a DSLR. 

My hockey gear kit now consists of the X-T2 with the XF 50-140mm lens mounted. I also carry my old X-T1 for use with either the XF 16mm or the 35mm. lenses. That's it. This all fits in a small Billingham bag. I'm digging that. Shooting with the X-T2 exclusively for game play has required some adjustments to my technique and it has taken some time to get the autofocus system dialed in. I've said before that the continuous AF system looks a lot like Canon's AF configuration menu and I wonder if some technology was licensed here. Truthfully, if that is the case, I'd rather Fujifilm have used Nikon as a model. Having shot both Canon and Nikon at the rink, I found the Nikon system much more accurate. While it's not a perfectly tuned AF system for fast action sports, I've managed to make the X-T2 work for me.

There are a number of settings that can be configured in the X-T2's AF menu. None of the canned AF scenarios really worked extremely well and I was frustrated at first. Having spent some time tweaking things, here is what I find works best for me.

  • AF Mode: Zone (3x3)

  • AF-C Custom Settings

    • Tracking sensitivity: 2

    • Speed tracking sensitivity: 1

    • Zone area switching: front

  • Pre-AF: OFF

  • Performance: Boost

  • Focus priority AF

  • EVF view only

The zone area switching set to front seemed to help my keepers go up. I'd tried auto but the AF system would hunt too much trying to decide what to lock onto in situations with players packed tightly together. I found this also helped AF be a little snappier in locking onto close moving subjects. The real key to success with the X-T2's focus tracking is to get on the subject as soon as possible and follow for a moment before blasting away with the shutter. The DSLRs I have used in the past were more snappy in acquiring subjects quickly and I could bounce from player to player without much lag. The X-T2 demands a more calculated approach. There is more effort on my part to anticipate player movement and strategy. That's probably not a bad thing. 

I'm not sure why but I seem to have better results using the shutter button for AF in addition to firing the shutter. I've always used back button focus with DSLRs and configured the shutter button for its sole purpose. For whatever reason I get more keepers with the shutter button handling AF on my X-T2. I'm wondering if AF on the back button cuts out when the shutter is firing. 

At the end of the day, no matter what gear you use all that matters is that you are getting the shots you need. I can honestly say that I don't feel like I'm missing anything having switched exclusively to the Fujifilm cameras. The real measure of a camera system is in the images it produces so here are some favorite shots from the last couple of games. 

First, here are a few 3 shot action sequences to give an idea of how the X-T2 tracks in game play. The frame rate of the X-T2 lets me easily fire 5-6 shot bursts with no lag. In the last 3 images of this group you can see how the AF holds on a fast moving subject up close. That's the lens cutout in the glass you can see as I'm continuing to shoot while backing up to avoid getting my lens broken!

Below are some single frames of key action moments. Some of these are from a burst sequence but several are more reactionary captures of something quickly happening. The X-T2 isn't as adept as a high end DSLR for those "in the blink of an eye" grabs but as you can see it can deliver. I included some scenes with potential distractions like other players at different distances in the focus zone. Those zebra stripes of on-ice officials can really be an attention grabber for AF systems. I'm impressed with the way the X-T2 usually ignores them to stay on target. Changing zone area switching from auto to front seemed to help with that.

All shots in this post were taken with the Fujifilm X-T2 and the XF 50-140mm f/2.8 lens with the latest firmwares at the time. The standard (Provia) film simulation was used and all images are camera JPEGs with light post processing in Adobe Lightroom for cropping and slight exposure adjustment as needed.  Images are property of the Texas Stars.

Dallas Stars Training Camp Scrimmage

The Dallas Stars had a scrimmage game at the HEB Center at Cedar Park this morning to wrap up their training camp. It was a good mix of veteran NHL players along with the Texas Stars and other potential prospects. The scrimmage gives the guys a chance to play as a team and show what they can do. The guys played against their teammates but that doesn't mean they held anything back. It was a brisk, physical, and competitive game. There were beautiful plays, hard hits, and lots of smiles as the White vs Green teams vied for bragging rights. It is also impressive to see NHL level play down at ice level. These athletes move incredibly fast and it was not an easy task to track them with my camera after a summer away from the hockey rink. Here are a few shots from the game.

Full image gallery from the game can be viewed here. All images captured with a Fujifilm X-T2 and XF 50-140mm lens.

Texas Stars Season 7 Highlights

Season 7 for the Texas Stars has come to an end. The team was eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs in the first round last Friday night by the San Diego Gulls. Hockey demands a tremendous amount of skill, stamina, pain, and sacrifice to claim its highest trophies. Making it to the playoffs says a lot of the team. While it would have been great to see the team go further I can say that I'm proud of these guys and honored to have been along for the trip as one of their photographers. It's a daunting effort to distill thousands of photos to a few highlights. My archive from season 7 contains nearly 10,000 images! It wasn't easy to make the picks but looking through them all brought back a lot of exciting memories. Click the link below to see my favorite shots from season 7. 

Season 7 Highlights

3 Shots of the Game

It's playoff time and the Texas Stars have completed 2 games in the first round against the San Diego Gulls at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park. On Thursday the Stars gave up the first game to the Gulls in a 3-1 loss. Last night, Saturday, was payback time and the Stars came away with a commanding 5-1 win. The team hits the road this week to play out the rest of the series in San Diego. It will take 2 wins on the Gulls' ice for the Stars to advance to the next round.

The first shot from Thursday's game (above) is Brendan Ranford battling it out to get to the puck in a corner. The second shot is Travis Morin facing off against former Texas Star Chris Mueller. The third shot is Curtis McKenzie tumbling over the Gulls' goaltender, with a little help from the Gulls' defense of course.

Full image gallery from Thursday's game is here.

The first shot from Saturdays game is a beauty of a goal for Matt Mangene. The puck is seen in flight into the net. The second shot is Brett Ritchie showing no brotherly love to younger sibling Nick Ritchie. The third shot is a rebounded puck in front of Jack Campbell's net as the Gulls pushed hard to get some points on the board. He did make the save on the rebound.

Full image gallery from Saturday's game is here.


3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Barracuda

The Texas Stars had a pair of games this weekend against the San Jose Barracuda. It was Military Appreciation weekend and the Stars were sporting tiger stripe camo jerseys. The special jerseys were auctioned off for charity. It was an exciting weekend all around as the Stars managed to clinch a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs. 

There weren't many high points of the Friday game for the Stars. The Barracuda shut the Stars out with a 3-0 win. It was a tough game to watch as the Stars failed to get a single puck in the net. The first shot above is an impressive 2 for 1 hit by Niklas Hansson to tie up two opponents at once. The second shot is an ice spray that got me through the lens hole in the glass as Jason Dickinson grabbed the puck in the corner with an opponent right on the heels of his skates. The third shot is a solid check by Jesse Blacker on a race to the puck in the corner behind the Stars' net.

Full image gallery from Friday's game is here.

Saturday's game didn't look so good for the Stars as the Barracuda struck first and at one point had a 3 goal lead on the Stars. Maxime Lagace started in net for the Stars and was replaced by Jack Campbell after the 3rd goal. Two more shots would get by Campbell before the Stars sprang to life about mid game and took control of the game. The Stars turned a 3 goal deficit into a 3 goal lead for a 8-5 game win and a clinched playoff spot. The first shot above is Jason Dickinson getting the puck and himself into the Barracuda net. The second shot is Curtis McKenzie barreling over his opponent in a fierce battle for the puck around the net. The third shot is a deflected puck from a shot on Campbell's net heading straight for this photographer's position. No lenses were harmed.

Full image gallery from Saturday's game is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Wild & Moose

The Texas Stars had back to back games on Friday and Saturday nights this weekend. Friday was the second game in a week against the Iowa Wild. After a win by a healthy margin against the Wild last Wednesday, hopes were high for a repeat. It was a hard fought battle on the ice with the teams exchanging goals until ending 3-3 in regulation. The Wild would score the final winning goal in the overtime period. 

The first shot above is Brandan Troock celebrating as the puck makes its way into the Wild net. The second shot is Matt Mangene battling it out for the puck deep in the Stars' end. It was one of those shots where I got my lens out of the hole in the glass just in time! The third shot is a valiant scoring attempt by Curtis McKenzie in the overtime period. Coming in at speed with a defenseman tailing him, McKenzie lost his edge and slid to the ice.

Full image gallery from Friday is here.

Saturday's game was against the Manitoba Moose and that night went heavily in the Stars' favor as they trounced the Moose with a 6-1 win. The Stars' absolutely dominated the game and racked up twice the shots on goal as they did the previous night. 

The first shot above is Curtis McKenzie being "escorted" into the Moose defensive zone. The second shot is a goal by Cole Ully. I didn't catch the puck in flight off of the quick snap in my burst of frames but the look on the goalie's face makes it obvious where the puck ended up. The third shot is Stars goalie Maxime Lagace swatting away a shot on goal with his stick.

Full image gallery from Saturday is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Monsters

The Texas Stars had a couple of games against the Lake Erie Monsters over the weekend at Cedar Park Center. Both games were nail biters but the Stars came away with wins in each. It was an overtime victory on Saturday and they got it done in regulation on Sunday with a tight 2-1 final score. 

In Saturday's game (above) the first shot is Curtis McKenzie celebrating after getting puck into the Monsters' net. The second shot is a huge face-off win by captain Travis Morin. His opponent seemed stunned by a lightning fast puck grab and turnaround. The third shot is Maxime Lagace making a save in the midst of an intense battle in his crease. The full image gallery from Saturday is here.

The first shot from Sunday is a beautiful pad save by Lagace while fighting off his opponent with his glove hand. The second shot is Jason Dickinson kicking up a snow flurry while trying to slow down before impact with the glass after coming in hot against an opponent to get to the puck in the corner. The third shot is Travis Morin dishing out a hip check that took Sifers airborne. The full image gallery from Sunday is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Gulls

The Texas Stars had another double header weekend, this time taking on the San Diego Gulls Friday and Saturday nights. The teams each got a win in the heated games. The Gulls won by a goal Friday while the Stars had a resounding 5-2 victory on Saturday. 

The first shot above from Friday's game is Derek Hulak leading the Stars into the offensive zone through the Gulls' defense. In the second shot, Matt Mangene applies some defensive pressure in the crease of the Stars' net. The third shot is Julius Honka racing for possession of the puck deep in the corner of the Stars' end.

Full image gallery from Friday is here.

Curtis McKenzie fights to gain control of an airborne puck behind the Stars' net in the first shot from Saturday's game. The second shot is Gemel Smith maneuvering the puck around a Gulls defensive wall as Remi Elie recovers from a tumble during an offensive push. In the third shot Stephen Johns puts a solid hit on an opponent behind the Stars' net.

Full image gallery from Saturday is here.

3 Shots of the Game - Stars vs Wolves

The Texas Stars had a busy weekend, taking on the Chicago Wolves in back to back games Friday and Saturday. It was great series for the Stars as they dominated the Wolves in both games and came away with solid wins in each game. 

Friday's game was a 3-1 win for the Stars. Philippe Desrosiers was in net for the Stars for both games and he put on an incredible performance on Friday in particular. It was close to being a shutout until a late 3rd period goal by the Wolves. The first shot below is Remi Elie putting a walloping hit on an opponent. The second shot is Esa Lindell giving Desrosiers some defensive help in a battle for the puck in front of the Stars' net. The third shot is a breakaway scoring attempt by Curtis McKenzie, coming in hot in a face to face challenge with the Wolves' netminder.

Full image gallery from Friday's game is here.

The Stars enjoyed a 5-2 win in Saturday's matchup in front of a packed house at the Cedar Park Center. The first shot below is thwarted scoring chance by the Wolves in the first period. Good defense and solid goaltending kept the Wolves at bay. The second shot is a fierce 2 on 1 battle for puck possession in the Stars' zone. Matej Stransky and Julius Honka teamed up to stop a scoring attempt. The third shot is a second period goal by the Stars as seen from the mezzanine level. If you look closely you can see the puck entering the net below the goalie's glove hand.

Full image gallery from Saturday's game is here.

Snapshots and Slap Shots - Shooting Hockey with the Fujifilm X-T1

A couple more Texas Stars games have passed since my initial writeup on using the Fujifilm X-T1 as a sports camera for covering pro hockey. I concluded my thoughts on the first experience by saying that the verdict was still out on the X-T1 as a sole camera for a fast paced sport like hockey. The little X-T1 didn't perform terribly by any means that first game and since my Fujifilm rep was kind enough to let me keep a copy of the 50-140mm lens over the holidays, I decided to use it at a couple more games last week.  In total, I have 3 full pro hockey games under my belt using only the X-T1. Here is what I've learned.

I went into this experiment cautiously. The first game I carried my Nikon D750 and 70-200mm lens around with me all game, just in case the X-T1 wasn't getting me the shots I needed. At the second game, I still took the D750 to the arena but I left it in a locker as an emergency backup. By the third game, my confidence in the X-T1 was high enough that I left the D750 at home. It was obvious that I was able to come away with as many keepers as I would have gotten with the D750. After the first game, I checked in with the graphic designer at the Stars since she is my customer and got a thumbs up on image quality. It is important to note that she did notice the same tendency of the X-T1 to smooth skin in unnatural ways at ISO 3200 - not enough to be a problem though. It is still something I wish Fujifilm would address. 

At the second and third games I continued to experiment with the X-T1's settings. In my last article I mentioned that wide tracking continuous autofocus didn't very well for this sport. I gave it one more try for sanity's sake and my opinion hasn't changed. I needed to restrict the focus points to the phase detection areas of the sensor by using the 3x3 zone focus grid. I also tried switching from release priority to focus priority autofocus. While I've always favored release priority on DSLRs that I've used, I was happier with focus priority on the X-T1. Other than that, the only other change I made in my settings from those I listed last time was switching to Provia film simulation from Pro Neg Hi for a bit more color pop.

Here are all the relevant camera settings that I settled on:

  • Continuous autofocus (C on focus selection switch)
  • High speed burst rate (CH on top dial)
  • Zone autofocus area in middle (3x3 grid)
  • Image quality: Fine (Provia film simulation)
  • DR100
  • Autofocus with focus priority
  • Face detection: off
  • Pre Autofocus: off
  • Power Management: High Performance On
  • No image review

My exposure for all shots posted here was 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

I can prattle on and on about the X-T1 shooting experience but the proof is in the pictures. There are several key shooting scenarios in hockey game photography and I'll provide some examples of each.

Oncoming Player Movement

Players at the pro level have amazing speed. I've found that oncoming players present the biggest challenge to camera autofocus systems. Even my D750 struggles with this as players get in close. What I found with the X-T1 is that I had to get the autofocus system tracking a player as far out as feasible. The X-T1 is slightly slower to get an initial lock than my D750 but it does a pretty job at staying with the subject once I get it locked on. The X-T1 did quite well at staying on players and not getting distracted by the contrasty ads on the boards. I was able to get some pretty close shots of moving players close in, provided that I got locked on before they were right up on me. 

Lateral Player Movement

Lateral or side to side movement is a little easier for cameras I've used. The main glitches in this area tend to be when an autofocus system grabs onto the boards when players are close to them or locking onto a different player than I intended. The X-T1 did well on all counts. As long as I got a lock and followed through by panning with the players I didn't have any issues. 

Tight Groups of Players

One area where my D750 can struggle is when players are packed together tightly, as is often the case around the goal. A wide focus point array can lead to the camera hunting too long as it decides what to focus on. I found that the X-T1 did quite well at staying with my intended subject when using the 3x3 zone array. 

Action Sequences

A lot happens in a split second of hockey and the high frame rate helps catch the action and give me more shots to pick from after the game. The X-T1 beats my D750 in this area. I came away from more interesting puck-in-flight shots in the last games than I usually get.

Last time I wrote about the X-T1 at the hockey arena I was undecided. While I got some good shots, I wasn't ready to say it was definitely up to the task. Have my feelings changed? Well, I have to say that after 3 games with the X-T1 and just as many keepers as I normally got with my D750, I guess I can safely say that the X-T1 can absolutely work as a sports camera albeit with certain limitations and with good technique on the part of the photographer.

Stuff I really like about the X-T1:

  • Light weight. My wrists, arms and back are much happier with this rig.
  • Auto focus is solid once locked on. 
  • Fast frame rate.
  • Front switch makes it quick to switch between continuous and single autofocus modes.
  • Great image quality in smaller JPEG files than a lot of DSLRs.*
  • Auto white balance works better with flickering sports lighting than my D750.

Stuff that's annoying about the X-T1:

  • On a DSLR, I configure back button focus and focus continues while the back button is pressed and the shutter button is held down. The X-T1 doesn't do that. If I use a configured back button to focus, it stops focusing when the shutter is pressed. That makes no sense. I had to use shutter half press only for focusing.
  • Only middle points (phase detection spots) are good for fast paced autofocus. This means I sometimes need to shoot loose and crop to get the composition I want. 
  • ISO sensitivity seems to be almost a stop less than my D750. 
  • Can't turn off noise reduction completely (even at -2 there is still odd smoothing of flesh tones at ISO 3200.)
  • Only one SD card slot. Give me two in the next body, please!!!!
  • Takes too long (with the 50-140mm lens) to transition from close to distant focus points. My DSLR is way snappier.
  • Lack of dial based custom settings. It takes too many steps to go from a sports oriented setup to a more static subject setup. It's just a turn of a single dial on my D750.
  • The EVF can flicker or black out during burst shots. I actually haven't found it to be a deal breaker since I've been training myself to keep both eyes open for safety's sake anyway.

There are a lot of negatives about using mirrorless camera like this for sports to be sure. However, I didn't hit anything insurmountable in my tests and at the end of the game I'm getting the shots I need from a camera system that I really like. Am I ready to switch completely to the X-T1 platform? I'm seriously thinking about it. I don't use my D750 for anything except sports anymore and it sure would be nice to have a single platform. I'd buy the 50-140mm and a second X-T1 body so I could have everything from wide to telephoto shots with the same body. That would be most excellent. I've proven to myself that sports photography can be done with the X-T1 and a complete switch is under consideration. I'll let you guys know if I make the leap. Am I crazy? Feel free to weigh in through the comments section.

*Yes, I shoot JPEG only for sports and events the majority of the time. I don't have time to deal with processing raw files when I've got hundreds of images to sift through and deadlines to meet. Fujifilm JPEGs are notoriously good. If the lighting is absurd due to low light or extreme dynamic range, I'll shoot JPEG+raw.