In sport, the difference between success and failure comes down to precise moments. Winning can centre around a split second; championships are won and lost on tiny details. It’s just the same with sports photography. The moment is vital, and only a mixture of the right skills and the right gear can help you own it.
Danas Macijauskas’ work in watersports proves this perfectly, as shown by his recent shots using his α7 III, from Red Bull’s King of The Air kitesurfing event in Cape Town, South Africa.
First up, according to Danas, it’s about an appreciation for the subject.
I got into surfing, wakeboarding and kitesurfing separately to photography,” he says, “but eventually I wanted to combine the two. I found that there’s a connection that comes through in the images. If you’re a photographer who knows the sports you’re shooting, the athletes communicate better with you, and you get to know the shots that work for them.
Before Danas had taken up the sport himself, he hadn’t realised that this deep understanding of the sport was what was necessary to capture the sport at its best. “At my first event,” he tells us, “I brought the photos to the guys, and I was super excited about them, but they were like ‘oh dude, we hope you didn’t delete other ones’. It showed me that even if, as a photographer, you think it’s a perfect shot, for the athletes, it’s essential that it says something about the sport.”
So what makes a great kitesurfing shot? Danas says it’s all about combining vital elements in a single frame; that’s what achieves the telling moment. “It’s the connection of several things,” he explains, “the background, the pose of the athlete, the light, the timing…the athlete has to be in the perfect position, because you want them to say ‘wow, I look so cool’.” The pictures from Cape Town illustrate Danas’s point perfectly. They’re the vital components summing up a defining moment.
Danas says the varied ingredients mean the style has less to do with regular sports photography than you might think.
“Big-air kitesurfing,” he explains, “is actually more like landscape photography. It’s about scale, because you want to capture the kite, the surfer, and the landscape as one, and it’s then you see how incredibly high they jump. That’s why it has to be a wider shot, not tight around the surfer, like you’d find in some other sports.”
For the variety in framing required he uses versatile zooms like the Sony FE 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G OSS and 24-105mm f/4 G OSS, and also the FE 135mm f/1.8 GM for portrait work on the beach.
This raises a question of technique. How do you combine the skills of landscape composition with the need to follow and focus on a fast-moving and erratic subject? “Basically,” laughs Danas, “it’s quite difficult! But that’s where my Alpha’s autofocus system comes in. The surfer will naturally be quite small in the frame, and they can go anywhere - you don’t have a clue where they’re going to jump.”
On his α7 III, he uses a mixture of the touchscreen and the wide-area subject tracking modes, along with continuous AF.
“You just touch on the person and it’ll keep tracking them and keep them in focus,” he explains, “even when they get very small. And because, unlike a DSLR, the AF area is edge to edge of the frame, you stand much less of a chance of losing them.”
Because of the speed of the surfers, he also opts for the fastest shutter speeds he can get, which is where the α7 III’s auto ISO control really comes into its own. “The Auto ISO is so handy,” he says, “and you can rely on it to just work, which helps you react instinctively to the vital moments. I trust it totally, and I set it to keep the shutter at 1/1000sec or above.”
The α7 III’s rugged build is also vital, and it’s at a standard that Danas thinks is up to any challenge he faces, unlike previous kit he used.
“I used to have trouble,” he tells us. “For instance, after weeks shooting in Sri Lanka one summer, I took my camera in for a service, and they said ‘maybe it would be better if you didn’t wash the camera!’ The humidity there meant everything inside was wet and parts were rusted. But my Alpha kit is incredibly well weather sealed, so even when I’m on a sandy beach with sea air and the wind blowing at 40 knots, the camera is up to the task. It can’t fail when the moment arises.”
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