SYC debriefing


It has been three days since I wrapped up perhaps the longest and most physically demanding shoot I have done to date: the first Windy City Fencing Super Youth Circuit (SYC).  While two-day shoots had become routine for me in 2014—such as the Windy City RYC in November, the Remenyik ROC in October, and the Korfanty Sabre World Cup in May—the SYC this past weekend was a personal record breaker.  Windy City had commissioned my services for all three consecutive days, from as early as I could arrive until close.

For the entire week before the shoot, my mind was rather preoccupied with the logistics and planning.  The venue that Windy City choose was the Grand Ballroom at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, a 50-minute train ride from downtown Chicago.  Unfamiliar with the particular lighting situation, I had wanted to scout out the venue a few days beforehand but could not due to scheduling conflicts.  Fencing venues are often notorious for poor lighting, so while I hoped for the best, I also prepared for the worst.

The possibility of poor lighting influenced my gear selection.  While I am no stranger to low light shooting, fast movement such as fencing requires a high shutter speed to freeze action.  In order to maintain proper exposure, then, more light must enter through the lens via a wide aperture and/or the camera’s recording medium (whether film or a CMOS digital sensor) must be set to a higher ISO sensitivity.  The latter comes with the cost of more grain or noise in the image.  Normally to a tournament, I would bring two camera bodies and two lenses: Canon 7D with a 17-55mm f/2.8 lens attached and a 60D with an 80-200mm f/2.8 lens.  Because of the enormity of this shoot, however, I also packed a third body (my modified 450D streetshooter), and two wide aperture prime lenses for low light: 35mm f/2.0 and 85mm f/1.8.  I normally use the 35mm for street photography (day and night) and the 85mm for portraiture.  In anticipation of the possibility of having to fall back on them for fencing for what ever reason, however, a few months ago I began taking them to tournaments to practice and experiment.  I always contend that it is not the gear itself that allows an artist to make a good photograph but rather the knowledge and skills of how and when to apply and implement said gear under a given circumstance.  A $25,000 Leica S2 is utterly useless in the hands of someone who does not know how to work with it; on the other hand, a five year old iPhone is indispensable in the hands of someone with an intimate knowledge of how to use it under given lighting.

Although flash photography of any kind is strictly forbidden during bouts—and for a damn good reason—I decided to include a Speedlite flash in the event I needed fill light for the medals ceremonies.  I had hoped that should I needed to use flash for the medals ceremonies that I could direct enough of the light a modifier to prevent it from spilling over to any of the bouts.  With my gear tightly packed in my backpack along with my credentials and a ration of Clif Bars, I went to bed Thursday night feeling ready for the weekend.


It is not the gear itself that allows an artist to make a good photograph but rather the knowledge and skills of how and when to apply and implement said gear under a given circumstance

The following is a quick, bullet-point report of my actions over the weekend.  Forgive me if it sounds rather dry and disjointed, but it appeared to be a more efficient way of conveying what I can recall.


Day 1, Friday 23 January 2015:

  • I woke up early at 07:00, checked my email and Facebook, and saw an image of the venue that Windy City had posted to their page.  Much to my horror, the lighting as depicted in the image was bloody awful.  Knowing the difficulty of the job at hand, I recited to myself lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die.


  • Although the first event was slated for 09:00, due to a prior obligation, I did not arrive at the Hyatt until 13:00.  The lighting was even worse than the image in the morning depicted.
  • After quickly greeting some familiar faces, I set up “camp” at a corner of the large hall to don my harness and drop leg bag, set up my gear, and then immediately dived into work.
  • The first few hours was somewhat of a struggle to determine which lenses to use, whether I should push my cameras to ISO 6400, and if some of the strips were even worth shooting because of how dark they were.  While the 35mm allowed more light into the camera, its slow autofocusing motor dampened the eight frames-per-second of the 7D to less than four.  I had known then from previous experience and thought about implementing my solution for it: shooting in full manual focus.  I dabbled with this but realised how much of a drain on my eyes and energy it would be for the rest of the weekend.  I settled then on relying mostly on the 85mm with was much faster at focusing (arguably faster than my zoom lenses).  That little 85mm f/1.8 ended up becoming my saving grace for that day.

Yeah, it really was that bad.



The 85mm in action.


  • I found that a few strips were lit well enough that I was able to get away with an exposure of 1/400, f/2.8, and ISO 3200 at some instances.   Although the strip for finals situated on an elevated stage appeared to have adequate lighting, I found myself having to push beyond ISO 4000 still.

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  • During the final for Y14 Men’s Epee, I had suddenly noticed a burst of light to my left.  I looked over and saw a man in the crowd using a DSLR with its pop-up flash activated.  I stopped shooting, dashed towards him, and told him to turn off his flash.  As I had stated in a previous post, the “prime directive” of fencing photography is to never be in the fencers’ or the referee’s way; never interfere or intrude upon them, and never do anything that would affect the bout.  A flash suddenly firing off while a fencer is trying to take a parry will definitely affect the bout.  Other spectators would go on throughout the weekend to use flash while photographing bouts.  In all of those instances that I observed, a referee would order them to stop before I had a chance to do it myself.  This was rather fortunate as I do not know whether I would have been able to contain temper given my devotion to the “prime directive.”
  • While I used my Speedlite for the first medals ceremony as a test, the stage was bright enough that I would not need it at all.  Thereafter, I never resorted to it again and left it at home for the second and third days.

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  • I was nearly kicked in the head and stepped on during the last bout of the day.  While shooting the Y14 Women’s Epee final, I noticed that the fencer on the left had a habit of flèching off wide.  In fact, she fell off the three-foot high stage early on after a flèche, thankfully without sustaining injury.  This, of course, only made me want to get even closer, to the point where I was crouching down and hugging the edge of the stage.  I have had a few close calls with charging fencers before, but this one may have been the closest so far.
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“If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” –Robert Capa

  • After all of the fencers had left and the bout committee closed down for the day, I packed my gear and left for home around 20:00.
  • Between eating dinner, resting a bit, uploading all of the image files that day onto my hard drives and running double backups, and culling, editing, processing, and posting the medals ceremonies photos from the day, I finally fell asleep at 03:00 only to wake up at 06:30 to head back out again.


Day 2, Saturday 24 January 2015:

  • I met up with a fellow Windy City Fencer at a bus stop in Hyde Park at 07:30 to trek up to Rosemont together.  Along the way, I picked up a breakfast to eat on the train: an egg and cheese croissant and large coffee.
  • Arrived at 09:00.  The venue packed with fencers, parents, other spectators, coaches, and referees.  Most surprisingly, the lighting had improved significantly, being brighter by nearly a full stop. I know not how or why, but it was a great relief.

So much better was the lighting that I finally put the 80-200mm to good use.


  • I established my “base camp” at the bout committee station this time, geared up, and dived right into work.
  • It was evident an hour in that the coffee was not working.  Fortunately, two of my friends present were heading off to get breakfast themselves and offered me an espresso that was greatly needed and appreciated, giving me a second wind of sorts.
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Calvin and Zoya: deliverers of espresso.


  • A lull in the action around 13:00 gave me a chance to lunch on a Clif Bar, drink another espresso, and lie down for ten minutes.

This Clif Bar along with another later sustained me from 13:00 until dinner at 22:00.


  • Spotted and talked to a parent with a Leica M rangefinder and 50mm f/2 Summicron lens.  I proceeded to become incredibly envious.
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I know it is not the gear that makes the photo but rather the eye, but Leica M rangefinders, starting from the film M3 60 years ago, have something that many cameras today lack: soul.


  • Later in the afternoon, my esteemed colleague Adam Barbanell of A. Barbanell Photography with his gear in tow.  And so began a game of sniper versus sniper with our telephoto lenses . . . again.
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I see you, Barbanell! Can you see me?


  • As the busiest day of the weekend, the tournament raged on with no end in sight.  Indeed, the last bout of the day, the final for Y14 Women’s Foil, dragged into overtime.
  • With the tournament closed for the day, I finally left at around 20:30.  Despite my exhaustion and having to upload the images and run backups again, as well as recharge batteries and recheck my gear for the third day of shooting, I had promise to keep to a friend.  It was Calvin the Betrayer’s birthday, the celebrations for which were naturally at a brewpub.  Regrettably, I spent only an hour there, inhaling an absolutely delicious burger, a side of poutine, and an IPA.  It was a stark contrast to last year when . . . well . . . (see here).
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Calvin the Betrayer.


  • Returning home finally around before midnight, I went through my upload/backup/recharge routine and once again went to bed at 03:00.


Day 3, Sunday 25 January 2015:

  • Utterly haggard from the past two days, I dragged myself out of bed again at 06:30 and was out the door an hour later.  My breakfast on the train this time consisted of two Boston cream donuts and a large coffee.  (I really need to take better care of my health.)
  • Arrived at the venue at 09:15 and was relieved to see that the lighting was still as bright as it was the day before; I was fearing that conditions would return to as it was on the first day.
  • With a small group of competitors on the last day, a third of the room was partitioned off for an unrelated event at the hotel.
  • I had brought a fifth lens with me this time, a 10-18mm ultrawide attached to my streetshooter for close-up, dramatic crowd shots.

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  • Some time an hour after I arrived, I was on one end of the room shooting when I suddenly heard screams of pain on the other end.  I made my way to investigate and discovered that a most unfortunate accident had happened: a Y12 foilist had dislocated his patella.  The tournament’s medic immediately tended to the young fencer, and eventually he was taken to hospital.  To respect his privacy, no photos were taken.  I really hope that he has recovered quickly and fully.
  • This day was a bit more relaxed.  I was even able to eat a quasi-decent lunch this time with a few referee friends.



  • It was apparent that I was not the only one tired from the weekend.

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  • I wrapped up shooting with the final medals ceremony around 17:30.  Before taking my leave, I procured some of the blue Windy City SYC wristbands.  Though just some chotskies to further litter my desk, I often like to collect random souvenirs from a major shoot.
  • Returned home an hour later, uploaded and backed up the fruits of my labour.

Cup of Earl Grey to relax after such a long weekend.


Although it has been three days since, I have yet to unpack my camera backpack.

In sum, over the weekend I had put in roughly 26 hours at the venue, 6 hours of traveling, 3 hours of uploading/backing up files, 2 hours of editing and processing medals ceremony photos, and had less than 8 hours of sleep from Friday to Sunday.  During the 26 hours at the tournament, I had produced nearly 14,000 images, networked with numerous fencing coaches, referees, and parents, hung out with fencing friends, was almost kicked in the head, was almost trampled upon several times by smartphone wielding parents during the medals shoots (and learned from such the importance of taking control of the scene), lost some weight, worsened my caffeine addiction, was reminded of how overpriced hotel “food” is, and learned to accept ISO 6400.

Would I ever do it again?  In a heartbeat.

I expect to have photos from Day 1 published by the end of the week.

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When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.”

—Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”