It's probably fair to say that, after family fetes and forays, the most common video topic is sports; and it's equally safe to predict that too many amateur sports videos are, well, disappointing.

"Disappointing"? Inept sports videos are downright stupefying; and the worst of them make you glad they're so numbing, because at least that dulls the pain of sitting through them. Why is this true? After all, the Olympics make fascinating TV, and football broadcasts reduce half the nation to ardent zombies. So why is that little league tape so dull? Why is the Fillmore High gridiron triumph such a snoozeroony?

To address the first puzzle, broadcast sports are exciting because they're produced, directed, taped, and edited by the very finest talents in the industry--the TV analogs of Steven Spielberg. On top of that, these heavy hitters use millions of dollars worth of hardware and software, beginning with cameras that cost more than Cadillacs.

So what's a humble Getting Starter to do? First, understand the problems inherent in video sports coverage and then employ strategies to solve them. That's our agenda today. We'll shine a light on the major hassles you face and then show how to get good results despite them, with easy techniques and modest consumer equipment.

Sideline Sports
Since there are so many different kinds of sports, we need to reduce our topic to manageable size. To do this, we'll divide athletics into two domains: Up Close and Sideline. Up Close sports like golf allow you and your camcorder to approach the athletes and document them in detail. Sports like snowboarding let you actually participate as you tape, howling down the slopes with your helmet camera blazing (and, we hope, your Blue Cross paid up.)

Documenting sports where you mix it up with the athletes is a subject for a different essay. Here we'll focus on the Sideline domain, the sports that keep you and your camcorder frustratingly distant from the action.

The most popular sideline sports include basketball, hockey, soccer, and of course, football. These are all team sports that feature rapid movement on large playing areas--areas you cannot access. Baseball is another sideline sport, but because it's played through and around an area rather than back and forth upon it, like soccer et al., it offers a somewhat different set of challenges. Rounding out the list of the most popular sideline athletics contests are tennis and swimming; and here again there are significant differences. Both sports take place in smaller areas with spectators closer to the action, and both focus on just a few players at a time.

With these minor differences acknowledged, we can start to look at the formidable problems besetting sideline video making.

Typical Taping Problems
Clearly, the biggest biggie on the problem list is distance from the play. Except when the scrimmage or whatever migrates to the area right in front of your sideline position, you're forced to work with subjects perhaps 100 feet away; and that distance degrades the quality of the information you capture in not one but three ways:

• Everyone is very small, and the details of their sports expertise are even smaller. For example, you can't see how the quarterback locks on the pass receiver, how he grips the ball, how his arm motion completes the important follow-through. Heck, you're lucky just to find and frame him before he throws.
• People are hard to recognize. Finding the quarterback is relatively easy, however, compared to, say, documenting a guard throughout a play. (And you may well want to do such a thing if you're making a tape in support of an athletic scholarship application.)
• The medium itself is lo-res. Compared to human vision, or even to still or movie film recording, the ability of NTSC video to distinguish fine detail is dismally poor. That's one reason why broadcast quality hardware is so incredibly expensive. It optimizes every single factor possible, down to the last stray electron, in order to squeeze as much performance as possible from an obsolete technology. It's like modifying VW Beetles for high-speed competition.

You usually can't eliminate the distance problem, but we'll suggest some ways to compensate for it.

The second major problem with sideline shooting is the lack of different camera angles. You can't change camera height when you're down on the field or court. You can't change horizontal angle (try running from the 50-yard line to the end zone between two shots). You can't even change image size because you've already zoomed as far in as possible just to see something. If you zoom out, your subjects go from gerbil-size, through cockroach-size, to maybe protozoa-size.

Why change camera angles? Because if you read the good stuff in most articles on editing, you know you need different image heights, angles, and sizes for visual variety and the ability to condense action through editing.

Another major problem is knowing what you'll need to shoot, and getting set up in time to do so. Baseball is a nightmare because things can happen everywhere at once. Imagine capturing all the essentials of a double play at first and second off a long, mean grounder to center field and you'll see what I mean. Sports like basketball, soccer, and hockey might seem easier because the action centers around the ball or puck; but these games depend on rapid and often unpredictable passing.

As for football, well, what you have here is a writhing mass of humanity, out of which a ball sometimes explodes on an unknown trajectory, or a person squirts loose on a touchdown run that catches you framing the opposite end zone. It's at times like these that make you wish you'd taken up needlepoint instead of video.

Aesthetic Problems
That covers the simplest, most obvious difficulties with taping from the sidelines; but there are other, equally important problems that float us from the safe, shallows of Getting Started into the deeper waters of video narration and style.

First is the issue of context. Most sideline sports (if you include tennis doubles and swimming relays) are all about individuals working in teams. For the true sports connoisseur, appreciation and delight come from enjoying both individual excellence and collective performance simultaneously. To truly savor that double play, for instance, you must inhale the bouquet of each separate throw while tasting the full- bodied pleasure of the lightning interaction among Center Fielder, Second Base, and First Base.

Professionals solve this problem with a combination of resources including multiple camera setups, picture-in-picture, slow motion, and instant replay--often in multiple combinations. That way, they can show team and individual actions together, or at least replay them sequentially. You don't have all these tools, but you can still use some of their tricks, as we'll see.

The second esthetic problem is the total lack of true depth in video pictures, a problem made all the worse because the telephoto lenses essential for sideline shooting squeeze out even the apparent depth of TV images, leaving flat movement patterns on the 2-D screen. After all, physical sports are about energetic, even violent movement through space. (Oh, all right, so there's Sumo, the exception that proves the rule). Subtract one third of the dimensions available, and you lose a third of the excitement.

To see the problem, imagine that you are taping from the sidelines behind first base, with your telephoto lens trained on the batter. She connects solidly and sprints toward you. In the real world, the runner is covering ground at electrifying speed, but in the two dimensional, telephoto world in your frame, she appears to be bobbing up and down comically as she runs in one place. Neither her skill nor the drama of her race against the ball register on the screen.

Another esthetic problem with sideline sports is that all the action looks so similar, especially from a distance. Hey, if the opposing teams didn't wear different-colored uniforms, you could mix up footage from different home games and nobody could tell the difference. There are ways to get around this problem (not to mention ways to mix footage from different games, when you need to).

In fact there are ways to solve or at least lessen all the problems we've surveyed; and we can summarize those solutions in three words: equipment, location, and coverage.

The Right Stuff
Let's start with equipment. To simplify, pretend that your objective is to buy a new video outfit for a high-school athletic department--an outfit optimized for sideline videotaping.

First of all, take a tip from the network pros and get absolutely the highest quality equipment you can afford. Ideally, that means a three-chip camcorder, preferably a true digital model like the Sony DCR- VX1000, the Panasonic PV-DV1000, or the Sharp VL-D5000U.

On the other hand, if your distance from the action demands greater magnification than you can achieve with any zoom lens, look into a Canon hi-8 camcorder with interchangeable lenses--perhaps the L2 model. This unit can mount very long telephoto lenses that let you get close to the action.
If you prefer a fixed zoom lens, you can still increase your image size with an add-on lens extender. This accessory, which screws onto the front of your permanent lens, can bring you twice as close to your subjects. Be aware, though, that all lens extenders degrade picture quality somewhat and reduce your camcorder's depth of field. In practical terms, that means extra attention to keeping the image sharp, especially since auto-focus systems don't always work well at extreme telephoto settings, especially with lens extenders. (Also, some extenders don't work at the wide-angle end of your lens range, so you can't zoom out.) Several kinds of lens extenders are available from mail-order companies that advertise in this magazine.

While we're on the subject of image recognition, here's an easy trick to use when you're making a tape about an individual player, like maybe your son or daughter. Always start with one or two shots that prominently display the subject's jersey number. (You could even start with a setup of your hero on the sidelines in waist shot, before entering the game.) By establishing and occasionally re-establishing the connection between player and number, you help viewers follow the jersey in wide shots when they can't make out the face.

After image quality and magnification, the next most important consideration is color. Many games occur at night, and though the lights usually provide adequate illumination for taping, the true tint of their nominally "white" light varies greatly with the type of lamps used.

For this reason, be sure to get a camcorder with a manual white-balance setting. That way, you can direct the camera to analyze the actual lighting in your stadium and balance color precisely to match it.

Once you have a good camcorder, the next purchase is a tripod, and here again, get the best you can afford. Since you'll be shooting at extreme telephoto lens settings, look for steadiness and smoothness in panning and tilting. Remember: telephoto lenses magnify every tiny jerk and jiggle, so an ultra-silky tripod is an absolute must.

Shooting sports means moving fast, so the next tripod criterion is setup time. A ball-level tripod head allows you to unscrew a single wing nut, true up your camcorder by watching a bubble level, and then lock the wing nut. With practice, you can level your rig in two seconds, instead of tediously lengthening and shortening tripod legs to do the job. You move not only fast, but often too, so a light-weight tripod makes a difference. Cheap featherweights pay a harsh penalty in stiffness; but if you have the money for them, tripod legs of space- age composite materials are both light and rigid.

How about monopods? These one-legged critters are great for still photographers and you see them on the sidelines all the time. But they're devilishly difficult to pan and tilt smoothly, so I can't recommend them at all for videography.

Well, you say, that's all just peachy, but I can't invest in a whole new outfit. I have to make do with the hardware I already have. In that case, at least look into a telephoto extender accessory and check your tripod thoroughly to decide whether it's smooth enough at extreme telephoto lens settings. If not, gulp hard and get a better tripod. (The next step up from casual consumer models will cost under $300.)

Location, Location, Location
Actually, there's yet another piece of useful hardware for your kit: a second camcorder and tripod, set high in the stands to cover the whole game in wide shot. This camcorder need not be quite as high-quality as your main workhorse, but it should have a custom battery pack hefty enough to supply two hours of non-stop taping power. How come? if you've got 100 percent of the action on another tape, you always have a cutaway shot to switch to in editing, whenever you need to condense the action, provide variety, or just eliminate a goof in the main shot (like a bad wobble or a section out of focus).

This second tape is also invaluable for its audio track: a recording of overall crowd sounds that you can lay in over, say, that shot from camera one in which the coach is overheard saying "#$%@& & *%$!!!"

A second camera high above the field delivers another key benefit: its picture supplies the context--the pattern of play--that's invisible from the sidelines. At ground level, tennis (which we've neglected so far) is one shot after another of people whacking a ball with a spaghetti strainer. But from high above, it's a deadly and elegant dual between players sending that ball.

Games like basketball and soccer provide long stretches of continuous play, but football and baseball are stop and start events. In real life, we accept these pauses cheerfully, but on video they are deadly dull. That's why it's so important to get cutaway shots. By substituting, perhaps three seconds of spectators watching intently for 20 seconds of dead time between plays, you'll improve your program immeasurably.

So whenever the ball is not about to go into play, get cutaway closeups from the sidelines. Shoot the coach, shoot the umpire or lineman, shoot the players on the bench or in the dugout, shoot the scoreboard, shoot the cheer leaders, shoot the spectators, shoot the peanut vendor, shoot the... Hey, that's enough on the cheer leaders, okay?

You get the idea.
To summarize then, you have three basic strategies for improving sideline sports coverage. First, magnify the image to obtain more detail. Next, get a continuous wide shot from a high angle (even if you have to borrow somebody's camcorder to get it). Finally, get every possible cutaway, to help you condense your footage in editing your final program.

Good shooting!