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Men at Work: The Paulo K.O.H.L Flag Football Ministry

"We hope that from this league men raise up as leaders (Pauls) who will help set a good example to the youth (the Timothies) of our neighborhoods in the Kensington area." -- Timoteo Flag Football League

Originally published October, 2012

Kensington Flag Football: Two "Wolves"
Two "Wolves"
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

The photo above is two brothers from this young men's flag football league run as a ministry in the Kensington section of northern Philadelphia city in the state of Pennsylvania, USA (added detail for my overseas friends).  Their team was the "Red Wolves".

One of the team managers is a friend of mine and an excellent Philadelphia artist named Keith Crowley.  In fact, Keith inadvertently coined the term "Entropic Remnants" that I took for my studio name -- for which I'll be eternally grateful.  

Keith asked me to come out and see if I could catch the action on the poorly lit Scanlon athletic field on East Vernango street.  Photographically, the action shots turned out to be the biggest challenge I've had yet in photography as my "kit" is not really optimized for action in low light.  More on the photographic challenge at the end.

Who or What is Paulo K.O.H.L

The league started as an offshoot of the parent organization called "Timoteo Football".  The necessary skills to succeed as a team in a tough sport are a wonderful classroom to teach skills necessary to succeed in life.  It also provides an outreach for churches and civic organizations to reach young men with services that can help them succeed.

For fun, the league created a fictional character called "Paulo Kohl" to represent their ideals.  In reality, the K.O.H.L. stands for "Kensington Old Heads League" and is a league which allows the organizers and team managers to play as well as coach.

You can see a lot more about this great group by clicking here to see their website where you can see the history and explanation of the group as well as current activity.

Kensington Flag Football: How I'm Going to Catch the Ball
How I'm Going to Catch The Ball
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Kensington Flag Football: Loosening Up
Loosening Up
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Why is this Important?

Look, let's face facts: when people hear "inner city" or the name of some recognizable urban neighborhoods what do they think?  "Poor" and "black".  Like it or not, that is the truth.

The associations many Americans have about this are often not healthy ones -- and there is good reason for that.  Historic discrimination, deteriorating urban environments, mismanaged (make that POLITICALLY managed) schools all have created huge problems.

Growing up here has challenges.  The resources available to meet these challenges are limited.  Government programs can sometimes help people survive -- but few teach them how to LIVE.

Waiting for the Game
Waiting for the Game
Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8

These flag football leagues may seem trivial -- but they do bring young men together for the "common good" and teach them how to both compete fairly and cooperate effectively -- and provide a way to actually feel how working together towards a goal is something to be desired.

You can talk to people all day -- but when you SHOW them how they can overcome difficulty that is an important lesson.  No handout.  No special accomodations -- just hard work and getting results.  This is what is missing in the modern philosophy (or at least application) of social work as pursued by government agencies.  Are they necessary?  Yes.  Do they really help people overcame years of being trapped by low expectations, inadequate schools, and an at times unruly environment? No.

What I Saw That Night

I have to say it was impressive.  There was a level of play I had not expected to see -- and perhaps I'm a victim of the same prejudices I mentioned earlier.  Did I expect these young men to show what they exhibited that night?  Not really.  Sorry, but it was so.

You know: I should know better.  I've worked as a volunteer prison chaplain and done ministry in the city of Chester, PA. and this is not a new story: people who are given hope can do amazing things.

Kensington Flag Football: Strategy
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Yes, there were some dirty hits.  So also are there in professional sports and virtually every amateur sport I've watched at one time or another.

Men's emotions run high in competitive sports like this and it's very easy for people to get out of control.  Yet what I saw again and again was people overcoming their anger, their frustration, and doubling down and trying harder -- and succeeding.

I'm no football guru I have to tell you.  My favorite sport is baseball.  Still, my opinion is that the level of play was very high.  I saw a lot of skill exhibited both from individuals and as a team.  It was a lot of fun to watch and photograph and I left believing that something very good is happening in the Kensington section.

Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8

Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8

Kensington Flag Football: Near Victory
Near Victory
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Kensington Flag Football: Bad Day for Ducks
Bad Day for Ducks
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

They Just Did It
They Just Did It
Olympus E-M5 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Kensington Flag Football: Closing Prayer
Closing Prayer
Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic/Leica DG 25mm f/1.4 @ f/1.4

Photographic Challenges

Sports photography, aside from any "style" you might try to bring to the shots, is mostly about capturing action.  Yes, establishing and capturing the feel and setting is important, but sports are about motion.

Blur can be creative at times, and tracking a moving subject with a slower shutter speed can be used to convey a sense of movement.  But most of the time the goal is to freeze the action clearly.

And therein lies the rub...

Here's how one might normally approach sports photography:
  • Use a fast lens (in terms or a large aperture) to facilitate fast shutter speeds.
  • Shoot at 1/500 second or faster to freeze the motion of players and the ball.
  • Use a zoom lens because you can't be everywhere at once.
  • Be very aware of the game and the players in order to anticipate action.
  • Use a camera with the lowest noise at high sensitivity to ensure quality in low light situations and allow the fastest shutter speeds.
  • Use continuous tracking autofocus to follow a moving subject and maintain focus
Well, here's where I was at, in the same order:
  • I shot just two of my "fast lenses" with apertures of f/1.8 and f/1.4.  Normally such wide apertures create depth of field issues, but micro four thirds has greater depth of field so it is less of an issue.
  • I was limited to 1/500 or less by the relatively dim lighting on the amateur athletic field and the limitations of my camera.
  • The only fast lenses I have for this camera are primes, so I shot just two focal lengths (in 35mm full frame or film terms) of 50mm and 150mm equivalent.
  • I didn't know any of the players but Keith, and nothing of their rule structure or plays.
  • My Olympus E-M5 has reasonable noise performance suitable for task up to about ISO 6400 -- but beyond that it is so noisy that cleaning up the shot invariably softens it greatly.  My E-P3 has a response good only up to about ISO 3200 and so is even more challenged.
  • Neither of my current cameras is designed for effective autofocus tracking of moving subjects.  I didn't buy them for that since this is not the kind of shooting I normally do and it simply wasn't an issue.
To use an old saying: I brought a knife to a gun fight...

Here are a couple of the very high ISO shots after processing and I think (if you've the eye for it) that you can see the loss of dynamic range and "pop" in the contrast and color that results.  Also, the shots are much softer even when using the Topaz DeNoise tool to remove noise -- which is a very good tool.

ISO 10000: Here I Come!
Here I Come!
Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 (ISO 10,000)

ISO 12800: Ball Chase
Ball Chase
Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 (ISO 12,800)

Rodriguez Rests
Rodriguez Rests
Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8 (ISO 6,400 for comparison)

Another interesting problem I ran into was the QUALITY of the light.  The old mercury vapor lamps were inconsistent in their color balance, and in addition those lamps pulse at 12o cycles per second.  They never really go dark between pulses, but their light becomes slightly lower and less green -- mercury lamps have a strong greenish cast to them that is tough to tune out sometimes in post processing.

If you look at the night shots you can probably see I did better on some shots than others with the color, but that wasn't the larger problem.

I was shooting between 1/200 and 1/320 second for most of the night shots.  This is fast enough that where that time falls in the lamp cycle is critical.  If it falls in the peak of light, you get a bright image but it's heavily green tinted.  If you happen to fall in the "valley" between pulses of light the result is more magenta and the shot is underexposed by almost a full stop sometimes.  Very frustrating.

My solution for much of this was to use the 9 frames/second high speed shooting and squeeze off a burst hoping to get the best shot both in terms of action and lighting.  It helped, but it isn't a panacea.  You didn't want to squeeze off a long burst so that the camera buffer was always clear enough to shoot another if the action suddenly changed.  One had to be aware.

Finally, autofocus performance was a good news/bad news situation.  The Olympus E-M5 in particular focuses better and more accurately in my experience than either of my Nikon D7000's did.  They struggled so in low light at times and they are known for that compared to some other Nikon designs.  My Nikon D200 for example was better than the D7000 in terms of low light focus accuracy.

But focus speed and accuracy are relative.  Dim light generally causes all autofocus systems to slow down, and some lenses simply focus faster than others.

Telephoto lenses can be the slowest to focus for a number of reasons.  The little Olympus 75mm f/1.8 is very high quality and focuses fast -- but if the range between one shot and the next is high it is no speed demon.

For this reason I sometimes did not get focus in time to catch action -- though at other times I certainly did.  For some shots, I did "predictive focus" where I pre focused on a section of the field at a distance where I felt the quarterback or other player would end up and held the "half press" to maintain that range.  That worked sometimes also.

Colors of a Game
Colors of a Game
Olympus E-M5 and Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f/1.8

How I Feel I Did

I did okay.  I am not happy that these are not the highest quality, or that I did not get the usual percentage of "keepers" from the outing.  But with what I was up against, I was actually amazed I got what I did.  I chimped sparsely so I really didn't know what I had until I got home.

I also learned a lot and I'd do this again for a non-critical client, but I certainly can't bill myself as a "sports shooter", lol.

You've seen most of the shots I got here in this post, but there are a few more of the "best" in a flickr set you can see by clicking here.

Thanks for reading and if you encounter programs like this I urge you to support them in some way if you can.  They are doing worthwhile work in the "real world".

UPDATE: Paulo KOHL did a slide show of my photos but it's not your typical slideshow -- it has more of the impact of a video with great music and awesome transition effects.  Check it out...

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