Monthly Archives: July 2009

REALLY getting it right in the camera…

This morning I was a contract shooter for a company that photographs triathlons. This was a big event – over 3,400 women athletes participating in the swim / bike / run race sponsored by Danskin (they’ve been doing this for 20 years now).

This also marks the first time I’ve shot JPEG in probably 8 years (and likely the first time my 1DMk2 has ever been in JPEG mode!) and possibly the most my flash has ever been used.  I shot over 1,700 photos in 4 hours (which is probably low compared to others on the photo team) and while it is embarrassing to say considering what the athletes were going through, it was pretty intense as a photographer and I think I sweated several pounds off today.  (I also have no idea how well I did because they keep all of the photos — a bit nerve-wracking.)

The challenge, for me, is one that photojournalists deal with all the time and my respect for their ability to pull that off on a daily basis could not be higher.  I normally shoot in RAW mode, which has numerous benefits but has one significant drawback: it demands a certain amount of post-processing (using a program like Lightroom or Aperture).   When you have 8 shooters and 3,400 subjects that equals a potential 10-20K images that need to be processed at the end of the event — so they are counting on the photographers to deliver “finished” images in the camera: exposure, composition, and white balance.

When one shoots RAW and expects to do some post-processing you can be a bit more cavalier about  some things.  White balance is one thing that I NEVER worry about in the field — that’s something I consider to be thought about and chosen later.  I’m usually pretty picky about the exposure, but composition kind of sits in the middle: there are times when I know I’m going to crop the photo later on so the composition in the camera isn’t as important.   (I also don’t think about whether or not the image fits nicely in an 8×10 frame.)

Interestingly, many of these disciplines of getting the white balance and other aspects of the image nailed down are still required for video.   Until we all get the equivalent of a RED camera (which is probably only a 2-4 years away) that shoots RAW video, it’s very costly to not get all aspects of the shot right in the camera.

With all that said, if you want to sharpen your action photography skills I can highly recommend trying to photograph a race (say a finish line or some other discrete event).  When the goal of having full-frame individual photos of each participant comes up against 8 athletes arriving more or less at the same time, you learn how to prioritize, frame, and shoot very quickly.  While your pulse may not be the same as someone finishing a half-mile swim, you’ll probably be burning some calories.   Add in that there’s no “RAW crutch” and there might even be a little sweat fogging up the eyepiece.

Anyway, my camera is safely back in RAW mode and after I clean off the beach sand and sweat stains it’ll be back to my comfortable shooting practice.  But it was certainly fun to have to perform “out of my element”, if only for a few hours.

And to the 3,000+ women who ran today’s Danskin triathlon: you are all amazing.

Pushing the limits

We had a mildly disappointing, but otherwise successful weekend in Loudon at the LRRS meet there on July 18-19.  Due to a number of scheduling conflicts over the coming months this might be my last trip there until next year.   It has been a very interesting learning experience and, above all, a good time with great folks (Chris Dinoia & Larry Graffam, Slowpoke Racing, were our hosts).

The disappointing aspect was that we, once again, failed to get inside the fence.  Despite all indications that we would get “press” access, when we actually tried to do it we were rebuffed.   I’m always a bit confused when folks do this for no apparent reason.  Here I am trying to help promote the races (and therefore the track) and they take a pass. Whatever.

If you want to see additional pictures from the weekend, head over to

So in my last blog article on the Loudon Road Racing meets I mentioned that I had hoped to find a way to get the viewer closer to the experience the riders (drivers?) were having. Helmet visors make this difficult a fair part of the time, but enough riders have clear visors to allow us to create a more personal connection with the experience.  Now, whether or not the riders want to see this type of photograph (and therefore make or destroy any chance of sales) remains to be seen.

Despite having very limited access to the track, I did find a few spots where, after taking some “safety shots”, I could push the limits of the camera (and me).  The lighting wasn’t close to ideal, but overall I was pretty happy with the results.  As a matter of fact, my success rate was so high that I clearly didn’t push hard enough.  Brooks Jensen (publisher of Lenswork) says the best way to approach your craft is to go too far and then come back a bit.  At the time I didn’t think I was playing it safe, but if and when I go back to Loudon I’ll likely give it a try.  I have to note that the challenge here is not “linear” – as the subject distance gets shorter the ability to frame and focus becomes extremely difficult very quickly (just look at the distance markers on your lens: small change from infinity to 50 meters, big change from 3 meters to 1).  So getting much tighter in on the bikes, which are moving along somewhere between 50 and 150 MPH, is going to take some practice.

With something other than harsh summer light, I think these would be pretty decent images.  The 500mm lens compresses the scene in a way that accentuates the adrenaline-pumping situation that is playing out before us.  While I certainly took my share of isolated bike shots, I went out of my way to try to find situations where the bikes were bunching up close or someone was trying to pass someone.  You can take exciting pictures of a running lion and another of a jumping gazelle — but put the two in the same image and a wholly different story unfolds.

With a couple of exceptions, the photos in this article were taken at “the bowl”, which is part of a series of sharp turns and elevation changes.  While some of the images in the larger gallery were shot through the chain-link fence and therefore firmly anchored on a tripod, these were taken handheld from a not terribly comfortable position (standing on a couple of barrels, hunched over, lens between the fence and the barbed wire).  To be fair, there’s no other way to get that particular angle at the bowl press-pass or no.  Whether or not better spots (with better light) await those who get the nod to travel inside the safety zone, that’s to be seen.

My exposure settings were all over the map depending on the light and circumstances.  Because the clouds were in and out all weekend and because I was primarily shooting handheld, I set the camera for shutter priority. For the fast closing shots 1/1600 to 1/2500 was typical with the aperture varying between f/6.3 and f/10 (this is when I wasn’t shooting through the fence…  otherwise I’m stuck at f/4-f/6.3).  As I said earlier, my keeper rate was surprisingly high with both the 1D Mark II and the 5D Mark II.  But I think I’ll try to remember to bring a little ladder along when I travel to Loudon.

So next time (perhaps next year) I’ll dust off these images and think about what I can do with the camera and my position to create more compelling images (more as in better, as opposed to additional quantity).  Thanks to all of the LRRS riders and the safety crews at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for an interesting new photographic challenge.  (And thanks to Jay and Betsy who took photos at the starting line on Saturday and Sunday, respectively).

40 Years Ago

Forty years ago I was 11 years old and glued to the television for the better part of a week, with today being the really big day.  School was out and as certain members of my family can attest, I was a certified NASA junkie.

There are plenty of photos around of this event, but this rather hazy one means the most to me:  my dad had the foresight to grab his Argus 35mm rangefinder and snap a picture of our television as we watched Neil Armstrong and listened to Walter Cronkite make history.  (And yes, I have that Argus sitting on a shelf.)

There are plenty of books out there that document the Apollo trips to the moon, but if you have more engineer than explorer in you I highly recommend that you read “Apollo” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox — it is, by far, the best book on how we got from here to there (let’s put it this way, unlike most other tellings of the story the astronauts are not the stars of this book).

When I worked for DEC back in the late 80’s, NASA was using the DECnet network and I had the opportunity to visit nearly every NASA center in the U.S.  It was fascinating to see the various bits of history the space race left behind: test stands, unused rockets, full-scale models and test articles, control rooms that look more mechanical than electronic.

Today I’ll remember Tang, “Space Food Sticks”, ads by Gulf gasoline, switching between “the 3 channels”, NBC, CBS, and ABC to see who had the more intelligent commentary (and less hokey models and simulations),  and playing with my carefully made Revell models of the Saturn V, LEM, and CSM, imagining what it was like to be up there, on the moon.

Stone Mountain LIVE – July 2009

There are two routes to the Stone Mountain Arts Center for us: Route 153 through Eaton, NH (by our friends Tim and Bobby at the Inn at Crystal Lake) or take Route 160 past Kezar Falls, ME.  For this trip we chose the latter and having a bit of spare time and an almost interesting sky we stopped in Kezar Falls to see if the aforementioned falls were being photogenic.  Not really, but the building right next to the hydro station had its share of character.

The full set of photographs of the show are available at [url][/url].  A number of videos were also shot, and I hope they will start to trickle out as I get approvals/permission.

Stone Mountain LIVE’s special guests were Cheryl Wheeler and Kenny White.  Cheryl is a powerful songwriter, but Kenny simply wowed everyone (his song “My Recurring Dream” brought the house to it’s feet). We purchased their respective CDs and listened to them on the way home.

Technical drivel after the photos….

Within the constraints of being as unobtrusive as possible, I try to build on what I learned from the previous show to make the next shoot even better.  I shot video with the Canon 5D Mark 2 and the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens mounted on a tripod and the Libec H38 fluid head.  Because of the dinner layout I was again at the back of the room, so for the second set I tossed on the 1.4X teleconverter.  With the new HoodLoupe (see the earlier article on that little gizmo) I found it much easier to do the critical focusing tasks (even though I still managed to muck a few of them up… practice, practice, practice).

I recorded audio in both the camera and with an Edirol R-09 sitting on the shelf next to me.  Since I was along the wall the stereo imaging of the recording leaves a lot to be desired.  I also really need to move it AWAY from where I am because I was shooting stills with the 1D Mark 2 during the videos and the shutter release was quite audible because I was only a 2 feet away from the mic.  I ballparked the levels for the audio and guessed wrong — they were set a little too high and when the music got loud it was clipping  I’m sure the little clipping light was flashing madly, but it is on the FRONT of the recorder which is facing AWAY from me when recording so I didn’t notice and, frankly, there wasn’t an easy way to check.  That might be an advantage of the Zoom H4 — I think you can reposition the built-in mics.  Keeping the mic away from the video camera is a good idea too — there’s plenty of little noises like the stabilizer and shutter flaps.  I’m working my way up to getting a feed from the mixing board.

I fed the separately recorded audio into GarageBand, tossed some compression and EQ on it, and  it sounds pretty decent (except, of course, for the clipping) — far better than the AGC audio from the 5D’s built-in microphone.

In the “you can never have too much storage” department – I purchased a 16GB card for the 5D and chewed through it in the first set.  The fallback was a set of 4GB cards which had the annoying habit of filling up in the middle of a song…  Sigh!