Wood's Blog

Chris Wood’s PhotoBlog

Sporting Event Photography

I rarely have the chance to write an actual article for my blog – but I finally have a break in the action and the race I shot last weekend was pretty fun so I thought I’d put something together here.

My primary business these days involves portraits of families, wedding photography and some corporate photography. But I got my start in photography covering sports events and I still fit as much of that part of my business into my schedule as I can handle.

Last weekend Scott Stolarz asked me to come out to photograph the Stage Coach Century Ride. Although this type of job usually involves collecting some promotional material for the Race Director – it is primarily about getting a great photo of EVERY athlete for potential sale.

When I got the information about the job I pulled up the google earth images plus the Photographers Ephemeris (and of course the weather forecast) to get an idea of what I would be dealing with. My excitement after this research was mixed to say the least. The location of the ride would be across an absolutely stunning landscape in the Anza Borrego Desert. But unfortunately the logistics dictated that ALL my pictures be taken directly into the sun. As a portrait photographer taking pictures into the sun is just standard practice – but for this type of event photography, you typically want the sun to be directly on the athlete’s face.

When I arrived at a nice looking location the thermometer in my car read 2 degrees above freezing but the sun was just about to peak over the horizon and the sky was already a spectacular shade of blue – so I knew the temperatures would climb quickly.
sunrise

Given the spectacular landscape – but the difficult lighting conditions, I decided that I would bring 2 cameras for 2 completely different shots . You can see my setup below (click for enlarged picture)

I set a long lens on a tripod and I even used a teleconverter so I could get my first capture at a very long distance and then I would have time to pick up the second camera between shots. Shooting directly into the sun without the benefit of any fill lighting means that the wider apertures normally used for sports photography would only increase lens flare and add to the washed-out look of the image. So losing the stop of light caused by the teleconverter (turning an 200mm F2.8 lens into a 280mm F4 lens) was not a big deal. In fact as the day went on (and things got brighter) I started to close off the aperture even more. After a quick test frame with the long lens I could see that the image was going to be just as difficult as I had suspected. Even with the sun just barely peaking over the horizon I was already getting a very flared out image – and as the sun came up this was going to get worse.
highway

But with regards to the telephoto shot I was taking, there was really very little more that could be done about it at the time (there would be some simple “image developing” tricks that would fix these pictures up a bit after the race). The next thing to do was to set up the wide-angle shot for which I would be providing some high powered light to overcome the backlight situation. There were 2 fundamental problems that I knew I would encounter with this shot. First, riders would often come though in a “pack” – and lighting an entire group of riders was going to be extremely difficult. Second, with the harsh desert sun I knew I would be using a LOT of power in my light which meant that my recycle time would slow down. I was using an Alien Bee AB1600 bounced off a soft silver umbrella produced by Westcott and powered by the now out-dated Vagabond II (heavy battery packs are great for holding lights down in a breeze). I have used this combination many times before so I knew it would give me a lot of power with a pretty nice light… but I also knew that I would not be able to take 3 pictures in 4 seconds as the situation would sometimes demand.

Setting up shots at sunrise without a test subject is always a difficult thing to do because the light is changing so fast. As an event photographer you can’t just spend the first 10 minutes of the race trying to dial in your settings – you need to have everything as close to perfect as possible before the first athlete ever shows up. So to test out my lighting I went and stood in the road where I thought I would be taking pictures of the athletes and I checked my exposure with a self portrait. The results looked promising so I decided to run around in circles for the next ten minutes (gotta stay warm) while I waited for the first athlete
self portrait

The race had a staggered start that lasted 2 hours. The athletes crossed timing mats at the start and the finish – and their total time would determine the winner. With the very cold early morning temperatures I was not surprised that the early part of my day was VERY slow (only 3 athletes started at the official start time of 7AM). As the first athlete came into view I grabbed a test shot to make sure my settings were still OK since the light was changing very fast. At this time of day the newly installed Ocotillo windfarm was still visible in the shot, which I thought was pretty cool, but I knew that the harsh lighting would soon kill that part of my image
windfarm

As the rider got closer I grabbed a tighter shot of him with the telephoto lens and then I quickly picked up my second camera body to prepare for that shot. What became immediately clear to me is that I would have a problem that would last all day. I had been hoping that the athletes would ride very close to the edge of the road – but many of them were drifting all the way across their lane of road (maybe they were afraid of me?). In any case, the first rider had come and gone and I had a chance to see how my pictures were going to come out
rider1

I made some small adjustments to accommodate for a more diverse “rider position” (time for a new test frame…)
self portrait number 2

By the time the second rider came through I thought I had everything pretty dialed in
anza borrego bike race

The next thing to happen would really test one of my other concerns on the day – how would my setup do with teams of riders coming through. This team (3x champions) were MOVING – plus they were way out in the middle of the road. So as I snapped my long-lens shot I know I would need to make a tough decision with my second shot. I ended up shooting them from the side and focusing on only 3 of the 4 riders because my “beam” of light was not going to be nearly wide enough to catch everyone. I left the back wheel of the lead rider in the shot so he was not totally forgotten – but I simply was not going to be able to light up the whole team at once.
Team Broadcom
team Broadcom

After all that – the next 3 hours went pretty smooth. I ended up with about 1000 captures (600 athletes – 2 cameras) that pretty much all look the same (the primary goal of event photograph) so I was happy. I went back to the start finish area to grab some promo material and wait for the finishers, and then drove the 90 miles back home in time to take over with my Daddy duties so Mommy could go to work :)
Stage Coach Finishing Medal

If I end up with the same assignment next year I’m not 100% certain what I would do differently. One option would be to bring a second set of lights to light up the riders with the long lens. But that is a really difficult thing to do because you NEED to shoot everybody in exactly the same location (where the light is). I could also try to double up on the lights for my wide angle shot so I could run lower power settings and get better recycle times. It is all worth considering – but maybe next year it will rain and make EVERYTHING different so there is not much use in getting too strategic at this point.

Thanks to Scott Stolarz Photo Works and to Shadow Tours for having me out for this year’s event. I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Posted in Sports Photography and technical and Travel Photography by Chris on January 13th, 2013 at 4:02 pm.

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