It Ain't Rocket Science

Ok, ok... it's NOT rocket science. Now the grammar lesson is out of the way, let's address the issue of "how'd you get that shot?"

Keep an eye open for what's happening around you. This bleacher sunrise shot was done with my Leica while on my way to mandatory photo meeting... 7AM. Trust me, no meeting... no sunrise photo.First, and this is important, what I'm about to discuss is purely MY philosophy and about what works for me. Other photographers may have a completely different take on it and may tell you I don't have a clue. Maybe... maybe not. But after years of muddling my way through and literally hundreds of thousands of frames, I've come to a few conclusions about how and why shots happen. And for the most part, they do simply happen.

I'm not saying it's all pure luck. Obviously, it isn't. But if you're shooting sports or action photography, it's the action that's in control. You're not controlling the action. For the most part, you're purely a spectator. Pick up your camera, you're a reporter. The photographers that are really good... well, they make that camera their "bitch" and they become story tellers.

So... to recap, YOU can't control the event or events. Unlike the tree in the forest that falls with no sound if no one's around to hear it, these events will happen... with you or without you recording it.

Here's another opportunity that presented itself. With morning warm-up scheduled for only 10 minutes, I decided to just do a little walk around pit lane. The session was red-flagged. So while others were stuck out on course with nothing to shoot, I grabbed this nice overhead of Clint Field using my Leica.The biggest mistake you can make is approaching events with over zealous "creative" objectives. What I mean by that is trying to implement design elements into your photos based on commercial ideals. I'm not saying these ideals can't be accomplished, but you run the risk of ruining your outing and missing a lot of other great opportunities. Remember... this event is a life drama... a dance... it's playing out in front of you. So, let it.

Let it happen.

Look... if you've worked on your basic skills and you're in control of your gear, the task at hand is "seeing." What I mean by that is how are you going to tell this story to someone who wasn't there. Most accomplished photographers "see" in photos. They've got an invisible viewfinder in front of their eye. It's like the average person looks at a tree and sees a tree. The forest ranger sees a tree and thinks of a forest. The guy from the paper mill sees a tree and he thinks of paper. Well, photographers see in pictures.

So, as you move around, look at things framed up with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Crop... move... bend your knees... find an angle that's interesting. What's in the foreground? What's in the background or in each of the corners? Is this frame going to present our subject in a favorable and exciting setting? Will the setting tell the viewer more about our story?

Luck? It just so happened that I had gone into a hospitality area high atop the grandstand just as Friday's racing came blowing off the bay. Only a couple cars were out. So, while trying to keep dry, I turned around and saw this shot with the jumbotron in the background. I dropped the shutter down to 1/30th in hopes of working out all the other clutter. I think with the rain, it turned out to be a pretty nice wide pan.Again, remember what I said about the basics. Obviously, you need to think about the light.. or the time of the day you're going to shoot. You'll also want to consider the lens focal length. Do you want to shoot tight or loose? Or maybe you need to do both. What will the difference be if you move in and shoot with a short lens... or move back and shoot with a long lens? Will the compression of long glass give a nicer look to the background? And, of course, what exposure settings will give you the best "creative" result. Do you need to freeze the action or show the action? These are the elements you're in control of and the things that will give you a distinctive edge in telling the story. Think these through.

The point is, you need to have your head on straight about your role in this process. Once again... the action is going to happen. Your job is to position yourself and prepare yourself to capture it. The rest is luck. Yep... that's right... LUCK. And even the best of the best will tell you that in the end, they had been somewhere preparing to shoot something, and suddenly something happened in front of them. Sure... they had their ducks in a row and were prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.. but all of the preparation in the world means nothing if NOTHING happens. And believe me, there are lots of times when NOTHING happens.

This is where you can make a difference with lens choice. The tight show was done with a 500mm and backing away from the track. This helps the background (ugly fence) and gives a nice soft forground helping emphasize the wheel lift.This is shot from about the same location only looser... this brings in more of the track elements and helps "locate" the shot for the viewer.Another lesson you can take is from video. Watch video carefully. A lot of the work is giving you the illusion that they are following the action. Sure... there is movement of the camera and panning involved, but for the most part, the action happens within the video camera's frame. The director will switch to a camera that picks up the action... the action will move into frame... play itself out and then the camera might follow it a bit to segue into the director's next shot. Point is, the camera man lets the action happen. Trust me, we'd be throwing up from nausea if they attempted to continually follow the action with the camera.

Someone recently noted how well I coordinated the colors on this shot. Hey... we all like compliments, but I had NOTHING to do with orchestrating the colors. This shot evolved because ALMS is limiting photographers in pit boxes during the race. So, this was shot from the island.. and was the best composition to eliminate TV personell and race officials. Also, you burst these type of moments in hopes of catching a little better placement of people as they move about.This is what you want to do mentally. Let the action play out in front of you. Anticipate what's going to happen and try to be in position. And, be prepared. But give yourself the benefit of the doubt.. have options. If it's motorsports your shooting and you're working a corner, try to shoot that corner from several points of view. Tight, loose, head-on, 3/4 pan coming into the apex, or even slightly going away. And don't get wrapped up in always shooting tight. Remember, ultimately, your viewer will want to know where this is all taking place. So, while yeah... that new Audi Prototype looks cool and the look in the driver's eyes is intense..... where is this? Is this a race? Is it any track USA? Can I tell from your photo that it's Long Beach... or historic Sebring?

If you pay more attention to your composition, clean backgrounds, lens choice and lighting, the action will happen. The shots will come. Just relax. If you're enjoying yourself, it will show up in your photos. It's all happening around you. If you have command of the basics, you can take the time to observe your surroundings and think of ways to tell your story.

This helemt / eyes shot of Clint Field was grabbed while killing time waiting for the car to pit. I look for opportunities when I'm "invisible" and cash in before I'm spotted and the shot becomes posed. These shots always work when they're right. Often hard to get enough light onto the face though. The key here is to switch to AV mode, open up the aperture... f/4 - f/5.6 ... and use a center focus point. Go for the nose. Don't try to open up to f/2.8 or even f/3.5 unless you KNOW they're not going to move. Depth of field is too shallow and you'll miss if they move the slightest amount. Oh, and if you have a pop-up flash, use it.Lastly, study the work of other photographers. Not so much the EXIF data... but the PICTURE. Look at the photo. Try to deconstruct what they actually saw and then how they "made" the actual picture you are seeing. Is the shot stronger because the point of view is lower? Is it a location that was ok during the day, but fantastic in the morning? What is the light doing to other objects in the background or how is it affecting the colors? Only then will the EXIF mean anything. It's only when you understand the look of the image that the "settings" mean anything. Yet for some reason, photographers always ask me, "what settings do you use." And therein lies the rub. You don't "use" settings. You apply them as needed to each and every scene and they're different in each and every instance.

Anyway... the gist of this post was to bring you back to basics and have you understand that great photos come when you're prepared to let them happen. Eric Clapton isn't thinking about the next chord when he's laying down a track... he's letting it happen. He knows his technique inside and out. All he's doing when he plays is massaging each note to blend with the pallet of the other notes surrounding it. It's harmony and the guy is at one with it.

That's where you want to be... and that's the beauty of action and sports photography. Know your role, then go out and let it happen.

Thanks for listening...


NOTE: The images accompanying this entry are from St. Petersburg and the 2009 Acura Sports Car Challenge. They basically were the catalyst for this blog entry because of the nature of the event. The event runs on the streets (and part of an airport) of St. Pete. The track is tight, the shooting is tight and the schedule is tight. This is a race that can easily throw you off your game. It's a race that your head can make more difficult than it needs to be. The captions provide a little background to how and why that particular shot came about.