Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Photographing Action Sports Events - 10 tips

Whew!  Hope everybody has had a wonderful holiday season so far.  There’s just major one left, happens on about the first of January and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about!  It’s got me thinking about what’s left of 2010 and what’s ahead in 2011.  I’ve got all sorts of fairly sensible resolutions.  So I can keep an eye on my progress, I’ve written a few down.  But that’s not what this is about!  I’ve been blogging about landscape photography recently and I feel like changing gears (pardon the pun) here on the blog a bit.

Roger Lee Hayden powers the Kawasaki MotoGP bike out of turn 5 at Laguna Seca during his one-off ride in 2007. 
As usual, thinking about the future has me remembering the past somewhat fondly, and there’s something that I hope to do in 2011 that I’ve done quite a bit in the past.  It’s been a few years since I attended any major motorcycle race events, and as I prepare to hit a few races this year I’ve started to formulate a photographic strategy to maximize the chance to come home with some memorable images.  
As I look over images I've shot in the past, and in an effort to move toward some new kinds of images this year, it’s worthwhile to take stock of where I’ve been in the past.  Several things emerge as strategies to help me come home with lots of good images.  I’m going to share ten tips for shooting at large action sports events.  I’ll use motorcycling in the following tips but these will generally apply to any kind of action sports event.  
I’m going to assume you, like me, are stuck behind official boundaries.  Press access is not available to most of us, yet many outstanding photo opportunities exist.  With that in mind, here are my top 10 tips for photographic success at events this year.

  • Prepare yourself.  In prior July trips to Laguna Seca in Monterey, CA, temperatures have ranged from 50s and foggy to over 100 in blinding bright sunlight.  Things tend to be more consistent in, say Sonoma, CA at Infineon Raceway or Portland, OR at PIR (cool, rainy much of the time).  Spend some time becoming familiar with typical and potential weather so you’re prepared.  Pack appropriate clothing so you’ll be comfortable.  Hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, lightweight gloves, breathable yet rain-repellant outerwear are all important accessories.  I find I tend to run a little “hot” at most of these events, considering lugging gear around and the simple fact of wearing a photo back pack.  I will go so far as to say that all of your clothing should be chosen with consideration to minimize chafing, breathe comfortable, and dry quickly.  Durability and stink-resistance are a plus.  Ensure your physical fitness will allow you to shoot steadily, think clearly, and generally enjoy the event while lugging your gear into interesting locations.  After climbing the hill to the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca a couple of times you’ll know if you were ready or not.  My advice: be ready!

  • Prepare your gear.  Make sure your gear is clean, inside and out.  Check and clean your sensor as well as the outside of all your gear and the inside of your bags.  Charge all batteries and make sure you’ve got enough power for long days.  You’re going into a “target rich” environment and as long as your energy holds out, you’ll have more photographic opportunities in one day than you’ll typically encounter in a month.  I’ve shot 18 gig in an hour.  Most photo equipment has some ability to tolerate challenging conditions but consider extra cleaning cloths if you’ll be sweating on your gear, and look at some of the many rain-protection solutions.  Effective rain-wear for your photo gear can range from plastic bags with holes for the lens to special-made raingear from companies like Aquatech, Think Tank, and Kata.  Make sure all your camera straps are comfortable and ready to endure some stress!

  • Get your stuff together, make sure everything's clean, batteries are charged, and you've got a comfortable, effective way to move it around once you're on location.
    • Research the event.  It helps if you’ve been before, but even if it’s a new location there are plenty of resources for getting up to speed.  Learn the storylines so you get images of the main protagonists.  Have a good idea who’s going to run up front and get a sense of the momentum in the series.  Who’s leading the points?  Is the momentum swinging their way or is there an athlete who is rapidly closing?  Are any of the key players injured or fighting adversity?  All of these considerations are going to help you get images with lasting meaning.

      Nicky Hayden pulls the trigger out of turn 3 at Laguna Seca in practice for the 2006 MotoGP event there.  He went on to become World Champion later that year.  
      • Take the right gear and make sure you can use it effectively. Reserve any rented equipment you’ll need.  Most of the time you’ll benefit from longer, faster glass than you currently own.  There are lots of great rental houses these days.  Get in line early for that 300 f2.8 or 200-400 f4 you’ve been jonesing to try out.  Getting a nice sharp photo without raising your ISO is harder than you think, especially in the early morning hours or on an overcast day.  Do yourself a favor and spend a little more to get that extra f-stop.  Read up on the proper, effective use of any equipment that you don’t currently have experience with, but don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone in terms of gear choices.  
      • Get access.  Purchase any sort of “pit pass” you can get your hands on.  These are usually available affordably, and if you put in your time you can get close ups of many of the athletes and their equipment.  While you’re walking around you’ll find lots of signs indicating where you can and cannot go.  Don’t break rules (unless you’re willing to get kicked out!) but get creative!  There are lots of ways to improve your viewpoint: find something to stand on to get some elevation, find places where there are good sightlines, shorter distances between the fence and the track, back up a bit so that you can get some elevation and get the fence out of the way.  (You’ll need a longer lens now, see #4.)  One benefit of smaller, local events is that you can often get close if you just ask.  Identify the event coordinator and ask where you can stand.  You’ll be surprised!  The answer I often get is “Wherever you want, just don’t stand in the landing zone!”  Don’t forget to watch your backgrounds while you set up your shot.

      Paddock access allows close-up views of the machinery...

      ...and the people.
      • Get to work early.  Make sure to arrive at a multi-day event on the first or second day.  Once you’ve quickly taken stock of likely opportunities and where the light will be at various times of day, get to work.  Crowds will be smaller and the fenceline less crowded on practice and qualifying days.  My favorite modus operandi is to work my butt off on Thursday and Friday, then ease up for the last day or two.  Get tons of great images right away, then leave the last day or two to fill any potential small gaps in your catalog while spending most of the time enjoying the racing and the event with your friends and accomplices.  On race day there are rarely any more “must have” shots, except for the race itself.  Races go by quickly and the action can be much more intense.  If you’re photographing one place, something crucial will inevitably happen somewhere else.  In consideration that on race day the crowds will be at their peak and your ability to move freely will be severely restricted, why not leave the race shots to those with the best access (that is, look forward to  seeing race shots the next day on your favorite web site), sit back with a cold beverage and some snacks, and spend the day enjoying the races with your friends. 
      • Don’t forget the whole scene.  Take pictures of your friends taking in the event, around the campsite, on the way to and from the track, around the vendor area.  There are a TON of great images to be made involving the scene.  You’ll find interesting people and lots of off-track action.  For the men: I can’t go too far down this next path without getting some heat here at home, but...  Umbrella girls and models are everywhere at these events.  Do Not Be Shy.  Walk up, say Hi, ask if you can take your picture.  Guess what, the answer is almost always YES because that is what they’re THERE FOR.  Have fun.  Extra credit: use fill flash, bring off-camera flash or a quick scrim or reflector to help with harsh mid-day light.  

      • Know the event.  The more you know about where and when interesting action will take place, the better.  Find where the athletes will demonstrate the peak of their talent, then figure out when that spot is in great light.  

      • Take lots of images.  For most of us it’s a rare bonus to attend a big event.  Take more images than you think you’ll need.  In catching the action, you’ll be trying things you may not try often.  I guarantee you’ll be stressing your camera’s autofocus ability to the max, and  every shot will not be sharp.  Get yourself into position to enjoy some repetition.  Get all of your favorite athletes from every position if you can.  Set your camera’s frame rate to the max and hammer the shutter.  Contrary to popular dogma, digital images are not free.  But they’re way cheaper than burning film.  Let ‘er rip!
      • Make sure your data is safe.  Bring some electronic means to duplicate your data.  Options include extra memory cards (they’ve gotten relatively cheap if you haven’t checked lately), your laptop and an extra hard drive or two, or one of the special-purpose image storage devices such as the Epson P7000.  A laptop is nice for quickly reviewing your images each day, to make sure you have the shots you thought you were getting.  More than once I've learned something overnight and reshot it the next day, with much better results.
      • Here’s a bonus tip.  Enjoy “main event” day.  I guarantee that if you have your eye to the viewfinder you’ll miss something important.  There are other people who are getting paid to shoot the main event (rather than being there primarily for the enjoyment). Leave the “finals” images to the pros with better event access than you have, and enjoy the day with your friends and family.

      So there’s a quick take on 10 (or so) tips to help you enjoy the Big Event and come back with some photos you’ll cherish long into the future.  Although I’ve focused on motorcycle racing images to illustrate this post, most of these pointers apply, with minor modification, to many other exciting outdoor events.
      Do you have any tips to add?  I’d love to hear them!  Leave a comment!  Let’s get out there and make our best images yet!  And have fun.

      1 comment:

      1. Thanks once again for all the info. and all your great effort in explaining everything. Photography is both exhilarating and exhausting, and worth every effort of every second. Looking forward to the new year and to new images. Mr. Adams will always be a hero of mine. Take care.