I'm going to be appearing at the San Francisco Dainese store again in February and I anticipate still more questions about photography in addition to those about what it's like to work in the MotoGP paddock, so I thought I'd post something photography-related here for those of you who enjoy taking pictures at the races.
The above image of Marco Simoncelli at Indy is one of my personal favorites from 2011, and I thought it would be useful when talking about what a photographer can do in the darkroom, whether that's one that smells of chemicals or the digital version. While some photographers still lament the loss of film as a medium for various and often quite legitimate reasons, I am grateful for the opportunities to start with one image and end up with another via digital tools more powerful than those in the wet darkroom. This image is a good example of how digital tools turned one image into something much different, and ultimately a photograph that I place among my best of the season.
So here's a rare opportunity to see some of my unedited photographs, straight out of the camera. The series shown below begins as Simoncelli has come into the pits at Indy and dismounted. As he walks back into the box, his chief mechanic, Aligi Deganello, gives him a supportive fist, which at first I thought was my photograph. As I saw that gesture through the lens I got a little jolt of excitement that I'd just caught a nice moment.
But later, when I was editing this image looking for the right way to crop it, I didn't like the mechanic's expression so much. Though the fist gesture is very positive, the exposure caught Deganello's face in a vague moment that doesn't match what his hand is doing, and Sic shows no reaction to the encouragement, which further lessens its visual effect. I found myself more drawn to Sic's posture than the mechanic's gesture. I felt there was another story here, one with even more drama, if I could find and isolate it.
It is times like this when the photographer's role is not just deciding where to stand and which camera settings to use. As we learned from the master, Ansel Adams (making perhaps his first appearance in a motor sports photography discussion, but then again, perhaps not!), the choices the photographer makes in the darkroom can be just as important as those made in the field.
In this case the choice becomes which story to tell with this photograph. The first story is the mechanic approving of his rider's effort, which, taken in the context of Sic's season to that point, is certainly an interesting story. I might easily have stayed with this and been perfectly happy with it. But I decided to explore the possibilities further and finally to change the image into something else. As I decided to remove the mechanic's role in the image I really liked what I saw. The image became simpler, and to me, more beautiful.
Sic's posture is the key, given that he is moving into almost total darkness. In the unedited photo, the San Carlo graphics of the pit box are visible, though just barely. So the first thing I did was to darken the blacks in the image to make the details of the pit box disappear completely. The contrast between Sic's white leathers and the black background was very nice indeed.
Next I wanted the image to look more like a bright light was shining on him as he moved with determination into that darkness, in my own mind becoming a metaphor for what lay ahead of him. AT the time I wasn't thinking of Sepang, of course, but perhaps the success that so many expected and that at this point had eluded him. So I used much more vignette than I usually do to define the edge of that light in the lower left area of the image. That additional shadow emphasizes the light shining down from above. You may notice that the left side of his airbag unit is in shadow because the sun is shining from the upper right. The vignette emphasizes this, isolates the rider in the darkness, and provides contrast and drama in the image.
At this point I was satisfied I had the story I wanted to tell and the image I wanted. I could probably use both versions, because the final image is so different in feeling from the original that even side by side with a crop that includes the mechanic the viewer might not realize immediately that they come from the same original image.
I'm always chasing beauty wherever I can find it, and in the eye of this beholder beauty is often found around motorbike racing. Sometimes it's on the track, but more often, to me, it's in the human behavior found off track. In this case, digital tools allowed me to create an image that would've been very difficult in a wet darkroom.
To see a larger version of the final shot, click here.