Photographer's Blog: The First In Flight Story
Most images from a race weekend are tossed for one reason or another. Either they are flawed somehow (out of focus, part of subject cut off, etc.) or they are simply uninteresting and not worth showing on PHOTO.GP. There are often many of these boring shots, because sometimes I'll notice a section of track where riders occasionally do something cool. So I may photograph many bikes coming through that section in case the magic happens, and find later when viewing the images on the computer that nothing at all happened the entire time, so I toss the whole batch. But if this strategy pays off with even one really good image, then it was worth the time and effort (and is a good example of the kind of thing we can do in digital photography that would've been prohibitively expensive on film).
Of the small percentage of images that become contenders for display to fans and customers, only a small percentage of those make it into the Portfolio collection on PHOTO.GP. To make it there, the image has to have something special about it that sets it apart.
Occasionally, there is something special even among the Portfolio images, and when I come away from a weekend with one of those I feel like I've really accomplished something. Sometimes that accomplishment is the result of careful planning and experience, and sometimes it's just serendipity. There's no way to plan for another photographer's flash going off during my exposure, for example, but that has led to some of my favorites among my own work.
It's the images that I plan and then execute that are the most rewarding, and at Laguna Seca I was able to get one like this. If you happen to have read the second part of my interview with Dorna TV director Sergi Sendra, you may recall his comments about their efforts to get the high-speed video camera in a position at Laguna Seca from which it could capture in slow motion the bikes 'flying' through Turn 1.
During this interview, as I listened to Mr. Sendra describing this (and indeed our chat had been delayed for some time as he and his staff discussed how best to bring this footage to TV viewers), I wondered if I might be able to capture in a still image what he was trying to catch in slow motion video.
Until that interview I had no idea this was happening, and the Dorna crew didn't know if they'd be able to capture it on video: They only had comments from a few riders saying that sometimes it felt to them like both wheels were off the ground. But with the naked eye, this happens so fast you can't tell where or even if it has happened on any given lap.
Still, the possibility of capturing this in a still image was compelling enough to abandon my usual plan for Saturday afternoon. Instead of spending it in pit lane during Qualifying, I went to the inside of Turn 1 to see what it was like. The first time a bike passed me at full speed, I assumed I was about to waste fifteen minutes of otherwise valuable MotoGP track time.
There are certain sections of MotoGP tracks where the movement of the bikes through those sections is simply breathtaking. The shallow right-hander between Veenslang and Ruskenhoek at Assen. Turn 12 at Sachsenring. Turn 3 at Phillip Island. Biondetti at Mugello. Turn 5 at Estoril. These are just the first ones that come to mind; you may have your own favorites. But to stand at any of these places as MotoGP bikes pass by, it's amazing to behold.
I now add Laguna Seca's Turn 1, viewed from the inside, to this list. Though the MotoGP bikes are 'only' going around 165mph, there is something thrilling about how they appear suddenly due to the crest of the hill blocking their approach, and how the camber of the turn suggests they should fly off the track when going that fast.
Trying to get a sharp still image of these bikes at that section of track seemed nearly impossible as I stood there. I couldn't see wheels off the air as I watched. But I knew that to get a useable image I'd have to pan with the 500mm lens, trying to follow a subject going 165mph without the benefit of knowing when it was going to appear. I kept saying to myself, this is a waste of time.
But there I was for a short session, and the alternative was to start walking to another spot and get some useable images from the inside of Turn 2. I decided to do that. But first, I'd just take a shot at Turn 1 to see if I could get anything at all.
There are two photo holes in this section of track, and I had no idea which, if either, would allow a perspective that showed wheels off the ground. So with the 70-200mm lens (to allow a broad area of track coverage) I tried a few laps at the first hole, then moved to the other, shot a few laps, and then walked quickly to Turn 2 so the session wouldn't be a complete waste of time. I finished QP2 there and returned to the media center.
When I looked through the Turn 1 images, I got exactly what I'd expected, shot after shot of a blurry half a bike, sometimes the front half, other times the back, sometimes just a wheel... Though I could hear the bikes approaching Turn 1, I didn't stay long enough to developing a rhythm that would help me catch the entire bike in the frame.
I did, however, catch this single image while scouting :
When I zoomed in, I saw this:
It's a throw away image because of the blurry subject, but it does show what I was after, both wheels off the ground. I knew then this this shot was possible, but I had no idea if I could do it.
There are many clichés in the world of photography, and one of them goes like this. Question: How long did it take you to make this photograph? Answer: All my life! The point of that is that photographers bring the sum of their years of experience to each session, and that experience is often the main difference between an amateur and a pro. At this point I wondered if my experience would be enough in this situation. And right away I knew that experience alone would not suffice. I'd have to get very lucky, too. It was entirely possible that I'd do everything I could do to the best of my abilities, and still come away empty-handed.
Another popular photography adage is Ansel Adams' A good photograph is knowing where to stand. Experience told me that the thing NOT to do was show up the next day and try to figure out during the race where I'd stood for the above shot. I needed to sort that out ahead of time. So early Sunday I went back to the area and took a series of sample shots on an empty track to determine just where I'd been standing when I got the above image. I simply shot a variety of perspectives from each photo window until the background features matched the wide shot above. Once I knew where I'd stood to catch a blurry Pedrosa in the air, I was ready to attempt a shot in focus.
But the weekend hadn't become all about trying to capture this White Whale. I still had obligations to customers and needed a variety of Race shots. I couldn't spend all 45 minutes inside Turn 1 hoping to get lucky. I followed my race day plan by shooting the grid, then scooting up to the corkscrew for the first few laps. I stayed there just long enough, or so I thought. As I was passing through the gate I heard the crowd cheer the Marquez pass on Rossi. If I'd stayed one or two more laps I'd have that from the weekend, too! Oh well, nothing to do at that point but move on…
From there I went directly down the hill to my spot inside Turn 1 and tried to capture any of the top riders in mid air. Of course at the time I didn't know who would win the race, so I tried for a variety of the top guys, shooting each one as best I could when they came by. Friend Barry Munsterteiger spotted me from the Red Bull party and grabbed this shot of me rolling the dice:
Technically, the shot presented some challenges, as I've suggested. The speed of the subject was the first, as something moving toward the camera at 165mph is going way too fast for even a pro DSLR to track focus. The only option was to pre-focus on the area on the track were I hoped the wheels might be coming off the ground. This was one place where I needed a lot of luck since I couldn't see anything useful with the naked eye, and my test shot at 200mm was only so helpful when using the 500mm lens.
One camera gear-related comment I hear often goes something like this: If you want to shoot sports, you need a camera with a high frames per second capability. If asked my opinion, I point out that I rarely shoot at the fastest FPS setting. The reasons why are perhaps better explained in a different post, but I spend most of my trackside time at around 4-5 fps.
However, trying to catch a bike in mid air was an instance where I had my Nikon D4 set on its highest (10) FPS setting. As each bike came past, I employed a pro technique call Spray And Pray, trying my best to keep the bike in the frame, hoping that when the bike passed into the small section of track that was IN FOCUS, the wheels would be in the air.
Since I couldn't tell for sure if I'd got it by using the camera's LCD, I would shoot a few laps focussed on one section of track, then change the focus slightly and shoot the next few laps. I did this several times, hoping that a bunch of factors would line up: 1. Top (ideally the winning) rider captured, 2. In focus at just the right moment when 3. Both wheels in the air and 4. Entire bike in the frame.
As I chimped away each time the first 10 or so riders had passed, I saw that I was getting instances of the front tire off the ground, or the rear tire off the ground, and perhaps once or twice, both. It was exciting to think I might have one really good shot in the hundreds I was burning through.
Eventually I had to say that I'd tried my best and move on. The race was wrapping up and I still had the story to tell, including parc fermé and the podium. So I moved away from the area and finished up the Sunday images, wondering all the while if I'd gotten a winner inside Turn 1, and which rider it might be if I had pulled it off.
As it turned out, I got a handful of decent images considering the situation. But I got only one that is as good as I could ask considering the speed of the subject, and it happened to be of Marc Marquez. Perhaps that isn't entirely a lucky break, since I probably made more attempts of Marc than any other rider, given that I expected him to win and that he always came around in the clear. Riders who were just behind another rider didn't often make it into the collection simply because I couldn't see who was coming up next. I shot on movement and usually got the leading bike in a group. So Marc helped out a lot by leading so many laps.
But in the end it boiled down to setting myself up as best I could to get lucky, and then actually getting lucky, probably the hardest part.
When I saw that I had a good image, of course I was thrilled, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make it a limited edition if I could pull that off. This process is yet another story, but the best part of it was working with Marc for the first time. In an usual twist, the deal was done before Marc had seen the photograph he was going to sign. So I showed up at Indianapolis with fifty mounted prints (in a suitcase that weighed, coincidentally, 93 pounds!) and presented First In Flight to Marc for the first time.
His response was better than I could've hoped for. He gave a small gasp, then said, "Whoa!" I got the impression he was just as thrilled as I had been to see himself in flight. He was then just as courteous and professional in person as he is courageous on track. Seeing how much he liked this special photo just made it that much more satisfying.
So I'm now very pleased to offer Marc Marquez: First In Flight as the fourth PHOTO.GP Limited Edition after Casey Stoner: Elbow Down, Casey Stoner: Lukey Heights and Kenny Roberts: The King Rides Again. I hope the story behind the image adds some enjoyment of it, even if there's no space on your wall for one of these signed copies. If you're just looking for the fun of it, here's a large version viewable on PHOTO.GP website.
If you have questions about the image or situation, photography-related or otherwise, please post them in the comments and I'll try to keep an eye out here in the next week or so.
Thanks for reading,