Several years ago I happened to be cycling past one of the key locations on the route of the Great North Run, just as the wheelchair athletes were due to arrive. Armed with the Olympus camera that I used in those days I positioned myself on a traffic island in the middle of the road at a point where the road turns sharply following a steep downhill section; painful for the knees of the runners to follow, but a manoeuvring challenge for those on wheels.
At the time I was really pleased with this shot and submitted it to a stock photography site, who promptly rejected it for a number of reasons, but predominantly because of the lighting. I should have used flash to light the athlete’s face. Back then I reacted defensively to the feedback; my shot captured the realism of the situation, and a flash would have been distracting at a point where concentration was so critical.
Some years later, my technique has improved (I hope) and I’m back at the Durham stage of the Pearl Izumi Tour Series. Last year I opted for a position near the top of the climb, guaranteeing me time to compose shots and some determined expressions. This year I wanted to be nearer to the finish and found the perfect spot on the final corner. Perfect apart from the loudspeaker mounted directly overhead which was playing music unbearably loudly. I might have put up with it had I been on my own, but Jane was with me too and we couldn’t’ hear each other speak.
We ended up about 35 metres from the finish line, so there was plenty of drama as riders sprinted for points and places, but it was all so fast.
Composition went out of the window, as the evening light faded the longer exposures meant that shots were bound to blur, or lose quality through higher ISO settings. I had to concede that flash was the only answer for most of the shots.
Trouble is that flash fires at such a speed that it freezes the action, leading to shots where there is little movement and so little of the drama is captured. There were some shots where such blur was not an issue, giving Jane an opportunity to check out the riders, or me to indulge in TV presenter spotting.
It was time to be creative. Using a technique where the flash fires at the end of the exposure we tried panning quickly with the riders, using the flash to freeze them in the midst of the blur created by the camera movement.
Now we had some interesting results. They weren’t all successful by any means and reviewing later there were some where the blur was out of control, and others where the rider had been missed completely. Still, when I reviewed the results, I was pleased with some of our work, especially as it was so different to last year’s efforts. That’s progress.