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“The best way out is always through.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sports Photography: Become the Action, Grasshopper

I shot this photo of two members of the Cortes Family of trapeze artists (part of the family troupe that travels with great high-wire artist Tino Wallenda) last weekend at an agricultural fair in Guilford, Connecticut. I've shot a lot of photos of many subjects this summer, but this is one of my favorite shots. The reason that I like the photo so much, I think, is not only that it's a great moment, well exposed and sharp as nails, but because it's exactly the photograph I wanted to capture. It is the moment I waited for and I was able to capture it as I saw it in my mind's eye.

I actually attended the fair for two days in a row (I highly recommend returning for more than one day of shooting if there is a multi-day event) and I did photograph the Cortes troupe on the first day and got some acceptable photos. The problem was that I hadn't seen a trapeze act in a few years and trying to make plans for something you haven't seen recently is really tough. You can anticipate some of the action and if your reactions are fast you'll get some shots, but there is little time to plan great shots--to visualize photos that go beyond the ordinary. Great shots require more than just good reflexes and anticipation, they also require an intimate knowledge of what you're shooting. Unless you're willing to run away with the circus (and would I love that!) the amount of knowledge you can gain for shooting trapeze acts is somewhat limited, but by watching any sport or action multiple times, you can still get a good insight.

As I said, the Cortes family performs in a show headlined by the great high wire legend Tino Wallenda and I was there the first day largely to photograph him walking the high wire. Every since I was a kid I've been fascinated by both high-wire acts in general and the Wallenda family in particular (tomorrow I'll show you one of my shots of Tino walking the wire). But during the first day I got fascinated with the beauty and precision of the trapeze acts and I decided to return a second day to shoot them more carefully. I knew the shots that I wanted to capture, but I also knew that with performers flying through space and the action happening very quickly, it was going to be a challenge to keep things sharp and well-timed.

The solution? I decided that what I needed most was to arrive at the fair an hour ahead of the performance so that I could make certain photographic decisions (like choosing the best vantage point based on the direction of the sun), but also so that I could meditate on the situation. I wanted (needed) to sit and try and replay the previous day's performance while looking at the rigging--and also reviewing the previous day's shoot on the LCD (I still had the same card in the camera): How high is the trapeze arc? How fast does it swing? Where is the brief pause before it swings back? When do the performers reach for one another? How often do they shake off a jump? What are the signals that they're going to shake it off instead of completing it?

Studying the rigging was very important and it became an almost Zen-like exercise because I felt that the more I knew about the rigging, the more I would understand the action. The rigging is everything to trapeze and high-wire performers--it's their lifeline, at the very least--and so I sat in the audience and just traced each and every line of the rigging. And I mean that literally. I started at one corner of the rigging (which is probably a few hundred feet long) and followed every line, every wire, every joint and every trapeze bar. I then shot test photos of the empty rigging to see how my angles and compositions looked on the LCD. And in my mind I tried to remember the performance from the day before so that I could anticipate (at least roughly) where the action would occur.

Finally, of course, I spent about 10 minutes carefully reviewing every setting on the camera (take the time to do this and you'll always increase your percentage of great shots): frame speed (continuous high), focus settings (continuous), ISO (I bumped it up to ISO 400 just to buy me an extra shutter speed), set the camera to RAW (I shoot in RAW 100% of the time now) and lens choice. I shot test shots with two different zooms (18-70mm and 70-300mm). By the time the troupe took to the trapeze rigging, I had the camera set and I had tested the exposures and framing. Also, I knew the moments I was looking for and I had mentally previsualized those moments as much as possible. As the show began, I tried to put myself in the mindset of the members of the Cortes Family as they flew through the air "with the greatest of ease" (and it really seemed that way).

Did all of this previsualization work? As I said, this is one of my favorite photos from a long summer of shooting and, probably not surprisingly considering the concentration I was devoting to the shots, I had a very high percentage of good shots. I got more than a dozen shots that I consider exceptional in just a 10 or 15-minute performance. I also got many good photos of Tino Wallenda (see tomorrow's post).

The bottom-line advice: Take the time to get to an event early and sit quietly and study your own goals and the goals of the performers or athletes. Before the event begins, sit quietly and close your eyes and try to "see" the event as it unfolds (again, much easier if you have watched a similar event recently) and you'll be thrilled with your successful shots. If you have a son or daughter that plays soccer, for example, you've watched them enough times to know what they're thinking on the field. Try to place yourself in their mind as you shoot and you will find yourself anticipating shots far more often than you might have thought possible. That's all for today, Grasshopper.

1 comment:

Lynne said...

"Use the Force, Luke."
-Obi-Wan Kenobi

(I just know you're gonna think this is from Star Trek!)