Sunday, May 01, 2011

Race Day!

Sling It

After a months wait, the weekend was finally here. I was headed up to Thackerville Oklahoma to shoot some photos of my good friend JB and his son in a cross country race series they participate in, known as the TCCRA. As the week came to a close, weather reports were all saying we were in for a good soaking the coming Sunday. Perfect. That was race day. Now, most people would dread the idea of doing any outdoor activity in the middle of a thunderstorm. But I knew cross country dirt bike racing takes on an all new dimension when you mix those bikes, with dirt and then throw in a little (or a lot) of water.

JB informed me his race was the first of the morning, starting at 9am. I accepted the reality that I would not be able to get myself out of bed early on a cold, rainy Sunday morning and drive 45 minutes north into Oklahoma to find a rural race track. So I decided to camp out with JB and his family in their RV, at the track. Wise decision on my part. Saturday evening was gorgeous. Warm temps, perfect sunset with clear skies. But at 4am I was awoken by the loud crack of thunder, followed by a torrential downpour which lasted all the way till the race start time. And with the rain came a cold front. Saturday's temperature was a balmy 85f. I stepped out of the RV camper and into windy 40f temps with monsoon-like passing rain showers. The rain held off just in time for the start of the event, which had to be delayed as they re-routed the course because some parts were impassable now.

Even though I had brought a few cold weather clothing items, I was woefully un-prepared for this change in temperature. I layered pretty much everything I brought with me and headed out with my camera gear. The race course was just as I suspected... a muddy quagmire which always makes for some amazing action photos, but would make for a challenging day for me as well. After being outside for just a few minutes, the rain started. I could only stand there thinking, this is going to be a long, cold wet, miserable day. It was just then that JB's wife Diana offered an extra rain poncho for me to use. THANK YOU!! Now I was able to prevent my clothes and camera gear from being soaked to the core. I then moved to the starting line and got on with my day of photographing the event. It's so much more easy to concentrate on the task at hand when you're not shivering and soaking wet.

Now, I want to take a moment for a bit of gear talk. My main equipment for the day was my Canon 7D, with an attached Canon BG-E7 battery grip. I only used two lenses all day, the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L and the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS. According to Canon all of these items are "Weather Sealed" which was actually a strong selling point for me when I first bought the 7D. But, I'd never truly put it to the test. Today was about to change that. By the end of the day I can honestly attest to the weather resistance of the camera body and lenses. I stood out there shooting in virtually non-stop rain, ranging from light drizzle to a complete downpour. I hid the camera under my rain poncho when not shooting. But it was fully exposed to the elements when I did shoot. I used the sleeve of my hoodie to wipe down the camera body when I could. But other than that, it was pretty much soaked. The 7D didn't even blink. No errors, no lock ups... it just worked. Even the next day after it all dried off, it still operated completely normal. It's a huge relief to know the camera can take that kind of punishment and not fail. So if you were ever wondering what exactly "Weather Sealed" meant, shooting in a steady rain, falls under that category.

As for my cameras set-up for the day, my goal was to freeze this high speed sport the best I could. I wanted to capture as much detail in the bikes, riders and flying mud as possible, but still use the telephotos lens to separate them from the background. For the most part, I kept the 7D set to Aperture priority mode. Focus mode set to AI Servo so it could track fast moving subjects and the drive mode set to high-speed burst. Although the 7D shoots a blazing 8fps, I really only shoot in bursts of 3 to 5 on average. From those shots I can usually pick out the one I'm looking for which best captures the moment. I kept my aperture at f/3.2 for most of the day. A lot of people seem to think you can only get a nice DoF by keeping the lens set on f/2.8. This isn't true with a telephoto and shooting at f/3.2 enabled me to lock focus on the bikes numberplate and get most of the bike and the rider in sharp focus. It also gets the aperture into a sharper range than the wide open f/2.8. But at the same time is a wide enough aperture to maintain a speedy shutter. Obviously, a high shutter speed was important in this type of motor sport and on this very cloudy and very overcast rainy day, I had to really bring the ISO up. I found the sweet spot to be ISO2000. This allowed me to keep a shutter speed of 1/1000 or better throughout the day. Because of the sport and the camera's ability, I wasn't really worried about digital noise which can come from shooting at a high ISO. I knew it would blend in well with the editing style I had in mind for the photos.

Images were shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Lightroom 3. I use a couple presets which I use as a starting point, then I tweak each image for the desired effect and adjust highlights, darks and color tones in order to try and capture the intense, gritty feel of off road racing in bad weather.

I actually left the event a little early. My pant legs were soaked from having no cover from the poncho. My hands were numb from not having any gloves and the rain showers were getting more intense. I had taken plenty of photos and I was just exhausted. After I got home I heard it started hailing before the end of the event. Glad I came home. :) Overall it was a blast to photograph. Big thanks to my friend JB and his wife for letting me crash in their RV the night before the race.

So long... until my next adventure!
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