Photographing competitive events

On August 20th I was one of the photographers hired to produce images from this year’s BC 2011 Strongest Man Competition held at McDonald Park in Kamloops.

The day was hot and sunny with a clear blue sky, conditions that made it uncomfortable for the weight lifters and difficult for the photographers. For the athletes I think the heat made the competition more challenging, and for me the sharp contrast between subject and background on such a bright day meant camera metering changed constantly. Selecting Auto program modes would have drastically reduced the number of keepers under those quickly changing conditions, and as it was I constantly altering my settings depending on whether the contestants were facing the sun or not. Sun and shadows on moving subjects can be a problem and photographers have to pay attention, otherwise they will end up with both over-exposed and under-exposed images of their subjects depending on the action. My technical advice in this case would be to select the Manual mode, staying away from Auto Program modes, and keep checking the camera’s histogram, and to be prepared to use a flash when needed. The Manual mode allows one to meter for what is important, for example, a participants face in shadow (or in the bright light just seconds later). Then the histogram can be quickly checked to make sure that the exposure is what the photographer wants.

I know organizers for these types of sporting events always give photographers wide latitude and leave what is to be photographed almost entirely up to the photographers. For newcomers this might bring an immediate response of relief with thoughts that all they need to do is wander around happily snapping candids as they please, however, that is far from the truth. Organizers usually don’t put into words what they want, and trust that their photographers know what to photograph and will deliver usable images, but some random candid photographs that do not tell a story are not what they want, otherwise a photographer wouldn’t be included in their budget.

I am sure that the images of most value to clients will be the ones that aren’t just a document of a guy lifting some heavy weight, and I try to find camera angles that tell a bit of a story, and, hopefully, can stand alone if needed in some future advertisement. My opinion is that photographers need to work hard on this project, to think about their subjects, and be creative as they search for the decisive moment when everything comes together.

In this kind of work it is more than wandering the park with a camera, and creating a photograph that is strong enough to stand on it’s own goes beyond just being a picture filled with nice colors, as it needs to provide the viewers with information that they can make into a story. I think a good photograph is one that makes us have a connection with, or to think about, the subject.

An event photographer’s first goal is to successfully document everything important that happens. The second is to compile enough images to be a narrative of the occasion, then third and lastly, and maybe most importantly, to create photographs that by themselves tell individual stories of those that attended or are the main focus of the function.

I was there the entire day and enjoyed photographing that competition and liked the opportunities to make many excellent photographs of the many participants that I am sure everyone involved will appreciate and be able to use. I came home tired and a little rosy from too much sun, but overall it was a most enjoyable way to spend a Saturday, and by the time the day was over my memory card was just about full.

The photographer said, “I have never used a flash”.

“I have never used a flash.” That was a statement from a young photographer just starting to photograph weddings of her friends. She had stopped by to purchase a lens hood (very good idea for any lens) and while we talked she wondered about how I dealt with contrasting shadows on sunny days and if a polarizing filter might help her get rid of them.

Polarizing light with a polarizing filter will reduce glare in the sky and on reflective surfaces like water and windows, but it doesn’t reduce shadows or contrast. It will decrease the amount of overall light coming through a lens. If a lens is fitted with a polarizing filter light is polarized if it reaches the lens from any angle, but if the sun is directly in front or behind the photographer the light will not be polarized. For this young photographer using a polarizer won’t noticeably affect her wedding photographs in any way other than to maybe darken the sky behind the wedding couple.

I told her that I always use a flash indoors and outdoors when photographing people and she said “even in bright sunlight?” I use the flash to fill or reduce the shadows caused by bright sunlight. Modern TTL (through the lens) flash technology is easy to use and almost fool proof and the days of calculating distance and flash power are long gone.

Many photographers think the only time to use a flash is in a darkened room and because they haven’t learned how to use flash effectively are now relying on high ISO camera settings that will let them shoot in low light interiors. ISO stands for International Standards Organization and determines the sensitivity to light for which sensor is set.

I think relying on high ISO settings is great for those long shots inside the gym during basketball games or when capturing wide church interiors, however, closer pictures of people with mixed lighting coming from overhead leave unflattering shadows and colours crossing their face.

My camera is fitted with a flash bracket that lifts the flash about six inches above the lens. Most camera hotshoes place the flash close and directly over the lens and that close proximity usually causes an effect called “red eye” – the appearance of red pupils in the eyes. Moving the flash away from the lens helps to reduce that effect, and when I move in close for photographs I always place a diffuser over my flash head to spread and soften the light.

Using my flash like that gives me broad, even lighting on people and I set my shutter, aperture, ISO, and flash output so those individuals are slightly brighter than the surrounding area and the background. My flash bracket can be positioned for best effect whether I use my camera horizontally or vertical. The flash is connected to the camera with a power cord that fires it when the shutter is released. I can remove it (and much of the time do) from the bracket and point the flash in any direction I want; bouncing the light off walls, the floor and, if I want, higher than the people sitting in front of me. I can leave them in low light while I point the flash at arms length, from an angle to the side or from above the individuals I am photographing.

Just as there are photographers that leave their cameras’ setting on “program” or “auto mode” and expect good results, there are also those photographers that are unaware how important a good quality flash is. However, in the last few years more photographers that are concerned with their images are using a flash, and not the tiny popup flash that many cameras have, but a flash with the power to illuminate spaces much larger than a family dining room. There are many informational sites on the Internet dedicated to using and controlling flash and probably the most visited is

When I learned to use a flash many years ago it changed the quality of my photography. I no longer had to rely only on ambient light and I began to notice my subjects had more “pop” than those without the flash as I learned to add light to a subjects face instead of only using it to illuminate or make that person brighter in a dim room. Just like the control I gained by using different focal length lenses, using the flash allowed me to add light when I needed it, improving the quality of my photographs and separating my photography from who do not to use flash.

Is free Photography is a good idea?

I recently had the pleasure of photographing a dog’s play-day at St. Andrew’s on the Square in Kamloops. They had an obstacle course, a bucketful of doggy treats, lots of toys, and even a (yuck) dog food cake. Dogs and their owners showed up throughout the morning and I photographed them jumping over gates, running through tunnels and having fun with their people. My friend, Melody Formanski, director of St. Andrews and dedicated dog lover, sent me the advertisement when she organized the event and was surprised when I told her I would be there to photograph the dogs. But I like dogs and I like photography and looked forward to the opportunity.

My favorite location was at the end of one tunnel. Some dogs came through nose down following other’s scents, some were puzzled and seemed to wonder why their owners wanted them to wander though a meaningless opening. Others had to be coaxed from the far end, but there were those that loved to run and obstacles like the gates and tunnels made the experience more fun. However, I admit I ruined some pictures because I was laughing or getting licked instead of concentrating on being a photographer.

I will be providing Formanski with the pictures I made. I hope she will use them for the club and give pictures to the people that attended that otherwise would only have low quality point and shoot pictures of their dogs. That’s my gift to them for the entertaining morning.

That “gift” brings up an opinion that is flourishing on some websites and photography organizations. I recently read an online forum post that condemned a photographer for giving her photographs away to an organization in which she participitated. The writer stated that, because a photographer spends time and money developing skills as a photographer, their work should always be paid for. I think that is an interesting topic and my opinion is, it depends.

The contention by those that believe all photographs should be paid for is that giving one’s work away drives the price down and reduces the value of photography of all those in the profession, plus it makes it hard to earn a living as a photographer.

Many individuals or community organizations take advantage of beginning photographers by recruiting them to photograph an event for free and saying, “this will be good for your portfolio”, or “ this is a good way to advertise yourself”. I emphatically say that doesn’t work. People will not say, “Thanks for the free wedding, I will tell everyone to hire you”. The organization you worked for will not say “those photographs you spent hours taking for our expensive advertising campaign (for which everyone else was paid but you) are so good that we will recommend you and hire you for the next job”. As I said, that does not work to the advantage of the photographer and won’t further their career.

After writing that, I still don’t agree with the opinion that photographers should only make photographs for money, and will continue to believe that giving away photography, as a gift is a good idea. I have hobbyist friends that are good photographers and I think their photography deserves to be seen in more places then just on their home desktops. All those great pictures make good gifts and its fun to have your work hanging on relative’s and friend’s walls. When to charge and when not to charge really depends on the circumstances. I suggest readers consider carefully, and politely pass on those, “this will be good advertising for you,” requests. I will, by choice, continue giving away photographs to those people I like (without any expectations of anything back) and hope there will be those that had as much fun as I did at the doggy day that enjoy my freely given photographs of their dogs.

Using the wrong photographic tool

Using the wrong tool usually leads to unacceptable results in one way or another, for example, when a butter knife is substituted for a screwdriver. That was what came to mind when a local artist group asked me if I could save any of the photographs taken of a member’s winning painting. They required a good 8×10 print and a JPG that could be inserted into their on-line newsletter.

The painting was initially photographed straight on, but that resulted in a bright white reflection in the middle from the flash that obscured the painting. The photographer then tried several shots from the side to reduce the glare, but produced unusable foreshortened pictures, by that I mean the closest frame edge was large and distorted and the far frame edge was small.

The photographer tried several shots, always with unacceptable results. That is what I mean by using the wrong tool. A camera with an on-camera flash will produce glare on reflective surfaces and angled shots don’t make for a good documentation of flat artwork because things close to the camera lens appear larger and those farther away become smaller.

The right tool would have been a camera attached to an off camera flash (or better yet, flashes) set away from the painting at a 45 degree angle. Personally, I would have diffused the flash in some way, either by placing some translucent material in front of it or bouncing the light off a large white card or wall. In any case, the light needs to softly and broadly, not sharply, expose the painting surface. The beauty of digital technology is how quickly one can review the image and retake the photo if needed. I also recommend taking several shots at different apertures. For that, the right tool is a camera that one is able set to manual exposure.

When photographing oil paintings or other uneven reflective surfaces I prefer working with slightly under exposed image files. That way I can bring the detail up using PhotoShop without loosing the highlights.

If the next question is “What kind of camera?” my answer will be that it depends on what is the desired outcome. If it is a printed enlargement of the painting, or for reproduction in a book, or the like, the image file needs to be large and for that one must use at least a DSLR (digital single lens reflex), but for a small newspaper or website image a digicam will do just fine.

If there isn’t access to an off-camera flash wait until the painting can be placed in “flat” daylight. Today, as I write, I see out my window that it’s cloudy and overcast. Today would be a good day to have photographed that painting. Place the painting on any support that will allow tilting right, left, up, and down. Then as exposures are made and checked for reflection the painting can be moved around until there is no reflection.

Within PhotoShop there is the means to realign the diagonals of a painting photographed from it’s side, not perfectly, but good enough for the small website picture. The 8×10 enlargement took a bit more effort for fear of distorting the painting’s subject matter. Again, that’s not perfect either as the outside frame looks a bit wonky, but the painting looks proper. The best outcome would have been to use the right tool and make a good photograph at the beginning.

Photographing car races

For some time now I have been trying to find the time to spend photographing race cars at the Motoplex Speedway nestled conveniently only minutes north of Vernon, B.C., in the lush, green, valley location just off Highway 97.

I have always enjoyed looking at racing pictures of high performance cars and wanted to try photographing them myself, and so I thought, what is better than a short drive to a local track to photograph the cars there. I looked at their website’s race day schedules and contacted track officials to ask what would be the best race to attend. I introduced myself in an email and included a couple columns I had written as reference. The response was limited and direct with only the words, “23 July, NASCAR”. “Great!” I thought, “Of all the days that was the only one I was not available”. I then decided I would go to the next race advertised as the West Coast Sportsman Series, A&W Street Stocks, and Okanagan Dwarf Cars, on Sat, 13 Aug 2011.

The trials began at 5pm with the actual racing at 6pm. The day had drifting clouds and by the late afternoon I knew I would have low, strong lighting, and expected there would be enough light for me to use a high shutterspeed until approximately 7pm. However, on my arrival at the gate a sign saying no cameras, no food, and no drinks confronted me. I understood the no food or drinks; like theatres, the raceway deserved their concession money, but no cameras? I was concerned and offered that I had driven all the way and had been invited. Shortly a track official arrived and after asking my name said, “He’s OK”. I paid my entrance fee and walked in. All I could discern from their comments was that the car owners’ and their sponsors’ were worried that photographers would sell pictures they took of the racecars.

From then on I was given freedom to wander the spectator part of the track. Bob Newcombe, the facility manager, even took time out of his hectic schedule to personally say a few things about track safety, and then directed me to a super location for photographing the race on the roof of the main speedway building.

I selected a perch that would give me a free view of the cars as they turned before the final straightaway, and could follow them from the end of the far straightaway around the curve as they all moved to the inside lane, and then vied for position after the turn.

I mounted my 70-210mm on my camera. I also had my wife’s 150-500mmm and worrying about possible camera shake with that long lens, I had also brought a monopod. I quickly realized that my 70-210 was just a bit short and changed to the 150-500mm lens, zooming it between 250mm to 400mm for closer images of the action. I then attached my monopod, but had to make another change. Even though the monopod reduced the possibility of camera shake it hampered my movement, and I couldn’t angle the lens down fast enough as the cars raced towards me after the turn. I wasn’t happy about hand holding the big telephoto lens, nevertheless, I knew that the rule for handholding a telephoto lens is to select a shutterspeed that’s the same as the lenses focal length. I chose shutter priority at 1/400th and 1/500th of a second while handholding that big lens, and will admit I was surprised at the number of keepers.

Photographing the race cars was all about timing, and predicting their path was easier than photographing birds; but one has to pay attention, being aware of how shutter priority would expose the cars, and selecting continuous shooting mode helped.

I had intended to write this column suggesting the Motoplex Raceway as a good place for photographers, however, the result wasn’t as planned because of the “no cameras” requirement. I would like to support the raceway, and I did enjoy my opportunity to photograph the racing, and would like to try again. With the no-camera rule I can’t recommend it for photographers unless one gets get special permission, however, I will say, for those that like car racing, attending without a camera would still be enjoyable. They even had an event called “King of the Hill” when anyone could race their family car on the track.

Connecting with other photographers

Connecting with other photographers, especially those with skill and experience, is a very satisfying and worthwhile experience. Some months ago, while reading my favorite online forum,, I came across a request from Jeff, a Manitoba photographer, who mentioned that he would be visiting relatives in Kelowna and inquired if any local members could point him in the direction of good scenic locations in the area. I posted that I couldn’t really help him with Kelowna, but if he was interested I would gladly spend a day introducing him to Wells Gray Park, and added a link to the park’s website.

He sent an enthusiastic return email and we made plans to spend a day wandering my favourite roadside locations in Wells Gray Provincial Park. Photographers that haven’t been able to visit the fourth largest park in British Columbia are missing a visual treat.

Wells Gray is a spectacular, almost pure, wilderness area that is easily accessible by car. Although the website advertises it as a world-class destination for canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and camping, photographers can enjoy a photo-packed day trip wandering along the pleasantly-winding, park road and will return home with memory cards filled with quality wilderness images.

I anticipated that photographer Jeff, my new friend from Manitoba, had no idea what to expect other than the picture postcard images from the website, and I was pleased when he remarked that he would like to look for more creative opportunities than those most would make from the dedicated tourist lookouts.

The experience of meeting a stranger, and then spending the day driving, talking, and site seeing might be uncomfortable for some, but for photographers, I think they only need photography in common to have an enjoyable time. At any time, if the other person’s opinion causes unease, just change the subject to cameras, lenses, or any other thing photographic.

In order to get to Wells Gray early, Jeff had to get up before the sun for a two-hour drive from Kelowna to Kamloops to meet me at my shop at 6am. (I wasn’t being mean! It was his choice.) We bought coffee and departed for Clearwater, an hour and a half drive away, because we had decided to be in the park taking pictures for 8am. From Clearwater we then roamed into the park with our cameras at the ready.

When I put my camera gear on the backseat of his car I had to move his tripod, and remarked that I liked the ball head he had attached to it. He said, “I always use a tripod”, and I thought to myself, “I think I’m going to like this guy.” There’s nothing like a tripod to let one know they are with a serious landscape photographer.

Wells Gray is a great park for roadside photographers with many places to stop, to photograph the spectacular waterfalls, old homesteads and the river’s many geological features tucked only a short walk away, and that is just what we did. Unfortunately, the wildlife was timid and we only briefly saw one black bear.

The comfortably cool day was excellent for photography with a slight overcast and high moving clouds. Jeff changed lenses and filters regularly as he worked the new environment, but for me Wells Gray has been a regular location for years and I was content to stay with my well-used, 24-120mm lens as I photographed the familiar landscape.

The internet is a wonderful way of bringing people together and I know I would really appreciate photographers extending hospitality to me when I travel to some far off place. In the event of any concern, checking up on other forum members is easy. I reviewed Jeff’s online posts (as he had mine), and when he wrote he was visiting BC I was sure he’d be fun to know and to stand beside as we made pictures. One doesn’t always have to participate as a host, but I am sure suggesting locations for photography would be appreciated. For local photographers who have never made the expedition to Wells Gray, it is well worthwhile.

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