The Preakness Stakes is this weekend. The second race of the Triple Crown. Bill and Laura are in Baltimore now. They’ll be trackside to see if Orb has what it takes a second time. This week I’ll be watching the race from the comfort of my couch, but two weeks ago I was with Bill and Laura for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby. I had a great time at Churchill Downs, as always, and if you haven’t seen Bill and Laura’s Kentucky Derby. Be sure to check it out. It is truly impressive considering for the most part it was shot, edited and sequenced in just one day.
We had nice weather leading up to the Derby, but a steady downpour on Saturday put on damper on photography throughout the day. A few hours before the race, I found myself hanging out in the media center with legendary Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier. He remarked that this was a slow Derby for him, the weather having kept him inside for much of the day. “I haven’t gotten to practice today,” he said.
Practice? This is Heinz Kluetmeier, one of the best sports photographers in the history of sports photography. Nearing the age of 70, he’s been doing this for over 50 years, with upwards of a hundred SI covers and dozens of iconic images to his credit. For him to lament that he didn’t get a chance to practice, even in an off-handed way, is a lesson for all photographers, no matter how accomplished they are.
The great sports photographers are not unlike the great athletes they photograph. Part of their success is natural talent. To me, the ability to “see” photographically is largely something you are born with. And while innate ability can go a long way, the truly great ones couple their talent with a stubborn dedication to craft and technique.
Sports photography requires nailing the decisive moment in a technically proficient manner because there are no do-overs. In addition to really knowing your equipment, reflexes and anticipation are key. Staying sharp requires continuous work and repetition. Bill once told me that if he didn’t shoot for a few days, he felt like he started to lose his edge. This was Bill’s 30th Derby, but even this year he made it a point to shoot the Kentucky Oaks on Friday — using the same equipment and from the same spot as he would the Derby — as a warmup to the run for the roses the next day. Practice.
Which brings us to my Derby shot. I’m not a professional photographer, and my going to the Derby is a matter of friendship rather than as hired help. I do think of myself as having an unspoken job of sorts, which is to help the team run smoothly. But usually Bill will ask me to shoot some aspect of the race as well. Sometimes it’s just a matter of firing pre-composed cameras at the right time, which sounds simple, but it’s something you want to try a few times just to get a feel for the speed of the horses and any other surprises that might occur. I’ve seen over-confidence lead assistant photographers astray more than once. Other times Bill has asked me to do something more complicated, which adds to my anxiety because there’s more things that can go wrong!
For this Derby he asked me to perform two assignments. The first was to fire a 300mm from atop a ladder positioned on the inside of the track as the horses raced toward the finish line. The second, more important job was to to get the ladder to a prime winners circle spot immediately after the race so that Bill could use it once he got across the track from the outside rail, where he shots a 600mm handheld. I think the Louisville Courier Journal guys and I arrived at the winners circle at about the same time, although it should be said that they weren’t shooting the race from their ladder so they had a head start. Plus, there were two of them and only one of me. And their ladder was smaller. And actually, there was a third assignment, which was to find the ladder in the first place. But I digress.
The 300mm is a lens that I don’t own and therefore hardly ever use, so acquainting myself with it was important. Not only that, most of the things I photograph for personal work don’t move, unlike race horses. My biggest concern was how fast the horses move. Thoroughbreds run at about 35 miles per hour and keeping the camera aligned on the lead horse’s head bobbing up and down is easier said than done. Heck, identifying the lead horse through the viewfinder can sometimes be difficult, especially head on. A lot of Derby images use shallow depth of field, so picking the wrong horse can ruin the shot even when the entire field is in the frame.
At this point, it should be said that both Bill and Heinz came up in an era when everything was manually focused and they composed and calculated exposure recording the images on very unforgiving film while the subject matter was coming right at them at swift speed. Some people, like Bill and Heinz, had a natural knack for it, but again, like athletes, repetition was the key to reliable, top notch results. For the record Bill says Heinz is a father figure to him.
Since there are no do-overs for the Derby, I knew I would need to practice. I wasn’t able to use the Oaks as a rehearsal because we didn’t get the ladder until Saturday morning. But I did take it out in the rain for two races early in the day. (Racing started at 10:30 a.m.; the Derby which is run at about 6:35 p.m., was the eleventh race on the card.) I positioned the ladder where I anticipated being for the real thing. Using the 300mm, I started tracking the horses early, firing bursts as they sped down the stretch, with my last shots framing the two leading horses just before the finish line. Things looked good upon review, so I was feeling reasonably confident as the Derby approached.
For the Derby, I followed the same routine I had practiced, though in my excitement I must have started shooting earlier, and therefore longer, than I had previously. There was also one difference from earlier: In the Derby, the horses pass by twice, well after the start of the race and also at the end. I practiced on shorter races that started on the backside, so the horses passed just once. It turns out that with my camera and memory card, it takes well over two minutes to empty a buffer full of images. (I timed it when I got back to the hotel.) The Derby from start to finish is known as “the fastest two minutes in sports.” Just as the horses were getting close enough for the finish line shots, my camera stopped firing. It was still writing images from the first time around, so it wasn’t able to shoot as many images the second time around. I instantly knew I had lost the most important shots, and there was no do-over. Not something I anticipated, although if I had practiced on the Oaks, in which the horses also go twice around, I might well have discovered the problem and been able to adjust.
Another lesson in the art of repetition and preparation. And I think I’ll invest in some new, faster memory cards for next time!