Challenge Accepted!

Hello All! So for those of you that read my earlier post about the latest craze to sweep the international photo blogging world, you will know what’s coming. For those of you that didn’t, a quick update. I have taken up the challenge set by my friend James, to come up with somewhere is his current location, Barbados, that he hasn’t been and send him there to take photos and report back. I sent him to the highest point on the island, Mt Hillaby.  I’ll leave it to him to report his experience, click here to see it. So, the way this works is that in return James set me a challenge, hence this post. I live in the centre of Manchester, that’s the one in England for any of my international readers. James came up with an absolute gem of a challenge. As he is surrounded by water on a relatively small island, he wanted to send me to a place where I too would be surrounded by water and see what sort of photos I could get. James chose the nearby Audenshaw reservoir.  A spectacularly unremarkable man-made water storage facility a few miles from my home. I was looking forward to the challenge of coming up with an interesting perspective on the reservoir but unfortunately I foiled at the first hurdle. As with most of Britain’s man-made reservoirs (I have since learned) The Audenshaw Water Facility is not open to the public. I jumped though as many hoops as I could find, and eventually got in contact with a very nice man who gave me the unfortunate news that access to the site could be granted but for the princely sum of £300. So with a heavy heart I asked James for a new challenge… So James being the sterling fellow he is, came up with another great challenge. And here it is…. The Manchester Velodrome Awesome. Now I have never been to a velodrome, I did however know one existed in Manchester. Ever since the Commonwealth Games were hosted here in 2002, Manchester has been home every manner of sport’s venue. I looked up the venue online to see if any events were coming up that I could attend. Bingo, the very next weekend the first event of the new national seasonwas being hosted in Manchester. This was is it, challenge accepted, date confirmed, camera battery charged, away we go! So for a starters, a quick panoramic shot to show off the venue.

Manchester Velodrome Panoramic

Now this shot can be achieved in a number of ways. Most simply with a wide angle or a fish-eye lens. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that I have achieved this shot by “stitching” together a set of photos to create a single wide angled shot. There are a few tell-tale signs that give away the fact that I don’t own a wide-angled lens. I’ll not go into them here, but who knows, if you’re lucky I will write a blog about it someday soon. I was fairly pleased with how this shot worked out. It gives a good sense of the size of the arena, just how close to the track the crowd is and also the sheer ridiculousness of the banked corners around which the riders hurl themselves. Next I gave myself the a couple of goals, things that I wanted to capture in the evening, namely the sheer speed at which these incredible athletes manage to achieve on a push bike! Now there are a number of ways to show motion in a photography. Using a fast shutter speed will help to freeze action that you would not normally see with the naked eye. On the other hand you can use a slow shutter speed to allow blurring into the photo which if done correctly can be a great effect. As we were indoors in artificial lighting, I fitted my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens to my camera to give me enough reach to get close to the action and a wide aperture coupled with a high ISO to give me the shutter speed I would need to get some sharp shots. Firstly I positioned myself on the outside of the track, just at the end of one of the huge banked curves and got this shot of one of the sprint races in full swing.

Close-Up Sprinters

For those, like me, who know little about the rules and regs of velodrome racing, there are many types of racing. The sprint is a strange race. It would seem simple, two guys race around one lap, first one over the line wins. That does seem to be the main gist of it except the race has an unusual start. The two riders set off at a crawl and have a strange game of cat and mouse at what seems to be the slowest possible speed without falling over. This continues for a full lap and then one of the two suddenly makes a move and then they are both going flat out for a full lap at the most ridiculous speed.  It does make a strange spectacle but entertaining none the less. Again I want to point out the ridiculous angle at which the two riders above are going round the track. There’s no trickery here, the camera was held completely level and as you can see, the riders are at about 45degrees! From a similar position I took this next shot during a longer race. The guy pictured was miles ahead, but still going hell for leather.

Runaway Leader

This was due to another interesting racing discipline. I never managed to catch the name but in this race there was a sprint lap every now and again and extra points were given to the fastest time for that particular lap. Again keeping it interesting, perhaps horse racing or NASCAR could learn a few things? Just a thought. Before heading into the “paddock” or “infeild”, I wanted to pay tribute to the official photographers present at the track.

Hard-working Photographers

These guys, and girls, laden down with their gear risked life and limb to get their shots. They were literally within touching distance of these athletes. Now I have a lot of respect for these professionals, I was however quite surprised by the methods they were using to get their shots. They began by tracking their subject around the bend, allowing them time to focus accordingly and shooting of a number of shots along the way. This part I thought was great and I gave it a go myself later. The thing I was surprised by was the use of flash. I am a huge fan of flash photography but I would never have thought it would a) be tolerated in a high speed, close action environment such as a velodrome where the slightest error by any of the athletes would result in some quite spectacular crashes or b) be the preferred method of a professional with the standard of modern camera equipment available to them with ultra wide aperture lenses and almost noiseless image sensors these days. I even noticed some radio triggers being used to set off remote flashes positioned around the track at various intervals. This intrigued me as most of my experience with off camera flash is portrait based where the flash and subject are positioned according to the photographers wishes. In this environment the photographer has no control over where the subject is and I this is where I guess the experience comes into play. Knowing the right spot to position both yourself and the remote flash is something that would take a lot of trips to a velodrome, or simply do your best to copy those who have done it before! Now to the infield… I decided that I would try my hand at what the pros were doing, but from behind the safety of the steel railings. I wanted to try and get a shot without any flash before emulating the pros. After a little while struggling to capture anything with my 70-200, being too close to the action really, I switched to my old kit lens, the 18-135mm. Now this is not an ideal lens for this type of work with it’s varying maximum aperture. Thankfully as I was planning to shoot at 18mm. the widest setting so the aperture could open to its fullest. At f/3.5 this would give me enough light to keep the shutter speed high enough.

Sprint Riders from the Infield

For this shot, I did as the pros did. I tracked the riders round the bend, giving my camera time to focus and fired off a burst of shots hoping to catch the speeding pair in sharp focus somewhere near the centre of the frame. For this shot I used a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. As you can see the background, i.e. the banked track, is nicely blurred showing the motion of the riders at they are caught, frozen in the middle of all the movement. I particularly like the wheel spokes in this shot, they really emphasise the speed of the riders as well as the poise they maintain whilst thundering around the circuit. OK, time to break out the flash gun. I decided to stick with the kit lens for this, as it would give me more useful focal lengths at this distance and as I would be using the flash, I could sacrifice a few f/stops in aperture. Again after a few attempts, I bagged this shot.

Close-Up with Flash

I tried to keep the flash use low. As you can see, the use of flash is not hugely prominent in this shot, there are no ugly shadows behind the bike.  Using the flash allowed my to shoot at a 1/320 second (using the FP setting, more details on request). Again there is a certain amount of blurring present both in the background and also again in the wheel spokes. So for my last shot of the evening, something a little different. This time to emphasise the speed, I would lower the shutter speed and hold the camera still rather than taking the shot whilst tracking the bikes. The idea is to keep the background still and allow the movement of the cyclists to create a blur across the image.  I kept the flash in place, this would give more detail to the moving subjects for part of the exposure but the slower shutter and the speed of their movement would still allow them to be blurred across the remainder of the exposure.

Blurred Bikes

So there it is. As you can see this time, the track is kept sharp and motion free whilst the speeding bikes go past in a flurry! I’d like to say a big thank you to James for this awesome challenge. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading. Lastly, I invite you to become the latest to join in this new craze. James already had Mayur, join the challenge all the way from India with some great photos from an old fort his home town near. Now Mayur has since subscribed to my blog so I hope you’ve enjoyed this one! So if you fancy it, get in touch and we’ll take it from there. Thanks again for reading, until next time!

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4 thoughts on “Challenge Accepted!

  1. Ok, I m simple copy pasting what I wrote on James blog, with some edit.

    This whole photography challenge is really happening and I m enjoying every bit of it.

    We should discuss about the next challenge and how to make it more interesting, let me know if we three can have a chat or something. sadly I don’t have a webcam at my place.

    By d way, I already have a place for James, this was actually searched by my wife. So let me know if who’s turn it now after some obvious rest.

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