Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Park2Park Relay 2012, Part I:
'Painting' with light

Today's post is the first of what I foresee being several posts of photographs taken last Saturday at the second annual Hendricks County Park2Park Relay, a fundraising running event of the non-profit Parks Foundation of Hendricks County.

The Indy Meetup Photo Club tackled the photographic coverage of this largely "team" participation event as a club project in its inaugural year, and we so enjoyed ourselves that we decided to do it again this year. Much like the teams of runners (six people per team) in the relay event, we had a team of 19 club members spread out along the 64.5-mile course, responsible for photographing various portions of the race. We met at this year's finish site -- McCloud Nature Park in northwest Hendricks County (which was the start point last year) -- at the end of our journey.

Even though the temperature reached its highest of the year (93 degrees), most of our club members, I felt, enjoyed the second experience of doing this as much as we did the first. That's not to say the 2012 relay didn't have its challenges. In fact, the biggest of them all was finding a way to photograph the start of a new competition -- an ultramarathon -- in which individuals (not teams) ran a 52-mile course, a double marathon! Six people started and finished this competition, which began at 5 a.m. at Sodalis Nature Park near Plainfield, a western Indianapolis suburb. Today's post is about the challenge of lighting the start of the race in pitch darkness in order to get photographs.

Even though this is the time of year when daylight is at its longest, there still is no daylight at 5 a.m. Ultramarathoners would be wearing headbands equipped with battery-powered lightbulbs to provide illumination in front of them for the first half-hour or so before dawn would break. But the race people did not want us to use electronic flash at the start line in fear of even temporarily blinding (you know -- the "seeing stars" effect) the runners, who would already be challenged by the dark conditions and limited visibility. So the challenge for us (or for me, as it turned out, as I was the only one to get to Sodalis in time for the ultras' start), was how to photograph this?

I decided to do my best with available light. The race organizers had car headlights directed at the start point from the side of the runners so the lamps weren't aimed directly at their faces. I stood off to the right (opposite) side, camera on tripod. Had I gotten there earlier than I did (I think I arrived 10 minutes before start), I think I would have had the time necessary to do sufficient testing so I'd be ready at 5 a.m. But I had barely enough time to grab two or three shots in the parking lot (where there were also some headlight illumination thrown on several people standing around chatting). I had my Canon 7D on a tripod and equipped with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens set @ 70mm, f/2.8, 1/6, IS0-12800 (yes, I was pushing the ISO to my camera's limit). I got one OK shot among the three I took before I hurried to the start line where they were assembling the six ultra starters.

There, I had little time to pick my camera settings and hope for the best. I got one semi-decent shot of the runners lined up at the start (see picture above, leading off the post); the 24-70mm lens was set at 35mm, f.5.6, 1/80 and still on ISO-12800. I raised the shutter speed -- even though I might have been able to get a better-exposed shot at a slower shutter -- because I could not hear the talk at the start line (and therefore had no idea when those runners would be taking off) and wanted to make sure I could freeze even a little action if there were a sudden start. I couldn't hear because there was a loud portable gasoline-powered compressor operating nearby to keep the inflatable red start-line arch filled with air.

Sure enough, no sooner had I taken the picture of the runners standing at the line, the starter must have told the runners to begin (although I never actually heard the order), because they bolting off the line. I quickly took two or three more shots at the same camera settings. The runners were going to do a very short loop in the open area of the otherwise wooded park, finishing the loop at a point not far from where I had been just standing. So I shuffled about 20 yards to where I knew the runners would pass, and even though that point was only about 20 yards from where I'd been at the start line, there was absolutely no illumination to feed off now. 

I had no time to even set focus to infinity before they were coming at me (I did say the loop was short!). As soon as I could detect the bulbs on the headlights, I started trying to lock in focus on that light to grab pictures. Although the camera's auto-focus function did lumber a bit, it did find enough light on several occasions for me to pull off a half-dozen or so shots of these "bulbs" in the dark coming toward me. After the ultra runners left the park, I went back to the start line and continued fidgeting with settings to see what I could have done differently or better. About 10 minutes later, I finally came upon a positioning slightly farther back than I had been ... and camera settings f/2.8, 1 second, ISO-800 and the lens set at minimum focal length (24mm). I was getting some great exposures with those (although the 1 second shutter wouldn't have been able to freeze the runners, but ... I might have gotten some intriguing motion blur images). 

Twenty minutes after that, while perusing my images, I noticed a solitary volunteer sitting in a chair just off the asphalt path the lower right portion of the composition I'd taken earlier. She was in a profile position (left side of her face toward me). I'd not noticed her at the time I set up the composition because she was in almost total darkness; she had a hand-held device splashing light onto some reading material, but that was it. Everything else about her was pretty dark. Just then, a second woman joined the first -- and the second one sat in a way where she was facing me squarely, which is when I got an idea. I walked up to them and asked them if they'd mind if I experimented with some light-painting for a photograph. I explained to them what I intended to do: I'd take another shot at the same settings as above, and during that one-second exposure, I'd "paint" fluorescent light onto them (I used a sweeping motion when applying the light from the flashlight, hence the "painting" term) from a small flashlight I'd been using to "see" my settings. They readily agreed. So I did the above, and it turned out nicely. I didn't think of it at the time, but if I could tinker slightly with that paint-lighting, I might try to cover the flashlight with a warm (yellow or light orange) gel to try to match its temperature with that of light coming from the car headlights.

Next post: The six ultramarathon runners in Saturday's Park2Park Relay traversed a 52-mile-long course -- twice the length of a regular marathon, which is daunting enough. I decided on the fly to "document" in photographs the last mile or so of one ultramarathoner's exhausting, but amazing odyssey.

Above: Among people conversing in the parking lot at Sodalis Nature Park just a few minutes before the start of the Park2Park Relay's ultramarathon competition was Michael Scott (right), who already had his headband light turned on for the 5 a.m. start. I didn't know it at the time, but some 11 hours later, I would decide to follow Scott along the final mile and a half of his journey in McCloud Nature Park. 
Above: Ultramarathon runners are off the start line.

Above: I was able to compose a shot to show the headband lamps-only of five of the six runners nearing the conclusion of the short loop off the start in Sodalis Nature Park. 

Above: The sixth runner comes into view, and the shutter stayed open long enough to catch the runner's headlamp illuminating the asphalt path ahead of him. It was so dark, I didn't even notice the speck of light in the foreground. I don't know what to attribute that to. 

Above: When I saw this photo during post-processing, I figured the smaller, lower speck of light was flare. But now I'm not so sure. It was so dark, and things happened so fast, I don't know. Maybe the runner had something light-reflective on his shoe that provided that kind of refraction. The halo around it is definitely flare.

Above and below: Two views of the same scene, about 20 minutes apart. Above, One of the race staff uses a hand-held device to light some reading as she sits in a chair. When a fellow race staffer joined her 20 minutes later, I remembered how dark the first woman was in the picture above, so I asked the women if they'd mind if I "painted" them with light from a pocket flashlight I was carrying. Below is the result from that composition, the fluorescent light aimed in a sweep motion (up and down) at them during the 1 second exposure. 

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