Behind the Image: Highland Fling

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 @ f/5.0, 125mm, 1/100sec ISO 800

The 11th annual Highland Fling will be raced come two weeks from now and for the fifth consecutive year I have been the event’s official photographer, a great privilege, and challenge.  Not only do I love this event but so do the riders.  It seems that everyone wants to win The Fling.  2015 saw Andy Blair win his first title after many attempts, he was proud to take the top podium step crossing the line thumping his chest in a way that that said ” Yes! I have done it.”

So, I thought it was fitting to select my next “Behind the Image” photo as I prepare for the event choosing new locations always looking for something different to photograph.  The above photo is from 2014 where Brendan Johnston won after battling it out with Mark Tupalski.  What I like most about this photo is the focus.  The focus that each rider has on the man in front and the lack of focus other than the main subject, Mark.  Mark is known for throwing out the challenge early and showing his cards with the strongest, whether him or a competitor, rising to the top rather than playing a cat and mouse game.   I can imagine him thinking “I am going for it, beat me if you can.”   This always makes for interesting racing, especially when four of Australia’s top riders are staring you down, hungry for the win too.

For me, I wanted to get away from the pin sharp action-frozen image that is often shot with a high shutter speed, available light, and no flash.  I wanted something that captures the race from the rider’s perspective.  The race is usually over in a blur, a fleeting moment and this is what I wanted to convey in an image.  I knew the riders would exit the fields in a fast pace, each one trying to put the others under pressure early on as the course here is quick and open.  Later, when the single track arrives and the legs are tired it wouldn’t be so easy to pass, to make a break.

Now I will admit there is always an element of luck with photography.  You can plan and prepare all you like but during a race like this, there is no control exactly where the riders will be placed, how they will line up especially when there is no defined track they must stick too.  The plan was to use the sweeping corner and a flash placed just where I thought the lead rider would hit the mark.  Thanks must go out to Mark for following the script and leading Brendan, Andy, Shaun and Dylan to my pre-visualized spot so perfectly.

From a photography perspective, how was the shot taken?  To blur the action a slower shutter speed was needed, there is no set speed for this type of shot it all depends on the subject movement, sometimes a slower 1/50 is needed but only testing and practice will teach you what to expect.  I normally shoot a smaller aperture, somewhere around f/11 for these types of shots to give me a little room for error as wheels and feet will blur more than the hands and face as they are more stationary.  Again, testing different settings will give you some feel for what look can be achieved but in this situation, I didn’t have this luxury.

Flash power.  I only had one small Nikon SB-900 on me as I needed to be unencumbered so as soon as the riders sped past I would need to run for the car and head off to the next shot location.  With the minimal light power on hand, a wider aperture was called for as this would have a greater chance of freezing the action of just the lead rider.  The problem though with the wider aperture the depth of focus would be a lot smaller meaning I would need to nail the timing.  Again, I only get one chance at this and to this date, no rider has taken up my suggestion of “ride it again” when told, “I wasn’t ready”.   I don’t blame them.

Over the coming two weeks, I will be on The Fling course checking out locations to shoot looking for somewhere different to capture this great events variety of trails.  Hopefully, with a bit of luck, the lead riders will see me sitting trail-side on race day and know exactly what my plans are hitting the mark and helping me capture another unique image.

Cheers Gil.