Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fly Like A Buffalo

OK, maybe it should be "Fly Like An Eagle", but he is running for Buffalo.

I don't think there's a more frenetic event in outdoor track than the opposing sprint relay hurdles.  You don't see it very often at track meets, but it's one of the highlights of the Penn Relays.  Hurdles are set up in opposite directions in adjacent lanes on the straightway.  Each team uses two lanes and runners run in a traditional opposing relay (like in grade school).  It starts out just like a traditional sprint hurdle, but with teams in alternating lanes.  But then when they tag at the end of the straight and the opposing runners start coming back the other way it gets interesting.

Naturally, some hurdles get knocked down, and track workers have to run out and reset them before the next leg of the relay.  That's some fast work!  It really gets interesting on the third and fourth legs because by that time, some runners are well ahead or well behind and then you have runners running in adjacent lanes in the opposite direction of one another.  That's not something you see at your average track meet.  Add to that, the workers trying to reset hurtles in an ever shrinking gap, and you have organized chaos.

All of this chaos is a wonderful opportunity for photography.  I typically set up between the first and second hurdle.  That way, I get the start, which I like because you usually get all of the runners in the first shot.  Then I can get individual runners as the relay proceeds.

I've experimented in photographing hurdles, and have come to this (current) thinking:

  1. Maximize shutter speed to stop action (kind of obvious).  I like 1/500 at a minimum, but sometimes that's not possible with poor light.  The photos on this page are all sub 1/500.  Use a higher ISO setting if necessary to gain the extra speed.
  2. Maximize f stop to gain a greater depth of field and minimize focusing error (see #3).  Naturally, this conflicts with #1, so you have to fiddle for just the right settings.  If you know exactly which hurtle you're attempting to get, you can lower the f stop and maximize shutter speed.
  3. Use fixed manual focus.  This is the reason for #2.  I've found that even with the fast focus of my Canon lens, sometimes it just isn't fast enough.  I typically set up sitting on the ground to get an upward perspective on the runner, which I believe enhances the look of the shot.  However, it also means that the runners are hidden behind the hurdles until they're right on top of me.  To combat this, I manually focus on the hurdle and leave focus there while shooting.  The best shot is usually as the runner passes right over the top of the hurtle, so focus is generally accurate at that point.
Equipment:  Canon 7D, 28-135 f/3.5 IS USM.  All of these photos taken around:  28mm, f/3.5-4.5, 1/320, ISO-100

I'm looking forward to another shot at some Penn Relays hurdles in 2012.  Always exciting!

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