30 November, 2018

Doc Diaries: Tunnel Vision (part 1)

I love to travel. But not like most people do.

One of my favorite things about traveling, and especially by airplane, is the actual experience of being on the plane. Watching the world through a window. Trying to notice how even familiar places and things look somewhat distant and alien through an airplane window. I try to look out the window and take pictures that will somehow explain the thoughts and feelings and curiosities and perspectives that are hiding within myself.

The sequence of images from a flight is as much a record of the changing environment around the plane, as it is a memorial to the way that my attention sometimes flutters from one subject to another, noticing commonalities and differences this time around that I had somehow missed before.

30 October, 2018

Doc Diaries: Work It!

"Can you tell a story without moving?" That's the essence of a photography exercise I first went through about 13 years ago, during one of the only two photography classes I've ever taken. More recently, I was spending time with a friend while she practiced the cello, and I decided to give that exercise another go.

The fundamental goal of the exercise isn't really to capture distinct perspectives of the scene (although that is a good outcome). But rather, the goal is to force yourself to "work the scene" — to do the work to discover novel ways of seeing and capturing the scene that might not immediately come to mind. I absolutely adore this opening photo, but I had no idea that this is something that was lurking in the environment when we started. It took me 35 minutes into the 45-minute practice session to find it.

So let's go back to the beginning, and I'll show you some of the directions I explored en route to finding this and other shots during that session. My hope is that it'll give you some ideas and techniques to explore your own scenes, and to find some new perspectives for subjects that might already be familiar.

29 September, 2018

Doc Diaries: Fuji X-T1 Mirrorless

Sometimes gear matters. My photographic journey started off with a point-and-shoot camera, about 16 years ago, and has since been powered predominantly by some combination of DSLRs and (more recently) mirrorless cameras.

As I developed as a photojournalist, and subsequently as a documentary photographer, I found myself optimizing for two competing usecases: I wanted a camera I could keep with me, because some of the best opportunities are unexpected and unpredicted. But I also wanted to be able to cover large events (like concerts and athletic events), while wearing gloves, where my movement might be constrained, without needing to change lenses.

Over the years, my kit has bifurcated into a pair of solutions that handle those two kinds of situations separately. For everyday moments and unexpected situations, I have a Fuji X-T1 mirrorless camera with a fairly compact 27mm f/2.8 prime lens that's with me most of the time. The whole package is sufficiently convenient that I carry it even on days when I expect no pictures to happen. In contrast, when I go somewhere for the purpose of shooting, I'll usually bring a pair of D7100 DSLR bodies with f/2.8 zooms attached. I still have plenty of frustrations with both setups, but even so, I still find myself able to work pretty effectively.

Finally, to put this post (and this series) into some context, I picked up the X-T1 in 2014 and have run a bit over 28k frames through it since then. The D7100 bodies are at ~92k for the pair. Previously, I had put ~118k frames onto two D300 bodies, ~23k frames onto a Sony NEX-7 and NEX-6, ~11k frames onto a Fuji X100, and ~50k frames onto the Nikon D70 that started it all for me. Suffice it to say that I have a significant amount of experience with all of these cameras, and all of the conclusions I draw are specifically against this backdrop. I'm well aware that other cameras (whether mirrorless or DSLR) have different strengths and weaknesses.

28 August, 2018

Photographic Problem Solving: Rolling Shutter in Two Shots

First and foremost, I'm a pole vaulter who trains with decathletes. So when they switch to training for a different event, I switch to my camera, to try to capture a bit of what it's like to be a non-elite, post-collegiate athlete in the US.

My everyday camera is a Fuji X-T1, a mirrorless camera that can shoot either with the mechanical focal-plane shutter, or with an electronic-only silent shutter mode. By default, it will shoot with the mechanical shutter up to the 1/4000s maximum, and then switch to the electronic shutter up to a final max of 1/32000s. That's super useful for me, because I love to shoot at relatively open apertures (to control depth-of-field) in very bright sunlight. Also, sometimes I'll try to expose for a silhouette in bright sunlight, while still keeping DoF in check. In either case, the aperture is locked, I'm at base ISO, and shutter speed is all I've got left.

During one particular shot put practice, I exposed for a silhouette as my training partner Dan took two throws. Of my various images that day, I took images of the two throws with the first at 1/4700s (shown above, with the electronic shutter), and the second at 1/3500s (with the mechanical shutter, shown below).

31 July, 2018

Power versus Efficiency (Footwork, part 4)

There are two ways to fly in track and field. We covered "up" last time, with the vertical jumps. The other way is "out." The horizontal jumps are all about distance, and a close look at footwork and body position can provide some clues as to what's important and why.

First and foremost, long jump and triple jump seem pretty similar at first, but it's amazing the difference that two extra hops can make. When you look at the sprinting events, it's fairly common for elite athletes of both genders to turn in great performances for similar distances (for instance, 100m dash and 200m dash, or 200m dash and 400m dash). Likewise, in the distance events, 5k/10k doubles are also common across both genders.

By contrast, there's only one athlete in each gender who shows up in the top 25 for both long jump and triple jump performances. From a high-level perspective, one hypothesis is that the long jump favors power, whereas the triple jump rewards efficiency, and it's difficult for a single athlete to do both power and efficiency extraordinarily well.

21 July, 2018

Perchance, To Fly (Footwork, part 3)

The jumps are just like the throws, except this time, your goal is to fly. But just like with the throws, athletes combine specialized footwear with finely-honed footwork to make that magic happen.

All four jumping events share a pretty basic pattern: first you run, and then you jump. The four events break down into two major categories: the horizontal jumps (long jump and triple jump) and the vertical jumps (high jump and pole vault).

The horizontal jumps are all about taking a limited number of attempts and achieving the furthest distance from a set limit line ("the board"). As with the javelin, if you take off from past the board, you foul the jump and your distance doesn't count. But if you jump from behind the board, the room you leave to spare doesn't count toward your total. So the name of the game is to jump from as close to the edge of the board as you can, without going over.

The vertical jumps differ in that you have an unlimited number of attempts to jump as high as you can. You are eliminated from the competition after you miss three consecutive attempts. If you clear extra height over a low crossbar, that doesn't help your total — style points don't count — but if you pass to a height that you can no longer clear, then your last cleared height is your final measurement. So the risk-balancing aspect is still present, but it has more to do with fatigue and technical repetition than with the ability to hit a precise mark on the ground.

25 June, 2018

Power and Grace (Footwork, part 2)

The throws require a controlled kind of crazy.

For me, that's one trait that distinguishes them from the other event groups in track and field: you have to unleash the beast in an instant, but then you have to settle just as quickly. In every throwing event, there's a limited throwing area, and the athlete has to start and finish at rest, under their own power.

In practice, it tends to look like a raw explosion of energy to launch the implement, followed by a dance with the laws of physics to come back to a controlled stop.

Now as a reminder, I am not a thrower. I've watched and studied the events a fair bit, but some of my analysis could still be off the mark. With that said, this time, we'll dive into the footwork in three of the four outdoor throwing events, the hammer throw, shot put (two techniques), and javelin.

(Or click here to read the first part of the series, "Running and The Heel".)

31 May, 2018

Footwork: Running and The Heel (part 1)

Foot. Shoe. Ground.

One of the defining characteristics of track and field is the extent to which the athletes stay in close contact with the ground. Even in the field events, the ability to jump or throw effectively relies first and foremost on your ability to use the ground to your advantage.

As a result, the way that an athlete uses their feet has an overwhelming impact on how well they can apply their whole body to the demands of any particular event. And those footwork patterns vary by event, and often, even by athlete within a single particular event.

Now, I'm definitely not an actual biomechanist, but after 2 decades of track and field, I've noticed at least a few patterns. So when I went down to L.A. to cover the Mt. SAC Relays, I tried to spend some time capturing how the footwork in each event conveys a sense of each event's specific characteristics.

28 April, 2018

Slow, Fast, and Slow Again (Moments In Between, part 6)

The morning before the race is a period of acceleration, but it can feel just the opposite. Many teams start off with some amount of anxiety — a thousand tiny tasks remain before the car is "perfect," and it can still feel tempting to try to knock them all out in the dwindling moments before the green flag waves.

But once the race is underway, the mere fact that the car is out on track, turning laps, and away from convenient access makes a lot of those small issues seem to disappear. You're going faster than you were before, but that sense of being overwhelmed with tasks is replaced by a focus on the more singular task at hand — drive smooth, get good track position, run quick pit stops, don't break anything. You light the rocket, and then you do your best to get out of the way and let that baby burn.

29 March, 2018

Momentum (Moments In Between, part 5)

In some ways, an endurance race is a lot like a rocket launch. You put a lot of energy into getting up to speed and getting good track position. During those more aggressive parts of the race, you might make mistakes and have to work even harder to make up for them. You have a plan and a strategy, and you do your best to stick to them.

By the time the sun comes up on Sunday morning, you're mostly coasting on momentum. Track position has already been pretty firmly established, and you're doing your best to just keep things on the straight and level. The race isn't over yet, by any stretch of the imagination. But even for teams that are still trying to make moves, their goal will generally still be to hit a pace that they can maintain through the checker.

10 March, 2018

Survive the Night (Moments In Between, part 4)

A good endurance race is more slow than fast. And in the dead of winter, it's also more darkness than light. One of the unique challenges of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the amount time that's spent enduring the darkness.

Pit stops in the dark take longer. The growing fatigue of 6+ hours of racing combines with the reduced visibility to delay the most mundane of tasks, and the challenge is magnified for any extended diagnosis or repair. If a tool rolls out of sight, it's that much harder to find. Coordination between teammates becomes more difficult without the aid of hand signals and eye contact. And any dark corners in a cramped engine bay become that much darker and trickier to work in. So a repair that might be a quick fix during the day becomes a bit more of a slog at night.

15 February, 2018

The Waiting Game (Moments In Between, part 3)

There are so many ways to wait. And even when you're going hard, sometimes you're also waiting — for an opportunity… for a break… for something to go wrong…

There are so many ways to wait. They're each a little different, and in 25 hours of racing, you're liable to experience more than a few. That's just how endurance races go. Plus, aside from the times when you're in the driver's seat, an endurance race is a lot like a relay race: when you've got the baton, you can make things happen. But when you don't, you still have to wait for it to come back around.

30 January, 2018

Strategies for Photographing an Unfamiliar Sport

I recently shot a handball match for the first time. Despite spending 15–20 years of my life playing soccer, I haven't really spent much time photographing ball sports before. And regardless, the rules and gameplay of handball are sufficiently different from soccer that I didn't know what to expect. I had a lot to learn, and only the 1-hour duration of the match to find my balance and get some shots. Here's how I approached that challenge.

19 January, 2018

The Calm Before The Storm (Moments In Between, part 2)

There's a gap before almost every competition. After the madness of preparation and last-minute fixes, you pause, take a breath, and get ready to put that work to the test.

At the 25, there's a twist. Once the cars are all gridded up, the spectators are welcomed out onto the track to check out the cars and take pictures of (or with) the teams. It's chaos. But amidst that chaos, there is a calmness to the team's crew and drivers. But beneath that calmness, you can still sense an underlying tension and anxiety: The start is coming. Did we miss anything? Did we forget anything? There are still a few moments left to remedy any oversights.