Let me first start off by saying this isn’t a comprehensive “how-to” post, but more of a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get some compelling imagery of a triathlete. I’ll look at some things that worked, and a few things that didn’t work as well as I would have liked.
I must make a quick caveat that the photos picked for this blog are not necessarily the ones that went into the story (in fact, quite the opposite in many cases). The photos were picked because they show the techniques mentioned the best. Arguably, this blog applies to commercial photography more than journalistic photography.
Also, for full disclosure and credit where credit is due, the triathlete I was covering is Megan Stanton, an active duty U.S. Air Force medic. The full story is here: Perseverance: An Airman’s commitment to health, triathlon and career
Probably the hardest part to shoot was the swimming portion. The lighting was dim and flat, we didn’t have the pool to ourselves, I didn’t have any sort of underwater breathing device, and it was my very first time shooting underwater.
The first obstacle I tackled was the light. This is what the pool looks like normally:
Not very interesting, right? Luckily, I figured this would happen. I set up a tripod at the end of the pool and threw an SB-900 attached to a PocketWizard FlexTT5 on top. Here’s the lighting from the surface:
The underwater housing I’m using is not a hard-shell case. I was already breaking my bank account a bit by getting the one I purchased at about $360. A hardshell case that would have given me perfect access to all my controls would have been 10 times the price (literally).
Unfortunately, this basically means I’m using the camera through a thick bag, which makes operating the finer details of the camera (like focus, zoom, command dials, buttons, etc) a real pain. In all fairness though, for how frequently I plan to do underwater shoots and having one case work for just about any of my cameras and lenses, it’s still a worthwhile investment. For a better understanding, this is what the bag looks like:
I ended up using a wide-angle lens shooting at f/8, 1/250 sec, and ISO 1600. I wished I didn’t have to push the ISO so hard, but it works reasonably well on the D800, and I didn’t want to have to bump up my flash and risk draining the batteries too fast, and I wanted to crank my shutter speed to freeze any splashes or bubbles in the image. Focusing was a guessing game since I couldn’t wait for the AF to hunt in the low light. Luckily, I could flip the AF/MF switch on the lens pretty easily through the bag, so I’d prefocus, and flip it back to manual. It didn’t always work, but it was better than missing every shot due to slow AF.
I found the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens works particularly well in the housing, delivering very sharp results when properly focused. I did switch to the 16-36mm f/4 VR lens halfway through because I needed a slightly wider angle of view, but the lens wasn’t as sharp and caused some pretty severe pincushion distortion towards the edges due to the flat front glass element of the housing.
Then, it came down to the actual shooting part. I have to say, flippers, goggles, and some sort of nose-plugging device are an absolute must if you plan on getting any deeper than the surface. A weight belt and/or SCUBA system would be best. It took a bit of practice, but I managed to get a really good rhythm of taking a deep breath, diving down when Megan reached the 2/3rds point coming towards me, taking a photo of her from the bottom of the pool looking up, getting just below level with her to take a photo of her pushing off, and still reaching the surface in time to catch my breath.
Here are a few photos from the underwater shoot (click on the image to enlarge):
Honestly, there isn’t much I did special about running. I did make a failed attempt at adding flash to the mix, but quickly found that my SB-900 was not even remotely powerful enough to overpower the sun at the distance I needed. Maybe that’s something I can revisit in the future.
Still, I did try to get low and high angles to show the running from different perspectives. The low angle is the classic “Sports Illustrated shot” while the high angle was an attempt to get a close-up shot, not showing her legs, but still conveying that she was running. I think they worked well.
Okay, the bicycle shots were a bit more fun. We decided to do it late in the afternoon on a road that goes up into the mountains. It’s a path she’s taken before, so it wasn’t unusual for her to be there. My boss, 1st Lt. Bryant Davis, and I had been shooting all of these together, but for this shoot, it really did take both of us to make the shots work.
Going up, we basically did a leapfrog system. We’d drive ahead of Megan and photograph her as she went by. This generally meant telephoto lenses and fast shutter speeds capturing her against the scenery behind her.
Going back down, things got more interesting because she could go a lot faster. We specifically took my convertible mustang on the shoot so we could shoot from the car. Davis drove while I sat in the backseat shooting with my 16-35mm f/4 VR lens with the ND16 filter attached. This allowed me to shoot at really slow shutter speeds, and since we were matching speed, get some crazy motion blur on the background. Of course, my hit to miss ratio on the slightly bumpy road was about 1:20, but thankfully I took a few hundred photos.
Here are a few examples at different shutter speeds. I have no idea what speed we were driving at though.
All in all, the shoot was a lot of fun and still going on. This was just the sports photography portion of it.