In March I photographed the World of Outlaws dirt track racing event at the San Joaquin County fairgrounds in Stockton. I wanted to travel light so I left my camera bag with most of my gear in the trunk of my car. Using only a belt bag (sort of like Batman’s utility belt only not nearly as cool), I carried a camera, a 200-400mm telephoto lens on a monopod support and wide-angle lens to the racetrack. Before the cars started speeding around the dirt oval I made my way onto the infield where several other photographers had already station themselves. A nicer bunch of guys I’ve never met before. Although I had shot racing before, I had never shot this kind of event nor at that particular track, but they graciously welcomed me and made me feel right at home.
It was early evening and although the sun was still up, it would be setting soon. The other photographers suggested the different places where I could get to get my shots and then pointed out the northwest corner. It was at that spot where the sun would set and make a great photo.
It was then I realized that I forgot one piece of equipment: a flash. I noticed that several of the other photographers had their flashes attached to their cameras already. As the sun sets the exposure on the ground diminishes, but the sky still can remain bright for a while even after the sun goes down beyond the horizon. Exposing for that kind of scene becomes an either/or situation. Either expose for the beautiful color of the sunset and have the cars on the darkened track underexposed or have a proper exposure for the cars but then the sunset would be overexposed and blanched of all color. The track lights help in filling in the light a bit but not nearly enough. Using a flash can augment the light at ground level so that you can get a photo of the cars and sunset at the proper exposure for both in one shot.
But once I remembered that I could use a flash but didn’t have one with me, the cars started circling the track. The rest of my equipment was in my car and I the only way I could get to it was to risk becoming road kill.
I resigned myself to forgoing the sunset shot and chalked it up to experience. But an idea came to me. What if I used someone else’s flash? No, I wasn’t going to steal another photographer’s flash, but I remembered something that occasionally happens to me during the prep football season. Every once in a while another sideline photographer would take a photo of the same player at the exact same time as I would and the light from at heir flash will be illuminating the scene. They’re rare incidences of coincidental timing.
Using this principle I posited a theory to myself: what if I piggy-backed my exposure to one of the other photographers who was using a flash and fire my camera at the same time? I had a camera that shot at a high frame rate (9-frames per second) and a high flash-sync speed (1/250th of a second) which gave me a fighting chance.
While it was still daylight I got some normal shots of the racecars zooming around the track. If all else failed then at least I would have those photos to turn into the sports desk. As the sun began to set and eventually dipped below the horizon and the sky became saturated with an orange glow I lined up slightly behind and to the left of one of the other photographers with a flash. I focused on a car and followed it through the corner. I held the shutter button down and fired the camera off in machine gun-style the whole way. I quickly reviewed the camera’s monitor to see how I fared. No luck, just a series of very underexposed frames. Another car approached the corner and again I fired away. Still nothing. It took me several tries before I got a single frame of a car illuminated my unsuspecting colleague’s flash. Since it’s always good to have a backup, I kept on shooting. I shot several hundred frames of the sunset/flash set up and I only managed to get a couple of usable shots.
Whether you’re on an assignment or out photographing just for fun, you should shoot your CYA shots (short for Cover Your..um..behind) and get something solid in the bag. But to expand your creativity sometimes it’s advantageous to go out on a limb and experiment a little as well.