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Tracking Focus

If I had to pick just one sport to shoot exclusively, it would definitely be track and field. I'm undoubtedly a bigger fan of basketball and football, but the variety at a track meet — from the myriad events to all the various angles and approaches you can take for each — makes it an easy choice for this hypothetical desert-island-type scenario.

I first caught this bug while working for the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon, a.k.a. Track Town, and while I miss photographing the top-flight talent from spitting distance and the energy that a full Hayward Field can generate, covering local high school meets allows for much better access and less jockeying for shooting positions.

So I was incredibly disappointed with my coverage of the Kiwanis Invitational in Hermiston on April 24, especially since I was so excited to go shoot my first meet of the year. It didn't help that I wasn’t able to make it down there until the meet was half over, and without numbers on the athletes or an available list of heat assignments, I felt a little flustered. Thankfully I've been here long enough that I recognized some of the stronger local competitors and managed to perform serviceably.

I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. The first time out for a season always involves knocking off a little rust, and while getting back into shooting shape is not nearly as intense as getting back into competitive shape, each sport has its own timing and flow that you have to get back into. Simply put, I felt off the whole time.

I got another crack at it April 29, when Southridge hosted a small CBBN meet, and felt much better. Still, I approached it in a very straightforward way for the most part, so I vowed the third time would be a charm when I went to shoot the Connell Invitational last Friday.

I called prep sports guru Ren&eacute Ferr&aacuten to get some names of potentially strong competitors from schools in our coverage area, so I knew who to focus on in certain events. This, along with the knowledge that this was going to run inside the sports section, freed me up to play around a bit more with my shooting. It's funny, though, at this point in my development, I've settled into a bit of routine when looking for non-literal photos — especially at familiar events like track meets.

There are the silhouettes:

which I've always preferred to keep a little shadow detail in.

Some panning:

Focusing on the periphery during slower heats:

And some visual dismemberment:

I decided to challenge myself a little more and stopped using autofocus with the longest lens setup I had, a 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter. Some shots were, admittedly, not any harder to get without autofocus, like when I prefocused this high jump shot:

But even a simple event, with repetitive, predictable movements like the javelin, is tougher than it looks. I had a few successful practice runs before second-place finisher Matt Hadley of Connell went to throw. He's sharp as he approaches his throw:

but I spazzed the focus on his release:

I'm going to blame the unexpected background thrower for throwing me off.

Pun embarrassingly intended.

One thing that was wrecked my mojo was not being able to keep my off eye open during the action. I generally have both eyes open while shooting, but without the muscle memory of working the focusing ring, I had to shut my left eye to make sure things were sharp. Processing composition, exposure and timing can be tough enough without having to worry about focus, especially with the very slim margin of error with that long of a lens.

There were plenty of goofs, like when I timed this shot for the hand-off, but botched the focus:

which is too bad because of the simultaneous hand-off and the nice little touch of the spectator's head between the runner’s legs, and when I finally focused, the moment and composition were gone:

Still, it was a great feeling to nail the shot I wanted, like when I followed the next heat of the 4x100 relay and focused on the Connell runners:

I haven’t been that excited during a chimp for a long time. It’s a fairly standard photo, really, but I executed it completely manually almost exactly how I wanted. Timing this hand-off wouldn't have been hard while using autofocus, but I ended up with a stronger composition because I decided against it. Had I used the center AF point, the Ephrata runner on the right would have been cut off and there would have been wasted space behind the rear Connell runner. I could have switched AF points, but it’s hard to tell how things will line up as they're sprinting around the corner. I do wish I would have been aiming a tad lower to get more of their legs in the frame (seen here uncropped), and gotten rid of some of the dead space above, but it was pretty exciting to think that I had nailed it as I tripped the shutter and to confirm it a couple seconds later.

Grizzled vets who read my blog are probably laughing and shaking their heads right now, and I know I've been technologically spoiled throughout my short photographic career. Although the relative ease in making the modern photograph has made almost everybody into a photographer, it has made it much harder to make it in the business. My hope is that I can help separate myself from the herd a bit by teaching myself mini lessons like this one.


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