When my daughter started rowing four years ago, I had a lot to learn. And of course, the ink wasn’t even dry on the check for rowing camp before I was grabbing my camera and heading for the shore. Needless to say that even shooting wildlife, I was used to a much slower subjects. Everything is a sloth next to a junior rower. Though I felt really comfortable working with my gear, there was just so much I didn’t know about shooting a race on water and it seemed like I was in the middle of figuring one thing out when the boats zoomed by – picture the aquatic version of a roadrunner cartoon.
As with all photography, scouting the location is key. This was no exception. The first race, I took about 50 excellent shots of backs. I couldn’t even guess which back lived at my house because every person in the boat had a long, blonde ponytail. I was at the perfect angle for the start of the race but not for the finish. The first thing I learned to let go of was the start of the race. (I still watch it and cheer obnoxiously. I just don’t shoot it.) You don’t have to shoot everything. Know what you want to see. I wanted to see the sheer exertion on the faces of these amazing rowers. I wanted to see every muscle flex against the oars. I wanted to see the joy of crossing the finish line ahead of another boat. I wanted to capture those unguarded moments of courage. I learned to let go of trying to capture everything.
After those first races, I spent a lot of time agonizing over those “pretty good” shots. Oh, I had a trashcan full of pictures I will deny ever taking. But in the beginning, there were far more shots I should have let go of. I had the best of intentions. I hoped a little cropping and touch up would make the photo usable. I wanted to have a shot for every athlete. I learned to let go of volume and noise. I learned to let go of settling for usable. I strive now for that shot that someone would want to hang on their wall. I’m even thrilled when I hear my work is someone’s profile pic- especially if that someone is a teenager (It’s the ultimate honor).
Shooting outdoors on water adds the elements of weather, sunlight (or lack thereof), reflection, and spray. Add in the race elements of distance, motion, and boat lengths. All of these conspire against the perfect shot. You can adjust for them, but you can’t control them. In Washington, some of these change repeatedly during the race. The first time I fully appreciated all of those elements, I left the course with a screaming headache. I’ve learned you cannot shoot with a clenched jaw. I learned to let go of the need to control every element of the shot. That just leaches the fun out of the experience of photography. You might miss an amazing moment as you fine tune everything.
The photo below is a perfect example. It was taken at Tail of the Lake on Lake Union in Seattle. The sun was coming up behind the cox but it was periodically shielded by clouds. I had a polarizer on my 600 mm leans but as the race crossed in front of me where I stood on a raised platform the angle of reflection changed. Photos ranged from blue to silver as a result. I could have tried to readjust the polarizer. I could have focused on just one spot in the race. If I had not let go of all that, I would have missed this: two brothers racing. The freshman is coxing for the senior in stroke seat. It was poetic on so many levels. They are all in: completely focused on those final meters to the finish line. Good thing I let go or I would have missed this moment.
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 800 ISO, 600 mm)