Practicing Your Craft In Unexpected Ways

Recently, I’ve been shooting a documentary film that involves a type of boat racing. A good portion of my shooting time over the past few months has involved shooting boats racing from a small, unstable, high-speed boat. The routine has been the same—get to a race, unload gear, make contact with our race crews, shoot b-roll of the boat and racer prep from the shore, mount Go Pros to our racer’s boats, hop onto a chase boat and head for the race start.

In A Rut?

While shooting these races is definitely challenging and we’ve had quite a lot of obstacles to overcome, it’s basically similar in style and physical movement each time. We haven’t had the budget to rent a Tyler Mount or Perfect Horizon Gyro stabilized rig, so we’ve learned some tricks like shooting from the rear deck of our chase boat, on our knees, using our body to absorb shock and the rolling of our chase boat on the ocean. It’s not perfect, but as long as we can get our chase boat relatively close to the racers, it has been yielding usable footage. I recently realized that I was getting a bit out of practice panning and tilting with moving subjects, though; shooting from our chase boat means that our boat is moving at the same relative speed and distance as our race boats, so my job has been to hold the camera as steady as possible, for as long as possible, in order to yield as much usable footage as possible. Not exactly a recipe for honing my camera skills as the months passed by.

Try Something Different

On a recent weekend off, I decided to pack up my camera, a Canon C200, tripod and the longest lens I could get my hands on to shoot some footage of kite surfers at our local surfing spot. Unlike regular surfers, kite surfers are tethered to a large canopy and when the conditions are right, they can sometimes fly aloft for hundreds of feet in the air before touching back down into the waves. I thought that trying to shoot footage and stills of kite surfers might be just the thing to polish up my action camera operating skills. I’ve never been a great sports photographer/camera op, and I’ve always wanted to practice and hone my skills but just never seem to get around to it. Part of the challenge of shooting subjects like this is simply finding the right conditions at the right location. I had hoped that we would have a nice, bright, golden hour sunset at the location I was planning on, but when I arrived there, unfortunately, the beach was socked in with “June Gloom,” a local phenomena when the coast is covered in a perpetual foggy marine layer of haze and clouds. I decided to soldier on anyway. The nice thing about cloud cover is that it really saturates your colors and the dynamic range is easier to work with than on a sunny, or sunny then cloudy, day. You have to look at the positive side of every shooting situation because things like the weather are pretty much out of your control.

The Shooting Challenge

Take a 400mm focal length lens on an S35 imager and try to track high-speed crossing kite surfers at long distances. Add in wind, blowing sand, cold and moving cloud and fog cover, and this was the challenge. I drove around the beach parking area, looking for a location that seemed to have the most kite surfers. One nice thing about trying to locate kite surfers is that their brightly colored canopies are visible from a long distance since they’re constantly moving and arcing through the air, so they’re easy to spot. I unloaded my gear from my car trunk and headed out toward the beach with my gear bag, tripod and camera in tow. The longest lens we own is the Canon EOS 70-200mm 2.8 IS II, which really isn’t long enough for this sort of shoot where the kite surfers may be hundreds of yards away from the camera. Luckily, I had a Canon EOS 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 IS II lens on loan from Canon, so I thought that 400mm would be long enough to capture some nice footage and shots.

Focus, It’s Always Focus

After I set up my Canon C200 camera with the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 IS II lens, a lens support on my Sachtler DV-6SB head on my Miller Solo DV Carbon Legs and began tracking the kite surfers, I realized what a challenge holding focus was. It was a fairly dark and gloomy sunset hour at the beach I was shooting at, so I had to crank up the gain on the camera to ISO 1250 in order to be able to shoot a correctly exposed image at ƒ/5.6. While ƒ/5.6 may seem to be on the upper end of a low F-stop, remember that at 400mm, even ƒ/5.6 gives you pretty shallow depth of field. Luckily, the Canon C200 has dual pixel autofocus (DAF), which is genius in these sorts of situations with rapidly moving subjects and shallow depth of field.

As I tracked the subjects, the DAF worked well holding the surfers against the waves. But when the surfers would launch off the top of the wave, catching a gust of wind that would take them 10 to 50 feet up in the air, the DAF had a harder time keeping them in focus. The DAF system uses phase detection to hold a foreground subject in focus against a contrasting background. When the surfers went up into the air though, the background became a featureless, gray monotone background and the DAF became confused and begin hunting for focus unless I was able to keep the kite surfer within the small focusing box on the screen. I switched for a while to manual focus, and using the manual focus assist, I was able to manually keep the kite surfers in a focus most of the time.

In the end, I was able to capture some memorable footage and some decent stills as well. I mainly went down to the beach to practice keeping a high-speed moving subject in frame and in focus, something that my regular shooting hadn’t been challenging me to do for the past few months. Walking away from the shot to pack up my gear, I reflected that after a few minutes, my panning, tilting, composition and focus skills were still intact and came back to me stronger and stronger as the shoot progressed. I still had the skills, but they had become rusty. It’s important to exercise the physical skills you have as a photographer, camera operator or videographer as frequently as you can. If you mainly shoot weddings, take a day off and shoot your kid’s soccer game. If you mainly shoot action, try to line up shooting a handheld walk and talk with a host or shoot some sit-down interviews. The main challenge is to take the time to keep your camera operator skillset in practice and well rounded. Happy panning!