What I do isn’t exactly rocket science…

…so why is it hard to find people who can do it well? Equipment, skill, judgement and passion, that’s why.

This is Part 3 of “Here’s why I tried to keep the original message brief.” I have a lot of thoughts about these issues bouncing around in my skull. If I had let them all out at once, nobody would’ve taken the time to read. It was long enough anyway, right? I’ve already expanded a bit on the topics of “localness” and bib number searches. Next up: quality race photos, and why they’re difficult to find.

What I do isn’t exactly rocket science. I already said that up there ^^^ but it’s worth repeating. What I do isn’t exactly rocket science. I’m basically self-taught (with a special tip of the hat to Wayne Pope) and I have no reason to think I’m a particularly great teacher. Well, then, if I can do it, why is it so hard to find good race photographers? Because even though it’s not the most difficult thing in the world, it’s substantially more involved than just aiming a camera and pushing a button over and over and over and over again. Quality race photography requires the right combination of equipment, skill, judgement and passion. It also helps to be somewhat self-abusive and willing to work for peanuts 😉

Let’s knock those down one at a time, starting with equipment. You’ve probably heard before — not as often as I have, but still — that it’s the photographer, not the gear, that matters. Partly true. Mostly true. Kinda true in certain cases. And while I don’t want to go too far off in this direction, I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar (ok, about $50,000) for every time someone said to me, “Whoa! That’s a big camera! You must get great pictures!” Um, yeah. My stock response is a quizzical look and, “my wife uses a crappy pencil but is a great writer…so what do you mean?” The right person with an eye for composition and lighting can take some pretty nice photos with a cell phone, while a good digital SLR camera — used haphazardly in AUTO mode — can render photos that look as if they were taken with a cell phone. But, still: the better the gear, the greater the potential for quality photos.

I hope you’re sitting down for this: good photography generally requires both a good photographer and good gear. This applies whether you’re talking about wedding photography, food photography, race photography, wildlife photography…pretty much any type of photography. I’m talking about race photography. The generalization I give my students when they begin to express interest in particular genres of photography is that sports and birds are the most expensive things to take pictures of. And I mostly mean it, although there are exceptions. The reason is that you’re shooting things that are relatively small, sometimes far away, and often under less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Add it up and you’re going to spend a lot of money on lenses. In my world, this is one of the reasons I’m able to keep one runner in focus while all the others are blurred. I won’t go into the technical explanation for it here (if you want to know, just ask!), but that’s something my customers tell me they want. It’s also part of the reason I can shoot in the rain or at dusk and still get photos people want to buy. If you don’t invest in decent gear, you can’t do these things as well, or maybe you won’t be able to quickly focus on someone rounding a corner toward you at full speed.

So good gear is a must. What about skill? I think it goes without saying that a certain level of skill is required to make a go of this, but that requirement steepens with the complexity of the job and the equipment. From a purely technical standpoint, the ability to work the camera and it’s various settings is probably the easiest trait to come by. It takes practice, which is nearly free in this age of digital photography. I don’t want to discount this aspect, but it’s become relatively common as the digital age has squished the learning curve.

Much more important — and much more rare — is good judgement. While I do most of my work myself, I have a handful of events that require a team of photographers. I’ve tried and tried but still haven’t found a team I’m completely satisfied with. Why? After all, I know most photographers in the area and I’m specifically choosing those I know to be accomplished and capable. And yet, at least once per year, I’m burned by one of my choices. It comes down to judgement, which I roughly define as the ability to think quickly on your feet and make good, sound decisions based on circumstances you encounter in the field. Some of the races I cover last 4, 5 or even 6 hours. It’s all well and good to have someone out there who knows what he’s doing, but conditions change over that much time. What happens when the sun blasts out from the clouds after hours of dark gray skies? What happens when runners aren’t quite following the path you expect? The ability to make an on-the-spot call in situations like that is priceless…and hard to come by.

Finally, a good shooter must have passion. A passion for photography in and of itself as well as a passion for a job well done. I’ve had jobs — and I suspect many of you have, as well — for which I was technically well-equipped but I just plain didn’t care about what I was doing. It didn’t matter much to me, or it didn’t “move” me. That won’t do: it shows, plain as day, in the final product. I need photographers who are competent, but also who care enough about what they’re doing to notice the little things that matter. Runners may disagree with me in the heat of a race, but you look better when running slightly uphill. So what do you do? Find a spot where you’re running slightly uphill! That doesn’t seem too hard, but it is if you don’t care and it never occurs to you. What about the timing of shots? Funny things happen to tissue — fat, muscle, skin, whatever — when the human body impacts the ground. If you don’t really care about what you’re doing, you’re probably not going to bother trying to time your shots accordingly. So however adept you may be with a camera, I also need you to care.

Now, let’s suppose for a minute that some out-of-state photographer is going to fly into Lansing to shoot a race. It’s conceivable that he may bring these four factors to the table. The problem is, he’s not flying here. News Flash: he’s not coming within hundreds of miles of your event. What he’s doing is placing local Craigslist ads for photographers he can pay a meager wage and send to your race. As I’ve said before, there are very few photographers in the area who can handle this sort of work — I can count them on my fingers — and they are certainly not hanging out on Craigslist looking for gigs that pay peanuts.

Given that sort of photographer sourcing mechanism, what’s the likelihood that the guy shooting your race has the right combination of these four factors? Predictably, slim and none…and you’ll be lucky to see slim. Lots of people have the basic technical skill, and quite a few these days have reasonably good equipment. But few have the ability to make judgement calls and adjust to changing conditions they encounter, and fewer still have anything resembling passion. I can even cite one horror story in which a race director here in Michigan hired some California-based outfit to shoot his race, only to learn ON RACE DAY that no suitable local photographers had been found…so literally nobody showed up to shoot his race. Ouch.

I don’t think it’s too immodest of me to say that I bring these four important factors to bear on your event. In the case of a large event requiring several shooters, I’m the first to admit that I’m still struggling to find the perfect mix, but I’ll come right back and argue that I’m in a better position to do so than some guy in Colorado!

There’s one last thing I’d like to mention here. As the cost of decent cameras and reasonably good lenses continues to fall, I see more and more people at races waiting to shoot their husband, girlfriend, child…whatever. And yet I don’t see a corresponding drop in sales. Why is that? I like to think it’s because I see those people as extra motivation to do the best job I can. If I want to continue selling photos, I’ve got to be able to deliver better photos than the spectators can take themselves, right? And the whole time, I’m keenly aware that the guy across the way has the odds stacked in his favor. He only has to get it right for one person, while I need to get her and the other 8 people she’s bunched up with…not to mention the hundreds ahead of and behind her. But close to 10 times out of 10, I’ll beat him, because this is what I do, and I’m good at it.

I don’t want my photos to look like amateurish snapshots, and I do everything in my power to ensure I have people working for me who feel the same way. Because quality matters to me. If it matters to you, please give me a call!

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