Wired at the Preakness Stakes
The 133rd running of the Preakness Stakes horse race was held in Baltimore this past weekend. It is one of the most prestigious events in the American horse racing calendar, the second race in the annual three race series beginning with the Kentucky Derby and ending with the Belmont Stakes in New York. Once again the Reuters pictures team (Jim Young, Molly Riley, Jonathan Ernst, Tim Shaffer and I ), were armed with spools of electrical wire, switches and cases of extra cameras and lenses as we arrived from Washington 10 hours ahead of the 6pm race to set up our ‘remotes’.
Remote cameras are triggered either by a cable or wireless transmitter, allowing a photographer to shoot multiple angles of an important moment like the finish of a horse race. They can provide an usually high or low angle to vary the type of pictures we like to provide to our clients. On news assignments remotes can also yield an alternative angle from a tight position or one that does not allow a camera to be hand held. The only limit to shooting remotes is the photographer’s imagination!!
With a cut-off time of 10am before the first race of the day, we set up five remote cameras under the inside rail of the track, and another on an observation post beyond the finish line with a high angle general view of the end of the race. Putting in place the gear – five EOS-1D Mark II cameras, an assortment of lenses from 16mm to 200mm, and their little mounting plates was a breeze, about 5 minutes in total, compared to the next step – getting them all to work!
Over the next hour, there ensued an awkward dance which involved laying our two-wire electrical cable in the mud alongside the inside rail of the track, clipping each remote camera’s slave cables into that string, and connecting a foot-switch that would fire all the cameras at the same time. All easier said than done when up to a dozen other photographers are doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Sports Illustrated alone laid out 12 cameras for the finish line picture.
The next most crucial step, involves “Dark Arts”, invoking the sort of magic that only boy wizard Harry Potter knows and attempting to appease the Gods of Technology and Good Fortune as, with all of your fingers crossed, you switch on the cameras to complete the electrical circuit and pray that none of them start firing indescriminantly at 8 frames per second, a sure sign that at least one of the connectors is set to the wrong electrical polarity.
Alas, in the distance we heard one of our cameras start firing off dozens of frames. We disconnected it from the string, reveresed the connector only to find that another of camera had started blazing away. There really is no science to setting up a string of random, separately functioning electrical devices like digital cameras, and with a lot of trial and error, we finally got all the cameras to behave themselves.
The fifth remote, high on an observation tower, was too far from the string of wired remotes so we utilized a set of Pocket Wizard wireless triggers which use a specific radio frequency determined by the user. That allows several photographers to fire just their own cameras, independent of other frequencies. The transmitter, a small box the size of a pack of cigarettes with an antenna atop, can be triggered with a button or placed into the hotshoe of a handheld camera and will fire whenever you press your handheld cameras’ shutter, like I did in this race.
In the eight hours and 11 races before the Preakness Stakes is run, we cover all the cameras with plastic bags and elastic bands to protect them from the water truck which comes by at the end of each race, spraying a ton of water on the track to keep it moist. Without the bags that water would destroy thousands of dollars worth of camera gear. We also do a test run, firing all the cameras during one of the early races, take the memory cards out and take a look the images on a computer screen then, based on the results, go back to each camera and fine-tune each camera’s focus, the exposure (with a 1/2000th sec shutter speed to freeze the motion of the horses), and adjust the composition if needed. Of course, whether the winning horse finishes up against the rail or 30 feet outside of the rail is beyond our control so we hedge our bets and assume the favorite, Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown will not only win, but do so along the rail.
In the end it was a successful day for the Reuters team. The pictures were fine and newsworthy; Big Brown did win the Preakness Stakes, not alongside the rail but not too far out, and Big Brown and his jockey Kent Desormeaux go to the Belmont Stakes with high expectations of winning all three races, the elusive Triple Crown.
Before Big Brown had made his way to the winners circle, I had pulled the memory cards out of all the remotes and was feeding the key finish line sequences (only about 5-10 images per camera) into our other “remote” setup, the Reuters Paneikon editing software which allows a Reuters editor anywhere in the world to remotely edit pictures almost in real time. Canadian Chief Photograph Peter Jones, sitting at his desk in Toronto, took in our images within seconds of the race finishing and had all the important remote pictures on the wire and onto the front pages of Yahoo news and MSNBC.com within minutes. The front of the New York Times Sunday Sports section used our picture of Jockey Kent Desormeaux looking back at the other horses across the finish line, a key and telling image that told the story of how far ahead he beat the field, made with our third remote camera about 100 feet past the finish line.
Thinking about how many aspects can determine the success or failure of remotes, based on previous experience and other photographers’ anecdotes, here is a random list of things that can go wrong. Looking through it, I marvel at how high our success rate with remotes has been…
Any ONE of these things can ruin hours of set up time. The more cameras you add into the mix, the more chances that any of the following will happen:
* The water truck drowning the cameras and/or short-circuiting our wired connectors.
* Ditto rain, destroying thousands of dollars worth of equipment.
* An errant camera firing indiscriminantly and without warning, setting off all the other cameras in your chain.
* Getting the right exposure until the sun goes behind a big cloud = everything underexposed.
* At the criticial moment forgetting to step on the footswitch, or stepping on it too early and then every camera’s memory buffer fills up and temporarily stops shooting at the exact moment you need them all to be shooting.
* Another photographer moving your camera because it’s in the way of his own.
* Another photographer thinking that your precisely-setup camera is his own, deciding that all your settings are wrong, and changing them.
* Camera batteries dying halfway through the race.
* The winning horse finishes about 50 feet outside of the rail and becomes a small dot on all your remote cameras.
* Pre-focusing in the wrong place. Out of focus = unusable.
* Lens flare from the sun screwing with your exposure.
* Someone accidently cuts your trigger cable with a shovel as they “helpfully” try to bury them out of the way in the mud.
* Forgetting to turn the cameras on after eight hours of waiting, or forgetting to put memory cards in the cameras, or not formatting (erasing) the card so that the card is already full from all the test pictures and therefore has no room for the “money shots”.
* Another photographer using your wireless transmitter frequency and filling your cameras cards with images of nothing but test frames before the race starts.
* Police calling in over the radio for extra donuts in the infield and using radio frequencies that interfere with your signal getting to your camera and firing it.
* Batteries on the transmitter dying before the race
* Someone stepping on your footswitch and filling all the cards on all your remotes with images of nothing before the race starts.
I could go on and on but you get the picture. Fortunately the Gods were smiling on us…