Photographers' Blog

The Nik Wallenda show – from a distance

June 24, 2013

Grand Canyon, Arizona

By Mike Blake

The world loves an intriguing story and if television can wrap it up into a prime time event – then the show must go on.

That said, sometimes history is uneventful. This is why I was off to Flagstaff, Arizona to cover Nik Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon on a tight rope. Details were sketchy at first. The Discovery Channel was in control of access and waivers and releases had to be cleared before we would sign on to cover. A media position was being set up, but we were told it was a distance away.

GALLERY: WALKING OVER THE GRAND CANYON

After a couple of flights and an overnight at a Motel 6 I met up with the Discovery handlers and a small group of local and international media including our correspondent Tim Gaynor who was writing the story. We all climbed onto a bus and motored up a few hours to a portion of the Grand Canyon on Navajo Nation land where Nik Wallenda would make his historic walk. There was a transfer from the bus on the side of a windy road to a smaller van/SUV that took us along a dirt road through a sheep farm and to a set of media risers perfectly placed to give you a great view of the action, with the exception that we are about half a mile away from the location of the crossing. So far that you were actually unable to see the tightrope with your naked eye, or for that matter, Nik walking on it.

I had packed a 600mm lens and a 1.4 converter so I was pretty much maxing out my focal length on a Canon DX. Even at that, the image needed to be cropped a bunch before transmission. I had also brought a satellite phone to use to transmit out pictures due to our location.

Nik was set to walk across the rope at 6pm Navajo time, that’s 5pm Arizona time. For some reason the Navajo jumped ahead an hour, but the rest of Arizona did not. Either way, we had to wait for him to step out on the wire and this being a made-for-TV production meant they were going to milk it for every second of prime time that they could. I used this time to set up my gear and laptop and connect and test the satphone. The satphone (a portable Began unit) is a great piece of equipment. The company seems to have missed the boat on writing software more advanced than Windows XP as the thing would connect but not give me an IP address to transmit data (think pictures) using Windows 7. I would have to make my way back up to the highway to snag a Verizon cell signal in order to send my pictures.

The wind was strong, hitting my back and making it difficult to hold a long lens steady. I’m not a tripod guy, I prefer a monopod as it keep you on your toes and you’re able to move around and be far more mobile. It’s also less gear to carry.

Anyhow, we were half a mile away but the light was great with the setting sun at out back. The canyon was beginning to glow orange, but just as Nik stepped out on his walk the clouds blocked the setting sun and the name of the game was keeping the shutter speed up and dialing up the ISO as he walked and the light faded.

It was uneventful in the end.

Nik gave the thumbs–up on the rope near the end and I dashed off up a dirt road through the sheep farm to get a cell signal to file my images to the Singapore picture desk. Unlike a NASCAR race where everyone is waiting for a crash, there were beautiful images to be made here, but not from where we were.

Like much of what you see today, this was a controlled event where you get to see only what they want you to see. Anything more will cost you: money or the integrity of being an objective observer.

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