Tuesday, March 08, 2005

It's Not About the Camera

Being a freelance writer, I once accepted an assignment from a magazine website to cover a professional Motocross race. I was supposed to write a 1000 word race report and submit 5-10 action photos from the event. So, I shoved my notebook, pencils, digital voice recorder (for interviews), and digital camera into my backpack and headed out to the track. At the time, I just had a basic point-and-shoot camera. It had a sports setting, though, so I thought I would be ok.

As you can imagine, the camera was painfully slow. The shutter lag time (the amount of time from pushing the shutter release button to the picture being taken) was more than one second when image quality was set to fine. In action sports photography, one second can seem like an eternity! I had at least twenty shots of an empty track, as the motorcycles whizzed in and out of my viewfinder during the lag time. I had at least twenty more shots of back tires and rear fenders. It took me a while to get accustomed to timing the riders coming at me, but I did manage to do it. I walked away from the event with the required number of usable photos.

The editor of the website liked my report and photos enough to pay me at the maximum end of their scale. In fact, I kept getting more assignments to cover more races and take more pictures. At every race, I had to struggle with the timing of the photographs. My success rate was a paltry 3% -- that is, for every 100 photos I took, only 3 were considered usable.

This was very frustrating, to say the least. Since I was creating a very strong working relationship with my editor and was pretty confident of getting future assignments, I decided to invest in a digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. My new camera set me back more than $1500, but I didn't care. With a shutter lag time of 0.1 seconds, I was envisioning all the awesome shots I would capture. My photo success rate was going to skyrocket!

I didn't have enough time to take my camera out for a practice session before I had to cover the next race. So I just stood out on my balcony and took a few pictures of passing cars in order to get a feel for the camera. I live on a main thoroughfare, so the cars were cruising by at a pretty good clip: 50mph or more. The bikes wouldn't be moving as fast as that, so I thought these test shots would be a pretty good gauge of the camera's capabilities. I checked the test shots on my computer and loved the results. I was full of confidence as I headed out to the race.

When I got there, the other regular photo hounds and reporters couldn't help but notice my new camera. I received many congratulatory pats on the back and was applauded for finally getting a decent camera. I got lots of advice on how to use the camera, particularly from one man who insisted that shooting in Manual mode was the only way that "real" photographers work. I gave in to his ribbing, clicked the setting wheel to "M", and set myself up trackside.

I took a few photos during the first lap of the race, then checked the results in the preview window of the camera. Everything looked good. This was going to be a snap (no pun intended)! I took more than 300 photos that day, and couldn't wait to get home to check them out. On the drive back to my place, all I could think about was how hard it was going to be to choose only 10 good shots.

Imagine my horror, then, as I reviewed the day's work on my computer and saw that every single image was blurred! Apparently, the imperfections in the pictures couldn't be seen in the tiny preview window of the camera, but they were excruciatingly obvious when blown up to full-size on my computer screen. I did not have even one usable photo from the race.

Needless to say, I did not get paid for that assignment, and I missed out on several new assignments as my editor made me spend some time in the proverbial doghouse.

So what did I learn from all this? Just having an expensive camera that comes with lots of bells and whistles doesn't guarantee that you will end up with nice photographs. You have to take the time to learn how the equipment works before you use it. There are simply no shortcuts to taking great pictures.

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