We did a quick trip up to Chicagoland last weekend and photographed the Palos Meltdown mountain bike race hosted by CAMBr (www.cambr.org). This event is the largest mountain bike race in Illinois and this year drew over 740 racers. Why is it called the meltdown you may be asking? The course uses trails that encompass the past operating grounds and current burial site of the world’s first nuclear reactor: CP-1/CP-2. Anyways, we were able to work our magic and walked away with some great images. Check out our favorites from the event here: 2012 Palos Meltdown Select Photos
We hit the road Saturday afternoon just as a huge storm blew in and brought blinding amounts of rain and straight line winds in excess of 50mph. The 180 mile drive was a bit tedious with the constant rain. Along the way we saw an overturned dot-matrix road construction sign (outriggers and all) and a cell tower which had been toppled by the strong winds.
Luckily this event was advertised as rain or shine and the weather had negligible impact. The trails were very wet Saturday evening but dried considerably by Sunday morning and became borderline dusty towards the end of the race.
After arriving, we helped the CAMBr crew do some course setup and camped overnight. Starting early, we did a bit of candid shooting amongst the gathering crowds and also captured the start of the first wave of the Cat 3/Novice race. We then high-tailed it to the trails, got lost, and missed our first shot opportunity, but managed to catch most of the riders at our second photo spot.
On the trails, we primarily used a 10-20mm f/4.0-5.6 wide angle lens in conjunction with an off camera strobe triggered via radio slave. Using a strobe is critical when working in conditions where there is such a drastic difference in light intensity coupled with low light (such as a forest). The intense sunlight blasting through the canopy and the dark shadows wreak havoc on the cameras metering system. The strobe is the key to restoring order in the exposure by underexposing the background and using the strobe as the primary (key) light on the subject. Some interesting effects can be created by incorporating shadows of the bikes into the frame as well.
We also did some long shots with the 100-300mm zoom lens and incorporated the radio strobe to highlight the riders. A few shots around 300mm required the flash/trigger to be setup ~70 feet away from the camera and the radio trigger didn’t miss a beat at this distance.
Our SOP for shooting MTB events with the wide angle lens goes like this: dial in the shutter speed to allow a bit of background blur when panning, low apertures for shallow depth of field and greater light sensitivity, low ISOs for minimal noise, underexpose 1 stop, flash compensation to +1 stop, get close, get low, and find interesting backgrounds.
Scouting locations before an event is a must if you are unfamiliar with the area and we were very unfamiliar in this instance. Additionally, we make sure to go to the areas few people are willing to go to. We rarely hang out around the start finish line to shoot the racers because everyone else is generally shooting from this location and their shots will look pretty much the same. We prefer the difficult shot. The shot where a mile hike through the bush, burrs, and poison ivy exposure is required. I find this method much more rewarding and helpful at honing our skills. Plus, it gives us exclusivivity and the only thing that really matters: great photos.