One for the Petrol Heads

(Originally Posted 28th Feb 2007 to cpix.co.nz)

Covering bike speedway for the paper a couple of weeks ago, and got this cool shot.

0702117201”Close racing action in the first turn at Moore Park on Sunday as Martin Emmerson of England, Andrew Alridge of Halswell and Craig Ramsey from Hastings all jostle for position in the fourth A grade heat of the Robin Mackinnon Memorial speedway meeting at Moore park on Sunday. Andrew Aldridge was the eventual winner of the Robin Mackinnon Memorial Plate.”

These are 500CC single bangers, on tuned pipes. Tuned for power that is, not tuned for making the neighbours happy while they prune their lilies before green tea at 10 with the Smythe-Joneses.

Off the line they reach about 100km/hr before the first turn, which is only 50m on loose dirt. Not fast, but enough to make it difficult to pan the camera without looking like a silly spinning top.

Just watching the bikes get off the line is an event. Waiting as the bikes line up I’m checking settings on the camera, looking for numbers on the front of the bikes, need local riders for the paper. Checking where the safety marshals and other photographer are standing so I don’t take a portrait of their high-viz jackets instead of a bike, and wondering if I let the cat out before I left home. It all leads to rising adrenaline, and that funny tingling feeling you get when you lick a nine volt battery.

The five bikes are all lined up behind the starting gate, and tension is building, the riders scuff their boots through the loose top layer of clay. I assume to get a kick off on the ground to help with the launch, or because they play cricket as well, I’m not sure.

0702117298The arena announcers are talking about how Jim wearing number 12 has come back well this year from an ingrown toenail, and the cousin of number 17 once had a horse that was lame. It really doesn’t matter what they say, it merges in with the barp-barp blap-blap-blap of the miss-timed 5 cylinder idling orchestra like an other-worldly chatter from long lost friends you’ve never met.

The starter drops his hand, or a handkerchief, the speedway equivalent of the yellow lights on a drag tree. The five pot band leaps from oddly timed acid jazz tempo to roaring death metal faster than I can shell fresh peas, which is pretty quick I’ll have you know.

The tingle down my spine is now more of a sizzling as adrenaline and the five cups of coffee I had for breakfast leap to attention and fire off a 21 gun salute in my synapses.

1000th of a second, F/4.0 Don’t change the settings. Centre focus point on my man, Number 1, Andrew Alridge. Half press the shutter button, focus tracking.

The wild animals are left clawing at the fence for no more than a second, the fence lifts, and they burst free. Roaring and snorting towards the waiting corner, like 2 tonnes of prime beef in a Spanish village.

Don’t take any photos till the day-glow of the first safety marshal blurs past the lens. He’s standing closer to the action than me, but at least he has a red flag, the bikes will stop for him. All I could do would be to throw six grand worth of camera gear and hope it takes one of them out.

A blur of orange and plumbers butt-crack dances through the now wildly shaking viewfinder. Press the shutter button full down, get some photos. The camera fires off the images, clack clack clack.

Concentrate. Zoom back, keep some space to the left side of the frame, number one, white vest, blue leathers, centre focus point. Clack Clack Clack.

As the bikes slide past I can feel them more than see them. The view I have though the viewfinder is odd, constrained and disturbingly close to the action. The thumping, vibrating sensation in the core of my body is more real, believable. The sound of the five bikes on the first corner while they are bunched up is thunderous, and resonates off the wooden walls around the track. Clack Clack Clack.

The caffeine and hormones are messing with my nerves and and possibly my judgement, I’m sure it’s moments like these people agree to join pyramid schemes to pawn off odd products on unsuspecting friends. I think I got a good one on that pass, I’m sure they were close together this time. Finger off the shutter button.

The left side of my face is blasted by fine clay dust from the passing cacophony. I stopped ducking three races ago, they remove all the stones from the track, don’t they?

0702117222At least one of the bikes is running castor oil, a shot of sickly sweet exhaust fumes, mixing with dust and sweat.

By the time the riders come back my way, seventeen seconds later, they are spread all over the place, I half-heatedly rattle off some more shots in their direction. Three more laps to go.

5 minutes till the next race. Get my next fix.

Good thing I’m not a petrol head, I could get hooked!

ANZAC Day, 2013 Edition

25th of April is ANZAC day in New Zealand. I wandered down to Leeston for the local parade as I normally do and as well as taking our Daughter down so she could march with the Girl Guides I dragged the camera along for the ride.

There’s nothing spectacular about that at all, I’ve taken the camera along to a number of ANZAC parades, Dawn services, wreath laying ceremony’s and to be honest probably a few letter openings as well when I used to work for the local rag.

Even the really good photo opportunities are the same year in, year out, unless someone does something exceptional. The photos on this page could be from any year in the last ten and you’d probably even have the same people in most of them.

What caught my attention was how many people came to the local parade this year. Every twelve months the gathering seems to get bigger here in rural Canterbury and the crowd is more varied every time as well.

Even some folks with peculiar political leanings who I’d have thought would avoid anything with a whiff of military involvement came this year to lend their support, and to remember.

Remembrance was the theme of the local mayor’s speech this year, and it’s that which seems to resonate so well with many in attendance, including myself, who have not lived through any of the hardship of our forbears.

It’s just an observation and I don’t aim to over analyse, glorify or make much of it. I thought I’d just share the unspoken observation with the ones I made via the lens today.

Saturday’s Sunset

I don’t know about where you live, but here the sun sets pretty much every day. Granted it sometimes does so behind a veil of grey or in the total absence of cloud it just disappears without the slightest hint of pomp and ceremony.

We are blessed, however, here in Canterbury with a reasonable number of stunning sunsets, along with the one at the beginning of the day. What’s the name of that one? Sunlift? Sunclimb? Not sure. I’m not really a morning person, but I’m sure you know what I’m on about.

I’m a sucker for a good sunset as much as the next bloke, although in truth it’s the cloud scape I’m after when I venture off into the setting sun. The way our house faces the first indication I get of a good sunset is the red glow out to the east towards Banks Peninsula.

If I see the landscape getting that surreal golden look about it I’ll grab the camera and do a 5 minute photo recon of the back yard and check out what mother nature has thrown on. This is what I got on Saturday night when the wind had calmed itself from a furious day, and the number one daughter asked “Why is the sky a funny colour?”.

I blasted off some initial cloud-shots and chimped the RGB histogram on the camera to see what sort of light range I’d be competing with. Things were still a fraction too bright on the horizon for my liking, but the clouds looked great.

As the sun drops lower the light shears across the cloud base, creating the textures and effects that define and paint the sky. The closer it gets to the horizon the less contrast there is in the light and the more modelling you get of the clouds.

It’s a bit like playing chicken with mother nature. The sky changes quickly, shifting hues of red, orange and blue right, shards of light spreading further outwards as the sun gets under the base of the lowest clouds. If you wait too long the show is over, packed up it’s bags and moved on to another time zone.

This shows the problem with the light, even though this is two different exposures from one raw file, with a bit of doding on the shadows thrown in for good measure, I was still struggling to get enough detail in the shed and grass to be compelling, and the hot-spot from the sun is still too large and distracting for my liking.

After playing chicken for about 5 minutes things were looking about right. I couldn’t decide what exactly to take the photo of, so I opted for a sweeping 270 degree panorama shot vertically to get enough of the sky in the frame.

The shed is just off to the left of this, I decided it was too ‘heavy’ to leave in the frame, while the gate and fence balanced out the bright spot where the sun was sneaking out of site quite nicely.

Again this image is created from two raw conversions of each image, 16 in total without the shed on the right. The sky is as-shot, and the exposure for below the horizon was bumped up 2 stops and then blended in the GIMP before assembling the panorama.

There are two things that make a panorama successful, apart from the obvious need for something interesting to take a photo of. Exposure and overlap of images. The software for creating panoramas has come ahead by leaps and bounds over the last few years, but there’s no substitute for good source images.

If you take a set of mediocre images and try to stick them together you’re going to get an equally mediocre result. I’m a great fan of digital photography but many people seem to focused on the digital bit, and ignore the photography.

Setting exposure for a panorama is more problematic than a single-frame photo as you are potentially covering a far wider dynamic range. In this case I shot some frames of the brightest spot, adjusting the exposure until an acceptably small patch was showing the blinking over-exposure highlight. I then used AE-lock to fix the exposure for all 10 frames.

Using AE lock fixes the exposure and means that the tone-blending part of the panorama process is so much easier for the software to sort out. I use Hugin on Linux, but all of the current tools are very similar in function. They don’t cope well if you’ve got a two stop difference in exposure between frames, and you get bands of light and dark areas in the finished image.

Along the lines of keeping the job simple for the computer is having the images overlap in a sensible way, and having plenty of overlap to work with. On the left is one of the images from the panorama, full frame.

Keeping the horizon through the middle of the frame makes the job of stitching the images far easier, and having at least 1/3rd of the frame as overlap ensures the software will have enough points to create a seamless version of what you saw.

Right time, right place

This is my first posting to the new blog about photography, so my apologies to anyone who’s started following this site on the assumption that I blabber on about SEO and marketing related topics all the time.

(Gallery down below, re-posted from my old blog but I lost the places for the photos inline. 🙂 )

I commute to work, as many of you surely do. Twice a day I tootle across the countryside in our long suffering MX5, which aside from being 20 years old now is ailing distinctly from the gravel road portion of the trip it endures five times a week.

On the way home, for a few months of the year I’m travelling during golden hour. For those not of a photography bent, golden hour is the magical bit before sunset and after sunrise when the low sun angle creates the wonderful golden light you see on sampler biscuit boxes and the cheap post cards your auntie Mavis sends.

For that reason I regularly lug a camera along with me. Many suspect it’s because I’m always on the hunt for road accidents but in all truth I’m more likely to cause one when I see something interesting and veer suddenly off the road to satisfy my itchy shutter finger.

On the way home tonight I had just such a moment, although because I was on a railway over bridge at the time I resisted the urge to suddenly park up, and decided the sensible thing to do would be park up and walk back to the bridge.

For those who know Christchurch, we’re talking about the Sockburn over bridge in Christchurch. The thing that caught my eye was the smoke stack for the Ravensdown fertiliser works, backlit by the setting sun. Golden hour and all that.

I took a few shots from the top of the bridge, looking east into the sun, but didn’t really come up with anything that I liked. This HDR was about all I could muster from up there, and decided a bit more adventure was in order.

In this case creating the tone mapped image is an attempt rescue a bunch of pretty average looking bracketed photos. I’ve been known to poke fun at people who try to rescue poor photos with editing gimmicks. Paint me guilty.

Next I went further into the scene, looking for the thing that caught my eye from the road. The smoke, or steam as it probably is, was arching out to the north when it first caught my eye, framing something. Something was needed to frame, so I parked up closer to the tracks and broke several laws and cast personal safety to the wind by wandering along the rails till I got this shot.

Maybe an interesting concept-stock shot for a green light for pollution? Green house gases? Not sure but certainly nicer to get it out of the camera rather than having to try and rescue it by twiddling with a mouse and keyboard for 30 minutes.

Off to the left of this scene is an empty section with some old car bodies, burnt out couches and a pile of general crud. All the normal detritus of human evolution we expect in industrial areas. There’s something magnetic about an empty lot near railway tracks that pulls in cars and couches like a black hole.

After a ten minute ramble this old trike catches my eye. Bang up the contrast a bit, add an odd tint and you’ve got one of those mournful shots which makes us wonder where the children are who used to play with the trike. How did it wind up here? Just as the junk was attracted to this location we seem to be drawn to broken toys.

A time check and I’m running late. Best be on my way, so I pick my way through the broken glass and head for the car a few hundred meters away. As I’m walking I hear a lonely steam whistle.

Odd. The fertiliser plant must have one? They’ve got a boiler of some kind, so maybe a shift just finished?

Walking with my back to the sun I can hear the whistle again, a bit louder. I reckon that’s a steam engine, can’t be. I’m no-where near any tracks.

Oh.

I go from casually walking away from the sun to trying to run into it. I’m sure any normal person would just wait for the train to go by. It’s not entirely sensible to try running into the sun wearing leather office shoes over railway ballast. Then I’m not an entirely sensible person, or so I’ve been told.

Close enough, it’s actually moving quite fast. I have a minor panic attack trying to remember how I exposed the sky on the previous photos. Even the best camera will have trouble pointed almost straight into the setting sun. Remember your mum always told you not to point your camera at the sun?

Focus on the train, expose on the sky, 1.3 stops down. Bang off as many shots as the camera will store. It’s a pity they don’t run coal these days, the smoke is a bit disappointing but the noise and atmosphere a steam engine projects can’t be beaten.

I’m standing about 15m away as the two engines rumble past with the plate glass carriages of the Tranz Scenic tucked in behind in a juxtaposition of ages which seems right in the same way putting wire-rim mag wheels on a Model T does.