When at the Track, Stand in the Corner (with Custom White Balance Example)

When shooting track sports with multiple laps involved, the participants will often get into a line and, especially at the beginning of the race, will be bunched tightly together. If the participant in first place is your primary subject, you can generally get a clear front-on shot from anywhere on the track. But, if you are shooting a second place participant or beyond and want a front-on shot, minimally the person in first place has great potential to block that shot.
That is unless you are in the corner. As the racers break into the corner, visibility of the next person in line becomes momentarily clear for a front-on shot or shots. Yes, you can often get a clear side view on the straights, but the corners are better for a clear front-on shot. Also, passing happens most frequently on the straights, meaning that even the side view is more likely to be obstructed.
While this advice applies to multiple sports (including motorsports if safety permits), I most frequently use this strategy for shooting distance running on the track. I most frequently choose the first corner, just past the start/finish line (so that I can photograph the finish of the race as well), on condition that the background and lighting are good. In this indoor venue, access to turn 1 was not available and a wall of windows would have created a blown white background or silhouetted subjects, so I opted for turn 3. In this corner, a second wall of windows provided a great broad, shaded light source.
Taking a very low-to-the-ground position helps keep the runners looking large/grand and often aids in keeping the background relatively clear of distractions by positioning ground-based distractions below the subject’s head. Using a wide aperture telephoto lens at max aperture on a full frame body also helps create a strong distraction-eliminating background blur.
Those of us in the northern hemisphere are in the dead of winter as I post this photo. Motorsports are mostly in hibernation and track and field events are indoors. Indoors usually means very low and potentially spectrum-starved light and, in the case for this track venue, mixed light sources were present.
Mixed light sources often mean white balance trouble. By positioning near the wall of windows, the outdoor shade light source became primary on the subject. While auto white balance keeps getting better in-camera and I nearly always use this setting while shooting, the key to easy white balance for this image was the neutral colored number label on the runner. Selecting the custom white balance eyedropper and clicking on the white part of this label brought the subject into nearly ideal color balance with a very slight warming being the only additional post processing color change I made.
It is a race and that means participants are going fast. This means that the duration of the into-the-corner visibility is going to be very short and this is where a great sports camera and lens combination is going to make a big difference in your results. A great AF system is needed to quickly lock onto the just-exposed subject and track them into the corner and a fast frame rate increases the odds of catching the perfect subject position. In this case, I was anticipating the shot. I positioned the camera (on a monopod), leveled using the electronic level in the viewfinder, pre-focused the lens to the expected need and then tracked the runner. As soon as the view opened, I pressed the shutter release and relied on AI Servo AF tracking and the fast frame rate to capture the ideal shot.
The Canon EOS 1D X is an awesome sports camera choice and the EF 200mm f/2L IS is an equally impressive lens for the task. This combination rocks for indoor sports action and that the 1D X Mark II promises to bring us a significant upgrade … I can’t wait!
Hopefully you were not told to “Stand in the corner!” very often during childhood, but … I’m telling you to do this today. Take your great sports camera and lens and go find a corner to stand in!
A larger version of this image is available on Flickr, Google+, Facebook and 500px. If reading from a news feed reader, click through to see the framed image.

Camera and Lens Settings
200mm  f/2.0  1/1250s
ISO 2000
3379 x 5068px

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