First in Flight – The Story of a Unique Photograph
Work To Be Done
I know more or less where I’d been standing, sure. But given how quickly this flight happened, I knew I had to be in the exact spot where that thin slice of air was visible. How could I find that place again?
By the next morning I had a plan. I’d copied the Pedrosa shot over to my phone, and early Sunday morning, before any bikes were on track, I returned to the section of track I’d visited the day before once again armed with the 70-200mm lens.
Holding up my phone with the desired perspective, I looked through the camera viewfinder as I moved slowly down the hill until I saw the same thing through the lens as I saw on my phone. At that point I made a point to remember where I was! Now I knew where to be to offer myself a chance to capture a MotoGP bike in flight.
All I had to do now was pull off the most difficult shot I’d ever attempted. I knew I would need to get very, very lucky.
Because luck was going to be a big part of this if I were able tp all it off, I had decide how much time I was going to risk. The odds were I’d be wasting my time and end up with nothing I could use. Every lap I spent here on the inside of Turn 1 was also a lap I wasn’t at another location, getting images I could sell. How much times was I willing to gamble on the off chance I could get a unique shot?
On Sunday I had to cover the race and I would need a variety of images. I simply couldn’t spend all day inside Turn 1 hoping to find a gold nugget. I decided I would spend no more than ten minutes chasing this unicorn.
I decided to shoot the start of the race from the Corkscrew, so after covering the grid I climbed on my scooter and raced up the hill to get a spot among the crowd of photographers.
After the first several laps, I got the feeling that if any drama were going to unfold here, it would have done by now. I slung cameras over my shoulders and walked up to the hole in the fence to head back down the hill. Just as I’d passed through the gate and was moving quickly toward my scooter, I heard the crowd cheer for what turned out to have been Marquez’ pass on Rossi. Dang!
I knew I’d missed something by leaving a bit too early. That only made me want a picture of flight all the more. I raced down the hill at a safe and conscientious speed and parked as close as I could to the gate that would allow me through the fence near Turn 1. I lugged my gear up the hill from the infield fence and took up my position at the spot I’d marked earlier that morning.
From my spot inside Turn 1 I could see the race leaders coming down through Turn 9 and heading toward Turn 10, so I had an idea of who would arrive moments later once they’d passed through the final turn and charged past the start/finish. But there was simply no way to acquire the speeding target, allow autofocus to track the subject, and click the shutter when I saw through the viewfinder what I was hoping to see.
I had only to listen, if that’s the right word while standing on a small race track full of MotoGP bikes, to try to anticipate the appearance of a a bike and rider, then move the camera and lens swiftly from right to left while trying to keep the blur of colors visible in the viewfinder. As I did this I clicked away, knowing that the vast majority of the exposures I was making, and possibly every single one of them, would be tossed into the digital trash later.
As I was firing away, friend Barry Munsterteiger spied me from his vantage point in the Red Bull party. He was kind enough to get this shot and then allow me to use it while telling this story:
My view from this position looked like this. Notice the blur of the gray fence post on the right side of the image and the fairly clean background. (Some people have expressed doubt that the First in Flight image was captured at Turn 1. I hope this wider view adds some perspective.)
As the laps ticked by and I tried to check my progress on the camera’s LCD, I found that there were so many blurred shots to sort through before finding one that might be decent, it wasn’t really worth my time to do so. The race was happening, after all. I’d set my time limit and had to stick to that. (In the end I’d spent just over 15 minutes there instead of the 10 I’d planned.)
Still, I did notice that occasionally the camera was seeing a rider’s front tire in the air, and sometimes the rear tire in the air. Usually, though, some part of the bike was out of focus.
On the fly I changed strategy: I would shoot a lap or two with the lens focussed on one section of track, then change the focus slightly and shoot the next few laps.
I did this several times, hoping that a bunch of factors would line up:
- Top (ideally the winning) rider captured
- In focus at just the right moment when
- Both wheels were in the air and the
- Entire bike was in the frame.
I resigned myself to leaving this spot, figuring I might try next year if I’d not succeeded. At the time we didn’t know this would be MotoGP’s last visit to Laguna Seca for the foreseeable future.
I photographed the remainder of a fantastic race, where Marquez became the first MotoGP rookie to win at Laguna Seca, the first MotoGP rookie to earn eight podiums in the first nine races, and the youngest MotoGP rider to win back to back races.
Continues on the next page: