“Okay riders, random start. Riders ready, watch the gate…” and then silence. Eight BMX riders sit frozen atop their ferrous frames, awaiting the gate holding them back that rests against their front wheels to drop – without warning – flat against the ground. Silence. The crowd, obeying the wishes for “silencio, por favor” from the mighty LED screen, can barely keep themselves together. Silence. Vultures circling over the neighboring favela dot the sky as a torrent of dust rolls across the course, caught in the dry, hot afternoon wind. Silence. The sunlight gleams against the colorful helmets of the riders, still unsullied by the scuffs and scrapes that will undoubtedly come from the painful wipe-outs in the days ahead. Silence. With a startling CRACK, the gate falls and the riders finally rocket down the first drop of the course, with screams and applause of the fans there to cheer them on flooding the arena. The battle is on!
Peddling with everything they have, the riders seem to sail effortlessly over the first jump of the course, taking enough air to seemingly join those vultures, still riding the rising thermals over Deodoro. The riders “scrub” their bikes (pushing them sideways while in flight to induce drag) as they fly forward to control exactly when and where they will land. The first turn of the course ahead, known as the “hole shot”, is a critical point not to be negotiated lightly. Coming out of this turn last could mean last place for the race, and ultimately, leaving Rio without a medal! The pack pushes on, down the next straightaway and onto a large jump which provides some of the highest air of the entire event. The “whoops” (a series of small hills) greet the riders next, before another turn and more whoops before the finish line. The entire thing is over in just over a minute, but for them (and for us photographers following them through our lenses), the ride seems as if it’s in slow motion – an eternity.
BMX is a sport I was first introduced to at the Summer X-Games in 2006, where my good friend Mark J. Rebilas brought me out to assist him with remote camera rigging for ESPN The Magazine. Over the course of the 2006 and 2007 X-Games, I got to learn the ins and outs of the sport, and got to appreciate its diverse visual offerings. While the course may not change at a given event, things rarely happen out there the same way twice, which is always great for us photographers seeking unique imagery run after run. Riders take different “lines” (the specific place on the course they ride) from heat to heat, allowing different compositions and angles of the same person. The different features of the course (which I mentioned above) also provide opportunities to capture a rider in many, many different forms (high up off the ground, digging down low, coming into or our of a turn). The opportunity for capturing unique angles on the course with remote cameras (cameras unmanned and fired with a radio remote) is also a great way to make a unique image from a vantage point otherwise unseen.
(Warning – this next paragraph is for the tech-heads!) Capturing action at BMX here in Rio using a remote is something I had in mind well before I left the United States, so naturally, I packed many options for rigging remotes: Magic arms, a floor plate, a ball head, and of course, safety cables. Rounding out my remote kit was lots of small but essential accessories such as gaff tape, spike tape, zip ties, and velcro wraps. To trigger a remote, I brought along my trusty Pocket Wizard Plus II units, along with a pre-trigger box that I built from scratch to interface the Pocket Wizards with the camera.
My first day on the BMX course here in Rio was yesterday, where I photographed the men’s and women’s seeding runs (individual runs of each rider to determine how they’d be paired up for the 8-person quarterfinals, which I covered today). The seeing runs gave me a great opportunity to study the course and determine where the best place to set a remote would be. Before I got my hopes up for anything, though, I made sure to run my plan by the photo manger of the venue, Eduardo Bairros. “Duda”, as he prefers to be called, was more than on-board with a remote, and pretty much gave me free reign to put a camera wherever I wanted, so long as it didn’t put a rider’s safety in jeopardy, and as long as it didn’t interfere with the OBS (TV) cameras. Let me tell you, this kind of access for remotes here at the Olympics in unheard of at other venues, so I was quite pumped at the possibilities! Duda asked me to arrive at least three hours early on the day I wished to set a remote, so he could accompany me onto the course as I rigged it, and to make sure we weren’t interfering with any practice runs.
For the quarterfinal heats today, I decided to set my remote below the high jump that occurs about halfway through the course. A set of Olympics rings compliments the composition of blue sky and a bit of the jump quite nicely. Arriving early and on time, Duda and I scaled the steep features of the course to get to the position where the camera would live. One thing that struck me as we walked the course is that the surface the riders are on is as hard as concrete! For some reason, I assumed it would be some sort of rubbery material to have some give in a crash situation, but I suppose this would make it difficult to pedal a bike quickly atop it. As luck would have it, while we were on the course rigging my camera, I met another tech from Chicago who was adjusting one the OBS remote video cameras in the same spot, which was provided by Fletcher (a Chicago rental house). The small world machine strikes again!
I used a Canon 1D Mark IV for my remote with a 16-35mm lens set all the way out to 16mm. I set the camera to aperture priority and ƒ11 (to maximize my depth of field, resulting in everything being sharp). With the camera in aperture priority mode, it means the camera will make the call on shutter speed (and the resulting image exposure) automatically. To ensure that I would have fast shutter speeds to freeze the action even if it got cloudy later in the day, I chose a rather high ISO for daytime – 800. With one final double check that the camera was firing via the Pocket Wizard remote in my hand, Duda and I retreated with fingers crossed that the camera would be a success.
Ecuador’s Alfredo Campo is helped off the field of play after crashing during the men’s individual BMX cycling quarterfinal heats. You can see how hard the racing surface is based on the condition of Campo’s shirt after his crash!
During the quarterfinal heats, I covered the race with my handheld cameras as I normally would. When the riders would near the jump with the remote, I’d reach up to the transmitter mounted atop my handheld camera and hold the button that fires the remote. The transmitter can also be set to take a picture with the remote whenever you take a picture with the camera in your hand, but I didn’t want this (in this scenario, the remote would fire anytime I took a picture of anything else on the course, even when the riders weren’t going over the jump with the remote, resulting in hundreds of blank frames of blue sky on the remote, and eventually, the memory card filling up prematurely).
When the competition ended, I got permission to go out on the course and retrieve the remote camera. Excited, I skipped up to the camera like a school girl! I was excited to see that it was still powered up, but my heart quickly sank when I saw that the remaining shot capacity displayed on the top screen was still in the 600’s (where it was at the beginning of the day during set-up). I got on my hands and knees and confirmed my fears when I hit the playback button – the camera had only fired once, and for one rider going over the jump during a practice run. Just for confirmation, I hit the transmitter on my handheld camera to make sure the remote would still fire when I was right next to it, and it did. I immediately knew what had gone wrong.
The only rider that the remote fired for, USA’s Connor Fields, during practice. This sure would have looked better with six or seven more riders in the air! Alas, such is remote camera life.
The features of the course where I decided to set the camera effectively put it in a deep concrete bowl, probably more than ten feet deep, which made it difficult if not impossible for the radio signal from the transmitter to make it to the receiver atop the camera. The rider the camera did fire for was one that I triggered from very near the jump. Typically, my Pocket Wizard radio units are extremely reliable, but this was one situation where they just weren’t up to the challenge. Disappointed, I grabbed the remote and headed off the course to transmit my take from my handheld cameras.
The important lesson here for photographers who might be just getting their feet wet with remotes is that they are ALWAYS an extra addition to your primary cameras. Remotes are the icing on the cake, but they’re never the full meal. Remotes should never make or break your shoot for the day, and my failed remote didn’t break my BMX take here in Rio. I still had many frames that I was proud of from the day, including a crash! Sure, I was disappointed that the remote was a bust, but I was glad that I at least tried to make a unique picture from the BMX course. I’m hoping that another extreme sport I’ll be covering for the next three days, mountain biking, will offer some more opportunities to rig a remote with better results.
The distant view from our kitchen window in the Deodoro village.
Guy’s Portuguese Phrase of the Day comes from Duda the photo manager, who in response to me thanking him for all the help with the remote camera, told me, “Estamos juntos.” The phrase, pronounced here with a little accent, “Teh-mu zhoont,” means, “We are together,” as in, “Estamos juntos when it comes to making photos happen at the Olympics!”