Photographing a greyhound race turned out to be a bigger challenge than I was expecting. There I was, brand new entry-level dSLR in hand, ready and willing to learn, expecting to come home with a memory card full of great pictures. All you need to do is use a fast shutter speed, right?
Needless to say, I left the track that day disappointed. It was out of that disappointment that came the determination to learn both my camera and the sport of greyhound racing as thoroughly as possible. If not for the greyhounds, my life would have taken a very different course. Click through the slide show for five things the greyhounds can teach you about photography.
When shooting action, panning is paramount. Tracking your subject can be tricky at first. DSLR cameras have multiple AF points, ranging from five to more than 50 depending on the camera body. Using a single focus point to track your subject will be far more effective than allowing the camera to pick for you. Make sure your camera's focus mode is set to continuous (AF-C on a Nikon, AI Servo on a Canon) so the lens will continue to refocus as your subject moves closer. These dogs move quickly, and though you're able to anticipate the general direction the dogs will go, the path each dog takes is different every time. Each race is completely different from the next. Some dogs like to stay closer to the inside of the track, while other dogs prefer to run in the middle or near the outside. Each type of dog presents their own set of challenges depending on your gear setup and position on the track.
Races can run anywhere from noon to midnight, which means you'll get anything from the bright mid-day sun to the yellow, angular evening rays to nothing but artificial light from the track. If you're lucky, you'll get some cloud cover during the daytime. The tricky thing about lighting and greyhound racing is that you don't get to pick what conditions you shoot in; the race runs when it runs, so you have to adapt and learn to make use of what you have. Finding the right settings for night shots took quite some time and a lot of practice in the beginning. Newer technology has made it much easier. The most difficult lighting for me is when the sun is going down and the rays come in directly behind the dog, as seen in this photo.
Mastering the Exposure Triangle will greatly improve your ability as a photographer. There are three components to the triangle: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks. Capturing the greyhounds in motion during the daylight hours is relatively simple. The challenge comes at night. There is no flash photography allowed at a racetrack, so you're forced to make due with what little ambient light is available. Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the shutter is open, and it is of great importance when the goal is to stop action. The value is measured in seconds. When shooting action, you'll be dealing with fractions of seconds. A high shutter speed means less motion blur, but since light has less time to enter the lens, it can result in a darker image. Greyhound racing calls for values no lower than 1/1000 because of how quickly the dogs' legs move. The aperture is the size of the opening of the lens that controls how much light is let in. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture, which means the most amount of light is let in. The drawback is that wider apertures lead to photos with a very narrow depth of field, so the focus has to be just right. Action photography necessitates high shutter speeds and wide aperture values. ISO should be kept as low as possible because higher values add noise to the photo, rendering it grainy and unusable. In most cases, to counter a low light problem, a photographer will simply add a light source to the image. Because flash photography is prohibited at a racetrack, you'll have to bump up the ISO at night. Once you've learned how Aperture and Shutter Speed work together, you can venture into the realm of Manual Mode. The more you practice, the faster it will all make sense. Photography is all about making the best compromise between the three elements of the Exposure Triangle.
Because shooting at night necessitates a high ISO, you'll wind up with a bunch of noisy, grainy pictures straight out of camera, not to mention an underexposed image. Exposure correction and noise reduction one of the most important edits you'll do.
There have been many cases where I make the drive to the track only to miss the photo completely. Greyhounds that like to run on the inside of the track are difficult to capture because many of them will be shoulder-to-shoulder with another dog as they race past my lens. Wide runners also present a challenge because they get much closer to the lens and confuse the autofocus. When I was learning to take action shots at night at the racetrack, I had one shot per race. I had to press the shutter at the exact moment the dog crossed the finish line under the lights. Each race ran every 15 minutes and there were only 15 races per card. So after nearly 4 hours of work I was able to come home with 15 images, most of them subpar in the beginning. Thankfully, newer technology has made things much easier. All it takes is one race to realize what amazing athletes these dogs are. Their speed is unmatched, their grace unrivaled, and their focus is hard to miss. For me, there's no more fitting subject than the American Racing Greyhound.
If you don't have a retired racing greyhound in your home, please consider adopting one! Visit adopt-a-greyhound.org to learn about the breed and to find an adoption group in your area. And don't fret; these dogs are very well taken care of during their racing careers.
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