Last Saturday was the annual Joe Gerrity Jr. Memorial Stakes at Saratoga Harness. The Gerrity is a 15-race card that is the highlight of the Saratoga Harness racing season, and the top pacers from across the nation come to upstate New York for the big prizes.
Me? I’m just there to try to renew a photo experiment from last year.
Last year, I tried to shoot a series of finish line twilight photos with my telephoto 80-200 f/2.8 lens and my Nikon Df. I liked the final pictures … but I didn’t love them. That’s just me, I can’t settle for “just good enough” when it comes to photos.
So last Saturday, I tried to up my game. Brought the Nikon F2S film camera (“Nikon Athena”) and a pack of Fuji 400 color print film. Oh, and my 55mm Nikkor F/1.2 lens, my widest lens in my F-mount arsenal.
The plan – get a photo of the winning horse as it passes across the illuminated finish line. No flash, no strobes – just the atmospheric light and the overhead tower glow.
Pulled up at the Harness track at about 6:30 p.m. Oh, and did you know that Saratoga Harness’ adjoining hotel and casino has free EV car-charging stations? That’s right, I can photograph the entire track card and my 2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier (“Lightning’s Girl”) will get a full recharge of go-go spark.
Okay. Car’s plugged in, got my tripod and my camera bag, and …
Suddenly, a Jeep pulls up next to me. “Chuck! Get in, I’ll drive you over to the track!”
I looked – it was Melissa, the track photographer at Saratoga Harness. She’s a really nice person, and she has her own side hustle with homemade gemstones and such. And I’m not going to turn down a free trip to the track.
The first few races were in the daylight, and I set up my camera just at the rail, at maybe a 45-degree angle so that the finish line and the tote board were in complete focus.
A few daytime shots, just to test out this camera’s abilities …
Not bad. Not great, but okay.
As darkness approached, I slowly opened up the lens aperture. My film speed is ISO 400, I can’t change that. So the only two variables available are shutter speed and aperture. I need a fast shutter speed – these are horses pacing at full pacer speed, so I don’t dare go below 1/125th of a second.
I started with f/16, as it was a bright and sunny day. As the skies darkened, I trusted the light meter on the F2S chassis. Once it got the aperture fully opened to f/1.2 … I had to trust the process.
As a photographer, shooting with film presents its own challenges. You have to trust your process. You have to make sure everything is on point – film speed, shutter speed and aperture. You don’t get the luxury of checking Live View to confirm if the shot worked out. No chimping allowed with print film, folks.
And you’re also waiting for the results. Not just in terms of minutes, but in days. I’m still not comfortable developing my own film – well, I can do it so long as it’s B&W 120 film, anything else is still nerve-wracking for me. So color print film goes to McGreevy Pro Lab in Albany on Wednesday, as their development day is Wednesday night. Slide film gets mailed to Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, and I’ll just have to resolve myself to a 3-week wait for results. Not complaining, mind you. Just understanding that there’s a process to all this.
Last night, my film shots came back from McGreevy Pro Lab. It looks as if I hit my film exposures right on the horse’s nose. Yeah, I’m digging Nikon Athena. And as for using Fuji 400 print film …
Here’s one of the night shots.
Yikes. Avert your eyes. This is awful.
Those shutter speeds do absolutely NOTHING to help. There’s still a nasty amount of motion blur on this photo. The numbers on the tote board are reasonably readable, but the horses are speeding by to the point where you can’t make out any numbers on them. Nothing. It’s just a straight-up mess.
When I try this again (and you know I will), I’m going to see if I can push the film by shooting it at maybe 1600 ISO (even though it’s 400 ISO) and asking the pro lab to give it a two-stop push and pray for good results.
But at least I have a baseline on this.