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It’s All in The Timing – The Lost Art of Photography

It’s All in The Timing – The Lost Art of Photography


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There’s a wonderfully evocative photo that gets posted on twitter every so often of Chris Amon’s Ferrari at the Nordschleife in the 1968 German Grand Prix obviously taken by a professional but as usual, not credited.

The car is passing under the concrete bridge that spans the track just after the Aremberg bend on the run down to the Fuchsröhre. It is a colour image with the photographer positioned low in a trackside gully looking up at the car which is framed by the bridge and adjacent bushes. The shutter speed is set to show a slight motion blur in the car and catch the plume of spray it is throwing up from the wet track.

Apart from the stunning composition the truly remarkable thing about this image is the timing. The car would only have been in shot between the bushes for a fraction of a second and with its approach obscured, panning impossible. I don’t know the motor-drive capability of cameras of that time but as far as I am aware, and I stand to be corrected, the first film camera that could equate to today’s DSLR performance was not introduced until the 1984 Winter Olympics. It would have been a matter of hearing the car approach, finger on the shutter button and anticipating the moment when the car was about to appear. Further, there were no review screens on the camera to see whether the desired image had been captured or not.

Staying with the sporting theme, as a boy I watched the 1958 cup final between Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers live on grainy black and white television. Bolton’s second goal was scored when a high cross came in from the left wing. Harry Gregg the United ‘keeper, rather than catch the heavy leather ball, elected to parry it up in air with both arms before clutching it safely to his chest as he landed. As he did so Nat Lofthouse, the Bolton centre forward, arrived at full speed and bundled Gregg into the back of the net together with the dislodged ball. Whilst Lofthouse turned and celebrated with his team-mates the United goalie lay prone and unconscious. It was all over in a flash, one chance to see it, no action replays and only one TV camera positioned on the halfway-line to catch the action. Today the goal would be disallowed, Lofthouse almost certainly red-carded and probably an ensuing melee between both sets of players and staff. But the goal stood without protest or even mention of the word ‘foul’ by the commentator whilst everyone waited patiently for the stricken ‘keeper to regain consciousness.

But there is a single photograph taken from beside the goal at the precise moment to show exactly what happened. It is black and white, must have been taken on a large format camera and pin-sharp. Gregg has landed, both feet on the ground side-on to and just in front of his goal-line, with the ball clutched under-arm tight to his chest. Lofthouse is in the air using all his weight and momentum to shoulder charge the ‘keeper (as was allowed in those days) but actually using his elbow to knock the ball out of his grasp.

I would never suggest professional photography is easy. The photographer still has to envisage and make the image, but modern day DSLR technology certainly helps. With ‘burst’ mode such precise timing is not essential. Depress the shutter button for two or three seconds and one of the resulting fifty or so images would have captured the aforementioned moments.

After the first Grand Prix at Abu Dhabi a photograph taken from high up in the Yas Viceroy Hotel was published on social media. The hotel’s elaborate roof and walkways were used to frame a passing car on the visible section of track far below. I was impressed by the timing and patience it must have taken to capture this image but of course the ‘burst’ mode capabilities of high-end DSLRs take the randomness out of such shots. To be fair to the photographer, he never indicated otherwise.

However, others are a little more disingenuous. Photographing a subject’s face at fifteen frames per second will invariably capture a variety of expressions – a stifled yawn, a blink, a smile, a sideways glance.  There will always be an appropriate expression to complement the narrative, be it genuine or fortuitous.  Just listen to the barrage of chattering cameras on burst mode, like distant machine gun fire that greets the appearance of an under-pressure politician or celebrity, hoping for that facial-expression-says-it-all moment. Therefore, I took with a pinch of salt one leading F1 photographer’s claim that his image of Michael Schumacher momentarily looking away during a press conference had captured the precise moment he let his guard slip in public after his non-too-successful comeback with Mercedes, despite his outward bravado.

Another photographer was describing the challenge of photographing the cars lifting their inside front wheel over the kerb coming into Monaco’s swimming pool section. You cannot see the cars approaching he explains. It is a question of focusing on the kerb, wait until the car suddenly appears, one chance and ‘click’ there it is.

Well, I’m sorry guys a single shot? It makes a good narrative but I don’t believe you.

With ‘burst’ mode now available in a range of affordable cameras, at the race-track each passing car is accompanied by the chatter of rapid-firing cameras when more often than not a single shot would suffice. Because the expression ‘lots of images cost lots of money’ is no longer true, too many photographers don’t see the necessity to take the time to evaluate the scene and subject.

 ‘Spray and pray’ burst mode is becoming the camera’s default setting.

And timing is becoming a lost art.