My name is Curt Bianchi, and I'm guest blogging for Straw Hat Visuals today. In my real life, I'm a software engineer at Apple, but once a year I play sports photographer as part of Bill's Kentucky Derby crew. This is my sixth Derby with Bill, and I thought I'd share some behind the scenes insights into the making of Kentucky Derby photographs.
While the Derby is known as "the fastest two-minutes in sports," for Bill it lasts most of a week. He typically arrives at Churchill Downs on the Tuesday before Derby Day. This is by choice. One thing you don't see too much in the magazine is how much Bill loves to photograph the entire Derby experience, from the barns and exercise riders to the fans and their hats. The Derby is perhaps without peer among American sporting events in terms photographic opportunities, but you rarely, if ever, see Bill's non-race work featured in print. The advent of DSLR video and post-production software like Apple's Final Cut Pro changed the game, providing Bill and Laura with the tools to create multimedia pieces for SI's Web sites. These pieces are an ideal outlet for incorporating all of the creative elements that make the Derby such a compelling event for Bill and Laura to cover.
Racing at Churchill Downs is an all-day event, with 11 or 12 races stretching from late morning to dinnertime. That means exercising the horses on the track takes place early, starting before dawn. Bill's usual routine is to be out of the hotel everyday between 4:30 and 5 a.m. in order to shoot the activity on the "backside," the area where the barns are located. Bill has shot the backside for something like 28 years, and he never gets tired of it. There is a tremendous amount of activity here, with more than 40 barns packed into a fairly tight space. It also feels intimate. Horses, exercise riders, hot walkers and trainers are everywhere, and the sunrise brings ever-changing light. As Bill said in an earlier blog post, it's "peaceful and beautiful; tranquil, but exciting." It's a great place to be a photographer. Bill loves to wander the backside with a 400mm lens, and he's a master a picking out details with it.
Serious preparations for the Derby itself begin on Friday of race week with the marking of spots. After the morning training session is done, all of the photographers from the various press agencies get together on the "frontside," where the grandstands are located. Spots are marked along the finish line, on both the inside and outside rails. There is a pecking order for this. The Churchill Downs official track photographer gets first choice, followed by the major media outlets such as SI, Associated Press and Getty Images, the great local papers --The Louisville Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald Leader. The spots are small, usually 18 inches to 3 feet wide.
Once the spots are determined, cameras can be installed.
This year, SI covered the race with three photographers: Bill, Heinz Kluetmeier, and Gary Bogdon. Bill always covers the first turn and the finish line. This is a lot of territory, encompassing a bunch of angles, so Bill installs upwards of 30 cameras to capture it all. Obviously, he can't be in all places at the same time, so most of the cameras are pre-composed and focused by Bill and fired by assistants. A few others are handheld by other assistants.
Bill places a dozen cameras under the inside rail, just after the finish line. These cameras -- equipped with lenses ranging from 14mm to 400mm lenses -- give the perspective of horses running nearly on top of you with the grandstands in the background. Other cameras are clamped to stands 1/8 of a mile ahead of the finish line, providing a higher perspective of the race. These have wide angle lenses and are mostly composed to directly face the grandstands. All of the cameras are wired so that they can be fired remotely, as the photographers here have to stand some distance away from the rail in order to avoid creating distractions for the horses. Another set of cameras is placed on the roof of the grandstands. These give you the sweeping shots of the fans and the track. With the Derby run late in the day, the lighting is usually gorgeous for these shots. After Bill composes and pre-focuses everything, the cameras are then "bagged" with plastic bags in case it rains before Derby time and to keep the cameras protected from dirt and moisture during the day while the racing card takes place and the grounds crew prepares the surface.
The last set of remotes are installed on the outside rail of turn one. Which brings me to my job at the Derby this year… In the past, I've handled what I would consider non-essential shots; that is, shots that wouldn't seriously detract from the overall shoot if they failed. One of my favorite Derby memories is from two years ago. It was raining on race day and in the afternoon Bill got the idea to install a camera under the rail to shoot the horses' hooves close up, splashing in the mud for a multimedia piece. I took the equipment out to the location where Bill planned to meet me to set it up. But he got delayed and sent me the text, "Can't get there. Do what you can. Good luck." This was my first time using a pocket wizard -- something you wouldn't ordinarily use in this environment -- but with Andy Hancock's help, we got it all working.
This year, Bill upped the ante, asking me to man turn one. Turn one is the location for one of the most iconic shots of the Derby -- the pack of horses rounding the turn with the Churchill Downs twin spires in the background. Bill sets up turn one with three pre-focused, pre-composed cameras: A mid-range lens to capture the spires, and a 300mm and 400mm to come in tight on the horses rounding the turn. These are all wired together so that they can be fired with a single remote trigger. An assistant --my wife, in this case -- only has to push the button at the right time. Sounds easy, right? But there's also the problem of exposure, which cannot be pre-determined because of the changing light conditions. For instance, last year it rained all day, right up until a minute before the horses left the starting gate, when the sun came out. It made for incredible images with mud flying everywhere, but it was a scramble trying to get exposures changed. Not only that, we shoot the horses "twice around," meaning the light could be different from one time to the next. For the inside rail shots, last minute changes aren't possible because the assistants have to be off the rail around race time, so you do the best you can.
In addition to the pre-composed cameras in turn one, I was assigned to shoot a handheld 600mm. Now, let me just say right here that I've never shot a 600mm lens, so the prospect of getting tightly composed and properly focused shots of horses running past me at 35 miles per hour or so seemed a bit daunting. But like I said earlier, there are races all day long, so I practiced.
In between all of the set up and preparations, Bill also finds time to shoot the fans and what he calls "feature work." Not much of it will find its way into the magazine, but this kind of shooting is one of the reasons Bill keeps coming back. One of the best places to shoot fans is from the paddock where the horses are saddled and the jockeys are mounted before each race. It is packed with spectators, and Bill can use his 400mm for tight crops and shallow depth of field. He also finds time to wander the infield, which is a completely different world from the grandstands. All in all, Bill's days are packed and sleep is in short supply. The same goes for Laura, who in addition to capturing audio and video at Churchill, does most of the post-production work and all of the video editing.
Finally, race time approaches. For me, the Derby is both exhilarating and nerve-racking. My wife and I got to turn one about an hour before the race in order to be there before the horses are lead from the barns to the frontside and into the paddock through a tunnel in the stands. Bill made one last check and set exposures, but there's still plenty of time for the light to change, and of course, it does. My main job is to stay on top of the exposures of the pre-composed cameras and shoot the 600mm handheld. I was so pre-occupied with the light that I completely missed the horses coming out of the paddock and parading in front of the stands before being lead to the starting gate at the far end of the track.
Once the horses are off, they are on top of you quickly and you've got about a five second window in which to shoot in turn one. The long lenses are shot wide open, so depth of field is extremely limited. I absolutely could not have shot that 600mm on manual focus while tracking the horses. Today's auto focusing cameras and lenses are a boon to photographers, dramatically increasing the success rate of mere mortals such as myself. And even then, it's not that easy. Back in the day when Bill came up, everything was manual focus, and the ability to focus long lenses on rapidly moving subjects separated the men from the boys. It's one of the essential qualities that have made top notch sports photographers such as Bill and Heinz Kluetmeier so successful. For the Derby, Bill shoots a 600mm handheld from the outside rail about 70 yards past the finish line -- he still shoot manual focus so that he can compose the way he wants quickly. He shoots the horses all the way down the track coming toward him, but most often the money shot is a tight one of the winning horse passing the finish line and the jockey celebrating. That's the shot that made the cover when Calvin Borel won aboard 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird in 2009.
After the race, it's a scramble to get cards back to the media room so that they can be copied onto computers and uploaded to the magazine's offices. The Nikon cameras Bill uses have two card slots which can be configured so that each shot is written to both cards. This enables Bill and Laura to give one set of cards to SI's Photo Operations Manager Erick Rasco while keeping another set of cards for their use in prepping another multiple piece. Erick is so calm, friendly and fast when he is on location with the photographers it makes an incredible difference.
We also have to clean and pack all of the equipment. This may seem like an afterthought, but cleaning and packing is extremely important and is not taken lightly.
You are talking about a massive amount of fragile and expensive gear.
We typically use wet wipes to clean off the equipment. Fortunately there was no rain on race day so the cleaning part was easy this time -- we finished it in about three hours.
When all is said and done, we got out of the Downs at around 10 p.m., time enough to get back to the hotel and order pizzas for everyone and a night of post-production editing.
My thanks to Bill and Laura for another great Derby. I had a great time, and so did the backup (or is it primary?) brain.
The multimedia "Beating the Odds: The 138th Kentucky Derby" is now on SI.com