Photo Decathlon Recap: First 24 Hours

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Photo Decathlon Recap: First 24 Hours

TL;DR: Awesome.

Thursday night: Say hello and meet my teammate, the awesome and kind Luke Graham. Kickoff meeting and rules clarification, received location and themes which had been under wraps until 9pm.

Rules: 10 Themes, allowed to submit three photos to each theme. Must submit minimum of 5 photos. Must shoot most photos in a very limited geographic area. Some I knew about, some I did not. Some I had been to years ago, but it had been a long while. In the bracket I was competing in, we had some hard choices to make and not a lot of time to get there, much less get a great shot and then finish editing in time to submit.

Themes for this competition:

Landscape, Waterscape, Cityscape, Night, Product, People, Thematic, Photojournalism, Street, Architecture

You can see the assigned areas here.

So we had to figure out how two of us could cover all of that. I realized at that moment, that we should have expanded our team by two. It was going to be brutal to get landscape shots.

9:30 pm until midnight: Plan. Strategize. Talk about style and goals. Plan. Google Maps integration was sweet, but we still had to figure out who should go where to shoot what. The themes spanned a wide range and there were times I wish I had been more proactive about adding people to our team. We had to book two model sessions and in order to do that, we had to map our entire schedule for the next two days.

Friday: Midnight to 1:30 am we shot the Utah State Capitol. I debated driving up to one of our Waterscapes which was next to one of our Landscapes. Was too beat to make that trip. Regret #1. Missed getting a sweet star field shot reflected in a high altitude lake. Opted instead for sunrise as that would give me at least a few hours to sleep.

A 20 second exposure of the Utah State Capitol, September, 2015.

Drive 1.5 hours (it was only supposed to take an hour) and then sleep: 3:30 am to 5:30 am. This call was made because I figured drive an hour, sleep in a bed. Drive 1.5 – 2 hours, don’t sleep. Because I can’t sleep in cars.

I hit the road at 6am. I cut it damn close. This was supposed to be a 90 minute drive. I timed it so I would have time to set up and get a sunrise shot. Construction crews interfered. Google Maps interfered. Cows interfered. There were multiple times I had to slow or stop outright, beep the horn and then wait for Clover or Daisy or Milton or all three to get their bovine asses moving and out of the way.

The photo below was taken on the way back from my stopped vehicle. No way was I taking shots while racing at the speed limit to capture sunrise.

Cows block the highway on Utah Route 150, Mirror Lake Scenic Highway. September, 2015.

As I got closer to Bald Mountain, I could see that I was arriving just a few minutes late. I jumped out of my car before rounding the final curve and started setting up. As I got out, the pickup parked on the shoulder in front of me didn’t really register. I figured it was maybe other photographers? I was wrong. Right before I pulled over, I nearly hit a deer. As I was fumbling with my backpack and tripod, bleary from day two of little sleep and jet lag. I looked up at the passenger of the pickup, a rifle pointed down and nestled in his armpit in a casual, “I’m a hunter and this is my rifle” kind of a way. Not threatening per se, but definitely not a photographer. But also, not totally legit. There was no hunter orange anything any where near the hunter or his buddy in the truck. I decided to ignore the potentially illegal hunters as I grabbed two shots and realized if I hauled ass, I could get closer and still get a semblance of morning light. I checked my map that I’d been caching and I was still within the boundaries. Also: not a cloud in sight. That made me feel better about missing the pre-sunrise light, but also made me feel worse about not driving up to Mirror Lake at 2am, because I could have grabbed a star field reflection in the lake, but I was too damned tired.

I drove a half mile or so, pulled off the road and scrambled, struggling to breath at 10,508.5 ft above sea level, to grab the morning sun hitting Bald Mountain.

Bald Mountin in the morning sun. September, 2015.

Bald Mountin in the morning sun. September, 2015.

Not a great shot by a long, long way. It would do if I had to use it, but not my best work. I figured I should turn around and see what I could see.

Sun hits the dying grass on Bald Mountain Pass, just off Highway 150, Uintah National Forest, Utah. September, 2015.

Better! But not epic. “Landscape shots should be epic if I’m going to place in this Decathlon,” I said to myself, well out of earshot or gunshot of The Hunter.

Grabbed a few more frames and rushed to get to Mirror Lake in time to catch the sun hitting the lake.

At this point, I thought I had nothing good because I missed the exact moment of sunrise. I was certain I’d have to figure out when to shoot the Bonneville Salt Flats, 90 minutes out of Salt Lake City. I drove back to my sister’s and crashed hard for a few hours feeling overwhelmed. There was no way we’d get all the images done in time.

After being awakened by a text message and a phone call, I emptied the memory cards onto my laptop, backed them up on two external hard drives and took a cursory glance at what I’d shot. I was going to have to turn it up.

I figured the afternoon light was going to get good around 4 – 4:30pm where I needed to shoot next: Guardsman Pass. Shooting can be tricky on the pass. I couldn’t wait for sunset, because we had an appointment with our model at 5:30 down at Brighton ski resort, just down the hill from Guardsman Pass.

The fall colors were pretty good. The aspen were fully yellow and looked amazing against the pine trees. I searched for unusual shots; something that would set me apart. I tried several approaches, including shooting out the window while driving 5 mph because there was a stretch of the pass where the color of the trees seemed to explode off the sheer mountain wall.

Aspen at peak color on Guardsman Pass near the summit. September, 2015. Guardsman Pass, September, 2015.

I gave up and hustled down the hill to Brighton, meeting Luke at 5:30pm. I ran into this guy:

Scott Jarvie at Brighton, Utah, first day of the Photo Decathlon.

That’s Scott Jarvie, the organizer of this madness.

We had an appointment with our model, Ariana Escalante, who also acted as the model coordinator for the Decathlon. Luke brought lights. That’s when I knew we were going to get something good. We took a guess about sunset at Brighton and figured that 5:30 might not be the best, but it was the latest time we could book that day. I’m glad we did, because it was perfect and Luke knocked it out of the park. I acted as photo assistant, shooting my longer lens when I could, hoping to get dramatically different images than Luke would with his wide angle and Octabox light powered by a sweet Buff system, including an Einstein flash unit. Why was this so special? This flash unit can shoot studio and out in the field. You can choose action (field) mode or constant color (studio) mode. Really nice. The battery unit made me drool: small and powerful. Here’s my attempt (note, didn’t work on this at all in terms of trying to remove stray hair or make this technically perfect.)

Model and model coordinator, Ariana

I packed up while Luke grabbed some more shots and we decided we were awake enough to head to one of our Cityscape locations to shoot the Salt Lake City skyline.

September, 2015.

We made it in time, but the hike out to our shooting point was a wash. I knew what I needed to do and I shot for it.  I should have stitched my panorama shot I had in my head. I tipped my camera into portrait mode with the 70-200mm mounted and took 5 or 6 shots of the skyline, panning a little with each frame. I wanted to get the moon in, but the light just wasn’t great enough. I still should have done the work and take the time to stitch the image together. I thought it would take too much time to stitch and edit a massive panorama image in the 70 megapixel range. Dumb.

Salt Lake City, Utah skyline. State Capitol building on the left; LDS Temple center. Semptember, 2015.

We stuck around to shoot some other ideas from our vantage point and I really like a lot of the long exposure images I shot during dusk/the blue hour.

Traffic intersection 600 North, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Luke and I went to dinner so he could pull images onto his laptop and we could strategize for the next day. I was a zombie at this point, but the pastrami burger came at just the right time.

To be continued…

Also published on Medium.