Guy Swarbrick

Hoy vs Hamilton : Next year?

Well, that was a bit of a disappointment. The Hoy vs Hamilton race was canceled due to black ice on the track…

It was the only thing I came for, but I have to say it was the right decision. The celebrity Fiat racing was utter chaos. Hoy was due to do that too but all the spare cars were destroyed in the first two heats!

I spent a day finding the perfect spot, the perfect camera setup, the perfect plan for the two lap race… Well, I can kid myself it was perfect as it will never be tested!_REV5601



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Day 2 – Back on track

Got back in to the car park, as promised, at 10 on the dot*. Back shooting by 10.30, which wasn’t too bad. We’ve been cucked out of the nice warm lounge though – or, at least, we have if we want internet access – so I’m sat outside on the commentators’ terrace which, actually, isn’t too bad today but would have been pretty miserable yesterday.

The weather’s much better today. Dry but overcast, which is fine. For this sort of thing I prefer the diffuser on my natural light source. Less to worry about in terms of getting the sun behind you, shadows etc.

Got our first glimpse of Hoy this morning having a couple of sighting laps. Taking it pretty easy except for a quick blast up over the bridge, with what looked like two pairs of bib-tights over the top of his Sky HD+ skinsuit. It’s all a bit of a circus, really and I can’t honestly say he’s ever looked as though he’s having fun.

I tried out the 1.7TC with the 400mm and, as I suspected, it’s a bit long for the cars but I think it’ll be just right for Chris’ second half lap – the infield bit of the loop – and for the podium ceremony which, from where I intend to do the Hoy vs Hamilton race, is on the opposite side of the stadium. We’ll see.

I also ended up with 400mm on for the press conference, which was less than ideal – especially as I arrived late and was stuck behind the press scrum with – much more appropriate – 70-200s and flashes. It wasn’t entirely my fault. I was told Hoy wasn’t going to be there; then told that he was. So I rushed down 8 flights of stairs and arrived late to find that he wasn’t, in fact, there, and that it was just a group photo call. I’ve been more annoyed, of course. But not since 8am this morning.

They’ve just started to let the public in. Time to go to work!

* I’ve also re-checked the confirmation email and it did say 10am on it for the car park. Still utterly stupid, but partly my fault for not a) reading it properly and b) staying in bed.

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Day 2 – Postponed

How do people manage to screw up the really, really simple stuff? Free practice starts at 9 today, so the press office opens at 8 to allow us all to get set up. Unfortunately, the VIP car park – which the press office gave us passes for – opens at 10.
I’m normally pretty good at blagging my way past mindless bureaucracy, but at 8.45 I’m in McDonalds having had breakfast (but still waiting for my coffee to get cold enough to drink) wondering a) what I’m going to do for the next hour and a half b) why I couldn’t have stayed in bed for another couple of hours and c) whether I brought my monopod. At least the last is easily answered – even if I don’t quite have enough time to go home for it if I have forgotten it.
Still, at least this blog has wasted 5 minutes…

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End of day one

Two more hours before we get chucked out of the media suite – which got better, incidentally, with the addition of some really quite good sandwiches at lunchtime – so a few quick observations. I did behave myself in the end and only play with one variable at a time.

The 400mm was great – I may try it with the 1.7TC tomorrow, but I shouldn’t think I need any more reach. The only thing that might change that is the addition of the crowd. They don’t sell tickets for the first row of seats, which are as close as photographers are able to get. But, apparently, last year the crowd soon realised there was an empty row and moved forward, then got drunk and then got arsey with photographers who tried to use the allocated photography row. Deep joy. To be honest, with a crowd of 30,000 in a 90,000 seater stadium, I don’t know why they don’t put in a 3 or 4 row buffer so that we don’t block anyone’s view…

The Lightsphere seems to have worked, although I haven’t spent too much time looking at the press conference shots yet. I’m going to spend some time in the Paddock tomorrow, so we’ll see how it works there. It does, unfortunately, look like you’ve got a Tupperware salad spinner attached to your camera, but it’s how it works that matters!

The 14-24mm was impressive, too – although there are really only a couple of shots I can take with it because we’re so far from the track. I’ll take a trip to the TV gantry tomorrow, too, to try to get a full track shot from above.

I’d happily add both lense to my bag – if I could afford them – and the Lightsphere looks like a useful addition. What I really want, though, is one of those KTM X-Bows… Mr Schumacher seemed to be havign a whale of a time in his.


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Press conferences – what are they for?

Just attended my first press conference in years. Lots of waiting around, nothing said of any interest, no photos that anyone would ever want….The Lightsphere worked well, though, I think. Only concern is that I bought the ‘universal fit’ model because I suspect that at some point I’ll buy an SB-900 which has a much bigger flash head than the SB-800s, but it keeps falling off. The first time was because someone brushed past it, which is OK, but the second time I was just walking along with it. I think it’s going to need some padding.

People tell me you have to adopt an all JPG workflow for this sort of event, but I have to say I’m not convinced. Shooting RAW+Small Basic JPG, as I do for events stuff and on my 4Gb, 64-bit Vista HP Compaq 6710b laptop, Lightroom’s absolutely fine. For convenience (and due to lack of space on the laptop hard drive) I’m using a NextODI CF image tank. It’s Firewire capable, but I didn’t bring the lead so it’s just running USB 2 and its fine.

For now, I’m working straight off the external drive, pointing Lightroom at it but importing the images without copying them. It’s pretty easy to find the ones worth working on for ‘editorial’ use – OK, today it’s just the blog, but I’m practising for tomorrow when I hope to have everything I need to do for the two websites I’m working for and Cycling Weekly done long before I leave the stadium – and quite possibly before the event is finished. It depends hwo strongly my petrolhead tendencies kick in after the Hoy vs Hamilton race. I may well brave the elements and do the editing at the outdoor workstations, which will allow me to keep taking photos while I work…

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Press facilities at the ‘new’ Wembley

I have to say, after the very impressive setup at the World Track Championships at Manchester in March, I’m a little disappointed with the facilities at Wembley. Yes, they’re superficially similar – hot and cold running power, ethernet, tea and coffee – and there’s a great view of the track, erm, pitch… from here, but for some reason it seems a little underwhelming.

There’s a cold, wet, outdoor workstation with a similar setup, which I may use tomorrow – but probably not. And, unfortunately, there’s limited access to the track for photographic purposes.

For safety reasons you can’t get down on to trackside – when the cars whack the barriers they do tend to move them – and the barriers get in the way of the pictures, unless you can find the right spot. Today’s not too bad as the public aren’t in and we have pretty free access. Tomorrow, when it matters, is going to be a bit of a pain, I think. Especially given that I’m only really here to cover one, one lap race so I have to get it right. No pressure then.

Coming from a software development background (long time ago…), I know that changing one variable at a time as a sensible approach. And I’d vote for sensible every time. I just can’t do it myself. So, as well as shooting in a large outdoor sports stadium for the first time, I’m also using two new lenses that I’ve effectively had no practice time with whatsoever (Nikkor 400mm and 14-24mm – of which, more later) and a Gary Fong Lightsphere II – again, never used it before… I am, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, a mental. Still, I’ll probably only be using one of them at a time!

To ease the problems a little they started the practice session with some cute little Punto Abarths to let the drivers get used to the circuit and, while it clearly wasn’t their intention, to allow me to practice shooting cars, which I haven’t done for a long, long time. They were nice and slow and relatively predictable.

Of course, in the rain with the roof as shut as it would go, they’ve got headlights on, the stadium lights are on, everything’s reflecting off the track and the metering’s having a great time trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. I can see me and Lightroom spending a lot of time together tomorrow evening!

Lessons learned so far. The 400mm focuses very, very quickly; 1/200 is fine for most of the shots to get a sharp car with blurred wheels and a slight blur to the background – at least, it is with the Puntos!

Press conference in 45 minutes. First chance to try out the Lightsphere. In the meantime, how slowly would you take one of these round what is, in effect, an ice rink…?


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Back in the saddle

The photography’s been on the back burner for a while; I’ve been concentrating on the day job. But I’ve been doing a little and thinking about how I’m going to take the photography forward. For the next couple of years, the conclusion I’ve come to is that I’m going to back right off from events photography to support my son’s track cycling and to a put an end to some of the mad weekends where I was coming off a 50 hour week at the day job to pull a 36 hour photography, photo processing and order fulfilment weekend. So, if you’re one of my many cycling events photo customers – thanks. I may be back in a couple of years. We’ll see.

What I’m not doing is hanging the camera up. I’m going to be concentrating on editorial work – either events at which Cam is racing and major events like the World Track Champs which, next year, is in Poland. The main outlets will be the British Cycling website and the rejuvenated, but I have my first ‘job’ for Cycling Weekly this weekend (of which more later) and hope to get more of my work in print as the year progresses.

Last weekend saw my first event in ages – and then, two hours later, my second! Fortunately, both were at the same venue – the Manchester Velodrome at the National Cycling Centre in Sport City. First up was a youth event my son was competing in. DHL has funded a series of Sprint Schools at the Wales National Velodrome [sic] in Newport and put on a superb end-of-season event for the kids. The morning was a keirin competition and then, in the afternoon, a superb handicap Team Sprint competition on the excellent static WattBikes.

It was my first opportunity to try out Nikon’s excellent new SB-900 flash – partly because my two SB-800s have both – yet again – blown their flash tubes. That’s twice for one of them and three times for the other. While they were being repaired – yes, I know, I could have had them repaired during the month or so when I wasn’t doing very much – I rented an SB-900 for the weekend from Fixation.

First impressions are very good. It’s a huge beast and the specs look very good indeed. Best of all, from my point of view, it has a thermal cut-off to prevent me from killing it. A good thing if it was mine, an excellent thing when its rented. Except that it isn’t. It’s far too conservative and has two settings – on and off. Switched on, it cuts out after around a dozen single shots or one or two quick bursts. Utterly useless. I’m told it’s better if you’re using alkaline batteries (which don’t heat up when discharging the way NiMH cells do) or the optional Nikon external battery pack. We’ll see.

The good thing was that it reminded me just how good the high ISO is on the D3, allowing me to take pretty good flash-free shots in the half light of the Manchester Velodrome.



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The final stretch

There are two days of competition left, but a prior commitment means that I have to leave tonight. There are only four more hours to go.

Despite the long – and strange – hours, time seems to have gone really quickly. My initial excitement at being able to post photos almost as I took them faded somewhat as the schedule got more relentless and the time between taking photos was filled with taking more photos.

So I settled into a sort of routine – arrive an hour before the start of the event and set up. Fire up the laptop and plug in the card reader; put lenses on camera bodies; set up the file names and the image comments on each body so that I’ll have some chance of figuring out what I’d taken if I need to. Grab some more water…

It’s hot in the velodrome. Very, very hot. The combination of that and carrying two camera bodies with fast – i.e. heavy – lenses on means that this is actually quite tough physical work.

It has been challenging photographically, too. I’m occasionally asked to take portrait or group shots and I often joke that I’d find it easier if the subjects could run towards me at 70 km/h, but I do find it much easier to take good action shots than even passable portraits. But I’ve had a bit of practice this week – what with podiums and presentations and interviews to cover.

World Track Cycling Championships 2008

The good thing about shooting in the velodrome is that the lighting is pretty constant. It’s always dreadful, but it is pretty stable. There’s some natural light during the day, but it doesn’t add a huge amount to the floods that illuminate the track. That means I can shoot in manual – switching between a fast shutter speed and mid-range aperture (which opens up slightly as the natural light fades but typically around 1/640 and f6.4) and a slow shutter – 1/50 or 1/100 – and apertures down to f11 to get a bit of motion blur. The D3’s excellent auto ISO feature takes care of the slight variations in light from shot to shot. The lights are fluorescent, so the white balance varies a little at higher shutter speeds, but it’s not a major issue.

Lens length is, though. I rarely needed anything over 300mm and 200mm was more than enough for 90% of the shots. But with events like match sprinting and bunch races you need to go much wider – 24mm often wasn’t enough to get two sprinters in the same shot. So – having concluded that the D200 wasn’t really up to the job – I spent a lot of time switching between the 24-70 and the 70-200 zooms. Something like a 20-150mm would be ideal for velodrome work, if anyone’s listening.

World Track Cycling Championships 2008

I took some shots with my cheap(ish) and cheerful 85mm f1.8, too.  On the D200 I only ever used it as a portrait lens because the focus was too slow. On the D3 it’s a cracker of a lens and incredibly sharp from about f5.6. It’s not too bad at f1.8, either and does give the option of shooting without flash – although you do have to watch the depth of field (or lack thereof…).

World Track Cycling Championships 2008
85mm f8
World Track Cycling Championships 2008
85mm f1.8 no flash

Unanswered questions at the moment –

  • What do I do with the 3000 shots I’ve taken that haven’t been used in the ProTour News articles? Stock library pre-Beijing? Framed artwork for cycling fans?
  • Should I nick the UCI Photo bib and use it at Reading Track League on a Monday night?
  • Will I know what to do between 10pm and 2am when I get home?
  • When will my shoulders stop acheing?
  • What the hell is LiveView for?
  • What proportion of my life have I spent charging batteries?
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The aftermath of Day 1

World Track Cycling Championships 2008

Well, that was an experience! Not having the trackside pass wasn’t a major problem for most of the events – although getting decent pictures of the Scratch and Team Sprints from the wrong side of the barrier on the inside of the fence – with a crowd of photographers on the right side of the fence between you and the action was a challenge.

The media centre is a strange place. It’s a mixture of writers, photographers and TV crews (‘talent’, camera operators, sound recordists, technicians, bag carriers, bag carriers’ bag carriers – no wonder TV is so expensive to produce), as well as team and manufacturer PR people. What’s strange to me – as a track cycling fan who just happens to be a photographer – is that nobody seems vaguely interested in the racing!

The TV crews are there for the odd interview with their own national riders – they’re all taking the UCI’s feed for the racing – and the journalists sit their hunched over their laptops writing something – their memoirs? Expense claims? – and occasionally glance up at the TV screens to watch the coverage. I know many of them are features writers, but it looks like they could do most of what they do with the TV coverage and a couple of phone interviews.

Word Track Cycling Championships 2008

The photographers are a mixed bunch, too. Most are agency photographers whose coverage guarantees them apron access even though some have never been to a velodrome before. But a lot are real track racing enthusiasts, here on behalf of national federations and a huge number of cycling related websites.

I found the second session hard. It was relentless – race after race after victory ceremony after race. And, of course, the Opening Ceremony. The extremely athletic young ladies who scaled the heights of the velodrome roofspace wrapped in ribbons did so wrapped in ribbons that were in the colours of the UCI World Champion’s rainbow stripes. There was no other connection to cycling that I could see.

World Track Cycling Championships 2008

No time to copy pictures to the laptop, let alone select the best ones. That’s where the agencies and the mass market press guys have the advantage, of course – they’re not trying to cover the event, just the winners of the big events. The pictures that will sell. They can take a few shots and then send them off to the agency and let them worry about them.

So, as you can see, the journalists have an easy life and the photographers have an easy life, but what about us photojournalists? Well, when the racing finished at 9.30 I copied my pictures to the laptop, noting a couple that looked usable as they transferred. I then packed up my stuff and heading to the hotel – via a McDonalds drive-thru (I have to keep my figure) – and set up shop in my room.

The report was done by 1am – thanks to the photos as a memory jogger and the excellent Tissot timing service – and I’d selected, tweaked and resized the photos to go with it by 2am, before grabbing 6 hours sleep before I sorted the bulk of the pics this morning.

Waking up at 8am to discover that the report had got through but the pictures had bounced (over the mailbox size limit…), so I re-sent those and started to pack up for Day 2. More pursuits today – so I need to find even more ways to describe multiple time trial heats – but hopefully I’ve got that bit off fluff on the sensor that only shows up in the 1/30, f11 panning shots…

Oh, and the first report and pictures are now up on ProTour News.

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First session over

World Track Championships 2008

The first session of the World Track Championships in Manchester is now over, with Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain and Jenning Huizenga of the Netherlands taking their place in the Gold and Silver medal final in the last heat of the afternoon’s qualification session. Huizenga starts as slight favourite having won his heat with a time of 4:16.343, just ahead of Wiggins who clocked a respectable 4:17.024.

World Track Championships 2008

The Bronze medal ride-off will be between Alexei Markov of Russia and Hayden Roulston of New Zealand.

None of them, though, can match Uzbekistan’s Vadim Shaekhov, who had the honour of being the first competitor to take to the track in this year’s championship – or the ignomony of  Robert Bengsch who become the first rider to be disqualified – for drafting, having been passed in his heat.

The meda center is abuzz now. I’m sitting opposite a Dutch TV crew who are frantically dubbing commentary on to their highlights package, amid the clatter of laptop keyboards.

World Track Championships 2008

It’s not all glamour, though. The lime green bib isn’t fetching and, while the water’s free, coffee’s £1 a pop. I’m going to be bankrupt by the end of the week!

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