Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hunting Runners With Glass - Photo Camp in the Desert

It takes a long time to get anywhere from Alaska further south or east than Seattle, meaning there has to be something enticing at the far end to convince me that the travel is worth the hassle. On the enticement scale--recognized by the International Society of Testing and Measurement and measured in units of "oohs" and "ahhs"--the Wingate Sandstone sits somewhere near the top. Something about massive red cliffs rising from the desert that satisfies a deep-seated aesthetic need. So when I learned that Trail Runner magazine was hosting its 2014 three-day photography camp north of Moab, Utah, where the Wingate finds its finest expression, I quickly committed.

This is the second year that Trail Runner ran its photo camp, although its sister publication, Rock and Ice, has hosted a similar camp focused on climbing photography for over a decade. I have long harbored an interest in the making and taking of pictures, and left to my druthers would likely run trails eight-hours a day rather than go to work, so the camp appealed. The location simply shifted it far enough along the enticement scale to justify a plane ticket. So I contacted Trail Runner, paid my deposit, and waited patiently for late May.

The day arrived, and I first flew to Salt Lake City and second drove to Castle Valley, Utah, about 20 miles north of Moab along the Rio Grande. We were scheduled to meet at an ill-defined time in an ill-defined location: basically before dinner somewhere in Castle Valley. In the weeks leading up to the camp, we were given a link to a VRBO listing of a rental house where some of the camp staff would stay. The link included a map, albeit a map with the house location marked in the wrong place. But thanks to photos, I was confident I could find the place. And indeed I was confident I had found the place when, fourteen and a half-hours after leaving my door in Anchorage, I pulled my rental car in to the driveway of a historic homestead on a Tuesday late in May. After all, the note on the door read "Welcome Trail Runner campers. Come on in." And the door was unlocked. I just had to wonder, where was everyone else?

I did not wonder long. A short while after I traded long pants for shorts and sandals, a truck pulled in and MB, managing editor for Trail Runner, popped out to introduce himself. "We've got cold beer inside. I'm going to grab one if you want me to get you one too." Why yes, yes I would. The camp was getting off to a fine start.

The concept of camp, as near as I can discern, is pretty simple. Bring together four elements: eager students, experienced photo and publishing professionals, world-class athletes, and inspiring settings. I and four others made up the student part of the equation. We converged with different backgrounds and hopes for what we would get out of the camp, from those already using photography as a commercial vehicle and wanting to step up their game to those still figuring out basic camera functionalities and hoping to come to terms with the inter-play of aperture and shutter-speed. I just hoped to figure out which end of the camera captured light. After three days in the desert, I'm pretty sure it is the side with the glass.

The professionals included the previously mentioned editor of Trail Runner, free-lance photographer Cliffy, the Trail Runner art director and former free-lance photographer Randy, and DR, publisher of Rock and Ice. Collectively, these four were on hand to guide and answer questions or, in my case, to keep a sharp eye to make sure I did not fall off a cliff and kept the lens pointed at the athletes.
And with the athletes we had on hand, that was not much of a problem. Hoka sent two of its sponsored runners, Magadelna Boulet and Dave Mackey, a former Olympic marathoner (now running trails) and the 2011 Ultra-runner of the year, respectively. We also had Darcy Conover from Colorado on hand, who appears to be a Marmot sponsored athlete, probably better known as a skier than a runner. All three were incredible to watch. Magda brought foot speed, and, based on thousands of frames shot over two days, spends more time running in the air than on the ground. Mackey generated massive power with a mere quad twitch, angling into and exploding out of every turn, giving those of us with cameras interesting visual lines to work with. And Darcy has an amazingly photogenic leap, thanks, I assume, to powerful skiing legs.

The setting took care of itself. Wingate sandstone, remember? If it is worth fourteen hours of travel, you can assume it photographs well.

While the camp concept seems simple, I imagine the execution takes some work. It turns out that a handful of folks carrying cameras to shoot with commercial intentions on federal lands in Utah (and perhaps elsewhere; I never asked) require the same permits and must satisfy the same conditions as General Motors when it sling loads vehicles to the top of desert towers in order to film a commercial. This required fees, careful scheduling, and hiring a third-party compliance monitor to follow us around and confirm we did not trample cryptobiotic soils. But then none of that was my problem. On the hardship scale--not yet recognized by the ISTM, but measured in "d'ohs!"--my responsibilities did not even register. I just paid my fee and showed up.

Others not already identified showed up too, but should not be given short shrift as they contributed equally to the success of the program. They included Yitka, assistant managing editor of Trail Runner, offering another publishing perspective. Yitka also took turns modeling alongside the athletes and a small army of current and former Trail Runner interns. The interns, Brandon, Tyler, and Nina, runners, climbers, and dancers, moved across rock, dirt and trail like seasoned pros, athletic models all. And Laura showed up from Gu to cover our nutrition needs. There, did you catch that? Before the camp, I would have said Laura showed up and gave us a bunch of gels. But after only three days, I've already learned that gels are "nutrition" in the ultra-running world. That is the kind of insider information I never would have picked up on my own, and I assume it will open countless doors next time I meet a sponsored athlete. I figure the conversation will go something like this:

"Hi [insert name of world class athlete here, say, Killian Jornet]. It is pleasure to meet you. Impressive result in [insert recent race name here]. By the way, who does your nutrition?"

"Why [insert nutrition company] provides my nutrition. Hey, here is a business class ticket to Italy and an advance on your substantial day rate. Solomon needs someone to shoot promotional photos for two weeks in the Dolomites, and I have final say on naming the photographer. You are clearly my man, based on your solid mastery of the lingo. Ciao."

Any camp, photo or otherwise, lives or dies based on the strength of its food. MB and crew lined up Andrea, who kept as fed and happy. She was fresh off a season catering for a heli-ski operation in Alaska. Heli-ski clients can potentially spend long hours (stretching to days) waiting for storms to clear, which translates into long hours sitting forlorn in a damp lodge with the stink of polypro underwear and ski socks. The chef for a heli-ski operation had better not fuck around. He or she better be able to give the clients something to look forward to on a day where food might be the only pleasure to be had. Andrea did so in spades, as we discovered the first night, spent getting to know one another over perfectly medium-rare beef with chimchuri sauce.

The pleasures of eating could not be savored long, though. It was early to bed because the good light waits for no straggler. Breakfast on the table at 6:00 the next morning, we ate and hurried to the first location, which... what the hell? The first location featured not a grain of Wingate, at least not in the foreground. I guess we were going to just have to work with the alien chocolate drop-biscuits of the Fisher Towers, geologically the Cutler formation capped by the Moenkopi. And the light. We were going to have to work with the light too.

After a short hike, we got to the first setup. The way it worked is as follows: we arrived on a location, picked as we hiked along because someone identified a striking visual (not hard to do in southern Utah). We sent the models--athletes and interns--out to run laps, back and forth and back and forth and back and so on, well past the point where the runners started shaking their heads, presumably thinking, "What? You don't have the shot yet?" I say presumably because the models did not complain once. Just smiled. "One more? Sure." Heels turn, charge back down the trail for the tenth "one more time" in a row.

We hit the ground firing on all cylinders. There was no lecture or example slide show. We learned by doing and making mistakes, finding the shot, hitting the shutter release, realizing the lens cap was still on. We chased light down the trail, working the models hard when conditions came up perfect. An amazing slice of sun cut between towers, demonstrating why the mornings (and evenings) are called the magic hour. As the sun got higher, the light harsher, and the temperatures hotter, we returned indoors to eat lunch, process the morning's work, and prepare to run through the first critique slide show.

To the extent I have considered myself a photographer at all, it has always been as a landscape photographer (with an interest in architecture because I'm drawn to the patterns). What did I learn the first morning? The biggest challenge shooting runners is getting your subject in focus. Runners move faster than mountains, which is why they win races, I guess. But that speed makes it hard to achieve the "tack sharp" holy grail. I shot many hundreds of frames the first morning, rejecting most out of hand because the subjects were fuzzy. But in the mix were some strong shots, shots I was happy to throw in for judgment during the daily slide show.

Another aspect of coming from an enthusiast's landscape background is that I have always thought of photos in terms of what looks pretty. I've never thought in terms of layouts. But we were presenting to a magazine and publishing group with an eye for copy. Where will the text go? Can I make this a cover? The fine art print has a place; think the "gallery" or "parting shot" portion of magazines. But the bread and butter is all of the other pages, images interacting with text and images telling a story. Trained eyes looked at our pictures with that filter and let us know what they thought worked and what was lacking.

Come late afternoon, we shot and the models ran, pushing until the sun went down. Our permits allowed us to only shoot one location per day, so we were back to the Fisher Towers for a back drop. There are worse places to spend an evening. Many hundreds of frames later, we had piles of digital files to sort and process. It was a long night.

Luckily, we got to sleep late the next day. Clouds moved in; no magic hour to be had. We shot in the morning near the lodge, then prepared for a date with the Wingate, finally. But the good shots don't come to you. You go to them. Sometimes that means 1,500 vertical feet over 1.5 miles in the heat of the day. The payoff? Towering walls of red sandstone. The world dropping off to the void. Drama. We got back to the cars hours later, tired but excited to see what we captured. Laura had her hatch-back up, recovery nutrition (see, I'm totally in the know) mixed and ready to serve. One glass down before recovery was trumped by MB standing by a cooler. "Anyone want a cold beer?" Why yes, yes I would.

Sitting hunched over our laptops that night, working on photos following day two's critique slide show, one of the other students casually asked, "Well, was it worth it?" meaning, of course, was the camp worth it. And it was a valid question. The camp is not cheap, although I think it is a good value. The travel is not cheap. And the time away is a commitment. But it was a great opportunity to get to know people whose job is, in part, soliciting and paying money for pictures, and who all turned out to be people I was glad to spend time with. And an opportunity to shoot Zeiss glass, which my wife will probably regret when she sees how much Zeiss lenses cost. And it was an amazing opportunity to have three days with world-class athletes at your disposal in a truly world-class setting. When does that ever happen? I assume it was just another day at the office for Cliffy, but to me? Never. And you know what I found in my files from the second day? Pictures of runners that were tack-fucking-sharp. And, at the risk of immodesty, some of them rock. Can you really put a value on that?

We shot again on the third day, and processed more photos for the final critique session. But then the cook, Andrea, packed her bags and left, which meant none of the rest of us had any reason to stay. So we said farewell and went our separate ways, with submissions due soon to the magazine for consideration as part of a later feature. And I started the 14 hours of travel home by driving back to Salt Lake City.

For a camp sponsored by Trail Runner, there was little time for trail running (though the athletes, who did not have to process photos, continued to train). There were just too many files to work through. An embarrassment of riches. So, with a few hours to spare before my flight, I took advantage of the trails in the Wasatch and went for a two-hour run, which was plenty of time to reflect on the fact that capturing great images is a work of brute force. Getting a great shot while out on a run with friends and pulling up for a single snapshot would be capturing lighting in a jar. Part way up the trail to Mt. Timpanagos, I started cataloging locations and people who might want to spend early mornings and late evenings running back and forth and back and forth and back, right through the veil of reasonable and into the ridiculous. Any interest? Give me a call. But keep in mind that there is no business class ticket or substantial day rate available for you. I keep that in my back pocket for those who demonstrate a mastery of photographic lingo.

P.S. - For a post on a photo camp, you may by now have noted an incredible absence of photos. I'm still working through files and determining what will go to Trail Runner. Nothing is being posted here anytime soon, but keep an eye out for the Trail Runner Feature. Also, Magda left the camp on Friday morning to travel to New York and race the Cayuga Trails 50 race in the Finger Lakes region, this year's USATF 50 Mile Trail National Championship. She won (first woman and sixteenth overall). So it appears that modeling is a great taper. Keep that in mind if you have a race coming up and I call you for some back and forth and back and so on.

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