Re-enter the Dragon- in a boat.

It’s that time of year again for anyone who lives in a Chinese community: Dragon Boat Festival is again upon us. You have to love the fact that we’re getting a free holiday on Monday ‘cos the festival is on Sunday, but you have to love even more the opportunities for photos that go with the boat races.

Last year in Hong Kong was exceptionally hot, and very bright and sunny, on boat racing day. This led to a few problems for me shooting the event, and although I got some nice shots, they’re not perfect. The difference between the highlights and shadows was huge, because I only really got into my stride after 10:30 (and they only started racing the big boats around then, too) and this meant that there was a lot of really strong light being reflected off the water, the boats and the oars. The shadows were pretty heavy, too, and while I was pulling the details of the shadows out in photoshop I ended up with slightly overexposed shots.

Here are a few which should show you what I mean. The photos are best viewed large, of course, click through (by clicking the image itself)to my Flickr page and check them out there:

Dragons at full speed

This vies for my best shot of the day, and even with the exposure issues, was picked up for the website of the Peninsula Hotel, where it will be published soon. But I still want to get a better shot of the races this year.

Hard at work

This shot is one of my personal favourites. It's quite dynamic, and gets the frenetic pace and mood of the day. With flash from my side of the photo, hopefully this shot will work better.

Catch up

Here's one of the tighter close-ups that I discuss a little further down on this blogpost, but it really shows the exposure flaws, and I hope that I'll be able to balance exposure here with grad filters and flash this year.

The real problem is in the venue itself: I live in Tuen Mun, in Hong Kong, and I prefer to be a part of the community here than to trek all the way out to Hong Kong Island, where I don’t really feel a part of anything. The boat races in Tuen Mun happen as the mouth of the river, which empties out into the sea at a typhoon shelter. The bank of the river where the races are held faces directly east, and in the early morning shots from that river bank will silhouette, leaving no colour detail. Fine for artistic shots (with a heap of luck) but after a while it gets tedious. Later on, the sunlight becomes very contrasty, and causes major exposure headaches: I was metering an 8-stop difference at 10:30.

I was using my Nikon D50 with a set of 17- 80 and 70-300 zooms, but no flash as I didn’t have a fast and powerful unit back then. I also didn’t use any filters, which would have helped me out a lot: balancing that harsh, light-grey sky and making it a little more interesting to look at. This year, I’m hoping to get on top of these aspects: I’ve got a set of 2-stop Cokin Grads for this, and I’m going to take my Cokin warming filter, to deal with the colouring of the midday sun, and give the pictures a warmer tone. I’ve also got a speedlite which should allow me to fill in some of the closer boats, and balance for the strong back sunlight which was a problem during the earlier part of the day. I’ve also got a polarizer, which should help later in the day only- you need to be 90 degrees to the angle of the sunlight for it to have an effect, and we face east for the shooting, so the sun will have to be quite high up for the filter to work.

I learned a lot from my composition from last year: try to leave as much of the sky out as possible. But I maintain that photography has much more to do with exposure than composition. You can crop and so on to improve composition, but a badly exposed shot will never really be satisfying.

I’ve also learned form last year that the best races to shoot are the heats rather than the finals. Maybe I was more committed than other shooters last year (but I think more because I had no idea what the line-up of the day was like, not being able to read Chinese) ‘cos I was down at the riverside at 07:00 am. Most shooters got there around 11:00 am. Which meant that I had a lot of space to run round in, and could choose my spot easily. The light was also closer to balanced, and I got more useable frames at this time than any other.

The events to go for are the big boat races- and the speed at which they shot past me was incredible. I tended to get a lot of motion blur, which worked really well in some shots, and not at all well in others. I’m going to the blur shots again this year, blut I’m also going to try and hit freeze-frame as well. What I noticed last year was that the freeze-frames needed to be quite tight close ups, which worked much better on the boat’s drummer than on the paddlers, and that these tight shots were much easier to get when I was at quite an angle to the boats, which meant they needed to be far away. Bigger lenses aren’t going be good, I doubt, because you’ll have trouble tracking the boats, and the shots will be too focused on one or two people in the boats. This is definitively a team sport, and shots of the whole team are better than shots of the individual most of the time.

When they got 90 degrees to me, I was able to get much better motion blur, as the speed was much more noticeable. But these shots needed to have a whole boat in them at least to be interesting, and the best ones comprised one boat that was in sharp focus in the foreground, and the others blurry in the background. It looked much better when that foreground boat was winning, too, which isn’t something that you can organize.

The last bit of experience that I got from last year was that the finish line is NOT the thing to shoot. Stay close to it, but shoot the boats coming toward you, otherwise you lose the excitement of the race. Faces and Eyes are important, even for these shots of people. The celebrations are good, though, if the winning boat is close to you.

But hey, it’s a sport, and sports shooting is often the most challenging because you can’t plan for it. It’s also some of the most fun, because of this.

Some other information about Hong Kong Dragon Boats:

  • Biggest event: Stanley
  • This year, there is a competition for photos which are shot in the Aberdeen area of Hong Kong, because this area was the first place to start Dragon Boat racing in Hong Kong.