Bobby and the Wheel
Ever have that moment when you work with or meet someone who is just so utterly talented that you feel incredibly small and inadequate? Well Bobby Cookson makes me feel that way. Bobby just finished his freshman year at my Alma matter, Georgia Tech, and is pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Aside from being intelligent and an all-around cool guy, Bobby has a number of hobbies that he excels at: football, wrestling, and violin. As told by his sister, he can pretty much pick up anything and be good at it. That is the case with his most recent hobby, the Cyr Wheel.
Bobby was introduced to Cyr when Spinnovation, run by Sam Tribble, hosted a workshop at his high school when he was a senior. They showed off various tricks and allowed the students to try them. One of the acts was the Cyr Wheel, which is essentially a metal ring. The performers place themselves within the ring, representing Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and spin and balance the pair to create all kinds of incredible stunts. I immediately fell in love with this mainly because of the physics involved (I’m a nerdy science guy). Bobby picked up on the Cyr Wheel at that workshop and now, two years later, will compete at the 2013 World Wheel Gymnastic Championships as the youngest competitor ever for that act. See why I kind of hate the guy?
Being good friends with his family, I was more than eager to help when Bobby asked if I could take some images for his personal website. This would be the second time I’d be taking pictures of Bobby and his Cyr Wheel. The first time, he won the Talent Show at Georgia Tech, and I had to take some photos afterwards for the school paper, The Technique. Well I was incredibly unprepared for how to handle that shoot due to several factors: available light, flash power, location (we were in the Campus Recreation Center so we were very limited for space and composition), and quite frankly being able to maintain focus. This time, I had a much better idea of how to handle everything and we had a private gym as our location.
When we arrived at the gym, I immediately began contemplating the light. Damn. As I'm sure most people know, the ambient light in gyms generally..... stinks. The gym affording very poor ambient light, the flash needed to be my main light source. Now here’s where it got dicey. I wanted a dramatic look, so I needed a fast light fall-off. This translated into bringing my two 24x24inch softboxes within 20 feet of Bobby. Let me state this again, I was asking Bobby to spin a 6 foot diameter, 50 lb ring, with him in it, in a space that was 40 square feet, while I put my two $300 light set-ups right on the edge. Trust was established pretty quickly, and I resolved to push the anxiety of my lights going flying out of my mind. Now, the benefit of having the lights so close was that I could turn down the flash power. This meant that the subject’s motion would be frozen better. The trick to all of this was the balance between freezing motion and having enough depth of field to keep Bobby in focus, even while spinning. This conundrum exists because of the relationship between aperture and flash power: a wider aperture makes the light given off by the flash more influential, AKA brighter. I wanted to shoot at f/8 but I didn’t want to go above ¼ power with my flashes, so I had to raise my ISO to compensate. Yay for more noise! (As a side note, I believe that you do whatever you have to in order to get the image, even if that means creating a really noisy photo. Why? Because I’d rather have an amazing photo that has some noise than not get the photo at all because I hate seeing noise in my images.)
After I got everything set up, Bobby got on the Wheel and the shoot began. You want to talk about a difficult task for focusing? Every motion based photography niche has its nuances and difficulties. With any sort of sport the key is keeping focus on the subject’s face, but Bobby‘s face was spinning rapidly. So I set my 7D to expanded focus points, slowed down my tracking so that the wheel wouldn’t distract the camera focus, and tried my best to keep the central focal point on Bobby’s head. Clicking the shutter when Bobby’s face was towards me while minding my composition was…… a blast. But it was definitely a fun exercise and one that will certainly help me on my next challenging endeavor.
Bobby was awesome. He did numerous tricks multiple times over and over again so I could get the shots. I’m amazed he didn’t pass out from exhaustion. He’s truly an incredible athlete and I had a great time working with him.
End results? I’m pretty happy with it all. I didn’t get everything as sharp as I would have liked, but they’re still acceptably sharp or better. I definitely need to keep learning the 7D’s autofocus system because it’s rather complex, but super powerful once figured out. Plus, Bobby and his family loved the images - which always does wonders for my self-confidence. Here’s to Bobby and his adventures with Cyr. Good luck at Worlds!