We are so pleased to welcome Ed Smith to our blog! Ed is the incredible STARMAN photographer you may see out and about on the course, and we wanted to hear a bit more about what it is like to try to photograph a triathlon in the dark.
Ed is an award-winning adventure and landscape photographer, and has been published in a number of international titles. He is also an athlete himself – a world-class kayaker, as well as skiier, cyclist and runner.
Ed has also worked with us on a number of events over the years, so when we were contemplating photography for our brand new STARMAN triathlon in 2016, Ed was, of course, our first choice to help us out – we knew only he could handle the unique challenges of the event.
SM: Ed, welcome to our blog! Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and photography?
Ed: I am an adventure photographer but my niche falls somewhere between my training as a photo-journalist and my passion for the outdoors as a former athlete and all round adventure sports nut. One side feeds off the other – the photojournalist in me loves capturing every little detail of a story, whilst the adventure sports nut is the little devil on my shoulder telling me to push harder to get every possible opportunity from a shoot.
I’m an energetic guy who doesn’t like to stop or sit still – often a pain in the arse for friends and family – but in 2012 I started working with the team who would become True Grit Events; a similarly energetic, driven squad led by Andy & Caz, so it all clicked into place. We’re all different kinds of characters from different backgrounds with our own areas of expertise, but the beat that gets us all in sync is the love of doing what we do to the utmost whilst feeding off the energy and banter of an over night event.
SM: What are the unique challenges of STARMAN photography and how have you overcome them?
Ed: The combination of moving targets and pitch-black conditions for most of the event! It’s often the case that the autofocus of my camera can’t see through the darkness, so I pre-emptively frame up a shot, using a torch so that I can see the area I’m framing, and manually focus in line with where I think an athlete will run or ride. But there has to be a bit of adaptability as the participants are going against the clock, so I can’t just step in and say ‘actually if you could just cycle towards me that’d be great’ as I would if it were a choreographed commercial shoot, where I could show athletes or models exactly where to step; that would be a piece of cake by comparison!
I use long exposures with the camera mounted on a tripod to get light trails of participants swimming, cycling, running, and I also use a studio-style lighting rig at certain points to create the effect ‘freezing’ the participants within those long exposures. In the end I do set myself the target of getting the same results as if it were a commercial shoot as a sort of personal challenge which keeps me focused and motivated through the night.
As for the distance and getting to locations around the course, I come up with a rough plan, which I always adjust year on year to create fresh content, and prepare appropriately. A fair part of my job as an adventure photographer is training to keep myself conditioned to work in these outdoor environments. So there’s always training going on in the background to make hauling cameras and lighting rigs up hills easier, which in turn frees up energy to think about the photos and problem solve on the move if conditions change, especially on an event like STARMAN, which is about as challenging as it gets.
A funny bit of trivia from the very first STARMAN is that I had to be finished by 6am so that I could back-up/upload some images before heading out on a whitewater kayaking shoot with another client from 8am. That kind of turn around is challenging but hugely rewarding and you’ve earned your fish supper at the end of the day.
SM: Ed, how you managed that 8am shoot after STARMAN we will never know! What is the best thing about taking pictures at STARMAN?
Ed: The banter and good craic! At the end of the day everyone (from participants to staff) knows what they’re getting into and preparation is key, but that only gets you so far. As is true for all adventure challenges, there are so many variables that will inevitably hit; in the case of a sturdy Cairn Gorm headwind or Scottish Highland dousing, the only way forward is to embrace it with a bit of banter, whether that’s singing ‘dancing in the rain’ to yourself, dancing through a transition, having a bit of craic with the next person you see or jumping into the arms of a loved one at the finish line. I love all that; both being involved and documenting it with my camera.
Grabbing a coffee and bacon butty at 7am from Loch Morlich Watersports also tastes like the best thing ever! I love the elation in these moments and the satisfaction of working with such a great team.
SM: What tips would you give anyone wanting to take pictures in the dark?
Ed: I’d say get a decent tripod for trying some long exposures, and experiment with torches and other powerful lights to illuminate subjects and understand how you can get strong light trails. Also don’t be too locked into a plan as the conditions can shift quickly, particularly in the dark as you can’t see it coming.
SM: Would you ever join us as a participant?
Ed: I’d love to! Having been an athlete I still hanker for the anticipation of the start line, the excitement of battle in an event (with yourself or a competitor) and the elation of the finish line… there’s definitely part of me is envious of all the participants for that! The question is more if Andy & Caz would allow me to enter; I’ve mooted the idea before, which received a cheeky grin from Andy but it was clear we’d have to make a plan for the pictures! 🙂
SM: haha one day Ed 😉 The trouble is, your pictures are just so incredible, we are not sure we would find anyone else to replace you!
You can see more of Ed’s work on his website, or follow him on Facebook and Instagram. He also has the wonderful gallery Eleven41 in Kingussie, so make sure you check it out when you are in the area for STARMAN Night Triathlon 2021.