“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” said the legendary Hungarian-American war photographer and photojournalist Robert Capa. I’m also of the staunch opinion that to get better images, you need to be where the action is. But sometimes, especially at sporting events, there are umpteen locations considered off-limits for security and safety purposes. The technology offered by remote trigger manufacturers greatly simplifies things for photographers. Getting remote cameras to successfully trigger still comes with their own challenges and tribulations.
All images in this article are used with permission from their owners.
Have you ever looked at a cracking sports image and wondered, “How on earth did the photographer take a photo at this vantage point?” The photographer probably wasn’t physically located where the image was taken. Instead, a camera that was placed by them before the event’s start, triggered via radio technology, grabbed that image. These cameras give a fantastic insight into what the sport looks like from angles that aren’t always accessible.
Setting up remote cameras isn’t always straightforward and often requires prior permission and a good deal of advance planning. I’ve shot sports photography for over 12 years now. Nailing the perfect image on a remote camera isn’t easy. You’re often left scratching your head over why the focus missed or why the camera didn’t trigger.
But there are good nights when you grab your remote camera and rush back to the media centre and find a stunner on it. That feeling is just indescribable. And more often than not, that shot outclasses every other one from the cameras you’re carrying around at the venue. During the past few weeks, I spoke to a few professional sports photographers about their experiences and they shared tips with using remote triggers for getting images on a remote camera.
How Does It Work?
Put simply, a remote camera system in its most straightforward setup needs a radio trigger, a radio receiver, and a camera set up at a location where a photographer cannot physically be. You can also swap out the trigger+receiver combo for transceivers. Here each transceiver unit can function either as a trigger or a receiver. Usually, the photographer has a camera with a trigger mounted to the hot shoe. The shutter is pressed from the hand-held camera, and the remote trigger sends a radio signal to the distantly located receiver. The receiver, in turn, fires the shutter of the remote camera instantaneously upon receiving this signal from the trigger.
How does the trigger not set off other photographers’ cameras, which might also be present with the same system at the venue? Here’s where radio frequencies and, more importantly, radio channels come into play. Usually, the media center keeps a printed list of radio channels in the media room. Photographers who intend to use remote cameras need to put their names down alongside the radio channel they intend to use and stick to it for the duration of the event. We’ll be looking at the various factors which come into play into getting the remote cameras successfully triggered.
Visibility Is Key for Radio Triggers
“I have fired remotes cameras from end to end on a football pitch with no problem,” clarifies sports photographer Richard Pelham. “If you have a line of sight to the remote, it’s no problem.” Richard is a multi-awarded veteran whose 30-year career has seen him cover over six Olympic Games and seven FIFA World Cups. Fondly known as Dickie, he places remote cameras in strategic locations to maximise his vantage points at venues. “I use remote cameras every time I shoot football. It’s a get out of jail [card] if the goal does not make from behind the goal when we are shooting from the touchline. I have had some amazing remotes from football that have told the story perfectly.”
“Last season, Manchester City scored a Late Winner against West Ham. The goal was blocked from our position.”
This one, however, nails the moment with some excellent framing. Photographers maximize the possibilities of capturing the action, often using ultra-wide-angle lenses for this. “When I am shooting football, I tend to use a Canon 16-35mm 2.8 L lens with a Canon 1Dx MK2,” says Dickie about the gear he uses.
“I directly send pictures out of the camera via Ethernet to my editor back at base very effective to give my office the pictures as fast as possible.”
Keeping It Simple
While most sports photographers opt for some of the well-known radio trigger brands like Pocketwizard, 2020 British Photography Awards Sports Photographer of the Year Ben Lumley opts for something simple. “I just use simple Yongnuo triggers for my remote work. I don’t need anything particularly technical. I’ve only ever used remote cameras in indoor arenas, so the range has never needed to be huge. Usually, around 30/50 meters is fine.”
He does hope to see a change in the costs associated with getting a decent remote camera trigger system. “Manufacturers could just make it more affordable to get started. I know a lot of up-and-coming photographers who’d love to get started with remote systems, and it’s just a little too cost prohibited for them.”
I started using radio triggers around 2014 for my remote cameras. The initial cost for this was borne by my colleagues at work, who sprung for a pair of Pocket Wizard IIIs for me as a birthday present. It wasn’t many more months from then when I realized I would need to add more cameras for more coverage. Costs quickly began to add up. More triggers needed more cables too. Some manufacturers provide more affordable triggers, such as the PocketWizard PlusX Transceiver system, which can do the job well without breaking the bank. If you start to look at trigger options with more configurable settings, such as the MultiMax II, things get more expensive.
A big one is simply thinking the action is in frame when it’s not quite there. That just takes time and getting used to what you’re working with. I’ve had what I thought was some epic shots captured only to turn out not quite in frame where I wanted them. A few times I’ve fired my remote only to find out later that I didn’t turn on the receiver on the unit itself.
“If I’m putting a remote at a game, I’ll always try and get the widest shot I can get, so that usually means I’ll put my full-frame 5DMkiii and my 24-70 in place. That leaves me my telephoto set up to work the action as it happens. So far, the best results for remotes have come from the Netball Super League here in the UK. It’s good as it gives me alternative angles to work.”
Hardwire When You Can
Frank Gunn of The Canadian Press finds that radio signals can be finicky. So he tends to hardwire his remotes if the opportunity is available. “At the Olympics, there might be 250 cameras pointed at the 100m final and there ends up being frequency overlap,” he says of his experiences at this event. “I prefer to hardwire remotes whenever possible for the most reliable results. On a ski hill covering FIS World Cup, I am sometimes 500m from a remote camera. I use a third one as a repeater for better results.”
Picking the best spot to place remote cameras can also be confusing. “Remotes at the Olympics have to be set up a long time in advance and are quite often hit or miss,” says Frank. “I had to guess which lanes they would be in when setting up and was happy with the result. My favorite remote image is from the Rio Olympics of Usain Bolt and Andre De Grasse having their moment in the 200m.”
“Another one I particularly like is a sunrise shot of Tiger Woods preparing for a tee shot. I couldn’t shoot from where the camera is, so I dropped a remote and fired it from close by.”
I asked him what issues he often faces with these systems, and he pointed to something many sports photographers, including myself, have experienced while outdoors. “The biggest issue is with cable connections and interference from RF. It is next to impossible to track down and often remains unsolved.”
Dickie Pelham might have found the culprit for this, but it isn’t something that’s easily fixed. “TV cameras can block the signals to the remote: that’s really the only problem.” I’ve faced this issue myself at the local horse racing track in Dubai. One year almost every photographer’s remote cameras wouldn’t trigger consistently. A lot of investigation was done over the possible reasons for this. We concluded that possibly some, or one, of the local TV broadcast systems was messing around with the remote camera radio frequencies. It wasn’t a channel issue as many of us photographers got together and experimented with these to try and isolate the problem. A very frustrating year for all of us. We often went home on nights during that racing season without any decent images from our remote cameras. They’d fire perfectly during test shots before the start of each race, but when it came to the finish line shots, we’d have nothing.
Luck Plays a Part
Senior photojournalist Micheal Johnson of The Villages Daily Sun attributes success with remote cameras to being down to a mixture of luck and diligence. “I check cards, camera setting and focus since it’s left in manual and prefocused. I’ve learned carrying tape to lock down the focus is a must, along with a few other tricks depending on the sport. I go in hopeful that a big play happens where I set my camera up, but as we know, that’s not a guarantee to happen. If I am lucky, I’ll come out with at least one usable shot.”
“In the case of the photo of PBA legend Pete Weber I had the camera focused on one lane. If he had made a big shot and celebrated on the other lane, I would not have gotten the photo. Luckily he ended up where I needed him, and I got the image. So luck is a part of it, that or having two remote camera’s set up which I did not have available to me that night.”
“Soccer is typically wide, when I set up a remote for probowling I’ll set it tighter. In bowling the camera is down lane so that requires longer glass. Outside of camera gear I carry a table-top tripod and a magic-arm for different setups locations.”
Who Moved My Camera?
Shibu Nair shoots football (soccer) professionally, and one of his biggest gripes is constantly finding his camera being moved (albeit slightly even) from how he initially set it up. “When it comes to football, it will happen 70 out of 100 times. Most of the time, it can be moved or hit by the ball.” I guess it’s just something that sports photographers have to live with; the fact that the action itself can interfere with getting the perfect remote shot. You’re lucky if your camera is moved or fails just closer to a break in the game. Otherwise, you’d have to wait a very long time to be able to set up the camera again before the action restarts. “Rain is the major problem from the aspect of nature,” adds Shibu.
He told me of a risk that paid off when positioning a remote camera in a location where it could have been disturbed easily. “My favourite is Son Heung Min of Tottenham Hotspur scoring against Tim Kurl of Norwich City in the FA Cup.”
“This was the FA Cup, and there were many fellow photographers who set up the camera in the centre before. I chose to set up at the right end of the goal taking the risk of the ball hitting the camera. Son Heung-Min scored in the side where I placed my camera”. I don’t know if I’d be as brave as Shibu to place a camera this close. I may just place it further away and use a longer focal length, but I’d have to stop down the aperture a lot to get more in focus. Then again, most sports cameras are built to take a few knocks. Shibu’s risk paid off perfectly in these series of images.
Pick Unique Spots and Vary Your Lenses
“Too numerous to mention,” replies AP photojournalist Mark J. Terrill when I asked him what gear he prefers for his remote cameras. “I often put a 600mm with a TC-1.4 in center field for baseball to shoot batters and plays at the plate.”
“I also put a 300mm f4 at 3rd (base) pointed the same way. Sometimes I will add a 70-200 inside 1st as well, and, on rare occasions, I will mount a camera on top of the elevator shaft at the top of the stadium. All of these cameras can be controlled for focus and exposure and the pictures retrieved remotely.”
“Probably my favorite sport is baseball because of all the different locations that I can put remotes and the ability to control them during the game. I think that the most memorable is placing and using underwater cameras for swimming at the Olympics.”
It Really Helps to Know the Sport Inside Out
“My favorite sport to photograph is baseball since I know the game well from years of playing,” says Indiana based photographer Jeffrey H. Nycz. I had an idea to shoot the second baseman receiving the ball as the catcher throws the ball down after the pitcher warm up between innings. This was during a professional baseball game at the minor league level. I had to obtain approval from the manager of the team and the umpires. I also had to coordinate the throw with the catcher and the second baseman. I used a full-frame body and an 8-15mm f4 lens at 8mm with the lens hood removed (capturing a circular image) triggered by PocketWizards. I positioned the camera on the ground directly in front of the second base pointed straight up to the sky. I fired the camera remotely from the dugout as the catcher threw the ball to second base.”
“It required three different attempts as the camera did not fire in the first two attempts. After several panicked minutes, I realized the Pocket Wizard signal was being affected by the large metal pipes running underground to drain rainwater. In order to get the camera to fire, I had to be on the field near first base to get a signal strong enough to fire the camera.”
I asked Jeff what radio system manufacturers could do in order to help improve things for photographers using remote cameras. “Possible increased shielding to avoid radio interference,” he replied
“Safety is paramount. The last thing you want to happen is to injure a highly paid athlete.”
Smaller Cameras Can Do the Job Too
“When I started using remotes, I was shooting Nikon film bodies. I switched to Canon for nearly 20 years, and now I’m using Sony mirrorless. Recently I’ve been trying out the Rx0ii as a remote. It’s about the size of a go pro but can be triggered with PocketWizards,” states New Zealand based professional photographer John Cowpland.
“Like most, I shoot football and basketball with remotes but have been trying to make us of them in other sports – like kayaking/adventure sports/motor racing etc.”
“First time I used the RX0ii, I got a not bad frame of an own goal in football. It’s a nice pic – but I think I’m more impressed with the image quality out of such a small camera! Been working on ways to use the little setup ever since.”
John has had plenty of experience with multiple generations of remote triggers. “My first remotes were the old Quantum 4’s – a really basic system that was big and bulky and struggled to get any real distance. Replaces those with the Quantum Freewire system, which wasn’t much better! I tried a few of the cheaper knock offs and eventually settled on Pocket Wizards – plus 2+’s / plus 3’s and 4’s and a few MultiMax. I even had used the flex system for a while – but with Canon, the TTL just didn’t work so well.
“Failure to fire is always an issue – sometimes you think you have it working perfectly – only to find there’s nothing on the card later on! ALWAYS sucks.”
Tips and Tricks
Nothing quite counts like experience when it comes to making good images with remote cameras. But what suggestions do they have for our readers who might want to try this out at their next local sporting event?
“Usually, for indoor arenas, I’ll put a remote out for the first half and then collect it. I’ll try to always keep it in view so I can visually check it’s ok and not been [sic] hit or moved,” says Ben Lumley
Frank Gunn keeps his remote cameras protected as much as possible. “The cameras have rain covers on them when shooting anything outdoors like horse racing so that I don’t have to worry about them too much. I check them as often as I reasonably can but have to stay focused on the main job at hand.”
Mark J. Terrill offers several valid pointers. “Attach cables before you mount the camera. Allow your lenses time to adjust to their new environment. Focus can sometimes change as the lens adjusts to a new temperature.”. And, of course, safety has to be considered at every instance. “Safety, Safety, Safety. Make sure that your remotes are safely mounted and that you use safety cables to secure them.”
“I check cards, camera setting and focus since it’s left in manual and prefocused. I’ve learned carrying tape to lock down the focus is a must along with a few other tricks depending on the sport,” says Micheal Johnson
“I always make sure I have a good set of batteries in the cameras. I never let them go down to two bars of power,” says Dickie Pelham. “Boxing is complete luck. You have to have a head for heights to install the cameras above the ring via a cherry picker. Rain is a big problem. I simply use a bathroom towel to cover [the cameras].”
Jeff Nycz suggests doing a double-check of your setup to make sure it works. “To ensure a successful experience, test the setup, then test it again, even if you have to ask someone for help.”
I can’t add much more in the way of tips to what’s been provided earlier. I will, however, add that if you go to a sporting event with a firm conviction, things will eventually work out. The above image was the only remote image that my camera captured the whole night of the 2018 Dubai World Cup. For the three months before this night, my cameras (and those of a few other colleagues at the track) repeatedly and regularly refused to fire during the racing season. I didn’t think I’d have any hits that night, and I didn’t either for any of the previous races. To my good fortune, it fired at the right time, for the right race, and exactly when the World Cup winning horse came into focus.