By Jim Zuckerman
One of the more interesting pictures I’ve taken was actually a complete surprise to me. I didn’t expect it to turn out as well as it did because the exposure conditions were unlike anything I’d ever tried before or since. I was photographing funny cars at the Orange County International Speedway in Southern California in the early 1980’s, and I was standing at the top of the grandstand. Obviously, even the most powerful flash could never reach all the way down to the track, so I came up with an idea. A number of photographers were positioned down on the track very close to the customized race cars, and I thought perhaps I could use their flashes during a long exposure. The problem, of course, was what f/stop to use.
The educated guess I made was that the guide number of their on-camera flash units was 120. At the time, this was a reasonable amount of power for a portable flash. The formula for calculating the correct f/stop at 100 ISO is:
GN = flash-to-subject distance x f/stop.
It looked to me like the photographers were about fifteen feet from where the cars were going to pass them by. So, 120 = 15 x f/stop, and therefore the f/stop had to be f/8.
I was shooting at the time a Mamiya RB 67 (a medium format camera that shoots 6 x 7 cm slides or negatives) mounted with a 500mm lens. I set the lens aperture to f/8, which on that lens was wide open, and I set my shutter speed to one full second. As the cars roared to life, I pressed the shutter button and panned with the movement. In that one-second interval, several flashes went off by the shooters on the track (if you look closely in the lower left, you can see one photographer crouching down as he's shooting), fans in the audience fired their cameras as well, and the ambient light blurred horizontally as I moved my tripod mounted Mamiya RB to follow the funny cars doing wheelies that left sparks in their trail.
Back then, immediate feedback on something called an LCD monitor wasn’t even a dream. I had no idea what I took until I got the film back from the lab, and I was completely amazed that the ONE SHOT I took worked out so well. I was very conservative in my shooting then (‘cheap’ might be better description), and being much younger and more foolish, it just didn’t occur to me that I wouldn't get the shot in one try.