Photographs from a finish line camera always fascinate me. A finish line camera mechanically moves film past a slit shutter as competitors cross the finish line. There is always a very distorted look to the racers that interests me. How the images look is of no significance to those reading the image. These strip cameras serve one purpose, to identify which competitor won the race even it was “by a nose.”
While I worked for the Arizona Republic, the sports editors wanted me to make an interesting photograph from the opening day of races at the Turf Paradise race track. With that in mind, I researched how a finish line camera worked. That led me to make some modifications to a Nikon F4 camera.
With the help of a maintenance man in the press room, I found some of the thinnest metal possible that would remain rigid in the camera. We measured and trimmed two metal pieces until they fit perfectly in the tracks where the film traveled past the camera’s 35mm picture frame with every shutter release. The metal edges of the two pieces fit together as closely as possible with the edges honed razor-sharp and the rest of the metal polished smooth. Each was held in place with a tiny strip of cellophane tape. Holding the camera up to a light, with the shutter open, only a thin vertical strip of light appeared instead of the full shutter box.
The F4 camera’s film rewind feature is what made the camera work for my needs. At the end of a roll of film, a flick of a lever wound the film back into its metal canister until opened in a darkroom for processing. I mounted my camera on a tripod and covered the front of the lens and the eyepiece to prevent light from entering the camera. A black processing bag went over the camera as I exposed the film until all the film traveled to the right side of the camera with no exposure.
Before each race, I uncovered the camera and removed the lens hood. As the horses neared my position I opened the shutter and let the rewind function of the Nikon pass the film by the tiny slit left for exposure as the horses passed. There was no way to know what f-stop I needed, so I simply guessed and went with f5.6.
Often I will write in this blog or tell others how the Lord blesses me in so many ways and none more than in my photographic career. All I could do was make my best estimate and leave the rest to the Lord. Twice He blessed me with amazingly correct film exposures.
The vertical exposure surges stem from the fact the rewind function on a F4 camera never was perfectly smooth. The result gave the image a gritty look that pleased me. Much like a true finish line camera, the speed of the horses vs. the speed of the film rewind provided the desired dramatic distorted look. If both were moving at the same speed, the image would be perfectly correct.
In 1984, Topeka West sprinter Mark Pickens finished up his high school career before heading to Georgia Tech. Pickens still holds the state 100 meter record of 10.35 set in 1983. It took until 2011 for anyone to even tie that mark. With the metal strips in place again, I made photographs of Pickens for the Topeka Capital-Journal during a practice. The results were just as dramatic. The photographs worked well for a feature story on Pickens to emphasize just how fast he could run.
Today’s digital cameras’ advanced technology far exceed my limited skills. My finish line photography days are now past, but still fun to recall. Hope you enjoyed the look.