My number one priority while photographing people is to not piss them off. Correction: my number one priority is to not injure or kill anyone while I'm shooting them. Whether they're angry with me or not is secondary.
A few months ago I did my first race at Wells Ave in Newton. I rode the B-race just to see how my legs felt. Not wanting to sand bag, I decided ahead of time to sit out the final sprint. Instead I worked the hell out of my legs during the race trying to catch a break away. For the most part, the race went well and it's the last B-race I'll do this season. Doing the easy race gave me the opportunity to photograph the A-race, the race I should have been in. This race hosts all of the crazies on two wheels. I don't try to win this race, I just try not to cry during it.
I grabbed my cameras, a light stand, my strobes and my remotes. I built a McNallyesque flash tree with some superclamps and set up on the sidewalk on the inside of the final turn of the course. I used highspeed sync to freeze the action and wide angle lens. Because I was so close to the riders I needed a very fast (1/4,000th of a second and faster) shutter speed to reduce any motion blur. So, in essence, I had a few flashes next to the course that went off one to two times each time the pack passed me. It was bright and sunny and almost every rider had sunglasses on. The last thing I was worried about was people being annoyed by the strobes. But sure enough, after about 10 laps a rider, huffing and puffing, wearing sunglasses, slowly passes me a little while after the main pack goes by.
Him: "I know you're just trying to get some cool photos but those flashes are really distracting."
Me: "Really? I'm sorry. I'll take them down." I was kinda hungry anyways. Beer and food were calling my name.
Him: "Yeah. You come around that turn and..." He had rolled off and I couldn't here the rest of what he said.
Feeling pretty bad about having violated my second priority in photographing people, I packed up my crap and started walking to my car, thinking about the terrible thing that I did. My guilt didn't last very long as I thought about the situation. That guy had gotten dropped. He was obviously upset about it. And like most cyclists (including myself) he was probably looking to blame his performance on anything but a lack of fitness or skill. The guy with the "bright" lights probably came to mind first.
Why do I think he was just looking for an excuse?
It was sunny outside. The flashes weren't all that much brighter than the ambient light. If it was night time, or even overcast, I might understand.
He was wearing sunglasses. That would cut down on the light entering his eyes even more.
I talked to two other riders that were in the race. One (not wearing sunglasses) said he noticed the flashes once and then never saw them again. The other said they were hardly noticeable in the bright sunlight.
I spent 2 full days shooting cyclocross with a similar setup. I didn't receive a single complaint.
What can I learn from this?
Well, I think I did the right thing by packing up. I really don't like pissing people off. That being said, the guy that complained about them was out the race anyways, so I wouldn't be photographing him any more anyways. Had I stayed, I would have been upsetting at least one person. But maybe I would have gotten a great photo later in the race as I dialed my equipment in. I think if I had really wanted to stay, I should have taken a step back and thought about things before I packed up. Maybe moving to a different location would have made a difference. I could have continued shooting and simply made an effort to not photograph that one guy. If I was getting paid to take the photos, there's no way I would have left. I would have just done my best to work around him.
The only good photo I got from the race before I packed up: