Chasing Adrenaline

A Day in the Life of a Pamplona Photographer


Peter Pickering

4/26/20247 min read

Ah, my dear friends, what a day awaits! The first light of dawn gilds the ancient cobblestones of Pamplona, casting long shadows that seem to whisper of the coming thrill. The city stirs with a palpable tension, as if the very air breathes anticipation. Today, we celebrate el encierro, the Running of the Bulls, an event unmatched in its raw, pulsating drama.

I am Alejandro Sánchez, and today, more than ever, I am a photographer—not just of images, but of courage, of fleeting seconds that tick between chaos and beauty. My preparations began at dawn, as I meticulously readied both myself and my gear for the tumultuous day ahead.

Dressed in the traditional white and red of the festival, the fabric clung to my skin, already slick with the nervous sweat of anticipation. This was no ordinary day, and every detail of my preparation needed to echo the importance of the moments I aimed to capture.

My camera of choice, the robust Nikon D4s, felt like an extension of my own spirit. This wasn't just a camera; it was my ally in the field, a tool through which I could channel my vision into tangible snapshots of bravery and drama. The camera was equipped with a trusty 28mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens, ideal for capturing expansive scenes of action with crystal clarity. I had opted against a zoom lens for today’s event—the encierro demanded rapid response and a wide field of view that only a prime lens could offer. Zooming was a luxury there was simply no time for amidst the chaos.

Before setting out, I had meticulously cleaned my camera’s sensor and lens to ensure no dust or smears would mar the clarity of my images. While many photographers rely on a dedicated grip for stability and security, I adapted a method akin to how polo players hold their mallets. Instead of using a typical grip, I wrapped the camera’s neck strap securely around my wrist, allowing for safe, one-handed shooting. This technique not only ensured that my Nikon D4s was securely anchored to my hand, but it also allowed me the flexibility to move quickly and react instantly, crucial in the unpredictable, fast-paced environment of the Running of the Bulls.

The strap, when wrapped tightly around the wrist, acts almost like a tether, providing a firm hold on the camera. This method offers several advantages: it minimises the risk of dropping the camera during sudden movements and makes it easier to keep the camera steady when I’m shooting in motion. Moreover, the additional silicone casing I added to the camera's body further enhances the grip, ensuring that even when my palms are sweaty or I'm bumped by runners or spectators, my hold remains secure.

This setup is ideal for the conditions I face during the encierro, where space is limited and the crowd’s jostling is relentless. It allows me to hold my position and my camera with confidence, knowing that I can focus entirely on capturing the fleeting moments of courage and chaos without worrying about the security of my equipment.

Knowing the unpredictable and fast-paced nature of the Running of the Bulls, I loaded my camera’s 2 card slots with the largest Sandisk CF memory cards available—128GB each, capable of handling the vast quantity of high-speed RAW images I intended to shoot without the risk of a buffer fill slowing me down. I’d easily have enough room 10,000-16,000 images; that should be enough!

In the camera’s settings, I had adjusted for multi-point autofocus, enabling the camera to rapidly adjust focus across a wide array of subjects as they moved. The autofocus was set to dynamic-area AF, with 25 points selected, which would help me maintain focus on runners and bulls alike, despite their erratic movements and the challenging lighting conditions of the early morning.

I configured the camera to shoot in RAW format for maximum post-processing flexibility—essential for adjusting exposure and detail in the shadows and highlights that the harsh morning light could create. The image quality needed to be uncompromised, capturing every texture and expression with precision.

For exposure settings, I opted for a zone system approach, metering for the highlights to ensure that the bright morning light wouldn't wash out crucial details. My Nikon D4s was set to its high-speed continuous shooting mode, capable of capturing up to 11 frames per second—essential for ensuring that no critical moment was missed.

As the time neared, I checked and rechecked each setting, a spare battery fully charged and tucked away in my waistcoat pocket. Every preparation was aimed at ensuring I could operate at peak efficiency, without distractions or technical delays. Thus prepared, I was more than just a participant or a bystander; I was a chronicler of life at its most raw, ready to capture the essence of the day—a fleeting dance between chaos and beauty through the lens of my camera.

With each passing minute, my heart syncs more closely with the distant roar of the bulls. They're restless, ready, their hooves pounding against the stone in a rhythm that matches the racing of my pulse. The air is thick with the scent of anticipation and the musky tang of animal fur. This is not merely photography; it's a battle for the perfect shot.

I position myself at Dead Man’s Corner, the most infamous and treacherous part of the route where the cobblestones are slick with the echoes of past encounters. Here, the raw edges of bravery and fear merge, crystallising into pure, adrenaline-soaked drama that pulses through the air. Robert Capa's immortal words thunder in my mind, a relentless drumbeat that fuels my resolve, "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Today, I vow to be close—dangerously close.

Suddenly, the rocket pierces the early morning silence, its sharp report the herald of chaos unleashed. The gates burst open; a flood of muscle and might surges forward. The bulls, magnificent and terrifying, charge into the narrow corridor formed by ancient, sun-warmed stones. Their eyes, wide and wild, mirror the primal fear and untamed excitement that grip the runners—a fearsome ballet set against the backdrop of centuries-old traditions. Every charge is like thunder rolling down the mountains, every snort a storm brewing on the horizon.

Men, clad in the traditional white and red, dart perilously close to the thundering beasts. Their faces are canvases of raw emotion—etched with exhilaration one moment and stark terror the next. It's a duality that captivates my lens and seizes my soul. The runners’ every move is a dance with death, their fleeting footfalls a rhythm I strive to capture.

My finger flutters over the shutter, rapid-fire, as my eyes scan the unfolding story. Each frame is a chapter, each click a verse of this perilous epic. The stark fear in a runner's eyes as a bull's horn grazes the fabric of his shirt, the heroic twist of a body contorting just out of a deadly path, and the surge of the crowd—a desperate, fluid dance of survival. The atmosphere is electric, the danger palpable, as each second stretches into eternity.

The crowd’s roar ebbs and flows with the tide of runners and bulls, a symphony of human voices that rises to a crescendo with each close call. My heart beats in sync with this primal drum, my senses heightened to a razor's edge. The air is thick with the scent of sweat and fear, the tangible taste of danger that I breathe in deep, transforming it into the fuel that drives my shutter finger.

Today, at Dead Man’s Corner, I am more than a photographer; I am a chronicler of life and death, of fear and bravery. With each photo, I not only capture a moment in time but also grasp a thread of the raw, untamed spirit of the encierro. These are the images that define not just the essence of the run, but the essence of life itself—fleeting, fragile, and ferociously beautiful.

The final bull disappears into the arena, the streets now echoing with the fading rumble of hooves. I can hardly contain my exhilaration. What a day, my friends, what a day! The Running of the Bulls, no other event brings such excitement, such danger, such an opportunity to capture the essence of life. My camera, heavy with the day's captures, feels like a treasure chest in my hands.

As the crowd's adrenaline slowly dissipates into celebratory cheers and relieved laughter, I make my way through the sea of red and white, moving against the tide of revellers. The narrow streets of Pamplona, still warm from the sun and the thrill of the chase, guide me back to my haven—the quiet solitude of my studio.

The festive sounds of the city fade as I lock the door behind me, the familiar click sounding unusually definitive. This transition from the chaotic streets to my serene workspace marks the beginning of a new phase of creation. My studio, with its subdued lighting, welcomes me into its embrace. It's here that the raw material of the day will transform under my careful touch.

I set down my camera, its body still warm, and begin the ritual of downloading the images. Each photo, a frozen fragment of fear, bravery, and exhilaration, flashes onto the screen, bringing with them a flood of memories from just hours before. My heart continues to race, not from danger now, but from the anticipation of revisiting each moment, each decision I made behind the lens.

The digital darkroom awaits. I start with the raw images, each one telling a story of near misses, of triumphant escapes, and of palpable fear. Cropping, adjusting exposure, and enhancing colours, I work to bring out the truth of the day—the vivid, brutal, beautiful truth. Each adjustment feels like a brushstroke, adding depth and emotion to the canvas of my computer screen.

Hours slip away as I delve deeper into the craft. The thrill of the chase on the streets morphs into a chase for perfection in each frame. The studio, usually a place of calm and controlled creativity, resonates with the echoes of the day’s chaos, now tamed and transformed on my screens.

Finally, leaning back, I feel a wave of satisfaction wash over me. The images before me are no longer just photographs; they are stories, they are art. They are a testament to the spirit of Pamplona’s most thrilling tradition, ready to be shared with the world. Tomorrow, these photographs will speak for themselves at the local gallery, evoking the same intense emotions in viewers as they did in me. But for now, it's just me and my reflections, a quiet celebration of a day well captured and remembered.

With a final, satisfied glance at my work, I shut down my computer. The studio returns to darkness, and the outside world’s festive noises remind me of the life beyond these walls. But inside, the rush has found its resolution in the pursuit of artistic expression, marking the end of another unforgettable San Fermín.

What a day, my friends, what a day! The streets of Pamplona may now be quiet, but the echoes of hooves and heartbeats linger on. Viva San Fermín! Viva Pamplona! Each photograph I've taken today is a testament to the spirit of this city and its brave festival. Until next year, my dear encierro, until next year.

© Peter Pickering 2024.