Big Shot Tradition

Signature photo project illuminates Churchill Downs

Published Oct. 5, 2015

Unseasonably cool temperatures didn’t keep nearly 2,000 people from coming out to Churchill Downs on Saturday night to help make Rochester Institute of Technology’s 31st Big Shot photograph a resounding success.

More than 1,800 volunteers, including 21 RIT students who traveled to Kentucky from upstate New York and about 60 alumni who live in the area, provided the primary light source for the Big Shot image while RIT photographers shot an extended exposure with Churchill Downs completely dark for the first time in its history.

This year’s final image was a 30-second exposure at f11 (ISO 100). Located on the grass track were re-enactors dressed to portray jockeys and a photographer from approximately the 1900s. Additionally, located to the left of the frame is the Kentucky Derby bugler.

“The Big Shot represents one of RIT’s signature projects, and we are absolutely thrilled with the result of this year’s nighttime photograph of Churchill Downs,” said RIT Professor Michael Peres. He led the event with colleagues Willie Osterman, Christye Sisson, Dan Hughes, Eric Kunsman, Therese Mulligan and Mike Dear.

Peres noted that capturing the image culminated many months of hard work and close collaboration between RIT and Churchill Downs, adding, “This is a community art project and we couldn’t do it without the support of our sponsors and everyone who came out tonight. We’ve created a once-in-a-lifetime photograph of the pinnacle of horse racing and a national historic landmark.”

The photo also marked the RIT team's second computational image using four cameras with matched lenses on a single tripod to create a panoramic effect. Computational photography refers to image capture involving processing and manipulation techniques that enhance or extend the capabilities of digital photography, like panoramas.

The Big Shot is often described as “painting with light” because participants are asked to “paint” or shine their light source onto a particular area of a landmark while the photograph is taken. Participants were tasked with continuously painting their assigned area of Churchill Downs while RIT photographers—perched over the infield and facing the historic Twin Spires atop the clubhouse and the famous Kentucky Derby winner’s circle-—shot an extended exposure. The photo was taken shortly after 9 p.m. eastern time.

Since RIT started its Big Shot project in 1987, university photographers have captured such landmarks as AT&T Stadium (formerly Cowboys Stadium) in Arlington, Texas; The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas; and the Royal Palace, Stockholm, Sweden.

A longtime sponsor of the event, Nikon Inc., was among the corporate supporters again this year, loaning high-end photographic equipment. Tickets to the free, public event included directions on how volunteers can download a digital copy of the finished photo. They’ll also get a general admission ticket to the Churchill Downs Fall Meet Nov. 1-29.

RIT’s Big Shot event began as a way to teach students about flash photography. RIT’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences is nationally recognized for its degree programs.

To view the nighttime images of all Big Shot subjects, go to

Churchill Downs, the world’s most legendary racetrack, has conducted thoroughbred racing and presented America’s greatest race, the Kentucky Derby, continuously since 1875. Located in Louisville, the flagship racetrack of Churchill Downs Incorporated (NASDAQ: CHDN) offers year-round simulcast wagering at the historic track. Churchill Downs will conduct the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2016. The track, which has a Fall Meet scheduled for Nov. 1-29, has hosted the Breeders’ Cup World Championships eight times. Information is available at