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He's Always In at the Finish


The photographs of Herb Yaka generate an enormous amount of interest. Yet, he works in virtual anonymity.

Yaka's photographs are worth a lot of money, but he never sells them.

And his photographs can cause people to cheer or utter profanity. But, he's not a controversial fellow.

Herb Yaka is the photo-finish photographer at Los Alamitos Race Course, whose work ultimately helps the judges decide the winners and losers.

Is that a lot of pressure?

It can be when you consider that more than $1 million a night is wagered. But for Yaka, who has photographed more than 50,000 finishes, experience gives him confidence.

The 55-year-old photographer plies his trade in a 12-by-12-foot darkroom with two specially made slit cameras that are designed to capture nose-to-nose finishes. Unlike conventional still cameras, where a shutter opens and exposes the film in an instant, his shutter is a slit that is always open and aimed at the finish line. In order to make the exposure, the film moves across the slit at the same speed the horses travel.

From his rather barren perch five stories above the race track, he photographs every race, and the pressure is on when "PHOTO FINISH" is flashed across the infield tote board. While ticket-holders wait and worry, he turns out a print in less than a minute. Only one thing slows him down: the last horse. He must photograph every horse as it crosses the line.

It's a routine that happens 10 to 13 times a night during the harness and quarter-horse racing season. As the horses leave the gate, he starts timing the race. It's an unofficial time during harness racing, but it's the official time during the quarter-horse season.

He watches each race closely from one of the best vantage points at the track. As the horses near the finish, he flips two switches and the film starts to move in his cameras. He uses both a main camera and a backup in case the first camera malfunctions.

If a horse wins by less than a length, it's considered a photo finish. When the last horse crosses the finish line, he turns off the camera and shuts a sliding door across the window facing the track turning his office cubicle into a darkroom.

He unloads the film in darkness and develops the film in chemicals heated to 135 degrees. Kodak recommends that most film processing be done at temperatures between 68 and 75 degrees. However, Yaka uses the hot developer to cut down on the time. It takes only six seconds to develop the film and six seconds to fix it. It then goes into a water wash for a few seconds.

After inspecting the picture, Yaka adds a white line to the photograph during the printing process to easily see which horse won. He clips the photo to a clamp attached to a wire and the photo is pulled up to the five judges above him who decide the finish.

Because of his processing technique, the film is certainly not up to archival quality but, by state law, it must be kept for at least two years.

The idea of stopping the action of a racehorse at just the right moment may sound complicated. However, it's actually quite easy because there is no shutter, just a vertical slit that captures all the action.

"Most people are accustomed to shooting one frame at a time," Yaka explains. "Even when you watch TV, it's one frame at a time but it goes so fast that your eyes can't see it. It's a continuous motion. It's the same with motion pictures.

"But with this camera, there are no frames at all. The film goes by the slit at the same speed as the object you're photographing. All race track photographers use the same style camera."

His camera uses a film-timing negative film that is 62-millimeters wide. It doesn't have any sprocket holes and the emulsion is tougher so that it will withstand the heated chemicals used in development. It takes 90 days to receive the film from Kodak by special order.

The closest race Yaka has ever photographed was 10 years ago for a triple dead heat--three horses crossing the finish line at exactly the same moment. Yaka is proud of the fact that he's never missed a finish.

Yaka grew up on a dairy farm on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, but, he said, "Horses and I really never got along." After a stint in the Army, he came to California with his brother in 1956. Yaka studied electronics and his brother became a jockey. When he was visiting his brother at the track, he was invited to become the video camera operator because of his electronics background.

In 1969, after three years working as a cameraman, he was hired by Photo Chart, a company that provided photo-finish pictures for local tracks. The company worked at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, Los Alamitos and Del Mar.

"I had an idea of what to expect," he said. "I wasn't afraid of it. If you are afraid of something then it's harder to learn."

He started his own business in 1981 called Acculine Photo, shooting at Los Alamitos and the Pomona Fair race track.

After 21 years, Yaka has no plans to retire.

"I love my work," he said. "I'm outdoors, yet I'm indoors. I'm watching a sporting event from the best seat in the house and getting paid for it."

Although a constant observer of horse racing, Yaka never picks winners because as a state licensed employee of the track, he's not allowed to bet.

Yaka can only watch and shoot pictures--two of his favorite activities. And that alone means he leaves the track each night a winner.

The Photography Column, which runs every other Saturday in Orange County Life, is intended to help the serious amateur and weekend shooter.

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