Confessions of a semiprofessional motorsports photographer

At the incredibly advanced age of 52, I’ve finally realized one of my life long dreams – to be “considered” a professional photographer.  I’m careful in my definition of professional because although I satisfy many tenets of that term, I don’t and likely never will make a living wholly dependent on my practice as a photographer and until you find yourself in that position of feeding your family and maintaining a household from revenue generated solely from a profession, you are not truly a professional.

You might be asking yourself, why am I being such a nit picker?  While skill and experience are the hallmarks of a professional, until the stresses of your personal life challenge your ethical conduct as a professional and attempt to redraw the boundaries of your professional integrity,  you are not a true professional.

My first professional gig occurred just this past weekend when I became a FIA media accredited photographer for the season finale Formula E race in Brooklyn, NYC shooting for a British automotive magazine.  I’d like to share that experience and some observations regarding the  shooting  of motorsports.

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I rarely take selfies of my ugly mug but this moment insisted on being documented for posterity!  In the Formula E Media Center where hundreds of photographers and video cameramen gratefully relax in air conditioned comfort.

 

Know the sport that you’re covering.

The best single piece of advice I’ve encountered for sports photographers.   There is knowing as a couch potato pundit and knowing as a player, I prefer the latter.  I’ve never been a professional race car driver but I have driven my vintage Mazda sports car on several racetracks, spent long nights wrenching underneath my car as well as avidly following Formula 1 in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  My next professional gig is covering the Roger’s Cup Men’s Championship here in Toronto for a German tennis magazine and as a kid I used to play a lot of tennis.

Knowing how the sport is played and what it takes to play it gives you insight on opportunities where the camera is able to best translate that story.  In motorsports, the playing field is so large that you cannot physically be everywhere at once.  You will miss moments of drama.  But if you know motorsports, you will know that the first corner after the start is where accidents occur the most as some drivers try to seize an early advantage.  Straights are hard to photograph with cars traveling sometimes more than 200 mph, corners are where you need to be as cars slow down enough to track, cluster and passing opportunities abound.  Cars need to pit and often times the high drama that occurs in pit lane is missed by the unknowing.

 

Practice, practice, practice.

They say it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to be good and competent at any skill but that doesn’t necessarily mean holding a camera for all those hours.   You can be exercising your camera eye by thinking about framing and composition of everyday events you encounter on walking to work.  Shoot it in color or monochrome?  Underexpose for silhouettes?  Wide field or ultra telephoto?

And if you’re lucky like me, I had the opportunity to practice at the annual IMSA races at nearby Mosport the weekend just prior to my NYC trip.

 

On your mark, get camera settings, and go.

For auto racing, I’m all about capturing the dynamism of the high speed action because that is crux of the story.  So many times I see derivative, high shutter speed, images of race cars completely devoid of movement and frozen in time.    One way to inject movement in a static image is to capture the blur of madly rotating racing tires by using a slow shutter speed, say about 1/150th second depending on the track speed.  But you want the driver (if visible) and the car to be in sharp relief and because race cars have sponsors who all want to decorate the car with their logos you cannot cheat, being close doesn’t cut it as every blurry sponsor’s sticker will betray.

So the slow shutter speed requires you pan the camera laterally at the same speed of the race car to keep it in sharp focus but also induce a blur in the background.  I turn off the horizontal sensor stabilization to prevent the camera from fighting against me and drop the ISO to minimum as well as up the aperture to f/11 – f/13 or more in order to get the slow shutter speed.  A good neutral density filter would also work but is just another piece of gear to carry and often the car is not traveling in a strictly straight line so the small aperture  will increase the chance that both the front and rear end of the car will remain in focus.    I usually use the center 5 or 9 cluster AF squares with either  C-AF or C-AF Tracking focus mode at low continuous frames per second shooting.

Now, the armchair experts will start yelling that the high pixel density of m43 sensors make them susceptible to diffraction attenuated IQ by f/8, and while theoretically true who cares!  You’ll never be able to compare that shot with one at f/4  to compare the difference in center sharpness and that difference will likely be so small as to not matter.  Besides you are the one out there, doing real photography and bringing that real story to the notice of the real world and not hiding in some chat room expounding one’s self perceived intelligence.

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The Mazda LMP2 Prototype racer wearing lucky number 55 (the number of the 1991 Mazda 787B Le Mans outright winner).  OMD-EM1.2 with Zuiko 40-150 f/2.8 Pro at f/11 and 100mm focal length, 1/100th s shutter speed and ISO 200.

While still not perfect since the script on the right front fender is a little blurry, most of the car is in sharp focus and one can easily read the writing.  Click on the image to pixel peep it at 100% (or more).  You can read the manufacturer’s name on the front brake caliper.   That’s quality optics for you.  BTW,  taken at The Moss Hairpin at Mosport during the 2018 IMSA race.    Yes – Stirling Moss raced in a Lotus in the 1961 Canadian Gran Prix on this track.  And so did Fangio.

Some people prefer the plain, undistracting blurred background shown above but I actually prefer the background below, because it tells another layer of the story.  The race is not run in a vacuum, there need to be spectators.  There need to be track marshals performing their jobs.  (Don’t forget to click to pixel peep)

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#34 Racer in the Mazda Prototype Challenge, OMD-EM1.2 with Zuiko 40-150 f/2.8 Pro at 100mm, f/13 , 1/125th s, ISO 200

 

Travel light. 

I recently saw a m43 user post the gear he was taking for an assignment.  It looked like about two dozen bodies, lenses and accessories filling two large Pelican cases.   Mind you, he was going away for a month and not just a weekend.   But I have some issues with this mindset.

  1.  What if the airlines lose your gear (ok always bring gear as carry on luggage).
  2.  What if you get mugged or it gets stolen from your hotel room?
  3.  What if carrying it all gives you a heart attack?

I saw a lot of photographers carrying 3 bodies and many large L Series telephoto Canon lenses in the summer New York heat, and not looking especially happy.  I had a small backpack containing only:

  1.  E-M1.2 with 40-150 f/2.8 Pro
  2.  E-M1.1 with Viltrox 0.71x Focal Reducer and Sigma 85 mm f/1.4 DG HSM (60mm f/1.0)
  3. Laowa 7.5 mm f/2.0  and 1.4x TC

and two slings so I could wear both bodies simultaneously around the track.   The plan was to use the E-M1.2 for the cars and the E-M1.1 for candid portraits of people with a lot of wonderful f/1.0 bokeh.  I had the backpack so that I could stow the gear and ride the ultraportable folding bike I had packed in my suitcase to get to the track from my hotel and to be able to travel quickly between different spots on the track.

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Of course things never quite go to plan.  The reality of a racetrack set up within the streets of an urban center vs a dedicated racetrack like Mosport is that a lot of protective fencing has to be erected.    Two layers of fencing.  My credentials allowed me to occupy that narrow space between the two layers of fencing and access these tiny 8×10″ cut outs in the fence to shoot without obstruction.    Now these openings are more than enough for even the largest telephoto lens to stick through and take those boring, unimaginative stills.  But they were too small for me to pan my action shots.  Even at 40mm, the cars were simply too close (mere feet away) and I would only catch portions of them superimposed with the ugly frame of the fence cutouts.

Fortunately, I had brought along my widest lens.  And at f/11 merely focusing to infinity meant everything on the track was in focus.  I set the camera to High speed shooting (18 fps) and concentrated on smoothly and accurately panning the cars as they roared by.    Most shots were rejected, but not all.

 

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Lucca Fillipi of Team NIO racing past the skyline of Manhattan.  1/200th s, ISO 64  f/11 7.5 mm focal length.

This is a shot I had planned before arriving in NYC, either the Manhattan skyline or The Statue of Liberty in the background.  Too bad about the damn fencing!

 

A similar panning shot below shows Daniel Abt of Team Audi chasing Nelson Piquet, Jr of Team Jaguar.

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There is still room for the conventional high focal length shot.   It’s all about how you compose and what the focus of it is that makes it effective.  I picked a spot where the cars in rounding a corner were at one point staring directly at me, as if I were standing in the middle of the track.  I was trying to capture a human moment since the driver in a full face helmet and tinted visor becomes as much machine as the car.  I managed to capture one moment though.

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“Fast Felix” Rosenqvist of Team Mahindra must have heard that I was looking for this shot and decided to wear a clear visor.

 

Even the candid portraits worked out well with the Sigma lens.  Patrick Dempsey is a successful professional race car driver in the vein of Paul Newman when he isn’t being McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy.

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I think my most unique shot was another planned shot that I was really lucky to pull off.  The pits are off limits for even the photographers during the race for obvious safety reasons but I wanted to capture the drama as drivers came in sometime during midrace to change cars.    I found that if I stood on the stairs of one of the foot bridges going over the entry pit lane, I could peer directly into the Jaguar garage.  But I had to convince the track marshal to let me stand there, since it was technically in violation of the fire rules.

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I made a composite of every 6th frame to convey the story of this aspect of Formula E.    Since I come from the very technical background of astrophotography, I have absolutely no issues with the post processing that comes with many digital images.    People generally have no issues with manipulations of the image histogram, noise reduction and sharpening.  In astrophotography,  the degree of digital manipulation is far, far greater yet it does not invalidate the truthfulness of those images in the least.  Today’s optics are allowing details to be resolved well beyond the abilities of film and I often learn so much from studying my images because they resolve action that my eye simply cannot and never can see.

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Le Mans Prototype 3 (LMP3) racer of Team Baker at the Mosport IMSA races.  The rear view camera display is clearly visible in cockpit as the driver watches his competition chasing him down!

 

 

If you enjoyed  your time, don’t forget to click the HOME button in the upper right hand corner to see all the other topic entries in this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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