Secrets of Motorsports Photography Revealed

Secrets of Motorsports Photography Revealed

I’m an avowed motorhead, and also a rotorhead.   The second distinction defines a car/motorcycle/airplane enthusiast who has a special affinity for rotary/Wankel engine powered vehicles.

In every automotive print magazine and online “magazine” there is a special centerfold image of the headlined car being reviewed or featured.  This image is typically of the car speeding down some nondescript road captured at the perfect angle and in perfect focus but still communicating the feeling of speed by wheel and background blur.  And this image is typically accomplished by being shot from a open chase car travelling at exactly the same constant velocity down a straight section of the road.   The centerfold looks something like this:

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My 1985 Mazda Rx7 (with the 1.1 L rotary engine) at speed.   This first generation series was manufactured between 1978 and 1985 and was Mazda’s first commercially successful rotary engined sportscar.  The car was also successful on the professional racing circuits, dominating IMSA for years, competed in Le Mans, and won the 1981 Spa outright against 5.7 L Camaros and 3.0 L BMWs.

This shot was taken by myself (no support staff), in a semi deserted parking lot on a quiet weekend morning.

And I’m about to show you how it’s done!

I manufactured a camera boom from some one inch square aluminum tube afixed to a pair of powerful suction cups often found in body repair shops to help pull out dents.   If you have welding skills you could fabricate something similar that can be bolted to the underside chassis,  this actually is a better solution but few photographers are welders.

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But that long square metal tube will have a lot of movement driving down the road.  Maybe redesign it with triangulated support tubes and cross members?   That’s not necessary because the car will be hand pushed at a crawling speed (the car is very light) and the amount of camera sway is well within the sensor stabilization capability of the E-PL5 I used for this project.

I used the Samyang 12mm f/2 lens with a 10 stop ND3 neutral density filter at ISO200 to get an 8 second exposure.  The camera was controlled by an intervalometer programmed to take multiple exposures.  During this time the car could be pushed back and forth several times since the blur has no directionality.    Make sure you spend a decent amount to ensure you purchase a quality filter (this applies for any kind of filter, even those popular UV blocking “dust” filters), I personally like B+W because they use Schott glass which has supplied Zeiss from the beginning of time.

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Of course now the hard work in post processing begins with the use of Photoshop to remove the camera boom from the image.  As a photographer I’m hoping that you are well versed in using software like Photoshop – and this being the 21st century I think you better be!

The shot from the rear was much easier to edit since the boom could only be placed on the roof and it never crossed the car body making its removal so much easier (pushing from the front, crouched down and out of sight).

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You could darken the windshield to hide the fact that there is no driver, but I didn’t because it only further mystifies the observer as to how this shot was achieved.   The particularly observant will notice the remaining reflections of the camera boom off the bodywork but will likely assume it’s from some out of view object.

I recently posted on Facebook that I had purchased the rare 1968 Mazda Cosmo and it had finally arrived from Japan.  The Cosmo was Mazda’s first rotary engined car and was  effectively hand made in very limited numbers for the  Japanese domestic market (JDM).  Mazda obtained a license to manufacture the Wankel engine from NSU which held the patent and employed its inventor, Dr Felix Wankel.  Rotary engines employ the same 4 stroke combustion cycle of regular gasoline engines but have no reciprocating pistons or valves.   The design does have disadvantages but amongst its advantages are fewer parts (to fail in race conditions), higher power output for a given displacement, smooth running and higher maximum redline (rpm).  Mazda was and continues to be a very small car manufacturer and they championed the rotary engine as a means to resist the Japanese government’s desire to merge small companies with larger similar ones.  Ultimately Mazda’s engineering team did make the rotary engine a commercial and mainstream success while NSU went bankrupt with all the warranty claims on its rotary engined cars and was absorbed by Volkswagen to become a part of Audi.

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1968 Mazda Cosmo outside my house (if you can correctly identify the exact model of the blue car in the driveway you will win a m43 Samyang 7.5mm Fisheye lens).
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That’s me getting into the diminutive Cosmo with JDM  right hand drive.

My friends were overjoyed with the anticipation of seeing and riding such a rare automobile (and secretly wondering where I had come up with the $150k to purchase one such is their appreciating collectibility amongst professional investors).  Until I revealed that I had purchased a 1/18th scale Cosmo and photographed it using forced perspective.

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Convincing asphalt made by spraying cork board with flat black paint.

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Forced perspective was a common technique used by movie makers before CGI became possible and Photoshop was only used to make the license plate and nowhere else.  In order to make the forced perspective work, you have to sell it with small touches that make your brain believe what it thinks it’s seeing.  The customized license plate, me getting into the car, the shadow cast in the first photo and the ability to see the tree trunk through the rear window and the lawn through the passenger windows … all subconsciously sell the image.

Casablanca was shot entirely on Warner Brother’s soundstage so in order to film the end scene at the airport, a 1/2 scale Lockheed Elecktra was built and  “short” actors played the groundcrew.   They were then shot in forced perspective as a distant object waiting outside the aircraft hangar where Rick says final goodbyes to Ilsa.    More recently, in Lord of the Rings the actors portraying the much smaller Hobbits were shot in forced perspective in scenes involving their much larger human and elfin allies.

Along with careful placement, you need to shoot at f/11-f/16 to further increase the depth of field that is in focus so that nearby and faraway objects will all remain in focus.  Increasing to f/16 will start to introduce diffraction optical abberations in the form of added noise for m43 sensored cameras, even at low ISO but the newer 20MP sensor in the E-M1.2 seems to be much more immune to this effect.   I used the Laowa 7.5 mm f/2 and the Leica 15mm f/1.7 .

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This is the Stig’s Asian cousin giving the iconic Mazda 787B quad rotor a test run.  The 787B won Le Mans outright in 1991 by beating Jaguar, Mercedes and Porsche, the first Japanese car and the first non piston engined car to do so.  It took Toyota billions of dollars and years to finally claim a Le Mans win in 2018.

My final forced perspective project was to convince people I had driven the iconic Mazda 787B race car.  I had plans to stage the shot at Mosport where I could use convincing pit garages as the backdrop but I frankly don’t have the time.  There’s a lot of effort required to get management to give me access to those facilities on a down day when no cars are running.  So I began scouting locations close to home where I could use a length of Armco guardrail as the convincing background element that this was a race track.

And I ran a small USB powered ultrasonic humidifier to simulate white exhaust smoke which is a signature feature of rotary engines which must burn oil by design.  To try to be more accurate in the scale of the car rather than just eyeballing it, I used a laser digital tape measure to get the distances mathematically established.  Since the car model is 1/18th scale, the distance to the Armco should be 18x the distance the model is to the camera.   In this case about 8.5 m away.

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I also drilled and installed a pair of micro leds into the lateral headlights, the scale of these leds are almost the perfect match for a headlight bulb.

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Since it was such a bright sunny day today, I retreated to the covered parking area (this is a parking lot bordering a ravine!), I made the edge of my “asphalt” the shadow line of the entrance to a pit garage and turned on my headlights to make the model seem like a real functioning car.  The small details are what the subconscious seize upon to fool the mind.

 

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