Ever wondered what the view is like looking through the fire marshal access holes in the fence at a race track? In a word… spectacular! … and if your brain was working properly, also a little intimidating if you thought about what could happen.
From purely a viewing standpoint, you obviously don’t have the mesh fence to deal with, or a bunch of your closest never seen before friends sitting next to you in the bleachers… and you are really close to the track (and by close I mean spitting distance).
But you do have to contend with the possibility that a car traveling at 200+mph will will have a brain fade and subsequently will try and get out via that same hole… a.k.a. the car hits the fence right where you are peering through the hole.
I have seen this happen… and sports photographers being wired how they are (or not wired up correctly depending on your point of view)… they simply kept of taking photos until the car hit the fence or tire barrier right in front of them… now that’s a cool photo op!
The possibility of having to pull part of the fence or car out of your teeth later, is a minor detail. Sports photographers are more worried about whether they ‘got the shot’, as every other photographer on the track is saying under their breath… ‘bugger… wish it was me there’.
A number of people ask… how do you take photos like that… some of them also ask… ‘why the hell do you want to stand there?”.
Well firstly… you have to be there! You can’t sit at home and expect to get photos from your lounge chair. And as many a good photo will attest to, you don’t have to be standing on the track to get them. Scouting out a good location in the stands and having the right gear and technique will garner some great take home images also.
Next, and at the risk of sounding like a photo snob… you need to have some decent gear. So many times I see people in official Photo Vests in prime locations on the track, but they are carrying something akin to a point & shoot camera that my kids have. Now I have a point and shoot also, and while it is great for holiday happy snaps… rarely will you get a good photo of something like an IndyCar, especially if it is moving at any speed. Plus… all the technical issues that relate to sensor size and pixel count come into play. So.. get a decent camera, and some good glass to hang off the end of it.
Professional photographers, as the name implies, are professionals, and for the most part they use high end, reliable, good quality gear… for a reason. I would hope that one day (if ever it comes) that if I am ever laying on a table somewhere with a guy in a white lab coat looking down at me saying ‘this won’t hurt a bit’… that he isn’t using the scalpel version of a point & shoot. You get what you pay for is what I am saying.
Irrespective if it is NASCAR, IndyCar, or NHRA Drag Racing, the following is pretty much what I take with me.
- Canon EOS-1D Mark IV Camera body (APS-H sensor = 1.3 crop factor) – 16.1MP
- Canon EOS 5D Mark II Camera body (full frame sensor) – 21.1MP
Depending on where I am going, and how I get there I may also take a Canon EF300 f/2.8L and/or a Canon EF400 f/2.8L lens. I will also toss in either a Canon Extender EF1.4x II or a Canon Extender EF2x II. You can hand hold the 300mm in most cases given the shutter speeds that you are generally using (although it gets heavy’ish fast),.. but you will need a monopod for the 400mm.
I use a Californian Sunbounce Sun Sniper Double Press Harness, which means that I can comfortably and securely have one camera hanging from each shoulder… yes you do look like a bit of a dork! I went through the phase of carrying just one camera and changing lenses as I went… but not only is that a pain in the butt to have to continually do this, you invariably miss good photo opportunities as the moment has passed while you are screwing around changing lenses, and you run the risk of filling up your sensor with dust with the constant lens changes outside.
I put the wide angle lens on the full frame 5D Mark II so as to maximize the full frame sensor capability. This is great for shots in the pit area or on the starting grid where there is a lot happening, and to get it in context you need some of the surrounding environment in the scene. Plus, you are so close at this point (I am literally touching the front wheel of the car when the driver gets in on the starting grid) that unless you are just taking tight shots of the driver’s head… you will need a wide angle lens to get it all in.
I will use the 70-200 lens on the Mark IV body. I use this for tighter shots on pit lane or the starting grid, and for a majority of the shots on the track (if I am close enough… otherwise the 300 or 400 get an airing). I will generally use the Speedlite with this lens when I am taking shots of drivers up close as it puts a nice catch light in their eyes, but it also helps open up some of the shadows as they are getting in the car as there are a lot of curves that don’t get a lot of light, particularly when they have a full face helmet on.
So how do you take the photo when the car is going at 200+mph?
Depending on what you are trying to accomplish your technique will vary. A lot of racing photos use a panning technique with a slower shutter speed so that you can illustrate movement and speed in the image. The trick is to get the car sharp and in focus, while blurring the background. Obviously this is only practical when the car is moving across your field of view (and not coming towards you). Sounds simple… it takes some practice. Another method is to simply use a higher shutter speed so that you stop all motion. This is a personal preference.
Personally I prefer images where the car is either coming towards you or going away, and preferably on a bit of angle from a perspective standpoint, meaning you can see at least three (3), and ideally, all of the tires to some degree.
So that’s it for now.
I leave you with a photo of current IndyCar Champion Dario Franchitti taken just prior to loading up for a recent race. He finished second to Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon on this particular day.