Race Photography without Press Credentials
Having just come back from the race at Daytona, it occurred to me that something that might interest PCA members is a how-to on doing satisfying pictures at a race without press credentials. Although all the races that Panorama covers for PCA do involve credentials, I see many enthusiasts around the track who are doing what I suspect is fine work from the other side of the fence, and I often join them to get a different angle.
Equipment: Anything will do, though results will vary. I’ve even seen cell phones trotted out for the purpose. Size of a satisfactorily detailed image will be limited by choice of film or number of megapixels; choose ISO100-400 slide or print film, or a 5 megapixel or above digital camera for your most important work. The “D” type interchangeable lens cameras have a great advantage over the pocketable point and shoot type in that they have much less shutter lag (the time between pressing the shutter release and actually getting a picture), but the smaller point and shoots are nevertheless quite usable.
What to shoot: well, the cars, obviously. But there’s a lot more of visual interest on a race weekend. Look for background color—overall views of the track, flags, corner workers, mechanics, spectators, all the things that make a race weekend fun. Pictures of one car after another make for a boring slide show. Look for funny things too; the tired mechanic taking a nap, the bored parking attendant with the thousand mile stare, whatever.
Before the race starts, there is often time to walk around and shoot the race cars (and the people working on them) in the paddock, and sometimes you can continue to shoot on the grid up until a few minutes before the start. This will probably be the best time to get some shots of your favorite drivers and teams as well. Speaking of drivers, race organizers often schedule autograph sessions before a race, and this can be another source of photographic contact, even without standing in line.
This brings to mind another technique you might enjoy, the Hail-Mary shot: hold the camera at arm’s length over your head, pointed as best you can guess at your intended subject, and fire away. This produces both a new point of view and may serve to get you over some intervening obstruction, like the guy in front of you. Using the generally quite good auto focusing and exposing abilities of recent cameras, this can produce some interesting photographs that you might not have been able to get otherwise, although the success to failure ratio is not great.
The main challenge to shooting cars during a race is avoiding the inevitable fences between you and the track; fortunately there are a lot of ways to do this. Many tracks with hilly terrain let you choose a spot not too far back from the fence that lets you shoot over it. Fences tend to be lower and less intrusive on the inside of turns. I commonly shoot some between 1 and 2 at Road Atlanta from the spectator area, as well as at the run-up to the bridge before the last turn. Even Daytona in flatland Florida offers opportunities, when the cars go up on the banking giving some clear air between you and the fence, and from a number of the grandstands (such as those outside the international curve and the exit to the infield). But there are other ways too.
Anything that gets you a little altitude and thus above a low fence (anything up to about 6 feet) can be just the thing. I saw a number of people at Daytona with everything from folding kitchen type step ladders to a small folding platform in a prime shooting location, getting what I can imagine were some great shots. There’s even one small folding ladder available that has wheels on the bottom which let it double as a hand truck that can carry a cooler and your photo equipment. Do choose a location that doesn’t block the view of people behind you.
But wait, there’s more. With the right equipment and know-how, you can make a chain link fence disappear. You’ll need a fairly long—at least 200, preferably 300 mm lens and it needs to be fairly “fast” in the neighborhood of f2.8. Set the camera to force the lens to shoot wide open—f2.8—by using either the aperture preferred or manual settings, and get the end of the lens right up against the fence. It’s better to take the lens shade off to get as close as possible, but you may want to use a filter to protect the front element of your lens. Focused for a distant car, the short depth of field of a wide open fast lens can make the fence disappear entirely. I once ran an informal test at turn 2 at Sebring, and could see no difference in shooting through chain links and a nearby hole cut for credentialed photographers. The effect can be enhanced by carrying a small can of flat black paint to render a small area of the fence less reflective. - HLT
If you enjoy shooting at races, perhaps these tips will give you some other ideas. We’ll talk another time about some specifics of equipment and techniques, but meantime, keep shooting, enjoy life, and e-mail me any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.