Sebring After Dark

I recently got an interesting inquiry from a fellow PCA member planning to be at Sebring for the 12 hour race who wondered about the details of dealing photographically with the night part of the race. Since many of you will be there, and since there are a number of other races extending into the darkness, I thought my reply might be of use to others as well.

Thanks for you kind words and interesting questions. I do have some ideas you might want to think about. Sebring, Daytona, Le Mans, and the Laguna and Road Atlanta ALMS events all offer the challenge of late day/night action, and I’ve had a go at all of them with varying results. It’s very much of a challenge that is made somewhat easier with the advent of digital; the immediate feedback speeds up the learning process, and makes experiments more feasible.

I’ve got precious few shots (other than in the pits) done in full darkness that make me proud. You’re quite right; you absolutely don’t want to pop a strobe into a driver’s eyes when he’s accommodated for darkness. Maybe you’ve seen the shot of Vic Elford in the Monte Carlo the year he won in a 911—big strobe, straight on through the snow, deer in the headlights kind of shot through the windshield. It’s famous; I think it was a factory poster, but what a thing to do to a driver!

You are generally safe using a strobe with side shots in a lighted area like turn 7; I don’t think that would be a problem for the driver, but it may be for you. First of all, the strobe will over-light the foreground between you and the car, giving an artificial look. You can get around this by tilting the strobe head up a bit so that the lower part of the beam lights the car, but the foreground remains relatively dark. If using a long enough camera lens, a Better Beamer, which uses a Fresnel lens to focus your strobe, could be a help.

Never use strobe for this shot; too dangerous for the driver. Remember to set exposure manually to keep headlights from giving a false reading.

 

The second strobe problem is that the motion of the road wheels is frozen by the very short duration of the strobe, damaging the feeling of motion that you want your image to have. This can be minimized by darkening and/or blurring the wheels in post-processing, but is an inherent strobe problem.

Now turn 7 at Sebring is pretty well lit at night; you can try panning without strobe. With a fast lens, a steady hand, and some luck you might get some results that you like a lot, with lots of blur and sense of action, but this is a tough shot with a low ratio of keepers.

What I think you will find most satisfying is shooting around sunset. Overall contrast is less, showing more detail inside a correctly exposed car. The low sun angle often times lights up the drivers face; bad for the driver, good for the photographer. The sun goes down behind turn 7, and depending on the weather, there can be some beautiful glow in the sky. The hotel they’ve put there limits your angles, but it can still be an effective shot as the cars come out of the turn. You may need to put some fill strobe light onto the right side of the car to balance the ambient light.

Manually setting the flash to underexpose and using an orange or orange brown filter over the flash makes for a more natural looking shot.

 

A few tricks here: an inexpensive gradient density filter, like a Cokin, will balance out the bright light from the sunset with the dimmer ambient from the car, and can enhance the sunset both by keeping it from being overexposed (“blown out”) and adding the filter’s color to the upper portion of the scene. These filters can be held or taped in place, or you can get a holder that screws onto the front of the lens. You might want to try a neutral grey or a brownish orange (or both combined) for the dark (upper) part of the gradient. Earlier on, perhaps between 5:00 and 6:30 or so, you can shoot without fill strobe and get good results doing this (always assuming the weather cooperates!)

Next trick: when using a strobe to add some light to the car as it gets darker, filter the strobe to balance the color temperature. Seeing the car lit with the blue-white strobe light in a world of red and gold is jarring; warming the strobe light can make a lot of difference. This is easily accomplished by placing a colored filter over the strobe face. These cellophane-like strips can be held over the strobe with a bit of tape or a holder made for the purpose. Nikon has a kit, as does honlphoto.com, which also offers a range of quite portable light modifying equipment. I’m currently using Rosco filters (rosco.com/us/filters/roscolux.asp); they will sell a big sample swatch book with many different types for $7.50, a real bargain; just tear out the one you want to use and tape it on. With care, they are reusable for a long time.

Manually setting the flash to underexpose and using an orange or orange brown filter over the flash makes for a more natural looking shot.

 

A Cokin gradient density over the lens darkens and adds color to the sky for sunset shooting.

 

Rosco makes filters in a variety of colors; choose an orange to balance sunset light.

 

Last trick: look for the cars that are running with colorful reflective tape as part of their paint schemes. If you shoot regular power strobe with these, it won’t be pretty; too much light back off the tape. But if you turn it way down, maybe by as much as 3-4 stops, enough to keep the car from being a pure silhouette but not really fully lit, the effect can be stunning. This can work well both during the sunset and for a time afterward. This minimal-strobe technique can also be your ticket to the glowing disc brake shots; too much light, either daylight or strobe, will overwhelm this effect.

Many car owners use reflective tape; with gentle strobe use this can be quite spectacular.

 

Early in the day, I tend to use a maximum quality jpeg compression; my camera can lay down more images at the speed that I need for high speed daytime racetrack shooting. In contrast, I would recommend doing all of the tricky low-light shots in raw rather than jpeg if you have that capability; this allows the maximum number of options for producing a final product that will make you proud. Even if you’re not doing much post-processing of your images at present, that time may come (and available software will definitely improve).

Hope to see you at Sebring. Keep in touch - let me hear from you at: leonardt@pca.org.