Do you have what it takes to shoot car and motorcycle races like a pro?
How hard is it to get a Formula 1 credential?
Some pros get a "hard card", which gives you a vest at every race without having to apply for credentials. You can show up and walk right in through the gate when you get there. To have a hard card, you have to have something like 285 printed pictures and be able to prove it. At the end of the year, they'll ask you for a disc of your printed work. It has to have a certain number of published photos by you to qualify for the next season.
Is it possible to shoot a big race without credentials?
One of the first races I went to with a camera was the Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix. The race was just south of Milan and I went by myself with my camera. I didn't speak any Italian and had a three day general admission pass. I went there and I shot it like I was shooting it for a team or an editorial outlet. To this day I haven't sold any of them, but I did find spots that no one else had seen. It's a great opportunity.
There's a lot more to shoot at the races besides the cars, right?
A lot of times on Thursday or Friday during practice sessions, we won't be down by the track. We'll be up in the grandstands where the fans will be on race day. We'll be doing really slow pans or wide shots with lots of color. You get different angles. You're not screwed if you don't have credentials. It's not just about race cars on a race track. There's so much going on at a race of any kind. Any race you want to bring a camera to is a good start.
Could you realistically go to a race with non-pro gear -- like an all-in-one zoom lens -- and get good stuff?
You would do fine. The only real time you would need a really fast lens is when you're shooting down on the track and they're coming straight at you. Otherwise, it doesn't matter if you have a kit lens that's an F/5.6 like I started with. If you're shooting from a fan position, you're going to want to be panning in some way. At that point, you don't need F/2.8 because then you're just freezing cars.
The pan shot seems like a crucial part of your arsenal. Can you share a little of your technique?
It really helps to know car racing. I sit down and watch what's going on in front of me in the area I'm in. I'll look for things like colors and leading lines -- things that are visually interesting. As you follow a car across a space, your eye pans for you. You can see what the picture looks like before you pick the camera up. Once you pick the camera up, it's all about having a good solid place to stand and swinging the camera across smoothly as you follow the car. Balance is really important.
What kind of shutter speed are you looking at for a pan shot?
It depends on how fast the cars are moving and it also depends on the light. If it's really harsh noon sun and I can't get a polarizer on my 14-24mm lens, then you're limited in how slow you can actually go. It makes a huge difference. A car moving at 215 mph, you can shoot at 1/100th and it'll look like everything else does at 1/30th.
It's really challenging and it takes practice. I'll have good days and bad days. Sometimes I can nail stuff sharp down 1/5th or 1/10th of a second. Other days, I'm having trouble with 1/60th.
It can also depend on the track. Some tracks are really bumpy and you're not going to get anything. The car is bouncing as it goes over the bumps, so even if your pan is perfect, it's still going to look blurry.
Is it a challenge to get those slow shutter speeds in bright sun?
I have a polarizer and ND filters. If you want to shoot under 1/50th on a bright sunny day, you need a filter on it.
If you're shooting at 1/20th, you're at F/22 if not smaller than that. I have a 400mm lens and I'll often put a teleconverter on it. You can pan with those, so I've gotten some really interesting stuff that was shot at F/45. At that point, you have a whole new set of problems. You have to have a spotlessly clean sensor or it looks like someone sneezed on it.
Speaking of lenses, what is your typical race kit?
I bring everything that I own because I never know what I'm going to need, especially if I've never been to a certain track. The last thing that I want is to get there and realize I left something I needed at home, especially if I'm getting paid to do the job. I own a Think Tank Airport Security Version Two which fits most of my gear.
I have two bodies, a Nikon D3 and a D3s. As far as lenses go, I own a 400mm F/2.8, a 1.4x converter and a 2x converter. Both of those are pretty necessary. Instead of owning a 400mm, a 500mm, and an 800mm, I can just bring the one lens and the converters. It does more or less the same job.
I also have a 70-200mm, a 28-70mm, a 14-24mm, and a 50mm F/1.4. It's nothing too fancy. I carry all of it on me on a belt pack that also has a sensor blower, some extra batteries, a trash bag in case we get a rain storm and a box cutter for cutting through foliage or other stuff that might be in the way.
I sometimes carry a small can of spray paint to paint the catch fence itself. By nature they're very light colored and reflect a lot. If you shoot through it during a harsh time of day, you can get a lot of glare from it. If you paint it black, it helps all of that and it doesn't really damage the fence.
There are a few tracks where I'd love to have a machete with me.