Shooting Talladega Superspeedway

We profile two photographers tasked with capturing all the action at NASCAR's largest and fastest raceway and ask them to divulge some tricks of the trade.

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway

Few places can envelope your senses like a NASCAR track on race day. The smells of hot oil, gasoline and burning rubber waft through the air and surround you. Everywhere you look you see bright, neon colors, and the sound of 700-plus horsepower engines growling to life seems to physically churn the air.

Among all of this there's an ordered chaos -- crew members running from garage to pits, officials checking the cars, safety personnel checking equipment and getting into position around the track. And then there's the media -- everywhere you look, throngs of photographers stand at the ready, waiting for the decisive moment when a car goes airborne or when the driver who started near the back of the pack takes the checkered flag.

"It's almost the perfect job," says David Griffin, a photo enthusiast and NASCAR fan who has found a way to merge two of his loves into a steady career. A nine-year veteran of the circuit, Griffin works as an Assistant Photo Editor for NASCAR Scene Magazine, and recently spoke about his job from the Talladega Superspeedway near Birmingham, Ala.

Shooting Talladega Superspeedway • Photo Gallery • Tips for shooting NASCAR

For Griffin and the dozens of fellow photographers geared up on this spring day, covering a track like the Talladega Superspeedway is a daunting task. The track itself is 2.66 miles for one lap and has a 30-plus degree banking on the turns. This is so steep that drivers must run pace laps at 90 miles an hour to generate enough down force and centrifugal force to keep the cars from sliding down the track.

Typically, a professional driver can make a lap at the Talladega Superspeedway in less than 45 seconds -- speeds that equate to around 195 miles an hour. These speeds are so fast that if you have to raise your camera up to your eye to focus and shoot, you've already missed the shot. By the time you are ready to shoot, the cars are a full half mile down the track and out of sight.

"If you are covering a certain area particularly watching for wrecks, have your camera up and ready to shoot," advises Bob Crisp, an award winning staff photographer for the Talladega Daily Home. "When cars are going 200 miles per hour there is no time to pull a camera up from your hip."

Unlike some of the bigger organizations that follow NASCAR, Crisp covers his hometown track with a skeleton staff, even using his son Cody, who isn't a professional photographer, to help stake out key positions.

"Jerry Martin, our other staff photographer, comes to the track very early and shoots all the pre-race activities," he says. "Jerry shoots the green flag lap from a position directly across from the flag stand. After the opening lap he makes his way to shoot some from the pit tower and spends most of the race in the pits. With 25 to 30 laps to go he goes for a position in Victory Lane. I, on the other hand, roam. I start the race from a tower position. I shoot there through at least one pit stop before heading inside the track. Once inside I spend several laps in the backstretch tower and shoot from an opening in the fence near turn four. I shoot the last 35 to 40 laps from the pits where most of my better photos will come from."

Griffin and Crisp share many similarities in equipment, experience and an approach that makes their work stand out. Both photographers, for example shoot with Canon cameras and lenses.

"I use a Canon 1D as well as a Canon 20D. I've never shot anything but Canon," Crisp admits. "When I first started shooting in the film days, I shot Canon T90's and l

NASCAR has become big business over the past decade, with sponsors now investing millions of dollars in each team. Because of this investment, NASCAR is more apt to protect the persona of the sport and in some cases, such as television contracts, give special privileges that other media organizations aren't privy to. Even at Talladega, security guards shooed-away working photographers from specific areas while allowing national and local TV crews special access in certain pit areas. When questioned about this policy, the guard simply shrugged and said, "Still photographers get in the way."

"With the big TV contracts, the still photographers are losing more and more access," Griffin argues. "Digital [photography] has made a huge impact. Before, when we shot film and chromes, we shot and dropped off the film. That was it. Now, we are the photographer and processing lab. We had to buy software, laptops, new camera bodies, and learn this along with the responsibility of transmitting the images to publishers, papers, and so forth."

Griffin also thinks that the switch to digital has made photographers lazy. "[In the past] I could shoot eight to 10 rolls of film in a weekend," he says. "Now I shoot up to 1,800 images in a single race weekend. That is 50 rolls of film! And there are shooters that shoot up to 3,000 images in a weekend. It is easier, and cheaper, to 'spray and pray' with digital."

Crisp, on the other had, sees digital as a way of enhancing his workflow. "There isn't any difference in the way I shoot," he says. "I just get to see how my images look a good bit sooner. Some call it instant gratification, some call it instant disappointment. The bigger difference is getting back to the paper and getting to edit all the images while sitting in a comfortable chair instead of processing 15 to 20 rolls of film in the old WingLynch film processor. I don't miss mixing chemicals and ruining half of my shirts with fixer stains."

Creativity Leads to Better Shots

The ultimate goal for NASCAR photographers is to shoot the scene that everyone else shot, but differently. What separates professionals such as Griffin and Crisp from the pack is their ability to illustrate speed in new and creative ways. Photographers choose to illustrate speed in many different ways, and each situation is different, but one of the most common is panning the image with a slower than normal shutter speed. When cars are moving at 200 miles per hour, these shutter speeds can be as high as 1/125th of a second to blur the wheels only, or as low as 1/8th of a second to blur everything but the body of the vehicle. Perfecting this technique takes practice, and even professionals will tell you that only one in 10 images shot like this will be publication quality. Panning can also have unanticipated consequences. For example, if one car is moving at a different rate of speed than other vehicles in the area, you'll see varying amounts of blur, depending on how closely the vehicles are staying in sync with the panning motion.

Crisp likes the panning method, but he warns that there are risks involved. "I'm always afraid there is going to be a wreck happening when I'm doing a nice pan shot at 1/125th of a second. I like to shoot still objects in the foreground with a slow shutter speed so that the colorful cars are blurring by as well," he says. "Shots of the pit crew guys jumping off the wall into the path of the car coming screeching to a halt are a good way as well."

The newspaper and magazine markets are tough, and Griffin is typical of the effort it takes to break into shooting sports photojournalism. A serious photographer in college and high school, he lost interest in photography around the time of the autofocus revolution and didn't feel like upgrading to new equipment. A fortuitous move to Charlotte, NC, in 1993 got him interested in NASCAR, which in turn rekindled his love for photography.

"I picked up my manual focus film cameras and started 'sneaking' into the infields and garages of the NASCAR tracks around the Southeast," Griffin says. "Eventually my work was seen by some of the regulars on the circuit and I was able to get a legitimate freelance job. I eventually joined the digital age by borrowing money from my 401k. I did this only after I was sure that I would be able to have a guaranteed freelance gig. I paid my 401k loan back in 4 months! Eventually the freelance work took up too much time and my 'regular' job was getting in the way of my hobby. As luck had it, and I mean that 100 percent, I was offered a full-time photography job with NASCAR Scene. Now I am 'living the dream.'"

Prior to working the NASCAR circuit full time, Griffin worked for a Ford dealership. When questioned if this helped his shooting career, he explained that "it was more of a coincidence. Working at a dealership provided me with a 'more understanding' boss and co-workers. I used every day off, sick days, vacation days, and so forth to go to races at my own expense to make this happen. After about three years of that, I actually was able to do better than break-even and put money into the bank, or more truthfully, back into equipment upgrades."

It takes professionals like Griffin and Crisp years to hone their techniques. NASCAR is a specialized kind of sporting event and practice is paramount in successful images. If you're planning on shooting a NASCAR event, or want to pursue a career in race imaging, here are some tips to make your shooting more productive:

Depending on your track location, use a 20mm to 400mm lens. Telephoto lenses are more desirable from the infield and stands while wide angle lenses generally work better in the pit area.Use shutter speeds that will accomplish your shooting goals. For high speed stop action, use shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or greater. If you want to pan a shot, use a maximum shutter speed of 1/125th of a second or slower, depending on the effect you want for the image.Practice your panning technique before you go to the track. Hold the camera level and move evenly across the scene. Remember too that one shot in 10 will be a good average for panning shots. The best results are achieved when the subject is even with your field of view and moving across the frame from left to right or right to left evenly.Bring extra film and memory cards with you. Expect to shoot a lot of images. The color, action and uniqueness of NASCAR lend itself to high shot counts.Call the track in advance and see if there are any pre-race pit tours that will allow you to get closer to the drivers and vehicles for more detailed shots.Remember that sometimes the details are as interesting as the overall scene. If you're shooting at a track that has an infield area, secure a high vantage point and shoot over the fences. If you're not able to do this, shoot with your lens directly against the fence and use a wider aperture to shoot "through" the fence with minimal distortion. Remember that the more you stop-down the lens, the more apparent the pattern from the fence will be. Many fans will bring buses and RV's to the infield and offering your photos for their high point of view will often gain you a good spot.Cameras that can shoot 5 frames a second or greater are preferable because the action happens so quickly. However, if you have a camera with a slower frame rate, you can still make fantastic images with good timing. If you're using a camera with a noticeable shutter lag, be ready and keep the shutter halfway depressed when anticipating action. Doing this will dramatically increase your ratio of good shots to bad. Practice your timing by shooting children at play. It'll make nice family photos and you'll be ready on race day.Remember that no one has perfect timing for every image and that you won't get every single shot. Give yourself several opportunities to get it "right."Remember that safety is paramount and that there's no shot worth risking your health or life for. Shoot smart and be safe!

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Bobby-Labonte-s

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Bobby-Labonte-s

Bobby Labonte's crew changes four tires and fills the tank. A good pit stop can be done in 14 seconds and often, the pit crew undergoes extreme physical training and has the athletic ability of Olympic-class athletes.
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Photographers-ca

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Photographers-ca

Photographers capture images at Talladega Superspeedway. Located in Lincoln, Alabama, it is a 2.66 mile trioval track and is the largest that NASCAR races on during the 10 month season.Bob Crisp
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-NASCAR-driver-El

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-NASCAR-driver-El

NASCAR driver Elliott Sadler flips end-over-end in the trioval area at Talladega Superspeedway. Sadler walked away from the wreck.Bob Crisp
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Paul-Menard-s-cr

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Paul-Menard-s-cr

Paul Menard's crew look with disappointment at a broken radiator during a pit stop needed after a green flag collision at Talladega Superspeedway.Bob Crisp
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Bob-Crisp-s-imag

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Bob-Crisp-s-imag

Bob Crisp's image of Dale Earnhardt Jr., shows the effectiveness of panning to illustrate speed.Bob Crisp
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-NASCAR-veteran-d

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-NASCAR-veteran-d

NASCAR veteran drivers Sterling Marlin (40) and Bobby Labonte (18) collide in the trioval section of Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama.Bob Crisp
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Mug-shot-of-Bob

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Mug-shot-of-Bob

Mug shot of Bob Crisp.Bob Crisp
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-car-shoots-fla

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-car-shoots-fla

A car shoots flames at the Martinsville, Virginal Speedway.
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Speed-can-be-ill

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Speed-can-be-ill

Speed can be illustrated by having all objects within the image still except for the cars traveling the track.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Shots-made-from

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Shots-made-from

Shots made from outside the outer retaining walls can be particularly dangerous for the track photographer.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Dale-Earnhardt-J

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Dale-Earnhardt-J

Dale Earnhardt Jr., pits at the Talladega Superspeedway. Shooting the pits from the grand stand photo towers can offer a different view for readers.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Spotters-stand-i

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Spotters-stand-i

Spotters stand in the turn 3 tower at Talladega Superspeedway. Spotters play an integral part in keeping the track safe by being the eyes at the four corners of the track.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Using-unusual-te

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Using-unusual-te

Using unusual technique can often take a photo from average to exceptional. Here, a fish-eye lens is used to shoot the track and the Goodyear blimp.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-portrait-of-Ma

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-portrait-of-Ma

A portrait of Matt Kenseth at a NASCAR track.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-portrait-of-Ju

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-portrait-of-Ju

A portrait of Juan Montoya at a NASCAR track.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-speed-shot-at

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-speed-shot-at

A speed shot at Darlington Raceway.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Shooting-from-th

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Shooting-from-th

Shooting from the photo towers can give you a vantage point above the fences.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-portrait-of-a

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-A-portrait-of-a

A portrait of a Budweiser pit crew member.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Mug-shot-of-Davi

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Mug-shot-of-Davi

Mug shot of David Griffin.David Griffin/nascar Scene
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Shooting-pit-act

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Shooting-pit-act

Shooting pit action with a wide-angle lens can give you a more realistic feeling. Here, Bobby Labonte's crew fills their driver's tank with gas. A typical NASCAR pit stop is performed in less than 14 seconds.Mark Lent
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-The-group-mental

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-The-group-mental

The group mentality continues in Victory Lane and there are often more photographers than space to shoot.Mark Lent
Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Jeff-Gordon-reac

Shooting-Talladega-Superspeedway-Jeff-Gordon-reac

Jeff Gordon reacts to his win at the Talladega Superspeedway Victory Lane. Reaction can be telling in a still photo and is often the most coveted aspect of a photo for the working photojournalist.Mark Lent
ADVERTISEMENT