In this third and final installment of my Professional Car Racing Photography – A Personal Diary series, (See part one here and part two here) I’ll cover shooting on race day. When it gets down to it, the race is what matters and hopefully my experience shooting these races will somehow be helpful to you who are reading this and who want to do the same.
Getting ready to shoot the race means charging your batteries, formatting your memory cards and getting your camera setup BEFORE the race starts. Once you have that out of the way, it’s time for the photo meeting.
The pre-race photo meeting is more important than ever on actual race day. Sometimes track access rules change on race day. There are special events like Air Force fly-overs, the National Anthem, dignitaries, celebrities, etc. that you need to know about. If you have the right access, you also need to go to this meeting for victory lane photo assignments. Credentialed photographers will usually have a chance to shoot in victory lane. If you want the podium shot with the racer, the trophy, the celebration, etc., this is where you get that shot. Unfortunately, there are usually more photographers than there are spots so the track photo supervisor usually assigns these slots based on things like publication, circulation, seniority, etc. If you miss the photo meeting, you almost certainly miss your chance at a victory lane shooting slot.
The most important things to shoot at the actual race are the start (green flag) and the finish (checkered flag.) In between, you want to be lucky enough to capture and crashes or other incidents. You also want to capture cars pitting, refueling, being repaired after crashes, etc.
If you’re new, the best thing to do is keep your eye on all the veteran photographers. If you’re in their general area, you are probably in the right place. You can of course scope out your own angles. During the Smith 350 NASCAR truck race Saturday, I knew they’d do driver introductions in a way that the crowd could be involved. NASCAR drivers/teams are closer to their fans than any other kind of racing. I found out they planned to walk the drivers through the crowd, down the main grandstand and over a ladder in the fence down onto the track. Most of the photographers positioned themselves at the bottom of the ladder. I crossed it and caught the drivers coming right off the stairwell and had an uncluttered background.
You eventually have to commit to a spot. Sometimes the roof of the grandstand is best if you want an overall view and the best chance at the flyover. Sometimes one of the photo holes is best because you can do double duty, catching the important pre-race pageantry and then being in position for the green flag which means it’s time to go racing.
For the Smith 350 NASCAR truck race, I selected the photo hole closest to the start/finish line. This gave me a good angle on pre-race stuff and left me where I wanted to be to get the actual race start.
I scoped my options out the day before and this is why it’s important to go to the track early. The drivers and the photographers have one thing in common. The better they know the track, the better their day will be. I try to walk the entire track on the day(s) before the race to judge every possible angle. I look for sun angle, backgrounds, shooting holes or platforms (there are 22 photographers’ holes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but only one photographers’ platform) and anything else that might help me figure out the best place to be and when.
For instance, at LVMS in October, the sun angle works in favor of shooting on the inside (from the pits) in the morning, and shooting on the outside (from the grandstand-side) in the afternoon. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes you have to shoot in extremely backlit situations on a race track. There are shots you can wait to make. I wanted a shot of the entire race track with the cars near the start/finish line. I went up on the grandstand roof in the afternoon during a re-start after a caution flag and got the shot in better light than I would have had if I shot from there during the actual start of the race.
When you’re working from the photo holes, make sure to remember this is a dirty, loud, dusty, and dangerous place. During the truck race here on Saturday, a truck crashed RIGHT AT the photo hole one photographer was standing in. Due to the protection of the safer barrier he was un-injured, but he was a bit shaken up. His headphones were blown right off his head and he was covered with dust, dirt, sand and debris. Be sure to remember to bring a bulb blower and micro-fibre towel with you to the race because you will need to clean your camera and lens often. I highly recommend that you do NOT change lenses in this environment. If you do, you’ll be cleaning your sensor for a month afterwards.
Some of the things you need to think about while shooting the race are related to mundane things like focus and shutter speed. If your camera has a high-speed shooting mode, you’ll want to use that. You also want to think about pre-focusing on certain points in the track because at 220 miles per hour, it’s not always easy to just put your sensor on a car and track it through the shooting position. I like to also experiment with shutter speeds. You can use a super fast shutter speed, like 1/4000th of a second and get most everything tack sharp. But you also run the risk of making the car look like it’s standing still in a parking lot if you freeze the action. A good compromise is to try to get about a one-quarter or one-half wheel turn blurry with the rest of the car sharp. The shutter speed you select to accomplish this will depend on how close you are to the cars, how fast they are traveling and what lens you are using. For most cases, I like to start at about 1/1000th of a second. That usually works well enough to get a result that shows some movement in the car. I like to experiment with both slower and faster shutter speeds, especially if I can pan with the car.
Otherwise, the main events to shoot are the pre-race celebration, the green flag start of the event, any cautions such as crashes or other issues, pit stops and the checkered flag. After the race, you want to try to get pictures of the winner’s circle. In LasVegas, there is a victory lane that is pre-templated for photo access. Photographers, according to seniority, publication and seniority are granted access to a set of risers directly across from the Victory Lane. In places like Vegas – and at other major venues, it takes yet another credential to access the victory lane.
At LVMS for the NASCAR/INDYCAR weekend, we actually had three races. So our assignments for victory lane were for the entire weekend. I was given a purple ticket with the number 36 – indicating the position I was to shoot from in Victory Lane. The risers were marked with masking tape and fortunately for me, my spot was dead center near the top. I try to get shots of the winner and his crew as well as any other special guests.
Shooting the race is fun, hard work and yes, very dangerous. At LVMS we had a serious crash in every race and a death – Dan Wheldon. On day one, during the NASCAR truck race, a truck crashed right at a photographers’ hole. It was such a hard hit that a track caution light was turned around on its stand and damaged. The photographer working that hole had his headphones knocked off his head by the force of the impact.
Remember that race photography is dirty and dangerous. It’s fun, but there are risks involved.
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