Thursday, August 11, 2011

Photo Adventure @FollowMidOhio

Rain wreaked havoc on my equipment at the end of the Mid Ohio ALMS race

Shooting motorsports is not all fun and games, although most of the time it is a thrill. Even though I've been shooting racing since 1984, I still get butterflies before every race I shoot, as so many things can go wrong. It is still hard work and the advent of digital photography in photojournalism has been both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing since you can shoot virtually an unlimited number of frames and see what you got right away. No more waiting for the film to be processed. It's a curse because now editing thousands of images from a race weekend (or hundreds from a race which have to be posted online immediately afterwards) takes a lot of time. Plus everyone with a digital camera seems to think they can be a racing photographer. But if you're willing to fight traffic, come in early for mandatory photo meetings, lug around heavy equipment all day long under all sorts of conditions, and then stay well past the time fans leave in order to finish editing, then come on out and join us! You'll have the time of your life and maybe capture some great images in the process. 

Then there are those times when everything seems to conspire against you and Murphy's Law kicks in. Last Saturday's American LeMans Series race at Mid Ohio did not quite rise to that level, but a late race rain storm presented a serious challenge for me - thus the the title of this post, "Photo Adventure @FollowMidOhio". I had been in the Carousel turn after shooting pit stops when ALMS teams began changing to wet weather tires with about 30 minutes to go in the race. Several cars had spun off on the damp track and the race was under caution but the rain was beginning to pick up in intensity. I decided to go to the area of Turn 1 since I thought it could be a prime spot to shoot the next restart as everyone would have to funnel under the Mid Ohio bridge and calamity could ensue. I put my plastic bags over each of my cameras and had towels to dry them tucked into my belt bag. As I walked behind the paddock to Turn 1, a torrential downpour began and I began to wish I had grabbed my poncho when I had changed into my firesuit before shooting the ALMS pit stops. By the time I got to the fence in Turn 1, I was completely drenched, and I was shooting every car splashing past me, but the sunglasses I had on were suddenly a liability and covered with raindrops, so it was hard to tell if I was even in focus using my main camera. I managed to shoot about 50 frames before that camera quit working and flashed an error message at me that I had never seen before. I knew that was bad news so I headed back to the paddock where victory lane was as the ALMS officials finally red flagged the race with about 10 minutes remaining. Now even my towels were soaked so I ducked into a port-o-let behind pit lane and removed the memory cards from both cameras, fearing they might also be compromised by the rain. I put a new card in my second (and only working) camera, but now it started malfunctioning, as the shutter was hanging open, the auto focus wasn't working and the rear display went black. I muddled through the ALMS victory lane ceremonies shooting on full manual (just like the old days) and prayed that I'd get a couple of usable shots. I wasn't ready to panic but it was sure nerve wracking since I still had the Indycar race to shoot the next day and only one other usable camera as a backup.

Back at the hotel that night, I downloaded everything and pulled my cameras apart in hopes they would dry out overnight, but Sunday morning my main camera was still flashing the same evil error message at me. During the Indycar warmup that morning, my second camera began to come back to life and work normally. I had left my primary camera sitting in the sun inside the media center to hopefully bake out whatever moisture was effecting its electronics. Thankfully, I had no further trouble that day and everything worked fine for the Indycar race, but I said quite a few prayers along the way and trusted that my Canons wouldn't let me down. This whole episode reminds me that I am still learning every time I shoot a race and I'm grateful that the lessons I am learning haven't been too painful to overcome so far. Granted this was a rare occurrence but it is an example of what can happen on a race weekend. While trying to get the right vantage point to get "the shot", weather in the form of severe heat or drenching downpours can intervene. Equipment failures happen unexpectedly. Being distracted instead of being ready to shoot can create problems. Maybe access is what you'd like it to be. A good race coverage strategy can be spoiled by poor execution of technique, or simply not being in the right place at the right time. I've heard that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and racing photogs need a lot of both sometimes.

So what is a good racing shot anyway? There are probably as many opinions on that as there are photographers, and I have learned from some of the best around over the years who have graciously given me tips on techniques that I am still trying to master. I love this work and am happy to share what I know with anyone who wants to talk about the craft of motorsports photography. The following photos are examples of some of the things I try to do when I get to the track. See you there!

I want to see the driver inside the car working the steering wheel. This was taken in the Carousel.

It's always better to get more than one car in frame if possible. The background on this shot in the Keyhole could be better though.

Dario's hands are working the wheel through the Keyhole turn and everything is crisp.

Crowd shots are always good for a sense of place - note the Mid Ohio bridge in the background. This is on the grid before the ALMS race.

Angled compositions can emphasize photo elements - speed in this case, with a slower shutter speed.

This is a "mirror" shot - Tony Kanaan is visible in his right side mirror as the car leans left while he's turning right.

Thanks to all drivers with clear helmet visors! We can see your face! His hand is also up on the wheel and visible.
Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes! Marco Andretti obliges with a clear visor.

Photos of open cockpit sports cars make it easier to show the driver at work; another slow shutter speed shot.

Simona is leaning on it hard in this shot! Note the right front wheel is off the ground.

This one involves some luck - to get the driver's eyes visible through a small opening in the window on a super tight pan.

On a large road course like Mid Ohio, catching a spin is often just being in the right place at the right time.

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