Friday, August 8, 2008

Formula 1 Photography Update

So the purpose of this blog began as a place where I would log my journey into the world of professional photography where I hoped to have a chance to shoot F1 photos semi-professionally. I've since learned a lot and realized that I may have set my aspirations WAY too high.

My First Attempt at FIA Accreditation

With tickets purchased for the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, China, I began my quest to get FIA (Federation International Automobile - the Formula 1 governing body) permission for a press pass to the race. After much work, I found that you have to apply via their media accreditation procedure which among other things, requires a sponsor as well as previous publications showing your work (which is a bit of a catch 22, because how do you show previous work without a pass?).

Well, to make a long story short, I got two small magazines to agree to publish articles, so I needed to get to a race before China to get them content so I signed up to attend the 2007 United States Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It would turn out to be the last GP in the US, so it was great that I was able to attend. It also gave me an opportunity to practice taking some shots.

Step 1 - The 2007 United States Grand PrixUSGP Test Shoot

The photos from my first F1 race shoot made me very happy, but when I started to share them with others I realized very quickly that others thought they sucked - bad. However, I learned something after taking over 3000 pictures, so that was the most important thing (more on that later).

With pictures in hand, I finally decided it was time to make my articles, so I sent the first pictures and story off to The Spiel who promptly published my article (half of which was in color) in their July 2007 issue. With some additional work, I got my pictures (only) published in the October 2007 issue of The Star on pages 86 through 91. The Star also agreed to publish my next article from China and sponsor me, so I was ready to apply for accreditation. I tried to follow the rules to the letter, but I quickly discovered that my odds were slim since my magazines were exactly the kind of magazines they DID NOT want to see, but I figured the worst that could happen is that they would say no. On September 20th, 2007 I got an official FIA response to my application - denied.

Accreditation Denied, so Off to the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai

I was pretty disappointed, but I knew my odds were slim so I traveled off to Shanghai, China to enjoy the 2007 Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit.

I enjoyed the race, despite a mishap which destroyed my best lens but left me with about 2000 pictures, some of which were actually very good (by my standard).

This resulted in my third published Formula 1 article in The Star which was entitled Shanghai Surprise. I was the author of both the words and the photographer, and I was pleased with the result. However, I learned something very important in the process - be sure to prepare your images yourself because busy publishers won't do it for you. There were some shots that needed some work (including cropping), but I didn't bother to do it myself so I was disappointed to see how they ended up in the magazine. Oh well, lesson learned.


Attempt 2 - The 2008 Canadian Grand Prix

Armed with better gear, including a Canon 1D-Mark III I thought that I would have a much better chance at getting "the shot" that would make me feel like a real F1 photographer. After taking over 6000 photos, I think I got a few that I can be proud of. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to process them and get more than 3 on the web.

Lessons Learned

While the Canon 1D-Mark III is much better than my Canon Rebel XTi, the fact remains that you need to take A LOT of shots because you are going to have more misses than hits. Now maybe there are pros who would disagree with me, but they are probably a lot closer to the action than I am in the stands or using a Nikon D3 with the buffer memory expansion service.

There's a few other things I learned:

  • If you can sneak down to lower in the stands, do it and apologize (or move) later. It doesn't matter how big your lens is, the closer you can get the better. (duh)
  • If you can go out of your comfort zone and shoot manual on a fixed spot and let the vehicle come to you, you can get better shots, but this takes A LOT of discipline.
  • It's better to switch to JPEG to get the shots than to be stubborn and stay in RAW
  • 17 GB of camera storage is not enough for a full day of shooting at the track. Plan for 2000 raw shots per day.
  • Sunscreen can erase the printed label next to your buttons on a Canon Rebel XTi
  • Trust your camera's metering more than your LCD or image histogram

Ron's Race Recommendations

  1. Get a good monopod with an even better head. Without this you will not get pro quality shots (unless your are using something else for support)
  2. A long zoom lens is hard to beat. Good examples are the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM or Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED, but there's some fantastic primes like the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM or Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR too. However, you aren't going to get a big prime like this into a race, so stick with the big zooms.
  3. Hold your camera with your right hand and put your left hand on the TOP of your lens (at the end of the barrel) and create opposing force between your two hands to create a tripod like steady. This alone made more difference in my shots than a more expensive camera or anything. This is the key to getting pro sharpness!!!!
  4. Bring a towel to keep your hands clean and be sure not get sunscreen on your camera, but be sure to use PLENTY of sunscreen. Carry lots of water too (frozen bottled water in your bag are great for the end of the day).
  5. Use evaluate metering and try experimenting with your SINGLE auto focus point (never let the camera decide) to get your intended subject in focus
  6. If using a lens with IS, be sure to change it in the proper mode for panning (Canon users, this is mode 2)
  7. Push-pull lenses are your friend. If you do step 2, you'll discover that it is impossible to zoom during a pan and get a sharp shot with a twist zoom.
  8. Make sure you can shoot at 400mm, even if it means you have to use a Canon EF 2x Tele-extender or Nikon TC-20E II 2x Teleconverter for D-AF-I & AF-S Lenses. Teleconverters are pretty good these days, and post-process sharpening is even better. Don't be afraid to use one of these and be stupid and shoot at 200mm. Nearly all of my shots from my first two races were with a 2x teleconverter, and I don't regret it one bit. In case you are wondering, don't get the 1.x teleconverter if it won't push you out to 600mm+ on a cropped body.
  9. A Hoodman Loupe is a wonderful tool for examining your pictures between sessions in the field. I wouldn't shoot a race without one.
  10. Try something different after each 100th shot you take, but stick with the same thing for at least 100 shots (excluding special events like accidents). If your camera supports it, voice record a note about what you did (I forget to do this).
  11. Focus on the drivers head and frame your shot accordingly.
  12. Don't get hung up on trying to get the perfect pan shot as head on shots like this are good because they can be cropped to look like this. On a side note, this shot was a JPEG because my buffer was filling too quickly when I had 10 minutes to shoot at near eye level with the track.
  13. Bring your wide-angle lens and get pictures of the action. My first double truck was of a wide angle crowd shot.
  14. Don't forget to take lots of pictures on your way to and from the track (as well as evening festivities) to help tell a story about your experience. You'll be happy you did later (and I regret not doing this more).
  15. Carry a pro quality camera bag that can hold a lot of stuff in a small space like a Glass Taxi.

  16. Bring ear plugs!!!!

  17. Record the race at home as you'll be too busy shooting to really pay much attention during the race.

  18. Don't chimp while the action is going on as there will be plenty of time to do that between race sessions. An occasional glance to make sure you are capturing your intent is good, but move on fast.

  19. 1/250 second is your friend for panning. Unless you are shooting an ordinary car which is going to be going < 100 mph, you'll find that anything slower isn't going to work very well for panning (unless you like really blurry pictures). You can go up to 1/320, but faster than that and you start freezing action which kills the sense of speed.

  20. Personally, I find that f/11 is the best aperture to get the driver as well as most of the car in the shot, but I generally have to shot around f/8 due to the light required to do that at 1/250+ and ISO 100. During my first race I thought f/2.8 - f/5.6 would be good, but I think that results in too much of the car being blurry.

  21. Don't be afraid to raise your ISO. Many digital cameras today actually perform better at ISO 200 than ISO 100, so don't be stuck on ISO 100. While going beyond ISO 400 may not be good for some cameras, you should own a camera that can at least do 400 well as overcast days with long lenses means you'll be needing a higher ISO. The Nikon D300, D700 or D3 are an excellent choices for high ISO situations, as are the Canon 40D, 5D, Canon 1D-Mark III. However, Nikon definitely has a huge advantage here.

  22. Scout out the track for the best seats in advance and realize that row A may not be the front row (as I discovered in Canada where A comes after ZZ). However, on most tracks you want to be high because the fence will ruin your shots on the lower rows. Don't rule out the cheap general admission seats either as they can be at track level and you may get lucky and find a hole in the fence.

  23. Bring rain gear for you and your camera so you can still shoot in the rain. Ponchos may look funny, but they work well.

  24. Fully charge your batteries each night before you shoot and bring at least two sets (1 is fine with 1D Mark III's). If your camera supports a battery grip, then use it with extra batteries - you'll need it.

  25. Bring a laptop with large capacity external drives or a Epson P-5000 / HyperDrive to allow for offloading your files each day.

In the end, the most important thing is to have fun. It may take a while to get great shots that your super happy with, but you'll enjoy many of your shots in the privacy of your own home.

In my case, I may be done shooting F1 for a while as it is starting to become cost prohibitive to me. I may consider other motorsports that are cheaper like MotoGP or possibly even IRL. However, what I have learned for now is that I'll have to make a name for myself a different way as this sport is just too tough to do on your own with a sponsor or some other means of funding.

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Anonymous said...

What a great blog post! I really liked reading all of your concrete tips that you learned from shooting races.

I would like to try to hit one of the USGP events next year (Indy / Laguna). Interested? :)

Chris Mullins

Ivan Gomez said...

Nice article. Really liked how you listed your tips.Almost like a checklist. As for the acreditation have u looked into some sort of photographers association. In Mexico (where I come from) there is one and just by having that they let you attend events, get into "press-only" areas, etc. And it only costs $200 a year. I wonder if there is something similar here.

Anyway, I enjoyed the article... said...

Yeah, Ivan that would be awesome if such a thing existed but I don't think you are going to see that for Formula 1. Perhaps for NASCAR, MotoGP, etc..., but not for F1 (although I'd love to be wrong).

Anonymous said...

Great post Ron, thanks for sharing this! Plenty of good advice in there for any kind of sports shooting actually! /Mike