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NOTE: This piece was cross-posted at my car-related site CarLoves.com. It appeared there as a three-part diary but I’ve condensed it into one long post here.
One of the reasons I moved to Las Vegas just more than a year ago was the access it affords to great race tracks. One of those tracks is the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. If you are a car person or are interested in racing, then this place is about as close to Disney Land as you’ll get without going to California or Florida. It’s one of the most fan-friendly, accessible, professionally run race tracks in the world. And I’m lucky enough to shoot there.
Recently, the LVMS was busy. The IZOD IndyCar Championship had it’s last race of the season and the season point winner was crowned. The Indy Lights teams also ran as did the folks who race trucks in NASCAR in the Smith’s 350.
With all those races, the practice and qualifying that goes with, and the surrounding events including tech inspections, fan events, etc. there are tons of photo opportunities.
Lucky for me, I got to cover the races and had an all-access photo pass to help me accomplish that goal.
In this series of posts, I’ll outline some of what happens when you photograph a professional, national-level motorsports event. Think of it as a diary. I’ll just give my impressions and recite some things that I think other photographers might like to know.
So let’s get started
It all starts with gear. Know what to bring – and what NOT to bring is the beginning of a successful shoot. This list is pretty exhaustive but I am sure I forgot to mention something.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8
Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S
Nikon 60mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Micro
Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye
Extra Batteries For Both Nikon Bodies
Olympus EP3 Body (x2)
Olympus 12mm f//2
Olympus 45mm f/1.8
Extra EP3 battery
Kirk Lens Plates
Induro BHD1 Ballhead
Misc 32gb Ultra Fast CF and SD Cards (I don’t use any specific brand of memory card. They all seem to work pretty well for me.)
Tenba Transport 400 mm Lens Bag
Tenba Medium Messenger Camera Bag
You should also note that use of a tripod is almost universally forbidden at most race tracks, including LVMS. You may use a monopod in very limited situations like while at a photo hole or out of the pit area. There are safety concerns in the pits that preclude the use of monopods and tripods.
Long pants – preferably SPF 20 or better. NOTE Most major motor sports events won’t credential someone wearing shorts. It’s a combination of safety and professionalism.
Long sleeve shirt – preferably SPF 20 or better. I use the Columbia fishing shirts because they have a high SPF factor and sunburn can be a real problem. While a long-sleeve shirt can be hot on a summer day, it’s better than getting skin cancer.
Closed toe shoes. Safety first.
Hat to block the sun. (With me but not shown in my photo here.)
Ear protection (I use the Racing Electronics Uniden Sportcat radio with Racing Electronic Platinum Headset. The headset provides a 24db NRR Rating and simultaneously allows me to monitor individual drivers’ radios as well as the race officials and radio/TV broadcasts of the race.)
Computer/Power Supply/Card Reader for offloading cards.
iPhone for marking locations, tracking sunset/sunrise times, mapping shooting locations.
Water – and plenty of it.
NOTE: The Las Vegas Motor Speedway is one of the top race facilities in the world. It’s certainly the nicest track I’ve ever photographed at and the media center is the best in the business. There are large media rooms with desks, power, free refreshments and lockers. The photo staff assigns lockers and hands out locks. I store everything I don’t need for each shooting session in the locker. The media room is under heavy security so I feel like it’s safe. It’s easier to get to the drivers and their cars than it is the media center! Unfortunately, this kind of luxury isn’t found at most race tracks. Call ahead to see what amenities the track offers for credentialed photographers.
Next on the list is access. Having access is the most important thing when you want to photograph any pro sport, including motorsports.
To get access you have to get permission which usually means you need a client or a good friend with the connections. At major tracks like LVMS it’s much harder than your local drag strip. In either event, don’t try to arrange access the day of the race. This sort of thing is usually arranged well in advance.
Here at LVMS there is a separate “credential shack” on Craig Road behind the speedway. You go to this building to get your credentials. Depending on what and who you’re shooting for you get different levels of access. Each event is different. Some require hot or cold passes and these have to do with where you can be when there is activity on the track. At most events at LVMS there is no hot or cold pass but there is an “over the wall” pass which is required to go over the pit wall for any race.
Once you have credentials you pick up the schedule. This isn’t the schedule that the event posts on its website. This is the media schedule. This document details press conferences, media avails and other information needed to cover the race.
At this race (and most national races,) there is a photographer’s meeting – much like the driver’s meeting. In this mandatory meeting you find out all the rules. The organizers will tell you where you can and can’t shoot, go over safety rules, discuss further credentials such as a photo vest and even handle mundane stuff like passing out meal tickets. (Yes at the big events they even feed us!)
The most important part of the pre-race photography activities is the safety talk. Believe me when I tell you there are few things in life you’ll photograph that are as dangerous as a major auto race. Read on below to see some examples. Everywhere you go you are in danger so be alert!
Rule number one is never turn your back on the track when it’s hot – i.e., cars are on the track. You never know what might be coming at you and if you’re facing it you have some chance of avoiding it. You also want to be aware of your surroundings in general. The garage and pit area are very dangerous. There are tires rolling around, cars charging out of the stalls, engines catching on fire. You don’t want to relax in this environment because you might end up getting hurt.
The crews and drivers generally don’t think much of photographers. They see us as a necessary evil as best. They’re not usually in a very good mood when we’re around so don’t expect them to go out of their way to look out for your safety. That’s your job. Pay attention at all times. Give them enough room to do their jobs, which are also very dangerous. Work together.
No matter how much I talk about safety in these posts, it can’t be enough. Ed Reinke, a well-known race photographer with decades of experience, died after he fell and suffered a head injury while covering the IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.
In 1971, the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 slammed into a photographers’ stand. Nobody died but there were several serious injuries.
In 2005, four photographers were injured in the pits at the Daytona 200 when a car slid through a pit stall.
I’m not trying to unnecessarily scare anyone. I just want to make sure all race photographers understand the risks and prepare for them.
I got my start in photography as a race shooter and behind the scenes stuff was always my favorite part. You never know what you’re going to run into. This can be the most fun and the most rewarding stuff to shoot at a race. The track, the people, the equipment and the surrounding area provides a cornucopia of subject matter with which to work.
Sorry to sound like a broken record but I have to mention safety – even here. It’s important to remember that walking through the garages and pits is still very dangerous. Even though there are no race speeds involved, you can be killed or injured by something as small as a golf cart carrying tires from one garage to another. I like to keep my head on a swivel when I am in the pits or the garage. You never know when something will be coming at you so first things first – be safe.
The routine I like is to first walk the garages and become familiar with where each driver is assigned. Then I have the option of waiting for drivers to show up at the garage or I can content myself with simple shots of pre-race mechanics.
The subject list here is incredibly long. You are limited only by your imagination, access and time. Let’s start with access. Depending on the track, the race, etc., you may or may not have unfettered access to the garage area and the pits. At LVMS we have unusually good access to the garage. The pits are harder only because they are even more dangerous.
One important thing to remember when in the garage is that you cannot actually cross the threshold of any particular garage space without team permission – in advance. Do NOT assume because you see a photographer in the garage that it’s also okay for you to go in. That photographer may be a team or sponsor photographer and most certainly has advance permission. When in doubt ask. The rough and tough folks that work on these cars for a living may unceremoniously escort you from the premises if you disobey this rule.
I try to focus on all the details. I shoot steering wheels, tire racks, fuel canisters, people, their pets, logos, and anything else that catches my attention. Try to think of this from the following perspective. Imagine that your pictures of the behind the scenes activities are the only record anyone will have of what happened there. Try to tell a story. Document as much as you can. Pay attention to detail. Think like you are about to explain this setup to someone who’s never seen it and all you have to work with are your photos.
The garage is one environment where you have time to be creative. Things are moving quickly, but not 200 miles per hour. I tend to work with smaller cameras like the Olympus EP3 or the D7000 in this environment. There’s no need for the blazing speed of the D3s here. You can set up your angles, wait for light and get the shot the way you want it many times. There are moments where you have to grab and go, such as when a driver walks in or you catch a fun moment like the pit crew resting while their car goes through tech, but most of the time you have a few seconds to think before you shoot. During the race, a few seconds is a lifetime.
Remember to change up your angles. Try to spend as much time shooting from a low angle as you can. Shooting up on something gives it power and when you’re photographing race cars in the garage, you want to express the power that permeates the area any way you can. The more often you do this sort of work, the better and more instinctual you will become at catching the right moment.
For inspiration, look at lots of race photography. See what other photographers have done and are doing. This will give you ideas that you can make your own when it’s your turn to work the pre-race.
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.