Before we get into technical details about this shoot, if you are just interested in the photographs a (rather extensive) gallery of the images from the day can be found on my new events site: events.dmg-photography.com. If you want to know about shooting an event like this and how one processes 1500+ images fairly efficiently, read on…
At a recent family dinner my sister’s boyfriend asked if I was interested in photographing some motorcycle races. He wanted some photographs of his team racing because, up till now, they’d only managed to photograph rear wheels leaving the frame of the image. There just some things a cell phone camera can’t do (at least right now).
Sure! Sounds like fun.
So, this was a rather informal shoot that I looked on as a way to see if it would be interesting to do. If you have read this blog for any length of time you know that my repertoire includes outdoor events (particularly equestrian) and concerts — these have the dual advantage of keeping my nature photography skills sharp and people, from time to time, actually pay real money for prints or digital copies. A “win win” as they say.
The Loudon Road Racing Series takes place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, NH. While the speedway hosts NASCAR racing they seemed to be more lax about non-NASCAR events with regard to media passes. However, it turns out that if I had sought media status (and assuming that they approved) I would have had greater access to the track. Lesson learned: it’s worth checking to see if you can get permission to get on the other side of the fences (with all the risks associated with that).
Betsy and my son Jay were going to join me for the trip and both wanted to do some shooting as well, so we went up there armed with three cameras: a 1DMk2, a 40D, and a 5DMk2. The important thing to note about these particular cameras are that they span resolutions from large to just shy of insane for 35mm DSLRs. This would play out later in the day. (I had hoped to try shooting some video with the 5DMk2, but this sadly did not pan out for this day.)
I matched up the lenses with the cameras (and photographers): I took my trusty 1DMk2 and the 500mm f/4 mounted on a tripod with a Wimberley sidekick. (I have a full Wimberley head, but I personally find the Sidekick on my BH-55 ballhead to be a very powerful combo.) Jay had the 40D with th 100-400 L on a monopod. Betsy had the 5DMk2 with a 70-200 f/2.8 L and was shooting handheld.
We arrived at the track during the morning warm-ups and met up with my sister Kate and the racers Chris and Larry and their friend Todd, who was also racing. The track was doing construction which cut off about half of the infield and several other areas that would have made interesting shooting spots. Because we didn’t know that it was possible to get a media pass, we were behind chain link fences *most* of the day (we got creative as the day progressed). The weather was warm and, you guessed it, sunny — full blast, glaring sun. And the areas with interesting turns were, of course, nearly backlit.
When faced with a situation like this you need to have two things working for you: wide-aperture lenses and a post-processing tool like Lightroom or Aperture. By standing very close to the fence with the lens nearly wide open the fence “disappears” because the depth of field of the lenses are so short that the close fence wires become so out of focus as to no longer be apparent in the image. They are there and they do degrade the image, but not as much as you might think: all of the images you have seen so far in this article were shot through a heavy chain link fence (the next one wasn’t). You will notice the impact of the intervening fence in the out-of-focus areas of the images: they don’t have the smooth appearance of normal (fence-less) shots.
What is lost, by the bucketfull, is contrast. While you can’t see the fence wire, all that bright sunlight bouncing off the fence ends up in your picture and the result is a fairly low-contrast image. Fortunately you can easily correct for this with Lightroom (and many other programs) by setting the “black clipping” point. Basically you are saying that “black” is a value much higher than zero. This turns the shadows and dark objects from muddy gray to black again. A heaping helping of mid-tone contrast (clarity) and people might be hard pressed to think that you had a heavy fence between you and those speeding vehicles.
(Above: That’s Chris (446) and Larry (387) working through some of the hairpin turns. Photo by Jay Griffin.)
(And here’s the 3rd “Slowpoke”, Todd (107) — he had some mechanical issues that forced him to drop out after the first race.)
First we photographed the warm-ups and then waited (and waited) for the racing to begin at noon. We thought we only had a few minutes so I didn’t download the warmups to the laptop. We just switched out our cards and shot the first race. Kate had an infield vehicle pass which proved invaluable as I wanted to get above the fences and get a different perspective from the other two cameras (I had the 500mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter for reach) and the (empty) grandstands seemed like a good spot. So we drove out there and found they were open (not a guarantee we were told) so for the first time, despite it being noon, I’d have the sun sort of BEHIND ME for a change.
I’ve shot events before, and while I usually bring a number of cameras I’m the only one shooting. With three people shooting (and two of them on relatively high-megapixel cameras) I quickly came up on an equipment restriction. My card reader is, well, rather old and pokey. For my normal photographic assignments this is not an issue, but with just two races down (and 3 to go) we had burned through most of the cards. Clearly if I was contracted to shoot the entire day we would have done things differently: 1) shoot more conservatively, 2) use larger cards, and 3) purchased a high-speed reader. Actually we could probably get by with what we had, but I would need an assistant whose only job was to offload cards to the laptop and backup disk (they could do this during races while we’re shooting). Sounds like a great job for the grandson in a few years. 🙂
We did all of the initial field work on my (aging) Macbook Pro under a tent next to the team’s trailer. There is a Lightroom “trick” that I didn’t use this time but will definitely activate the next time I find myself in a similar shooting situation. When you import the images you can set the “Initial Preview” to “embedded” (or “minimal” if you want) and avoid (or, more accurately, defer) the cost of generating preview images keeping the import process as fast as possible. I do this all the time with time-lapse photograph sequences because I only need to look at the first few images to assign settings and then sync the rest of the series (and export the results). In fact, I applied one of my personal Lightroom develop presets which sets a white balance, vibrance, and clarity that provides a good starting point for outdoor photographs. While generating these tweaked previews took more time, it did allow our friends to look at the images as we processed each race – which was nice for them.
Now my workflow is a little odd. I have a custom script that does my importing and file numbering that predates Lightroom / Aperture / etc. So it injests the cards and loads them to an import area. I then import them into the Lightroom catalog, moving them to their assigned folder and simultaneously backing them up to an external USB drive. (Note: I’d probably bring a firewire drive next time. The USB drive is I have is nice because it is bus-powered and all of my firewire drives require additional AC.)
The result for the day is just over 1550 images were imported and backed up (that’s 16 gigabytes of still image data). Everyone had a a turn at the laptop to view the images which were sorted by capture time. I keep my cameras’ clocks pretty closely aligned although they do drift. Lightroom can move through the images in a flash, almost as if playing a movie. With different cameras bursting at different times the assembled images created “angle cuts” in this ad hoc movie. Lots of fun for all.
I noted that our shooting behind a fence wasn’t a show-stopper for us, but it isn’t ideal and as the day progressed we found approved ways to get on the other side. The first thing I did was get up into the (empty) grandstands and shoot over the fencing. This was OK but didn’t permit tight shots due to the distances involved. With permission we were able to get into the starting area and photograph right next to the track. (This is when we learned that we could get a special badge that would allow greater access — good news for the next time we come here.) For the final race we were shooting I wanted to do something different. By now it was after 4pm and the light was beginning to soften up a bit. We drove Kate’s jeep over to an empty location by a fence near some hairpin turns and I climbed up on top with my tripod and 500mm lens. Even a Jeep suspension wobbles and there wasn’t a lot of room up there so I had to contort a bit to get to the viewfinder — but the results were most enjoyable as you can see from the following few images:
The nice thing about a multi-lap race is that you have a number of opportunities to shoot your subject — and that means you should take advantage of those opportunities to shoot differently. Most of the day I was in shutter-priority (Tv) mode with the shutter set to 1/4000 second (I varied that slightly) and I always try to include verticals whenever possible.
After a few laps I started moving the shutter speed and ISO around to try riskier exposures. Serendpity helped in one case. Apparently while trying to not fall off the roof of the Jeep I changed the shutter speed to 1/8000 sec. This was faster than the lens could open up and I didn’t immediately notice the camera blinking at me. No matter, the underexposed shots had plenty of details to make for some nice images. I like when good things like that happen:
We left after the final race and some rest-up time and headed back home to Massachusetts and some dinner. I’m compulsive about looking at images after a shoot and I was up till midnight on the laptop starting the culling process. The first pass removed 320 images from the shoot. These were the totally out of focus and other garbage shots. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them in detail (although I do pause and smile at the ones I know are going to be decent.) Maximum speed is achieved in Lightroom by turning on the CAPS LOCK key. This makes the tagging keys AUTO-ADVANCE. This means that if I mark an image as rejected it automatically moves on to the next image – saving me a keystroke. (Hey it all adds up when you have 1500 images.) I also applied basic location information to all of the shots by synching metadata.
The next step is to export the catalog on the laptop to the office over the local (gigabit) network and then importing that catalog into my main catalog on the office Mac Pro. This happens while I’m happily enjoying breakfast on the deck with Betsy.
The next job is to do another pass of the shoot for image quality only this time on the big monitor. This shows up sharpness issues much faster than the laptop screen does. Another 200 images bite the dust.
I then change the sort sequence to file id, which groups the photos by camera. I then make overall exposure adjustments to large groups of images taken at the same time and under similar conditions. (This is where manual exposure helps greatly, but when quickly moving between varying scenes and dealing with different photographers we stuck with automatic exposures and they generally worked pretty well.)
Finally I begin the rating process – looking for the best photographs with the intent of finding 200 for a web gallery. Again I turn on the CAPS LOCK key in Lightroom so that I just hit the 1-5 keys as needed to sort through the images. The web gallery is built of 4 and 5 images. After the first pass I walk through the 4’s and demote many worthy, but redundant, images to 3 status. In a couple of hours I have a good gallery for people to view, along with a bunch of picks for this blog. I think it took longer for me to write this article than it did to sift through the final 1000 images that remained.
I hope you enjoyed learning about what goes into approaching an event like this with a moderate amount of equipment and planning. Obviously there would need to be a very different system in place if I were photographing every race and if I wanted a larger number of people to be able to view the results in real-time. I’ve seen those setups and, well, maybe someday!
My thanks to my amazing wife, Betsy, for all her support during the day and for shooting some nice images; to Jay for keeping the 40D nice and warm and getting some pretty decent closeups; to my sister Kate for inviting me and driving me around the infield; to Chris & Larry of Slowpoke Racing for their hospitality and racing skills; and to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and LRRS Racing for making the event possible and quite photographer-friendly (something that is getting less frequent every day).