By John Isle
Dean Harrison 2019 Southern 100 - Iso 200 400mm F4 1/2000 sec
So Where do I begin…?
With most photography I see a finished picture in my mind before I’ve even picked up my camera, anything can trigger a composition, a shadow, a moonlit night, the light on a model, a reflection in a puddle. Road Racing is the one exception, read on and I’ll elaborate.
Generally, you have some control of the subject your shooting. Buildings are static only the light changes, Models tend not to move at speeds of 200mph with road racing things are quite a bit different.
I’m lucky to live in the Isle of Man and have the TT course 500 yards from my front door and the Southern 100 Course about an hours drive away in Castletown. Having these fantastic events on my doorstep is a privilege…
So how do I go about shooting the Races?
The foremost thing I’d say is to do your homework and prepare. If you’ve shot Motorsport before you know roughly what type of gear you’re going to take. A lot of courses both in the UK and abroad are moving photographers further and further away from the action year by year due to risk assessment and health and safety, not to mention the dreaded mesh fencing that will ruin any shot.
If you can’t physically get to the course before the event, watch DVD’s and YouTube footage of the event and keep a note of where other photographers are stood. Be aware though, that if they have an official tabard, forget the location as you won’t be able to stand there.
Also keep an eye on the light and shadow during a race, as it may help you decide on a position that will work in lots of varying light conditions. Even races from 50 years ago will be a great knowledge base as the courses generally haven’t changed much over the years.
Another wise move is to research google earth to see pathways and new vantage points other people haven’t thought of. Ordnance Survey walking maps can also yield a few gems of paths and back alleys that will give access to different parts of the course. I always try to visit and look at all potential shoot locations on a course over the coming weeks before an event, this effort will pay off in the long run.
Get all your gear packed the night before and the day of the shoot, eat a good breakfast (more on this later) and get there early to ensure you can secure your chosen location to shoot.
So the first question is lenses. Can I use a 100mm, 200, 300, 400, or will a 70-200 or a 100-400 cover everything? If you're shooting in a number of locations, have you packed lenses that will cover the range or can you get away with using 1 lens and a single teleconverter (though this will slow your Autofocus)? If you’ve done your research you should have answers, if not have a look at the DVD to see what other photographers lenses you can recognise.
Bet that one's thrown you…. Let me explain.
For a lot of road racing events, delays can happen, be it the weather or for other reasons, and due to this you could be stuck in one spot for 8-12 hours, or even shooting for 3 hours solid at your max burst rate with your Autofocus working flat out. Trust me, this will eat batteries. If you allow for getting 50% of your normal shot capacity from a battery, charge and pack the correct number plus a spare the night before. Always charge you batteries if required the as soon as you get home.
Again, Pack enough and make sure they are fast cards as you don’t want to make your buffer wheeze and lose the perfect shot. This may give you an idea of shots based on a practice plus two races with 70 bikes:
- Practice = 3 laps
- + Race 1 = 4 laps
- + Race 2 = 3 laps
- x 70 Bikes
- x 5 shots each bike (Average 1-10 per bike)
- = 3,500 shots per day.
3,500 shots at 20Mb is the equivalent of 70Gb of data. That equates to 5 x 16Gb cards (which delivers 80Gb of storage, allowing 1.6Gb spare capacity on each card to let you change over before each card is full).
I tend to carry multiple 16Gb cards because if you lose a card or it corrupts, that way you still come home with at least 4/5ths of your days work instead of relying on one big card and losing everything.
Food, drink and clothes
Always bring clothes for all four seasons. In one day you may get cold, you may be too hot (and sunburnt), you may be dehydrated, or hungry. Any of the above will reduce your reaction time and ability to nail the perfect shot. Take toilet paper, most events have a reachable portaloo, but not always toilet paper.
Again, it’s a personal choice but whatever you take you need to know it inside out. Conditions can change rapidly and you can go from bright sunlight (iso 50), to dark and overcast in shadows under trees (iso 1000) in 2 minutes, and the racing will still be going on. As a result, you need to be able to adjust your settings on the fly, without taking your eye from the viewfinder in order to keep the shots coming in.
Yes, you the photographer! Relax and have fun! We know your adrenaline will be off the scale and your heartbeat will be through the roof, but try to relax and the shots will come to you.
Remember with most events if you miss a shot on one lap you can try again on the next.
ALWAYS stand somewhere safe with a few escape routes. This is not a nice thing to discuss, but you need to know if or when there is an accident, and you see a rider sliding down the road please, please STOP SHOOTING and look out debris and pieces of a motorcycle heading towards you. At 200mph things happen in a fraction of a second.
IN NO CIRCUMSTANCES NEVER, EVER, EVER, go onto the course. There will be marshalls and medics who know how to cope with the incident mobilised instantly. The next bike will also be following at 200mph and DOES NOT want to see you stood like a frozen bunny on his or her racing line.
Just a note to add here, be vigilant you don’t drop any gear over a wall onto a course and, equally as bad don’t drop litter, as it can blow and cover a riders visor and blind them with horrific consequences.
Also if you get caught on the course in the Isle of Man you will be arrested, fined and possibly jailed or deported.
Sorry be so stern in the last paragraph but you can’t take chances with Road Racing.
Right back to the good stuff.
Panning and static shots
Again you need to know what your gear is capable of and especially how the autofocus works. Generally, for panning (following the bike as it passes), I shoot from around 1/250 of a second or quicker. Again it's about where you are on the course and how fast the bikes are travelling past you. Panning needs the practice to get your body used to tracking the bike as it passes. Start moving before you focus and keep moving for a small time after you’ve released the shutter button. What your trying to do is to keep the focus dot on your chosen point for the duration of it passing you.
Back button focus
If you're used to using the shutter button for both focus and capture, have a look and see of your Camera will allow you to move the focus to a different button on the rear of the camera.
This separation of the two processes will allow your camera to already have your subject focused before you press the shutter, leading to a greater chance of getting a sharp image.
This leads me neatly onto focus points. Again its personal choice but most people choose either the nose of the bike or the rider's eyes, it's up to you and depends on the shot you're after.
For Road Racing I use a pair of Canon 1DX Mk1’s which are bombproof and will do 1,500-2,000 shots per battery, and 10 frames a second all day every day. As for glass, I use a Canon 70-200 Mk1 Non, a Canon 300mm F4 IS Mk1 and a Canon 400mm F5.6 (no iso).
This gear has proved to be ultra-reliable and has never ever failed.
As a 12 hour day with a pair of 1DX’s, a 300mm and other lenses can be quite a workout, I’m getting a Vanguard VEO 2S AM-234 TBP for next season as it should take some of the exertion out of the day, and it will allow me to shoot differently and vary the day's compositions.
Thank you for taking the time to plough through my ramblings.
Take care keep shooting,