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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Photographing Formula 1 (but wait, there's more!)

Yes you have probably seen about 30 posts on this by now. Read about 5.

If you haven't, well congratulations for starting. And thanks for choosing to read this one. But don't close those search results yet. Read. Read all the articles listed on the first page. Cross reference and confirm facts. This is research after all.

Here are some of the more common things to note when shooting F1. But I've got one last point I don't recall seeing in the articles. Read on.

Camera body
We've had debates about this, even uproars, but as much as I hate to admit it, your gear matters when shooting F1. Especially when you are shooting as a non-press member, but just another photographer out of the thousands squeezing in the crowd, behind the barricades. Make no mistake friend - these cars negotiate sharp 90degree turns at just below 200km/h. Unless you are that well-practiced in the right timing technique, you had best be armed with a high speed camera. That is, one that captures images at a fast rate, like Canon's 7D or 1D, or Nikon's D300 and D3s. Shoot first, and select later. Singaporean photographers or shutterbugs coming to our lovely island to capture the action from the Singapore GP will also need a camera that is able to handle high ISO speeds without submitting to noise - Canon's 1D Mark IV is my hero in this respect. Sparkling clean images at ISO3200.

You are far away from the cars, you need to shoot past the barricade grids and you quite probably want your shutter speed (not to be confused with continuous burst rate) to be as fast as possible. This translates to the need for a large aperture telephoto lens. The minimum range I would recommend is 200mm. It would be best to have a 300mm or 400mm. At this range, the lowest aperture is quite likely f/2.8, so that decides your range of lenses (if you can get yourself the 200mm f/2... well then good for you. But remember it is range as much as brightness). I will quite reluctantly refrain from stating that image stabilization is crucial, because many have done perfectly without it, and I survived without it, but it would be very, very, very, very much preferred. Finally, with such heavy equipment (upwards of 3.5kg), a monopod is crucial. Do not be fooled if your awesome biceps can handle the weight single-handedly - you will be shooting for about 8 hours, perhaps over up to 3 consecutive days. Your reflexes need to be quick and sharp to follow the action. Your arm alone will not bear the weight of the lens for that long.

Again, you are shooting for 8 hours. At least more than half of that will probably be in blazing hot sun. Bring your own water in, but be mindful of the restrictions so that your bottle doesn't get confiscated. Prices within the race track will be higher, but even if you wish to stinge on food, do not stinge on water. Hydrate yourself adequately.

Stills & Pans
Be ruthlessly practical. You are there to get photos to keep, not get illusions of grandeur of being a visual artist. Get your still shots settled before attempting panning. There are plenty of spots to pick for panning and alot of them may turn out to not be the best spot. You do not want to go home with 1000 blur photos, and no back up.

The only pan I managed to get.

The Straights
This is a race. Drivers will not be cruising past you showing a cute V sign. They will be flooring the accelerator, activating all sorts of boosts, and blazing down the straights at 500km/h. You only have a very small window to snap a good shot, and chances are you will be stuck with a narrow field of view that will limit your chances of panning a sharp shot.

The Turns
Research the turns properly and set up camp where you will find your angle! Wait at the head of the turn to pan drivers as they slow down, and camp on the second half of the turn to catch still shots of them before they speed up again.

A great technique for beginners. Find the sweet spot you want to capture the driver at. Observe the tire marks on the road and focus in the middle of the range of markings. Review your results and be meticulous in your fine tuning - do not worry about missing cars as they go past, you have plenty of rounds to snap later on. The faster you get your focus right, the more pictures you are likely to be able to keep. Don't be thrown off if some appear not to be sharp. The slightest change in super telephoto focal distances (and with large apertures too) will throw the image out of optimum focus, but you can never expect cars to follow the route that smoothly. Just keep shooting. Canon's 300mm and 400mm primes, for one, have a Power Focus feature, a ring that activates the lens motor to shift the focus to a predefined focal length. After I have determined the focus I set this so that in between cars I can trigger the lens to snap back to the focal length, in case I accidentally moved the focus ring while shooting.

Ground Level
Some of you may have the privilege of entering the race track courtesy of some organization offering you a fabulous bird's eye view to take fabulous photos. Do not be lured by that prospect. A bird's eye view is good for enjoying the race and literally seeing the bigger picture. I find that the most engaging photos are capture when you are at eye level with the driver, ie. on the ground, behind the barricade. Enjoy your privilege and hang out at the high spots to catch the preliminaries or less important rounds, but know the important timings and get down and dirty on the ground (if your track pass allows, of course).

Finally, my last tip. This came on to me rather naturally, but I found it so crucial in enabling myself to catch the cars within my frame.

That whole thing about F1 and earplugs - it's not a joke, and it's not hype. Get them and wear them. If like me you happen to be an audiophile, in-ear earphones and custom-molded earphones are great as earplugs as well (and if you're a loner you can pump music too!) When the race is on, let your aural stage expand, and listen. F1 is probably the world's fastest land sport, but it is also one of the world's most repetitive sports. Listen up for patterns and recognize the rhythm - this is great for straights if you are pushed into the corner of having to capture your shots from a small view like I was. The picture below was as much of a view as I got - immediately to the left and right of the lens' view was solid concrete. I started to realise a pattern - I would hear the sound of a screaming car entering the straight, followed by a second of silence, before the car roars past me within half a second. It didn't take long before I knew when to begin bursting my camera just before the car flew into and out of view. Depending on the situation and your position, this could also be great for blind panning, when you are confined to a small space and unable to visually track the car moving down the track. Listen for the car, and soon you'll be panning past the concrete barricades as if you could see right through it.

Good luck!