Thrown in the Pit: The Fast-paced World of Motorsports Photography

Thrown in the Pit: The Fast-paced World of Motorsports Photography
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My first love was photography. My mom put an old Minolta rangefinder in my hands at a party when I was seven years old and from that moment I was hooked. Cars came next. My step-dad arrived in my life driving a 1972 Porsche; not only did I suddenly have a dad, but he was cool. Cars and photography became obsessions, and I gave myself entirely to both. For obvious reasons, it seemed like shooting motorsports would be my dream job. At 21, I realized this dream and quickly saw my shots published in magazines. Suddenly, I started to dislike both passions; it was as if each trip of the shutter taunted me for not being in the driver’s seat. It simply wasn’t meant to be. Luckily, the next year I found Photoshop, and the year after that my career at Adobe. Over time, my love for both came back.

Nineteen years later I’ve just had lunch with my old friend Michael Troutman (the track photographer for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) and his colleague Bobby Nichols. They’re both passionate Lightroom and Photoshop users, and it was interesting to hear how both played into their work. I began to imagine myself visiting my old stomping grounds, trackside, to tell their story. I floated this idea by Michael, who came back almost immediately with word from the track: “You can’t shadow me. That isn’t allowed. But I don’t see why you couldn’t shoot alongside us!”  That’s how I came to wear an orange vest once again, spending the day as a motorsports photographer.

While I literally grew up at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (that same cool step-dad is also the track engineer), I wasn’t about to wander in there as if all of these years hadn’t changed anything. I needed a quick lesson from Michael and Bobby on the kind of gear I’d need to get started.

The Right Gear

Upon asking my friends what to bring, I was intimidated. “At the very least, a 300/2.8 with a converter, but ideally a fixed 500.” Yikes, that was a lot more than I had lying around or had shot cars with. Luckily, there are now a lot of places to rent lenses. I opted for something a little more flexible and portable and rented Canon’s 200-400L with built-in 1.4X converter.

“Two bodies, a 70-200, something wide for the paddock, a neutral-density filter for panning, a monopod, batteries and cards. Oh, and sunblock.” I had all of that, but what I didn’t have was recent experience shooting cars. The last time I’d shot motorsports, Clinton was in office.

Shooting from the Track

I attended an early Friday meeting at the track to cover the logistics of where press could and couldn’t shoot. I didn’t expect to be nervous, but I was. My friends were there, but they were in a different mindset. Gone was the lunchtime whimsy and “c’mon, it’ll be fun” spirit. These guys were all business. As the meeting wrapped, I took stock of photography’s sweeping changes since the late 1990’s. Digital had replaced film, Photoshop and Lightroom had replaced the processing labs, and social media was the new gallery. I began to wonder how different shooting would be.

We started at the top of the hill, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca‘s famed corkscrew, where cars drop a few stories in a quick succession of turns – a great spot to shoot. My very first thought as I glimpsed through the photographer’s windows was, “Wow, they sure move faster than they used to!”

“I notice you aren’t pre-focusing,” I shouted to Bobby.

“I do sometimes, but it isn’t really necessary,” he yelled back over the roar of an approaching car.

Without any intention of shooting at that moment, I put my Canon Mk III in AI Servo and took aim at a line of approaching cars. Wow, modern autofocus really can track these things. I asked Bobby to talk aloud about his shots and his process. “The light is best here on an overcast day, but on a day like this we only really have decent light now and maybe later this afternoon. Pretty soon it’ll be hard shadows with strong contrast. I can use a polarizer or a neutral-density filter, but most of the light-balancing will happen in post. That’s where Lightroom and Photoshop come in.”

Bobby is a landscape guy. It isn’t unusual for him to take hours setting up. The whole idea of motorsports (love of cars aside) sort of contradicts his style. “This isn’t a wait-for-the-moment sport. You shoot a lot and work with what you get. Sometimes, you get something really great.”

Shooting advice came as fast as the cars. “Hold the lens way out front, on the hood. It’s easier to rotate like that.” It immediately feels better. (I neglect to mention that the longest glass I’ve shot with is 400mm, with the converter switched on.) At 560mm, the cars fill the frame very briefly, and the slightest movement is dramatically exaggerated.

Combining Art and Skill

When I start to pick Michael’s brain, I realize how complex his shots truly are, and I learn that there’s much more to doing this than simple mechanics. The mechanics are all known quantities, but he’s in and out of manual mode, tuning exposure and focus for a given composition. With gorgeous enlargements plastered on every wall of the media center and 31 years of experience shooting Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Michael commands well-earned respect.

Michael isn’t just shooting a car, he’s telling a story. He rarely shoots a solo car and even then he’s composing them in turns and against the backdrop. The story is racing, and for that you need cars – plural. He’s a “photojournalist first” and that’s immediately evident as I peer over his shoulder at the camera’s preview. Wow.

My head is still spinning as we drag ourselves over a safety barrier. A corner worker sees our arsenal of lenses and points at a goose, standing perilously close to the track. “There’s a shot.” Before I’ve finished negotiating the barrier, Michael has (literally) thrown one camera into the gravel pit and is raising the monster 800 to capture the goose. As the goose takes off, Michael nails it, superimposed over the primary sponsor’s logo. Amazing.

While the lenses and speed of motorsports are different than his other work (Michael shoots everything), it all comes back to that one thing: telling a story. In the end, I realize that anyone can learn the mechanics of shooting. Storytelling, though, requires a special eye.

Post-Processing

Back at the media center, everyone has the same idea: the software’s role is crucial. Lightroom and Photoshop are ubiquitous in the pro’s workflow. Michael and Bobby are unique in that they shoot raw; the sad truth about sports is that most journalists shoot JPEG (speed and final output often win over quality and control). I see a ton of images, sorted by collections in Lightroom while the hero shots are getting massaged in Photoshop.

As they edit, I get to relax and give software guidance. Watching Bobby and Michael process their files, I glean some tips and tricks, but I also see areas where we could improve the software. It feels great to be back in my comfort zone, hiding behind a laptop. I’m quickly challenged with a bunch of playful, “using Photoshop, could you…?” taunts and I show off some cool tricks in Photoshop and Lightroom and then pick this moment as my exit.  Leaving the media center, I see the track, our software and the industry from a whole new perspective.

Big thanks to Michael, Bobby and the fine folks at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) for letting me spend a fast-paced and inspiring day in your shoes. SCRAMP is the non-profit organization dedicated to operating and maintaining Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and its major racing events, donating proceeds to local charities and civic organizations. You can learn more about SCRAMP here.

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