Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Great American Race

It seems like this winter I have spent more time in Florida than I have back home in Chicago. However, instead of bouncing between Tampa and Miami as I have been doing, I was off to World Center of Racing, the Daytona International Speedway for the 51st running of the Daytona 500.

Being someone who grew up in the north, I could care less for NASCAR or any form of auto racing for that matter. My vision of NASCAR has always been an extremely stereotypical one: a bunch of drunk southerners sitting in trailer parks with Confederate flags flying, drinking beer, and watching the cars go around in circles. And don't get me wrong.... driving into Daytona for the first time, there was plenty of that.

However, the first thing that stood out to me when I arrived other than the ridiculously high percentage of "red necks" was that the place was massive. Daytona International Speedway features a 2.5 mile tri-oval course, and packs in over 170,000 fans not including the trailer camp on the infield. World Center of Racing indeed....

Anyways, I'm going to skip a whole week's worth of hype, and jump into the actual race. The Daytona 500 is often called the Super Bowl of racing, and as such, it attracts some of the biggest stars in the country.

We used five photographers to cover this race.... it seems like a lot, but in order to cover 2.5 miles of track, you need many sets of eyes and cameras. So we had one photographer on the roof (to act as a safety and see the whole track). The other four of us were scattered throughout: one in the pit, one at turn three, one at turn four, and one at turn one/two (that was me!).

Daytona is known for having many many crashes... often collecting a good percentage of the field. Every year, there seems to be one significant crash known by fans and drivers as "The Big One." As we were working as a team, I was required to stay inside turns one and two and cover the race from that section of the track. Needless to say, I was hoping to be "lucky" enough to be lucky enough to have the Big One develop in front of me. The closest thing I got to an accident was when Jeff Burton hit the wall up in turn two and lost his bumper (the Big One this year happened in just before turn three):

So without any major incidents in my area all day, I had to bust out all of my photography tricks to turn prevent all my pictures from being boring (yet required) car picture after car picture.

One easy way to break up the ordinary was to simply drop the shutter speed down to around 1/80 and using a technique called panning. In this case, I would "pan" the camera as I shoot so that the background gets motion blurred, yet the subject I am following stays sharp. I did this for some of the more important drivers or race leaders. In this example, Kyle Busch:

That's not the only slow shutter trick to pull off in racing. As another one I used pretty frequently to mix up the take was to drop the shutter speed, but not use any panning. In this case, the background stayed sharp, but the cars going around the track just leave a trail of color:

Another thing to do was just to try to use different elements in front of me to frame the cars in unique ways. Here I used the gap in the safety barrier in front of me to add some lines to the frame:

And one last trick I busted out for this race was adding a star filter to my lens. Typically when you look at or photograph stadium lighting, it's just a big blob of white (like in some previous images above). However when you throw on a star filter, the lights look like, well, stars.... if you feel like you've seen this type of gimmick before, it's because you have. TV uses it all the time when they do their stadium shots...

For those of you who followed the race, you will know that this race was called after 152 out of 200 scheduled laps due to rain. Therefore, the race leader at the time Matt Kenseth was declared winner. I was kind of bummed about that. Even though it was nice the race ended earlier than it would have had they run it, it also meant I lost the opportunity to shoot some cool burn out or victory lap as a celebration. Oh well, rain didn't mean they couldn't do a made for TV victory celebration shot.

A big dilemma for photographers in shooting celebrations is this: do you shoot it tight, or do you shoot it loose and artsy? There is not time to shoot it one way, change cameras, and shoot it the other way because the moment would be over. Well, I had a solution, and it required that I bust out yet another camera trick: the shooting two-hand held cameras at the same time trick.

In one hand, I used my 70-200mm to get the standard celebration shot:

But in my other hand, I used my 16-35mm to get the wide version shot (note the use of the star filter again). Needless to say, looking through two cameras at the same time is impossible, so the wide angle version was actually shot blind as I looked through the other camera to frame the 70-200 properly. In the business, we call it a "Hail Mary."

An unexpected bonus of this wide angle shot was that I was able to get a third version of victory lane with some creative cropping:

This was actually my very first time shooting two hand-helds at the same time. I'm sure I looked extremely stupid holding two cameras at the same time, and it sure made my arms sore, but the I think the results speak for themselves, and will definitely be something I will do in all future victory lanes. I can probably even apply it to other fields of photography.... perhaps even in weddings like when the bride and groom durign the recessional? I got a wedding coming up this weekend, so I guess we'll see :-)