The automotive space is something that I am closely associated with because I love everything that moves forward, backward or sideward on circular things called wheels, two more often than four, by controlled combustion of fossilised dinosaurs to give meaning to the theory of evolution.
Because of my associations in the past and the regular interaction in this community of like-minded people who are lending meaning to the carcasses of dead T-REXs, I regularly come across people who are building businesses around the same subject.
My most recent association is with Atomic Motorsports, a motorcycle racing team and motorcycle-training academy owned by a good friend and a motorcycle racer himself. You can find them on Facebook here.
Siddhanth is a 23-year-old fun fellow who gets intoxicated going round and round the racetrack on his motorcycles with the final kicker of a chequered flag when he is ahead of the pack during a race. He owns Atomic Motorsports; I am helping him setup the business and doing some other design elements. If you want to find out more about him, you can hit him up on Facebook.
During the first Atomic Motorsports event, he asked me to cover the trackside photography among a few other things.
That was a given Yes from the start because I haven’t done something like that earlier and getting to officially do it in association with an academy is a difficult side of this industry to get into.
On the afternoon of 22nd May, 2017, Sid and I drove to the Madras Motor Race Track in the midst of crazy downpour on the highway, where the average 4 hour routine turned into an 8 hour drive.
We reached the hotel at dinnertime, had food and hit the bed. Long Day ahead awaited next.
Most of my photographic work revolves around shooting live events, weddings, portraits and the like. I had never been to a racetrack before this. I had never seen a racetrack in person either. My only understanding and visuals of a racetrack was through that of a television screen during the MotoGP races, and sometimes F1. I really didn’t know what to expect.
If you have come this far on this blog, you should probably understand that hereon, I am going to be talking about a plethora of numbers, which have a lot to do with photography as a core subject. I am an avid motorcyclist myself, but mostly make do with adventure and touring. A deep understanding of the subject always helps. Also, when you have been a photographer professionally for the most part of your career, 7 years in the making in my case, it is understood that you have your personal benchmarks set pretty high up.
For the cameralogically challenged, here are a few things you should know.
Be technically sound. Empower yourself to operate your own camera in slumber.
Even though you are always in a evolving phase, the baseline technicalities of your camera, basics of composition, which button does what, and enough experimentation keep you on your toes, because in a dynamic real life environment when you have deliverables and the entire documentation of the first event of a startup at stake, you have to bring your A-Game to the table.
Shutter speed is the prime metric on the exposure triangle that you have to look at in this particular case scenario. Shutter speed primarily depends on what you are shooting. The challenges I am going to mention henceforth would have been far lesser if I were to be shooting cars at the same event even at faster speeds. The size of the subject matters a ton load when you are doing high speed panning shots.
There are a plethora of things that could do to successfully bell this cat called panning, prime of which is your ability to correctly judge a situation, understand your personal limitations and how far you would go to make it happen.
Unlearn and Do something for the first time:
Like I said, this was my first time at the track.
Your ability to learn something new in a new environment is based on your ability to Unlearn.
You have to know what you are doing:
Unlearning doesn’t mean that you forget everything. Keep your basics right, and you will pull through. Your ability to adapt to a situation and deliver great results is what separates the good from the average. Don’t settle for less.
You have a Plan B for everything:
On a Racetrack you cannot run back to your stash and hunt for an extra battery in the middle of a session. Other than the fact that you are not allowed to, for safety sake, you couldn’t afford to miss moments that determine learning and conclusions. Keep everything with you.
Always shoot RAW.
In a nutshell, RAW is an uncompressed file that lets you recover a lot of light information from the photograph in post processing. However, if you had to ask why, then you are probably not the target viewer for this blog.
The sheer amount of data.
Remember that you are shooting full burst mode, on a high end DSLR.
A generic RAW file is about 25-30 MB.
At 5 frames per second you are generating about 2 GB of Data every minute.
Creating data on digital media is cheap. I came back with 160 GB, 7440 images in total.
That, is also however, the flipside.
Archiving and moving through all that data later to find out the images you are looking for by the end of it, is a whole different needle in the haystack.
Getting Yourself Ready.
Before I even left for the event, I had already spent a week researching the subject and had spent a whole day with Sid to understand what a racetrack is like. He had briefed me on how the sessions are panned out, what are the corners, where the motorcycles are speeding up, where they are slowing down, which motorcycle is doing what and the likes.
This information is vital, more in depth when I get into further details.
Getting your Gear Ready:
When you are on the racetrack, 100mm focal lengths can end up behaving like wide angles.
The above image is shot at 200mm.
So, scout for vantage points before you go out there to shoot
Since I already had a little information from Sid earlier, I contacted Bharadwaj Balaji, a friend from Chennai, and inquired about the possibility of getting a Canon 100-400L lens. He was kind enough to pass on some leads to me and I ended up meeting Guru, an avid wildlife photography enthusiast who is also a biker. Hit him up at his place after a gruelling jostle through Chennai traffic where he handed me over his lens without a second question. It is for people like these that save the day, that I reinstate my faith in humanity. Big shout out to you mate! You guys can follow him on Facebook; he is doing some stellar work!
I finally ended up shooting primarily on these two setups:
- Canon 5D Mark 3 + 70-200 ISII L2 + Ultrafast CF Card
- Canon 7D + Canon 100-400 IS L + Ultrafast CF Card
I also carried a couple of extra camera bodies and few other lenses like the Canon 24-70 2.8L, Canon 50 1.4, Tokina 11-16 2.8 just to be sure.
The other things I had were, 4 Extra batteries, 6 x 16GB Ultrafast CF Cards, enough backup SD Cards, a GoPro, Mini Gorillapod, Battery quick chargers, a power bank and few more knick knacks.
Some more must haves are Energy Bars, Energy Drinks, a pair of Sunglasses and Sunscreen Lotion (Its also a guy thing, because I don’t have the intention of becoming fossil fuel anytime soon)
Carry a Monopod.
I didn’t have one, next time I should take one.
When you have to get fast shots at 1/125 of a second, negating the vertical axis of movement helps a ton load.
Why not a tripod then?
With a monopod, you can tilt the camera up or down on the fly, whereas to compose a shot when the bike is coming in from wide to close range, you wouldn’t have enough time to readjust the tripod. That’s why.
Endurance and Fitness:
You should have the strength and the ability to stand in the blazing hot sun, 45 Degree Celsius and climbing, for 10 hours a day, for 2 days.
Easier said than done when you have 7 kgs around your neck, through all that 10 hours.
It begins here:
After all the planning as explained in the last 800 words or so, I was ready for the kill.
A BIG LOL!
Over the first 2 hours at the track, on the pit lane beside the main straight, I had succeeded in misusing a million rupees worth of camera gear to add 16 Gigabytes of e-waste to my archives.
The best photographs looked something like this. Hazy AF.
Not that I couldn’t focus, but when I could, the composition sucked.
Take this one for example.
I got the focus locked on but the motorcycle and rider are completely cut off!
Back to the drawing board, I said to myself.
Once I got the info from Sid and the other trainers over the next hour or so, I went out to the track in search of new vantage points, primarily aiming for the slower wide open corners, where I would be able to give myself time with the motorcycles.
It was after a couple of laps of the track in the car, that I understood what my first point should be. I stopped at C6-C7, parked safely behind the marshal’s stand and positioned myself to get a good angle. You are not allowed to move back and forth on the track at will. You can move only when the sessions close and there is no other movement on the track.
The reason I chose this spot is simple.
Here, the bikes come in from the left, sweeps down right in an almost never ending right hander, the track is wide open and the riders have a wider safety net, so they are at peace with themselves. The academy students were pulling at 50-60 kph at this corner, whereas the open track guys were doing closer to 100 kph+.
I constantly kept the shutter speed at 1/200th of a second, only marginally adjusting once in a while to get the finer exposure in check.
I had left the ISO in auto at this point so that I had one thing less to handle.
The first good photograph always ends up putting a smile on your face and this was the one that I managed first.
Then, the next one.
At this point, I had learned the speeds at this corner and I had reached a comfortable level to photograph the riders and the bikes in sharp focus.
So I started experimenting a little to get the shutter speed down thus enhance the sensation of speed in the panning shots.
Once the session closed, I came back in to show the photos to Sid and the others whose photos I had taken. Everyone seemed happy.
I found myself to be a little happy as well!
Great then, lets move on to the next place.
The next point I chose to anchor myself was near C9.
There were 3 reasons for that.
This is the first advantage.
C9 is a slower left hander, where I could get the photographs with the riders getting knee down.
Knowing everyone, the most awaited photographs on track days are ones where they have their knee down mid corner. Even though I ride motorcycles, I have never been able to do that. One day!
The second advantage was the ability to pan the shot starting from the corner exit onto the short fast stretch. The bikes were not upto super high speed yet, so I could get decent shots at 1/125th of a second. This is where I felt the need to have carried a monopod, because by the time the bike was coming close to me, It was getting slightly difficult to maintain stability.
The third advantage was that, I could look on both sides from the track here, either from a slightly raised platform, or from the ground. I had the ability to photograph the bikes exiting C3 on to the main straight through the kink, or the exit of C9. This proved to be a rather good advantage as the bikes were not yet up to super high speed on either side.
Thus, I could get to see the slower set of bikes on the first part of the track, yet had enough time to get into position for the faster bikes on the other side at C9.
The Camera SWING:
While shutter speed and all other technicalities are important, how you swing the camera is probably the most important maneuver of all. Developing that swing took some time for me, it probably will take some time for you as well and since the speed at every corner is quite different, sometime double of what it was even a fraction of a second earlier, you will have to get used to it.
Ever had a motorcycle miss you by a hair at 50 kmph? Remember how ballistic and batshit crazy that felt?
Now imagine looking at the same motorcycle doing 200 kmph from 50 feet away and still looks like 50 kmph. You’d be like yeah, cool.
It is the exact same thing with the camera.
The farther away the motorcycle is, the slower the sensation of speed, and the more time to you have, to track, pan and press the shutter. So, by positioning yourself properly and choosing the correct camera lens combination, you can pretty much get the swing right most of the time.
Hold the camera under the lens barrel, tuck in your elbows to your body, take a deep breath, fix your focus point on AI/Continuous Servo tracking, and fire away. It is all about getting into rhythm, and once you find it, there is no looking back. Good panning is a lot to do with calculations, if not all to do with it. When you are shooting 200mm, you have to get safely close enough to your subject, to get a tight crop, whereas a similar shot with a 400mm will require you to be pushed farther away, where you have double the distance from the subject, and almost double the time to complete your pan.
AI Servo/Continuous Servo:
If you are going to be using any other focusing mode, study the graphical representation as under to understand why you shouldn’t. If you are going to be using a single point focus with one-shot autofocus, the camera imagines that the subject is always going to be a constant distance away from you and/or probably treat the subject as inanimate. One Shot Autofocus works if you imagine standing in the center of a circle and the motorcycles going around you around the circumference of the circle.
However, if you use AI Servo, the camera understands that the subject is constantly moving and adjusts the focusing distance in real time so that the subject remains in sharp focus through the entire duration of the shot.
Shutter speed comparison:
The entire first day for me was gone in getting the focus right and then by the later half of the day I was studying composition, basic rule of thirds and the like.
I was primarily shooting 1/200 – 1/500 second exposures, increasing or decreasing aperture to maintain correct exposure and sometimes, bumping the ISO as well.
My aim for the first day was to get everything sharp with enough motion blur to ensure the sensation of speed.
By the end of the first day, I got where I needed to be.
I had successfully got shots of the fastest bike on the track at decent exposure and sharpness to let me move on to the next step.
Get the shutter speed down to 1/100th second. This was a big leap.
The changes I made for myself over the night to understand better is for the second day.