Another year is nearly over and, with it, Austin’s second Formula 1 United States Grand Prix. From my perspective, this year’s event was every bit as much fun as the 2012 race. With a year of race weekends under their belt, the folks at Circuit of the Americas had ironed out the few kinks that marred last year’s event (and there really were very few considering that the newly built venue was only just usable by the time of the race) and put on a spectacular show – the beer selection was better, the number of food vendors and the variety of food on offer was very much improved and there was even decent cellular data coverage around the track. I was rather amazed to note that there was an AT&T WiFi hotspot up at Turn 11.
The crowds felt larger than last year but perhaps my memory was dulled by the very much smaller crowds for every other race I’ve been to at the track this year. The official gate count put Sunday’s attendance at about 4000 less than last year but, given the huge number of people involved, it certainly didn’t feel significantly less busy this year.
As before, the racing was great but the most spectacular thing about attending a Grand Prix is the amazing atmosphere. 120,000 friendly people gathering from all corners of the globe makes for quite a party.
I’ll be back again next year and will likely book another seat in the Turn 3 bleachers which gave such an excellent view of the S-curve section of the track with its great red, white and blue stripes. If you’re a racing fan and can make it down here, there’s no better place to be than Austin in mid-November!
If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you will know that it’s not usual to find a restaurant review here (heck, it’s not usual to find a new post here at all these days, it seems). Let me start something new, therefore, and mention a restaurant that Nikki and I stumbled upon in Austin tonight while looking for a new Friday date night venue. Recently, we’ve been making a habit of trying new places and tonight’s choice, courtesy of Apple Maps and Yelp, was a small restaurant on South Lamar by the name of Barley Swine. The name may not be inspiring but the 380, overwhelmingly positive, reviews encouraged us to give it a try and we were most certainly not disappointed.
First off, if you are someone whose impression of a restaurant’s quality is based on the portion size, Barley Swine is probably not for you. This is not your “3 courses, soup, meat vegetable, dessert” kind of place. Individual dishes are small but guests are encouraged to order many and share. Think upscale tapas or the Japanese model.
If, however, you like new culinary experiences and expect a high quality dinner out to challenge your tastebuds and offer new flavour combinations that you’ve never imagined before, you’ll love Barley Swine. Food highlights for us included “Scrambled egg, shiitake dumplings, smoked roe, almond”, “Wagyu flank steak, piquillo pepper, potato, salsa verde” (shown in the photo below) and “Eggplant fritters, grilled okra, feta tofu, sesame, peanut salsa”. Each offered a remarkable texture and taste combination that neither of us had experienced before.
The wine and beer list also challenges convention. My first tipple, for example, seemed rather appropriate but tasted unlike any beer I’ve ever tried before. Excellent and strange:
As far as price goes, Barley Swine isn’t cheap – our bill came to about $100 for two – but it’s worth every penny for the fascinating diversity offered. If you have a fancy date planned, give this place a try.
After a week of frantic photo editing, I’m about half way through the images I shot out at Circuit of the Americas during US Grand Prix weekend last weekend so reckoned I should put together a post offering some hints and tips to anyone looking to do some motor racing photography at COTA on a general admission ticket.
A general admission ticket gives you access to the track grounds but does not provide you with a seat in any of the grandstands. This does give you the freedom to wander as you see fit but leaves you suffering from one major problem. The entire CoTA circuit is surrounded by two, 8 to 10 foot high safety fences. Whereas the grandstands are all elevated at least 8 or 10 feet above ground level, as a GA ticket holder, you are left without elevation and, as a result, must be prepared to either shoot through the fences or find ground-level vantage points allowing you to shoot over them.
Shooting through the fences doesn’t end up being a particularly easy thing to do. The fence uprights are, as you would expect, large, sturdy poles which generate nasty smears on your pictures if you are trying to pan to catch cars as they pass. If attempting to shoot head-on through the fences, the fact that the second fence is a 20 feet or so from the one you can stand next to tends to mess up any attempts to blur the mesh through shooting at wide apertures. You may have some success with this if you have a very long lens, a very wide aperture and are very close to the first fence but, from my experience, this never really worked as well as I would have liked. Given these problems, my solution was to try to find vantage points allowing me to look over the fence and shoot images of the cars as they passed. Walking the track on Friday, it was pretty apparent that these locations are few and far between but here’s my assessment of the best locations offering enough of an unobstructed view to get some sweet shots.
Before delving into the locations, though, let’s consider equipment. I shot with the D700 (full frame) body on Friday using my 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter. This was pegged at the 400mm end all day and I still wasn’t close enough to fill the frame with a car from any of the locations below. On Saturday and Sunday, I switched to the D90 (crop sensor) making my 400mm effectively a 600mm and got some closer shots at the expense of slower auto-focus and slower frame rates. Even with this setup, I still find that the cars occupy no more than about 25% of the frame in the closest shots and I needed to crop the images to get good composition, either to make the car bigger in the frame or to loose the fence which appears in the bottom of many images.
The lesson here, therefore, is take the longest glass you can lay your hands on! Given the weight of this kind of lens, a monopod (which I didn’t take) would also be a good idea. Note that there is some debate over whether monopods are allowed – the public rules state that tripods are not allowed but make no mention of monopods, whereas the handbooks given to the staff on the gates explicitly disallow both items. Those same handbooks also prohibit lenses over 10 inches so I assume they were printed before CoTA revised their photography policy to allow any lens. Hopefully that revision also opened things up to allow monopods since I saw a large number of people carrying or using them at the track.
Now on to the locations. As you will see from the map below (which you can click to get a larger version), all the locations I recommend are on the south side of the track. This is partly because locations on the north would involve shooting into the sun but mostly because I couldn’t find a single place over on that side of the track where the cars were visible without a fence in the way. If you want to shoot from over there, your best option would likely be on a practice day when the grandstand gatekeepers are somewhat more forgiving and likely to let you take a wander around while the place isn’t too busy. If you are lucky enough to sweet-talk one of the ticket checkers on the Turn 15 grandstand into letting you onto the stand, there are some fabulous views from there but, to get these on a busy day, you’ll have to shell out some serious money.
A. Turn 1
If you could find a fence-free view towards the grandstand, this would be the perfect place to shoot the start from. Unfortunately, you can’t so either live with the fence or don’t shoot the start. I watched the race from a position just at the bottom end of the block of hospitality suites (just above the main turn 1 grandstand) and from there you can get a reasonably clear shot of the cars exiting the turn. If you have a long lens, there’s an interesting shot showing the track between turn 1 and turn 2 and also turns 16/17/18 in the background.
Overall, turn 1 is a far better location to shoot fans watching the race than the race itself. I found Saturday the best day for this since it was busy without being completely mobbed. On Sunday, I couldn’t move at all so getting around and finding good fan shot positions was essentially hopeless. Shoot on Friday and Saturday then enjoy the race on Sunday.
B & C. Turns 4 & 5
I list these two areas together since there are a few places you can squeeze between the grandstands and get a bit closer to the fence between turns 3 and 6. Really, though, there’s only one good place to shoot from in this area and that’s in a large gap between the grandstands at turn 5. Here you can see over the fence pretty well and you also get the benefit of the wide red, white and blue stripes painted alongside this section of the track.
I got the majority of my best panned shots from here but beware that you are still rather far from the action. The first shot below is uncropped to give you an idea of the problem. This was shot on a full frame body with a 400mm lens. Using a crop sensor body, you would get a fair bit closer, obviously, but you’re still going to have to crop down pretty hard to get tight images of the cars.
As a place to watch the race while also offering good photography opportunities, however, I would suggest trying the next 3 stops instead.
Update 7/6/15: Reading this, I realised that a few things have changed since 2012 and this changes my impression of this area. The grandstands which were placed in this area on the first year have been absent for the last couple and this leaves what is now my absolute favourite location for panned shots unobstructed. Around turn 5 or 6, there’s a hill which you can now stand on top of and get a pretty good view of the track. If you’re walking from the turn 2 area, pass the pedestrian bridge and go another 100 yards or so and set yourself up somewhere just before the large TV crane that is usually at the corner. The elevation there gives you a great view of the stripes and I have yet to find a better location anywhere at the track for panning shots of both cars and motorcycles (and I include trackside positions here too).
D, E & F. Turn 7
There are 3 reasonably good shooting locations in the large open section between turns 7 and 10, one on either end and another in the middle. The west end (nearest the turn 6 grandstand) offers a good view as the cars head up the hill to turn 7. You’ll be shooting the backs of the cars from here but you have an unobstructed view thanks to the walkway being pretty high at this point.
Slightly further along the path, you’ll find a great place to shoot cars from the side as they head up the hill. There’s enough of the track visible without a fence here to give you pretty good panning scope and I spent quite a bit of time here.
Closer to the turn 10 grandstand end, if you walk off the path and across the highest point, you’ll find you can stand on the crest of the hill with your back to the fence at turn 7 and shoot back towards turns 5 and 6. I spent most time here because if offered a collection of interesting shots including shooting through the fence towards the backs of the cars as they crest the hill at turn 7. You can also see cars rounding turns 5 and 6. There are two large runoff areas here so it may also be a good place to see some off-track action. I gather a couple of cars spun out there during the weekend but I didn’t see this.
Another feature of this location that I enjoyed was the collection of keen photographers who spent a lot of time hanging around up there. The camaraderie and conversation during quiet periods was great though I did find myself suffering pretty serious lens envy!
G. Turn 10
The only place I found which would allow me close enough to the cars to completely fill the frame with the 400mm/crop sensor combination was in the open area between Turn 10 and Turn 11. Here, the track is pretty close to the path and the elevation is such that you have an unobstructed view as the cars accelerate downhill from Turn 10. The window of opportunity is fairly narrow but I managed to get a few good shots here. I liked the angle of the cars since you are seeing a partial front view rather than the direct side-on or partial rear views the other locations offered. The fact that the cars are so much closer to you, however, does make the panning a lot trickier so I found my hit rate here was pretty low with many of the images blurred.
H. Turn 11
I spent a lot of time on Friday and Saturday morning at Turn 11. The general admission area here is a high berm right at the apex of the hairpin bend and you have a great view of the cars coming down from turn 10, rounding turn 11 and shooting off down the long straight to turn 12. It’s the only place I found that I could get decent head-on shots of the cars without having to shoot through the fence though, even here, my 400mm didn’t pull them in as close as I would have liked, even on the D90.
If you are worried about blurring your panned shots, the cars go round turn 11 extremely slowly (by Formula 1 standards) so you are pretty likely to get sharp shots here even at lower shutter speeds. The downside to this, of course, is that the wheels are not moving as fast so you may find that the cars look rather static. If you can read “Pirelli” on the tyre walls, the car may as well be parked.
Although turn 11 was definitely a great place to spend some time, it’s pretty much hopeless during the actual race. By the time 1pm comes around, if you are standing at turn 11, looking back towards turn 10, you at staring practically directly into the sun. For a morning location and during practice sessions, though, it’s a good place to park yourself.
I’m adding this section almost a year after F1 having attended every race that the track has hosted since then. During Friday practice and possibly on Saturday, you may find that you are able to sneak into the main grandstand even though you don’t have a ticket. This has been possible at all other events I’ve attended at CoTA this year so it’s worth a try. Go up to the second level of the grandstand and head to the north end (the left end as you look across toward the pits). From there, with a long lens, you can get a great view of the cars coming round turn 20. This is the only position on the track that I’ve found where you can get a good head-on shot in the afternoon when the light at turn 11 is in the wrong direction.
I’m reasonably happy with the photography I did during Grand Prix weekend though I was rather disappointed at the small number of fence-free locations and the fact that shooting through the fence wasn’t really feasible. As a result, I’ve come away with some good shots of single cars but nothing really creative or different (if you want to see what I mean by creative and different, check out Ralph Barrera’s amazing collection of images on the Austin American-Statesman web site or Liz Kreutz’ gorgeous monochrome set on Corbis). Next year, I’ll likely splurge to rent some really long glass and perhaps try to spend a bit more time shooting fans and facilities and less on cars. I will also likely treat myself to a ticket that comes with an actual seat since lugging all that gear around all day wasn’t to be recommended!
That said, don’t get the impression that you need to spend a fortune on really long lenses or grandstand seats. The whole experience of Formula 1 weekend is fabulous regardless of what kind of ticket you buy and whether or not you come away with publication-quality images. The atmosphere at the event is outstanding and I would strongly encourage you to give it a shot next year if you can. There will be about 120,000 others joining you for the party.
I’m delighted and honoured to have been invited to join a 3-person exhibition at the “Gallery at the J” on in The Dell Jewish Community Center on Hart Lane in Austin. The show, “Contemporary Photography: The Independent Lens” will feature the work of Rae Dollard, Johnny Stevens and myself and runs from December 11th, 2012 through January 18th, 2013. The opening reception is at 7:30pm on December 18th and anyone interested is invited to come along.
I’ll be showing a selection of recent favourite works. The majority are printed 36″x24″ or larger on canvas although I am also including a few large, framed panoramic prints too. Here are a few of the images you will see from me.
I’m just back from a spectacular weekend attending the inaugural United States Grand Prix at the brand new Circuit of the Americas here in Austin. With about 2500 photos to edit, I’m not ready to publish a lot of images from the event but wanted to get a few pictures posted quickly to set the scene. In short, though, the US Grand Prix weekend was an amazing event!
Event organization was superb and, from my perspective at least, everything ran extremely smoothly. My main worry had been that the shuttle bus system would lead to enormous lines at the pick-up and drop-off locations but this didn’t appear to be the case. I parked at the airport and took the shuttle from there to the track, and found the whole system ran beautifully smoothly. My only wait was about 15 minutes after leaving the track this evening following the race. Friends who took the downtown and Travis County Expo Center shuttles reported smooth operation too with waits no longer than 30 minutes at any time during the weekend.
While the focus of the weekend was obviously on motor racing, the aspect that really impressed me was the overall atmosphere and the amazing camaraderie between fans from all over the globe. People were shouting for their favourite team or driver but, in the end, everyone was having a good time, happy to interact with other fans, and extremely friendly. Any rivalries were most definitely of the good-natured variety.
Showing this in pictures is rather tricky but here are a selection that show some of the folks I met. Most of these people, I talked to for several minutes after taking their picture though some were seen and photographed at “long range” during the weekend. Click on any picture for a larger, uncropped version.
Overall, given the predictions of doom and gloom in the local press and remembering that COTA was an undeveloped field a couple of years ago, I’m delighted to report that the first Formula 1 weekend in Austin was a huge success!
This week saw an object lesson in the merits taking your own advice. On Thursday morning, we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here in Austin as the Space Shuttle Endeavour made a low level flypast of the city on the back of the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. I found out about it at 10pm the night before as I was waiting for a flight home in Chicago but realised that I had to get downtown and see the shuttle at 7:30 the next morning (after 4 hours of sleep). To cut a very long story short, I ended up completely messing up the photographs – I got 12 well-framed, perfectly focused shots of the aircraft during the 5 or 6 seconds that it was visible from my vantage point and every one of them was 2 stops overexposed.
The main reason for this mess was the fact that I completely failed to take the advice that I so freely give to others for situations exactly like this.
I shoot in manual mode about 90% of the time. I like the control I get in manual and, when lighting conditions are constant and I have time to shoot, chimp, tweak and reshoot, it works well. Even shooting sports, if the stadium light conditions are stable, I will generally stick in manual after taking a few test shots to judge the correct exposure. In situations where the light is changing or, more importantly, where there is a lot of uncertainty or a lack of time to get the shot, I will add more of the camera automation. Shooting people at parties, for example, I’ll normally start in Aperture Priority and use TTL flash (I would use manual flash for any setup or studio portraits). I dare say that if I ever ended up in a war zone, I would likely leave the camera in Program mode since I would have a lot of other thing to worry about than the exposure.
On Thursday morning, I was firmly in Aperture Priority territory at least as far as my advice went. The Shuttle would be coming in at an unknown height and speed, from an unknown position (yes, it was entering Austin from the east but we had no idea how far north of the river it would fly over) at an unknown time (we had a 30 minute window). I should have stuck the camera in Aperture Priority, selected f/5.6 or so for a nice fast shutter speed, and left the computer to get the exposure right for me. For some reason, though (lack of sleep?), I decide manual would be better so I took some test shots of the Capitol Dome, set the exposure and waited.
At this point, I was standing on the south lawn of the Capitol complex. I was aiming for a “Hail Mary” shot containing the top of the Capitol dome and the SCA/Shuttle combination large in the frame. This involved betting that the pair would fly slightly north of the Capitol. I had the D700 with the 28-300 pre-zoomed to give me the kind of framing I wanted assuming I could get the dome in the shot and the D90 with the 70-200 and a doubler waiting to grab some close-ups as the aircraft flew in. I assumed that they would be visible for a reasonable time and that I could change cameras and possibly even do a bit of exposure tweaking during the flyby.
All of these assumptions turned out to be wrong – the flypast was visible for about 6 seconds or so, it was lower and faster than I had expected and it was further south. On top of this and, as it turns out, the crucial difference, the light got significantly brighter between 7:20 when I set my exposure and 7:45 when the flypast took place. As a result, I had no chance to get the dome in the picture (the shuttle was behind me, the dome in front) and only got to shoot with the D90 and long lens which, given my mistake of staying in manual and not resetting the exposure, resulted in wildly overexposed images.
This seemed like a total disaster but, thankfully, Adobe Lightroom can do amazing things so here’s the image once I spent some time fixing it up. The quality is acceptable but it still leaves me embarrassed to think of what a mess I made of the encounter!
I mentioned that I was doing some work for a new Austin travel magazine recently but the first issue of TravelHost Austin has now hit the shelves and can now be found in 16,000 hotel rooms in the greater Austin area. This issue also includes a mini-editorial about me (that’s a first for me) and an advertisement for Altered Perspectives, my canvas print collection sold by Really Big Canvas.
The print edition contains several of my images but many more are in use on the magazine’s web site where they have more real estate for pictures. Head on over and take a look.
Here’s another sport to add to the collection. Via our local “Photographers Adventure Group“, I was fortunate enough to get hold of a media pass to a recent Texas Roller Derby match at the Palmer Event Center and had a blast shooting during the Rhinestone Cowgirls/Cherry Bombs match. Roller Derby is an interesting sport involving two teams racing around an oval track with points scored based on the number of opposing team players that a team’s “Jammer” passes during each “jam” (or individual race). It’s all action and rather good entertainment.
Photographically, it was also quite a challenge since the lighting inside the hall is pretty awful – a mix of fluorescent and tungsten with an overall light level that was rather too low to get the shutter speed where you would want it to really freeze the action. I was shooting with f/2.8 lenses pretty much wide open all evening and was dealing with shutter speeds in the 1/180 to 1/250 range even with the ISO bumped up to 3200. Nevertheless, I’m happy with quite a few of the images I captured so here are a few of my favourites. You can find all the picks I sent to the TXRD folks in this gallery on SmugMug.
A fisheye shot of the arena taken with the camera on top of a fully extended monopod and held overhead. A 5 second self timer setting game me enough time to get the camera as high as possible before the shutter released.
Each team member has a roller derby name. This is Sacrilicious of the Cherry Bombs bombing around the track.
Rocky Casbah of the Cherry Bombs.
Eric seems to be a mascot or somesuch. Think if him as a guy dressed as Elvis dressed as an angel.
A couple of players await news of their fate after a penalty was granted. They ended up having to pillow fight in the middle of the track.
The matches can get pretty heated at times.
With an author wife whose first book is scheduled to hit the shelves in August next year, our family attends a lot of book signings and launch parties but tonight was rather different since, for the first time in ages, the boys and I attended a signing without Nikki and for a book aimed at adults.
Local screenwriter and author Ernie Cline (he wrote the screenplay for “Fanboys“. If you haven’t seen it and are even vaguely interested in Star Wars geekdom, you should) was hosting his book launch and signing event for “Ready Player One” at Book People this evening. The book, a dystopian sci-fi, is promoted as a jam-packed geekfest of 1980’s cultural references so the evening started off well when we discovered 80s era video games available for people to play while waiting. Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters were flowing or, for those who don’t like having their brains smashed out with a slice of lemon tied round a large gold brick, Tab and Pepsi (in old-style cans). The mechanical highlight of the evening, however, was definitely Ernie’s DeLorean, complete with flux capacitor, KIT-style oscillating LEDs and Ghostbusters paraphernalia. This cunning tax write-off is to be Ernie’s transport all around the country on his book tour which started yesterday in Houston and continues through Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and California. It was also open for young (and not so young) boys to sit in.
I’m looking forward to getting into the book since I have it on good authority that it’s a great read (thanks Mike).
If you like to get together with other photographers, geek out, get a bit of exercise and take part in a world-wide photographic phenomenon, head on over to Scott Kelby’s World Wide Photo Walk site and sign up to take part in one of the 570+ photo walks arranged for the weekend of October 1st and 2nd this year.
I’m signed up for the Austin walk, led by the wonderful Simi Shonowo. Simi has led walks in Austin for the last 3 years and does a lovely job of arranging a route and helping folks out on the walk. There are still 20 places open on the walk but these are very likely to fill so get your name on the list quickly.
I hope to see you on Saturday, October 1st. In the meantime, here are a few shots I’ve taken on the last 2 WWPW events in Austin.