News and Views from Dave Wilson

Tag: COTA

MotoGP 2014 at Circuit of the Americas, Austin

by on May.03, 2014, under Photography

MotoGP 2014 at Circuit of the Americas, Austin was a great event and MotoGP is fast becoming my favourite weekend at the now two-year-old track. Although the attendance and general atmosphere at Formula 1 in November is very significantly higher, the motorcycle events during Red Bull MotoGP Grand Prix of the Americas can’t be beaten from a photographic point-of-view. The dramatic way the riders lean their bikes into each corner and the fact that, in some cases, their faces are visible through the visors, makes for some really great picture opportunities.

This year, I was fortunate to be shooting from trackside but, due to the last minute nature of the access, I hadn’t rented a long lens. I shot everything you see here with one of my own cameras and lenses. The longest combination I own is a 70-200mm with 2x teleconverter on the crop-sensor Nikon D90 giving me a 600mm equivalent. Even trackside, this is about as short as you will want to go to get full frame shots of the bikes in most of the corners but, using the 2x teleconverter, the results I got were nothing like as sharp as the combination of rented 200-400mm and 1.4x teleconverter that I used during last year’s Formula 1 Grand Prix. For side-view, the 70-200mm on its own was fine from many locations because you are so much closer to the action.

Anyway, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite shots from the weekend. This represents a more-or-less random collection of images from the paddock, Moto2, Moto3 and MotoGP racing.

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United States Grand Prix, 2013

by on Nov.25, 2013, under Miscellaneous

First Lap Procession

First Lap Procession

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!

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On Fear of Cropping

by on Dec.16, 2012, under Photography

Since attending the US Grand Prix, I’ve seen a huge number of photos that look rather like the following:

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes (uncropped)

Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes (uncropped)

The size of the car in the frame and the crud around it isn’t at all unusual for those of us not blessed with access to 600mm lenses and a press pass. What surprises me, though, is that so many people don’t realise that by cropping the image they can end up with something so much better. This particular shot, for example, ended up as the following after I took the knife to it:

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes

Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes

By cutting out all the extraneous rubbish from the frame, I concentrate the viewer’s eye on the car and end up with an interesting, graphical composition.

Some people will probably get worried that such an aggressive crop reduces the image resolution dramatically and that is certainly true. Given the choice between a good, low resolution shot, though, and a bad full resolution one, I’ll take the good image any day. Remember, too, that even this kind of crop from today’s DSLRs will still give you an image that is more than high enough resolution for screen display and prints up to 16 inches or so wide (this cropped image is about 3MP compared to the 12MP original).

Another concern here may be that I’ve ended up with an image that doesn’t fall neatly into any of the standard cookie-cutter aspect ratios. How can I print this on 6×4 or 10×8 paper? Obviously I can’t without leaving large white borders or cropping even more but since I’m really mostly interested in web display, I’m not too worried about whether the aspect ratio matches some paper or frame manufacturer’s idea of what shape my pictures should be. If I want a print, plenty of labs will print panoramic images in their original, non-standard aspect ratio or, if not providing truly arbitrary print sizes, will offer enough panoramic options that you can take a print with only minimal reformatting.

Here are a few more example of car shots taken at Circuit of the Americas, all of which have been pretty drastically cropped to achieve a more pleasing, panoramic composition. If you have a bunch of pictures like the top one on this post, take the knife to them and see if you like the results too.

Paul DiResta, Force India

Paul DiResta, Force India


Felipe Massa, Ferrari

Felipe Massa, Ferrari


Lewis Hamilton, McLaren

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren


Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso

Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso


Mark Webber at Circuit of the Americas

Mark Webber at Circuit of the Americas


Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing

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Photography at COTA on a General Admission Ticket

by on Nov.28, 2012, under Photography

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.

The descriptions below reference markers I’ve placed on this map. Click this small image for a larger version.
Shooting locations at Circuit of the Americas

A. Turn 1

View from turn 1 looking towards turn 16

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.
Michael Schumacher at Turn 5 (uncropped)
Felipe Massa at Turn 5 (cropped)
Lewis Hamilton at Turn 5 (cropped)

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.
Wide view from the hill at Turn 7

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!
Nico Rosberg at Turn 7
Sebastian Vettel at Turn 7

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.

Note that the first of these images is uncropped. It was taken using the same 400mm lens as most of the others, this time on my D90 giving me a 600mm equivalent focal length.
Daniel Ricciardo at Turn 10 (uncropped)
Nico Rosberg at Turn 10 (cropped)

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.
Mark Webber at Turn 11 (uncropped)
Fernando Alonso at Turn 11 (cropped)

Main Grandstand

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.

Overall

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.

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US Grand Prix Weekend

by on Nov.18, 2012, under Miscellaneous

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!

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