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.
I’m recently back from the second annual NXNW photoblogger get-together. The name stems from the Twitter hashtag we started using last August during the first annual NXNW photoblogger get-together in Portland, Oregon and, despite the fact that Moab, Utah is definitely not in the north west, it stuck. The idea of the trip came up when quite a few of us who are active on social media photography circles decided it would be great if we could get a chance to meet in “real life” too. Mixing this meeting with a serious dose of image-making in an famously photographic location seemed a good idea so here we are.
This year’s extravaganza was attended by 7 of us – in no particular order, Bob Lussier, Justin Balog, Rick Louie, Chris Nitz, Mark Garbowski and Mike Criswell (aka Theaterwiz) and myself. We spent 4 days in and around Moab and it’s local national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, as well as the amazing Dead Horse Point State Park, the ghost town of Cisco, Utah and the Colorado National Monument outside Grand Junction. Given the incredible scenery, we used an inordinate amount of time for taking pictures (eating and drinking definitely took second place to photography on this trip) including a Saturday that started at 4:15am and ended at 12:30 am on Sunday. Our Sunday morning alarm was set for 4:20am, by the way – I’m still recovering from the accrued sleep deficit.
I’ve been posting selected images from the trip over on my photoblog but thought it would be nice to show the faces behind the trip so here are a few of the pictures I took that included the rest of the guys. This is as good a group of folks as you will meet anywhere and I’m thoroughly looking forward to our next get-together, tentatively arranged for Acadia National Park some time in the second half of 2014.
For a while now, I’ve thought of setting up a new blog which I can use to feature iPhone pictures. Some of these make their way into my main photoblog but most end up in Camera+ or on Facebook where I don’t have any control over they way they are presented.
While fiddling with blogging platforms today in preparation for a PhotoNetCast recording, however, I set up a new site on Tumblr as an exercise and rather liked how easy it was to get things going and to create posts via their iPhone app so, moving forward, I’ll be using this as my iPhone photoblog. I’ll still post to Facebook but you can find the new site at http://davesphonepix.tumblr.com. There are only a couple of posts there so far and I’ve done no customisation of the layout yet but please let me know what you think.
In the past, I’ve put my year-end photography summary post here but as of last year, I moved it over to my photoblog instead. If you would like to see my favourite images of 2012, you can find them here.
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.
Things have been rather quiet on the blog this week. I’ve been extremely busy at work and have also been down here in Houston since Wednesday working on a TI project. Luckily, I”m pretty close to the wonderful architecture downtown so I’ve managed to get out with the camera twice to shoot skyscrapers.
As in all big cities, you can be pretty sure that the minute you show up with a tripod, local security guards start getting all itchy. I’ve had no unpleasant encounters this time but, as usual, got the distinct impression that I was considered a security risk:
- I was asked to stop shooting the Wells Fargo building (it’s the blue/green shiny one in this image from a couple of years ago). The pleasant security lady who came out and talked to me after I had finished my second bracket indicated that she thought the policy was silly but that was the policy.
- While shooting at the Chevron building both today and on Thursday evening, I found myself shadowed by a security guard who hovered around me but didn’t complain about my presence.
- While trying to find a high vantage point to shoot the downtown skyline, I wandered into the Hilton Hotel which has a 24th floor terrace. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public and the bell captain I spoke to indicated that the hotel has a policy of no photography with tripods unless you have permission from a manager (which is fine) and that he reckoned none of the downtown rooftops would be open to photography since everyone currently has a heightened awareness of “security issues.”
While some of these are still examples of ridiculous policies, in my opinion, there was one very obvious difference between my experience here and up in New York. Here, at least, both the security-related people I spoke to were friendly, courteous and professional. Neither was belligerent or overbearing and both saw the humour in the situation. Our discussions were completely civil and not at all confrontational.
If we have to have ridiculous anti-photography policies in place in our big cities, I would suggest the people imposing those policies take a lesson from the folks I interacted with in Houston instead of employing the New York model.
P.S. I don’t have any image management software on my work laptop so I can’t post any of this week’s captures just now. Look for a couple of pictures within a few days once I’m home.
Episode 56 of PhotoNetCast has just been published and you can find it on the site or over on iTunes. The uncut video of the original recording is also available to give you a better appreciation of what a good job Antonio does in editing the audio version 🙂
Continuing the week’s theme of HDR tips, here’s one that can help out in situations where you find yourself wanting to shoot a bracket for an HDR but you don’t have access to a tripod. I don’t shoot many handheld HDR brackets but sometimes I don’t have a choice – either tripods are banned or I don’t have one with me. In this case, here are a few tips that can allow you to get the shot even without your trusty tripod. For reference, the shot above is a 7 exposure, handheld HDR shot at EPCOT in Walt Disney World.
- If your camera allows you to shoot more than 3 shots in automatic bracketing mode, set it to bracket a couple of shots wider than you normally would. If you would normally set up for a bracket of 3 exposures, for example, set it for 5. You won’t get a chance to tweak exposures after shooting your handheld bracket if it’s not wide enough so this helps minimise the chances of you having to reshoot the whole thing if you don’t get it first time. If your camera only allows 3 shots in the sequence, stick with that.
- Set your camera to high speed continuous shooting mode. The idea here is that you want to hold the shutter down and have the camera rip through the whole bracket as quickly as possible. Even if you can’t shoot at 8fps, 3fps is still better than you are likely to do pressing the button once per shot so go with what you have.
- Set your aperture so that the longest shutter speed in your bracket will still be in the safe handholding zone (1/focal length). If you are taking a 5 shot bracket, your slowest shutter speed will be 4 times the center setting (+2EV). If you are taking a 7 shot bracket, the slowest will be 8 times the center (+3EV). Typically, I will shoot 5 or 7 shot brackets and try to get my initial shutter speed in the 1/750 to 1/1000 range with a standard lens. This ensures that you won’t have problems with camera shake at one end of the bracket.
- Put your feet apart, brace your elbows by your sides and hold the camera firmly against your eye. Frame the shot and then squeeze and hold the shutter trying to move as little as possible in the process. In continuous mode, my Nikon cameras will shoot the entire bracket then pause to allow me to take my finger off the shutter.
Once you’ve done all this and have your handheld bracket back in the computer, probably the most important tip is to forget Photomatix for the first part of the process. If you have Photoshop, it does a far better job of realigning brackets that are not perfectly aligned so use the “Merge to HDR” feature in Photoshop and save the file it generates as a .HDR or .EXR file. Take this file and open it in Photomatix for tonemapping.
If you practice these steps, you can usually get a pretty decent HDR even if you don’t have a good way of stabilising your camera.
This week, HDR aficionados Rick Sammon and Trey Ratcliff are offering a week of HDR tips so I figured what better time to throw out a few tips of my own. I can’t promise to write one each day but I’ll try to get as close to this as possible. Without further ado, here’s tip number 1.
Most of us who do HDR find ourselves in a situation once in a while where we would love to produce an HDR image but only have a single raw image to start with. Common causes for this are that we didn’t bracket when we originally shot the image we want to process now or that we want to take a picture that contains a lot of movement. In these situations, we can, however, still make use of Photomatix to produce an HDR-like image from that single original exposure and the results can often be very appealing. The image above, for example, was generated from a single exposure I shot while on a tripod-less trip back to Scotland a four years ago.
Many people, including several photographer friends whose HDR work I respect enormously, produce HDRs from single raw files using a workflow that goes something like this:
- Create 3 virtual copies of the original image in Lightroom.
- In the develop module, pull the first image exposure up by 2 stops so that it is brighter.
- Again in the develop module, pull the last image’s exposure down by 2 stops so that it is darker.
- Export all 3 images to JPEGs (hence creating the bracketed set you need to create an HDR).
- Open Photomatix and merge the 3 JPEGs together to give an HDR image which you can then tonemap and process as normal.
This sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? To create an HDR, you need a set of brackets and this gives you that set of images so all is well.
What these folks don’t realise, however, is that they are wasting about 20 minutes per picture and likely ending up with an image that is not as good quality as it should be.
Why not try this instead?
- Open Photomatix.
- Choose “File/Open…” and point it at the single RAW file you want to work on.
- Process as if you just merged a bunch of brackets.
“That can’t be right – it’s far too easy!” you are likely shouting by now. The truth of the matter is that this is likely to give you a better result than the long and complex “generate your own fake brackets” approach described above. The original raw file has at least 2 stops and most likely at least 3 stops more information in it than the JPEGs you create in the awkward workflow. The JPEGs you export there throw away all but 8 stops (8 bits) of the data so by using exposure modification to generate your pseudo-bracket,all you are doing is deciding whether you throw the information away from the highlights or shadows in the different JPEGs. You then open these in Photomatix and have it try to reconstruct the very same data that you were so careful to throw away in the export step.
Photomatix is perfectly capable of extracting all the information from your single raw file so why not have it do the work instead of trying to help (but actually making Photomatix’s job more difficult)?
People who have heard me talk about this before may note that I’m breaking one of my golden rules here which is never to have Photomatix process my raw files. HDRSoft themselves admit that Adobe Camera Raw (the raw file processor inside Photoshop and Lightroom) does a far better job of rendering a raw file than their processor so I always use Lightroom to export my brackets to Photomatix. If you want the best possible quality, you can do the same thing here as long as you remember one very important choice. When you export your single image from Lightroom to send to Photomatix (which, incidentally, you can do via the standard Photomatix plug-in by just highlighting a single image rather than a whole bracketed set), make sure you select “TIFF 16-bit” as the output format. A 16 bit TIFF file allows you to save every bit of dynamic range information from your original raw file and pass it over to Photomatix. If you select JPEG at this point, Photomatix will only receive 8 bits of information and can’t, therefore, pull out any extra dynamic range since you’ve already thrown all that data away.
Next time you are tempted to muck with your exposures in Lightroom and create a fake bracket, give this a try and see what you think. I’m confident you will see that in this case the easiest approach can also be the best!
I have a picture in the running for the Grand Prize in Unified Color’s HDR photo contest. If you are so inclined, I would be delighted if you gave it your vote. The image is a monochrome HDR of the Chevron Tower in Houston and you can find the voting page here. Voting requires that you register on the site and you can vote once per email address registered.