What’s in the picture is, obviously, a racing car, and a fairly ugly one at that. At which point I know I’ve probably lost many of you who quite possibly think, with some justification, that following motorsport is akin to watching paint dry. But stick with me if you will, because the car pictured at speed above is in the process of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a unique and historic endurance event that tests not only the teams, cars and drivers, but spectators and photographers too. Covering it is not easy, especially as a paying spectator from the public enclosures, but such challenges are what keep us photographically stimulated, and besides; it’s fun.
I’ve always been into racing cars, ever since seeing as a boy in 1970 Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, a film largely devoid of plot, characterization or dialogue, but who cares? The racing footage was superb; it still stands the test of time. I cycled to the cinema twice in the same week to watch it. Ever since I’ve been promising myself the pilgrimage to the Circuit de la Sarthe.
The rolling race start is underwhelming, quite frankly, but as we watch on the big screen there’s bits of body work soon flying around. There’s an old adage about the 24 Hours of Le Mans; you can’t win the race on the first corner, but you can certainly lose it. It’s therefore a surprise when triple winner and a favourite for the podium Andre Lotterer gets involved in argy-bargy at the first curve. His noseless Rebellion LMP1 limps around mid-pack as the Toyotas ease into the lead, and we settle in for the long haul, listening to Radio Le Mans on our earpieces and checking the app to track what’s happening. Photographically I’m planning to keep my powder dry; this is a long race. Prime time will be when dusk falls, and at dawn.
Three tools will prove their worth here; the Canon 1Dx mkII, the camera of choice of many a sports photographer, a Delkin 128GB CFast 2.0 memory card to allow for long bursts of continuous 14 fps shooting, and the big white EF200-400mm 1.4x f4 L IS lens. All are tried and tested, all perfect for the job now in hand. But together they make for a weighty set up, support from a Gitzo monopod is necessary for comfort and smooth panning; a technique that is essential to master for any motor sports photographer wanting to convey speed. A car captured sharp with the background blurred by the motion of the rotating lens is the aim, but it is devilishly difficult to achieve. The faster the cars and the longer the lens the trickier it is. The more motion blur the better, but the slower the shutter speed the harder it is to achieve an image with anything sharp in the frame. Throw in the demands of focusing and composing and you see how difficult it all is. I’m expecting a high wastage rate.
As the evening sun shines I shoot to include spectators in the frame with a relatively fast shutter speed. Even at 1/500 sec there’s a motion blurred background. Things will all get much more demanding as the light fades, but I’ve got 24 hours to experiment with all the variables.
As darkness gathers the lights on the cars and the screaming engines become more and more evocative. The number of shots that are ruined by an intruding fence post is frustrating, and panning smoothly while composing as ISOs get higher and shutter speeds longer takes intense concentration. The cars keep straying out of the left of my frame as I endeavour to track them, but I think just maybe I’ve captured the odd cracker. This is what we came for. This is fun.
During a safety car interlude I scroll through my shoot, zooming in to check sharpness on a few. As suspected there’s an awful lot of duds. My focus tracking using servo AF with selectable AF points is working well; it’s the panning of the accelerating cars which is proving so difficult. That’s not helped by my restricted angle of view in between fence posts, but no one ever said this was going to be easy.
You can read the full story behind my Le Mans shoot in our f11 Photography Magazine. The f11 Photography Magazine, packed full of inspiring images, features and videos is published monthly online by David Noton Photography exclusively for our subscribing f11 Members. With its Behind the Lens features, How it’s Done articles, Video Blogs, Post-Production Tutorials, Low Down analysis, Field Trials, regular f11 Columnists, Guest Features and f11 Member’s Gallery it’s a must for anyone who loves photography.