Formula One Photography

November 06, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

I love watching Formula One races. Ferrari is my favourite team and I am sure yours, too :P

Some of my friends had asked me to share my experience of taking photos in a Formula One Grand Prix circuit. Thought of sharing with you my learnings.

Please note that below write up has some very basic information regarding camera settings etc – aimed at beginners and enthusiasts. The written details are purely based on my own experience at Albert park, Melbourne. I have never got a chance to shoot from the designated pockets made for pro/contracted photographers – these pockets have a clear and unobstructed view of the circuit. However, I have always followed the conditions of entry to the GP circuit and have never ventured into unauthorised areas (e.g. the designated pockets for contracted photographers). I urge you to follow the same – very much required for the convenience and safety of everyone.

Formula One race photography is all about capturing action. The pace of the cars adds a bit of difficulty to the photographers. The protective fence (grid/mesh) around the circuit adds much more complexity to it. To photograph these super-fast cars, you need to do some homework. Let’s get started with it.

Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2012Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2012

 200mm @ F/2.8, ISO 100, 1/250", +2/3 ev, Monopod, evaluative metering

 

Choosing your location:

If you are at the “proper” location, your 50% job is done.

Two main aspects of choosing a location:

  • Grandstands – here you won’t have opportunity to move around. Most GP circuits have designated seat numbers and you are supposed to sit at that place throughout the day. Good part is that you will get a better (and mostly elevated) view and can have good “clean” shots. I always avoid grandstands because it takes away the flexibility to get close to the track.
  • Roam around the circuit and take a strategic position – when I say “strategic”, I am talking about a place where your gears will produce the best results.

If you go with the second point above, my next suggestion would be to inspect the circuit beforehand and choose your spot. e.g. if you consider Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, turns 2, 3, 4, 9, 11, 12, 15 are good for photography (considering you are standing behind the mesh/fence). 

Albert Lake Park Street Circuit in Melbourne, Australia.svg
By Will Pittenger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Similarly, for Silverstone circuit in the UK, I would consider turns 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 16 & 17.

  

Circuit Silverstone 2011.svg
By AlexJ - Own work, CC0, Link

 

For Buddh International circuit in India, the turns to consider are 1, 3, 4, 15, 16 (hope Formula One action returns soon here).

Why be at the turns? Because formula one cars move fast; really fast (is that even a statement to make!). Only at the sharp turns you would see the cars breaking and hence giving you opportunities to frame them. The basic consideration is to approach the circuit as close as possible – given the fact that you will always remain behind the fence. 

If you have previous experience of going to the circuit or have some friends who went there before, you may get some info which would help you decide what could be your “strategic” location.

If possible/feasible, go to the circuit on qualifying day and the race day both. On the qualifying day, try to cover all those turns which are accessible on foot.

 

Getting the camera settings right:

Aperture:

For the spots where you can see the circuit without any hindrance (say sitting on a mound / ramp), you would need a telephoto lens (at least 200mm – depending on the distance of the circuit from you). If you are unsure about the reach of your current gear, if possible, go there beforehand to test the reach of that lens. If you are not happy with the reach, you can borrow a longer focal length lens – I bet you won’t be disappointed. But make sure obey the conditions of entry for the GP circuit.

You will have fence/mesh right beside the road throughout the circuit. There will be a gap between you and the fence, too. In these cases, the fence may play a spoilsport. For that you need to use as big an aperture as possible

I have used 70-200mm F/2.8 lens (used at F/2.8) and 200mm F/2 lenses (used at F/2); I used the max apertures most of the time and the mesh almost disappeared from my pics. At 200mm and F/2 I didn’t see the fence in my pics – it completely disappeared! The magic of a wider aperture!

Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013

200mm @ F/2, ISO 50, 1/125", Monopod, evaluative metering

But if you don’t have access to ultra-wide apertures like F/2 or F/2.8, then you have to test your lens beforehand. Note that lenses with F/4 or smaller aperture won’t be able to cut-off the fence completely. Even at F/2.8, there will be traces of the out-of-focus fence in your image.

 There would be a fence like this around the GP circuit and you have to stand at least 4-5 feet away from the fence.

So, if you are not happy with the results (even after using the largest aperture possible), then either borrow a faster lens or choose your spot in such a way that you don’t have a fence blocking your view.

 

AF Drive:

I suggest that you use AI Focus or AI Servo (for Canon) as auto focus mode – other manufacturers also have a similar mode. Try both Av (aperture priority) and Tv (Shutter priority) modes. It is very difficult to use Tv mode to get a good panning shot being in front of a fence.

During one of the sessions, the light was not at all good and as a result, with ISO 50 or 100 and at 1/400 seconds I was getting F/2 in Tv mode. I was lucky.

Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013Fernando Alonso driving Ferrari F1 car during Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013

200mm @ F/2, ISO 50, 1/125", Monopod, evaluative metering

But light may remain “good” during the race and hence that will have impact on the aperture if you use Tv mode. When I say “have impacts on aperture”, I mean the aperture value may increase say to F/8. With F/8, you will not be able to avoid the fences in your picture if you stand behind a fence. One way to avoid this is to use ND (neutral density) filter. The filter will cut down the light and hence will help you achieve a slower shutter keeping other parameters constant.

Taking snaps in Av mode is recommended if you are standing/sitting behind the fence; with the help the widest aperture, you can make the fence almost disappear.

ISO:

If you want to freeze the motion of a car, you can use higher ISO in Av mode (considering you are already at the widest aperture) to have a faster shutter. Do note that the car will appear static with no apparent movement with respect to the surrounding. 

 

Panning:

You will find many good articles on the internet on panning. I am writing below what I followed to take the panning shots at F1 circuit.

Know what would be the shutter value according to your subject: If you are taking a shot of a moving bi-cycle, the shutter speed may be 1/40 sec but if you are taking the shot of a fast moving car it could be 1/80 sec. If the car is a Formula One car, the speed can be 1/125 sec to 1/200 sec or even 1/400 sec depending on the speeds of the cars.

Having said that, you have to switch to Tv mode and might have to adjust your ISO to get a desired Aperture value. If required, use an ND filter to stop down.

Next step is to shoot. Best effects can be achieved by using a tripod (or a monopod). Most of the good tripod heads come with panning knobs. But, we can achieve good results with hand also (requires practice, of course).

The diagram below shows what I do for panning.

Camera settings: I use the tracking auto focus (AI Servo or AI Focus); set the desired shutter speed and ISO depending on the speed of the subject. Refer to the diagram and the following points.

  • After the settings are done in camera, start tracking the subject
  • Move the camera + lens (angular movement) along with the subject
  • Take the snap while looking at the eye piece (sometimes you can use burst mode to take a series of snaps)
  • After the shutter release, continue to track – this will make sure the subject comes out sharp and crisp

This will take some trial and error initially; as and when you practise more, you will get better pictures.

 

 

General tips:

  • Make sure you go to the circuit well in advance; try out both Av and Tv modes, take snaps on a mound (avoiding the hindrance of mesh/fence) and also in front of the fence. Based on the results, you can decide which spot to choose and what settings are the best for your camera and lens.
  • Don’t forget to have enough free space in your memory cards and make sure you have charged the camera battery.
  • Using a tripod/monopod will help you – especially when you are trying to pan.

 

Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix 2013

  200mm @ F/2, ISO 50, 1/640", Monopod, evaluative metering

 

 280mm @ F/2.8, ISO 800, 1/6400", -1/3 ev, Monopod, evaluative metering

 

 280mm @ F/2.8, ISO 800, 1/5000", -1/3 ev, Monopod, evaluative metering

If you have read this write-up, would love to know your thoughts / feedback.

 

 


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