You’re lying flat on your stomach. The open rear doors of the van you’re lying in offer a continuous view of a disappearing ribbon of asphalt… in this case, the high banks of the World Center of Racing, Daytona International Speedway. Trust me, at 60+ mph, your chin less than 18” off the pavement, the view from this perspective is daunting.
Rolling car-to-car shots offer up multiple challenges for the still photographer. While it’s imperative you approach the project with a solid plan of action, your plan typically unravels about the time you’re rolling off pit road.
First, you want to have a mental vision of the look you want to create. Typically, the track steward is going to allow you one lap, maybe two if your client is a major stakeholder in the racing series you’re covering. So you have to have a good idea of how you’re going to use your time. Consider these variables:
What time of day is the shoot? The light will go around your camera 360 degrees in the time it takes to do the lap. Where will you be when the light is optimum? Where will you be when it’s back lit? Where are the shadows? What about the shadows from the vehicle you’re in? And when the light is optimum, what shows up in your background?
What type of vehicle are you shooting? Are you shooting more than one car? Is it an open or closed cockpit car? If open, does the helmet matter? Does the driver know what is expected of him? Is he/she aware of what your goals are… and when you’ll be hitting the target locations? How close does he/she follow you?
Does the driver of the host vehicle (the vehicle carrying you) know where and when to speed up or slow down? Does he know what line to take… go high, go low? The same applies if you’re using a spotter (and you should). Does he know what you want… from him, from your driver, from the driver of the subject vehicle? Do you have radio contact? Are you using proper safety harnesses and wearing a helmet?
Have you thought about composition, lens selection, shutter speed selection? Do you need neutral density filters? Do you have enough memory on your cards? Do you have back up cameras and additional camera/lens combinations to change perspective?
Remember… you have three to five minutes to nail a look you want. You’re tying up a major racing facility, employing track officials, emergency crews, drivers, car crews… there are no do-overs.
The list above is similar to the old saying, “you don’t want to see how they make the sausage … it’s better just to enjoy it.” So I won’t go back and touch on each detail, but I will go into the shooting and creative choices.
I’ve done dozens of these shoots. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit, with some of them I only succeeded by the skin of my teeth. The final shot usually generates lots of ooohs and aaahs… after all, the point of view and perspective is way cool and not an everyday look you get to see. But as any good photographer will tell you… I’’m sure there are things I could have done better. You can’t beat yourself up… it’s the type of shoot that’s conducted in crisis management mode. Sure, you have a plan. But what is going to make the difference is how well you can adjust and manage all the things that don’t go as planned.
The first change I made for this shoot was to get a variance from the Daytona and IMSA track officials. We were here for the 2016 ROAR Before the 24, the official test session for the 54th Rolex 24 at Daytona. The practice (and race) is run on Daytona’s infield road course while incorporating the banked turns referred to as NASCAR 1, 2, 3 and 4, and the front stretch known as the tri-oval. I requested permission to stay on the oval. My reasoning came from drawing on previous experience. First, staying on the oval offered easier management of car to driver positioning. Second, transitioning through the road course turns is extremely disruptive inside the vehicle you’re shooting from. Lastly, the backgrounds are far less predictable as you navigate through the infield… especially at Daytona. I just felt staying on the oval would give me more bang in the allotted time frame.
I chose to shoot with the Canon 7D and a 24-105 L Series lens. Though in the back of my mind, I created an alternate strategy of using the DXO One camera attached to my iPhone 6S+. The lens on the DXO is 32mm, perfect for this situation. If everything worked out, it was my hope to get some frames with the One and see how the results held up.
In a rolling car-to-car shoot, you’re looking to show motion, retain the energy… and an in-your-face point of view. I mentioned earlier about differences shooting an open cockpit car or closed cockpit. There’s a huge wow factor in having the subject car pull in close and getting a low point of view. With an open cockpit car, you need to stay aware of not loosing sight of the driver’s head. When you shoot a closed cockpit car, your high and low positions are much more forgiving. For me… I want to remain in eye contact with the driver for the final photo.
The morning’s weather was a misty low ceiling and threatening light rain. The track was somewhere between damp and wet. Don’t forget, one part of the track can be two miles away from another. It’s two and a half miles around on the low line. It can be raining on one end and not the other. With the Canon I set the ISO at 200. I set the DXO One on Automatic ISO. Post shoot EXIF indicated the One stayed at 100 and 125 ISO. With the Canon, I shot shutter preferred at 1/50 sec. and he DXO at 1/60 … I wasn’t sure of my ability to hold the DXO One as steady as I could the Canon locked in against my forehead. Your goal is to find a shutter speed that will blur the ground below you, but not show shake or vibration from the vehicle you’re riding in. You’ve got to find that happy medium. Interestingly, both cameras moved between f/5 and f/5.6 aperture and both were on Auto Focus with constant tracking.
I spoke with my van driver, my spotter and the drivers of the subject cars. We talked about what I needed in terms of positioning on the track (high or low) and that they be sure tobrake and accelerate smoothly. I took a static test frame (using the DXO One) at the approximate distance the subject car would be following us. I had everyone note where I was standing… the distance between me and the subject car… and showed them the result on my phone. This gave everyone a better idea of what we expected of them. I had my spotter in the van wearing a radio in order to pass on any instructions to all the drivers. While that is helpful, you’ll still lose ground and shooting time due to the communication lag. Even though you can’t afford wasted frames, you’re going to waste a lot anyway.
We rolled out of pit lane shooting the green Southwest Realty Advisors Prototype car. I was wearing a full body harness anchored to the floor of the van… as was my spotter. I also wore a helmet. I first shot with the 7D. Within 30 seconds of shooting, the lens was covered in mist and the car’s apex lights were throwing flares across the image. I’m losing shot opportunities due to having to wipe the lens with my sweatshirt. For the second half of the lap we killed the lights. Still frustrated with the spray on my lens, I grabbed the DXO One.
The first thing I noticed with the DXO One was how composing the shot on my iPhone screen was far more easier than in the viewfinder of the 7D. Lying flat on your stomach and, for all intents and purposes, looking up and through the viewfinder, makes it extremely difficult to check the entire frame. You’re bouncing around, your neck is killing you and your shooting opportunities are disappearing at 70mph. With the DXO One, though I was concerned about dropping it, at 32mm I was able to keep it a bit more inside the van. Hence, I was dealing with less spray and composing the frame was off the charts. The DOX One’s touch screen focus point selection was just a huge bonus. Boom! There was the shot in all it’s glory on the iPhone’s retina display. A near perfect representation of what I was shooting. It was stunning. So much so, when we pulled in the pits and picked up the blue Southwest Funding Prototype car, I decided to shoot the majority of the lap using the DXO One. To be honest, I think I’d be hard pressed to choose anything else.
Don’t get me wrong… it’s not that I know more than anyone else. But I did know that if I could hold the DXO One securely and not have the van doors encroach the frame of my composition, it would give me a good file. Well, it gave me a great file. Within 5 minutes of crawling out of the van and doing a quick perusal of the previews on my phone, I was back at the media center downloading cards. The DXO One kicked ass. The look of the images, the quality of RAW files, the overall composition… it was nothing short of amazing.
Thanks to Brian Alder and BAR1 Motorsports for providing the cars and crew, Don Yount at Southwest Funding, Marc Drumwright at Southwest Realty Advisors and Daytona International Speedway for the track coordination.
Finally, thanks to the team at DXO One. I didn’t tell them I was going to try this. Their confidence and trust in me has been unwavering and I was thrilled to send them images that they probably had never imagined. They’ve got such a great support team in place… it’s great and I can’t thank them enough.
You can view additional real world images (both personal and professional) shot with my DXO One on my Flickr Photostream.