I've received several requests to talk about shooting motorsports at night. So, in an effort to oblige, I'm going to put forth some personal philosophies and talk about how I approach some of the variables involved.
As always, I urge you not to take what I say as gospel. This is what works for me... and this is my personal take on the concept of shooting into the darkness. Many people do many different things and have a completely different take on what they feel looks good. So, please, as with all things I write and put forth as philosophies and ideas, keep in mind this is simply what works for me.
Let's start with my personal thoughts about shooting in the dark. First, I shoot with the basic premise that I want my shots to look like... well, they were shot when they were shot. Second, I don't want them to look like trick or special effects "lucky" shots. And, frankly, that's what I see a lot of. Sure, some of it works, but I don't think you can survive on a few lucky shots. I want a process that generates clean shots that I can replicate with a certain degree of consistency. Simply put, I want to see the same style to my night shots as I you'd see in my day shots. I don't want the hands of the clock to change the way I shoot.
Night time shots need to look like they were shot a night. If you're going to flood the place with a flash unit, what the heck, just come back during the day when the corner is lit the way you want it. For me, I don't like the look of the car... I don't like the look of the wheels and I don't like the look of the foreground. I just don't like the look.
Fortunately, the latest digital cameras are producing excellent results using their high ISO settings. I've been using 40D Canons this season and at 1600 they produce extremely clean files... provided you DON'T underexpose. I will tell you right up front... you're going to have fits in post processing if you try to inch your way along shooting slightly underexposed. You've got to bring it up and go for it. If you attempt to correct an underexposed high ISO file in post, it's going to come undone on you. You've got to let the camera work.
High ISO setting is not going to completely carry you, though. You're going to have to really drag the shutter once the sun is gone. If you start shooting at sundown, you're going to find yourself chasing the exposure in non-stop fashion until you completely out of light.
I'll try to hang at 100 ISO as long as possible, using the slowest shutters I can get away with and opening up a stop every five minutes or so. Trust me, once the sun starts to set, it is flat out pandemonium. I figure I have about a one-hour window to get what I want. And knowing I only have a few opportunities a year to shoot after hours, I want to capitalize on every minute of it.
This year at Petit Le Mans was a good example. I typically want to be in the esses down in turn five for the early part of sundown. Though, with the new chicane, the long shot wasn't what it used to be and that's what I liked to shoot there. So this year, I gave the corner about 15 minutes and then bailed out around 5:30PM. This shot was at ISO 100, 1/640th @ f/5.6 500mm shooting slightly under. It wasn't as colorful as it has been in the past, so I was ok with moving on. We were heading to the outside of turn seven and that's a pretty good jaunt even by golf cart. There's a lot of spectator traffic at Petit so we need to allow for that in our scheduling.
By time we got to the outside of turn seven, the sun was dropping quickly and hitting the driver's in the face. This shot was taken just after 6PM, still at 1/640th but with the ISO at 200 and now opened up to f/5.0.. fortunately we're not relying on a lot of depth of field here and with the car taking a pretty sharp (and unpredictable) line, the shutter speed helped keep the nose clean.
Since I had shot this location during the Thursday night practice, I didn't have to stay as long in the location. The night practice started later and so I had caught a few images that gave me the full night time shots I wanted. During the race we stayed about 20 minutes or so. In that time, I was able to hold the line at 200 ISO ... though had pushed the shutter down to 1/400th at f/5.6 or so. The Mazda shot at the top of the page was taken Thursday night at 7:18PM - ISO 1000, 1/500 sec. @ f/5.6 - so you can see what an hour will do. I'll talk about the post processing further down.
With another long ride over to the inside of turn seven, we needed to stay on schedule. We arrived there in time to catch some tight shots of the open cockpit cars ahead of the DOT light coming on that is used to light the corner. This lighting is AWFUL and you'll want to avoid it if you can. It plays hell with the white balance and produces a nasty look. That, and there are no less than 20 vested photographers firing flashes like Las Vegas drunks pulling handles on slot machines... "come on lucky 7s... show me something that looks creative!!!!" Ain't gonna happen. You can grab a nice look with a 70-200 opened up to f/3.5 and back down to ISO 100. Shutter speed was 1/200th. So you see, it's not luck or magic... it's about having a plan and working your schedule and shot selection to maximize the light and your opportunities.
Next, I moved slightly to my right across the emergency road and set up for a nice clean pan. You're shooting this back lit. I started a touch before the sun was fully behind the trees and caught a few like this one of the Penske Porsche with a lot of color and lens flare for effect. This was at 6:45PM with the 70-200mm still at ISO 100, f/13 but 1/50 sec.
Now we're pushing 7PM and getting the look I want. I love this shot... and for me, this is how I like to work the twilight. Find a place where you're shooting directly into a blocked sun. You get color and you get control. All the benefits of backlight without the grief. If you've ever seen the sunset shot from turn 6 at Laguna, it's the same thing. You have 5-10 minutes while the sun hangs behind the Mazda bridge and the your background looks like it's on fire. This pan is still at ISO 100 but at 1/15th sec. and f/5.6 - you've gotta hang with this one... but I think the look is very clean and classic Petit at twilight.
I want to go back to Thursday to show examples of true after dark images. While these require a fairly good capture, post processing is necessary to complete the look. So, let's go back to the outside of turn seven... but this time at 7:22PM. Using my 500mm with an ISO setting of 1600, a shutter speed of 1/400 at an aperture of f/5.6. Needless to say, we're pretty tapped out of light here. If it wasn't a bit of a blind corner, you might be able to drop down a little slower with the shutter... but it's dark... you just can't anticipate as you might in broad daylight. In the first picture you're looking at what came out of the camera. A lot of the lighting flare is from the headlights and that nasty DOT light they put on the corner. So, here's where the post process work comes in.
What we want to do is get rid of the haze that's over everything, pull up the color, sharpen up the details and reduce the luminance noise. What I did was push up the exposure controls in Aperture (I believe you can replicate most of this in Photoshop), reduce the brightness, then add contrast and saturation. This brings the car to life while keeping the look very much night time. This is what I want... no greasy strobe lighting splattered all over the place... just a very realistic look at a race car coming out of the corner at night.
For the last steps, I chose to finish with noise reduction using Noise Ninja... a plug-in for either Aperture or Photoshop. I didn't sharpen in Aperture since this is a combined step that Noise Ninja handles in the noise reduction process. I'll save this discussion for a later date, but sharpening and noise reduction (in moderation) can be a magical combination when sharpening most images. In this shot, if you compare closely, you'll see the luminance noise get removed (especially in the reds) and the detail pop just a bit more. Moderation is the key... don't overdo it or you'll just make a mess of things. Everything in moderation.
This next one was done around 7:35PM... very little ambient light and we're fully into the night now. Panning with the 70-200mm I was able to keep the ISO at 1250, drop the shutter to 1/30 and keep an aperture of f/4. Again, pretty much the same steps in processing the image.... though I didn't have to cut the haze from the DOT or headlights on this one. So, there's a bump in the exposure setting and just a tick up in brightness. Again an increase (slight) in contrast and saturation and a round trip through the Noise Ninja plug-in. I also rotated the image a bit to straighten the horizon.
Lastly, I stopped off at turn 10 to have a look. This was an odd scene. There was a lot of lighting from driver's right but nothing on our side at driver's left. The cars come off the corner pretty hard, so it is a pretty racy looking image if you can catch one. I did fairly well.. but I was frustrated by a lot of strobes being fired by other photographers. There were about 10 guys down there... so the chance of catching someone's flash as I fired was all to frequent. So, here's the look I wanted. Another with someone else's flash.... and one with someone's flash that kind of worked but I just didn't like the wheels. Personal taste...
So, there's a starting point for you. Give it a try... don't be afraid to experiment and find your own level of comfort. If you "must" use a flash, try dialing it down... it can do some fun things to the graphics on some cars... but for the most part I think you'll find it just adds too much of a "shocked" look to the image and wreaks havoc with the wheels.