First, my apologies for not getting an entry up sooner. Every year Petit Le Mans just gets bigger and demands more and more of my time. This year I was supplying 11 different entities with images. Couple that with travel, a race schedule and some incredibly long days, thinking becomes a luxury.
But, I'm home, photos are sorted, transmitted, posted and delivered. So, now I can think about things a bit and catch my breath before heading to the American Le Mans season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
With the number of photo credentials issued at Petit Le Mans, shot selection and shooting locations can be a real challenge. Sure, it's always about trying to get something different, but at Petit, every location is jammed with "photographers."
Why did he put that in quotes, you're probably asking. I'll tell you why. There are people getting credentials that have no business getting them. There.. I said it. Someone had to.
Shooting a motorsports assignment is always a challenge with a lot of variables put between you and "getting the shot." So a crowded location becomes another caveat to add to the list when shooting an event in the natural environs.
I always "try" to have a fair idea of how I'm going to shoot the weekend and work the track. I'll try to determine the best locations given the time of day and, during practice, the length of the session. Obviously, the sun is a huge determining factor on where you want to go, but with longer practice sessions you'll want to think about how best to cover a few locations and how to maximize your time.
Of course, you repeat the planning process on race day, but with some shots you're left with little choice. It's good to keep that in mind when you're planning out your practice schedules... think about the places you won't get to during the race or the locations where the light is not going to good. I should also point out, I'll try to get a lot of the "safe" stuff done early in the week so I can be more aggressive during the race. That seems to work better for me. I'll be sure to get what I need for clients, but for me, I want to shoot more "in the moment" on race day.
With Road Atlanta, especially during Petit Le Mans, there are some opportunities that are so much better at key times that I'll literally sit down and wait. Or, at least look for another shot close by. Even though it's slated as a 10 hour race, I probably only shoot four or five hours of it out on track.
My race day "plan" at Petit is fairly straight forward. I've started to pass on shooting the grid there. It's just too crowded. Though keep in mind, this is a good opportunity to get a few driver candid looks and a chance to flirt with the flag girls... always nice to have some pretty girl shots in the gallery. ;) But, photographers have about a 5-10 minute window before the grid fills with spectators, so it's a hit n' run at best.
Fortunately, with my client obligations, the series affords me the luxury of a reserved position on the photo platform in turn one. If it's warmer (and it usually is) I'll shoot from up on the stand. If it is cooler, I personally feel the better start shot is down low at the wall.. though not "at" the wall. This year I shot from up top. The heat was pretty noticeable.. and gave off a haze. Honestly, I like my start shot, but I still don't feel the colors are right.
After a few laps, I'll move down to the turn 1 wall. Here's where you can finesse a little different shot from that corner. There's a build up of ground that goes up to the wall. With about 50 photographers on the wall, I will step back about four feet, move more to my right and set up where my view through the lens just clears the top of the wall. Itturns out from that point, you're standing about four feet below the track surface. What you get is nearly a perfect ground level view of the cars coming down the drivers' left side of the front straight (your right) just as they turn in for the apex. It's a very large full frame look and gives a good 3/4 view. And, it doesn't require an ultra slow shutter to get a little blur from a quick panning movement.
Next I'll work my way up the hill toward turn three. There's a terrific "going away" look there and a couple of ways you can play it if you've got the right tools in your bag. I shot a few tight with my 500mm and then shifted my position and shot a little loose with a 300mm. The key to using long glass is not so much about shooting tight, but more about using the narrow focal angle giving you the ability to thread the needle towhere you want to shoot. The longer the glass, the less other photographers can crowd your shot... but you need to think it through and learn how to work the angles. Most guy's will tell you that in this business, the 500mm almost becomes your "normal" lens. It truly changes the game.
Next I'll work my way back down the hill toward one. Some go the other way, but I don't like shooting back up at three at that time of the day. So, I pick up a few 3/4 pans on the way down the hill and see how stupid I can get with the shutter speeds.
At this point I start killing time. I'll maybe download cards... check out the start shot and pass it on for editorial use. I'll take a quick peek at how things look and basically just regroup.
The next few hours I'll ride around looking for scene setters or maybe make a pass of the pits. I didn't do a lot of pit work this year as my key team and manufacturer clients suffered damage or mechanical failures early. And a new policy from the ALMS required us to team up with three other shooters to share an over-the-wall access armband. I yielded my turn with the band to give others more time. Also, I knew one of the other shooters would cover my back if they got something I needed.
I like to walk trough the crowd... see what's going on and keep an eye open for interesting shots that give a feel for the event. It's tough to do this with regular two hour and forty five minute events since your committed to getting your on-track stuff. And, of course, the crowd is the biggest on race day. So Petit is a great opportunity.
By 4:30PM I start making my way down to the "esses" at turn five. However, I go to the top of the spectator hill outside the fence. This is where, if you're thinking, you can get a different look than the other photographers that seem insistent on going where they're "supposed" to go. If you mingle around up on top of the hill and slightly down toward the track, there are lots of different takes on the scene. Keep in mind, at the foot of the hill will be 20 or so vested photographers all waiting for the magic hour... (all the while filling up memory cards while they wait).
Trust me, there is so much more to shoot. First, the esses are NOT that hard. There are a few different angles to work, but for the most part, it's a no brainer and you're hoping for the right formation of cars to come through. Yet... like lemmings, they all line up to shoot it... as if something will turn out different. It ain't gonna happen. The real magic (at least until the light arrives) is shooting from the hill. Move around.. shoot with the crowd in the foreground. Go vertical and get the height of the hill coming down into five. If you want the "typical" esses shot, just walk down to the fence. This puts you about 18 inches behind the photo stands. But open your eyes (and mind) to move around on the hill... there's a BIG view from there... take it all in.
Once the "magic hour" arrives (this year was around 5:45PM and wasn't all that magic) it's time to move. Shoot the esses, get a few looks then head over to the backside of turn 7. This is a long drive and takes some time on race day. Also, it is only accessible through the woods.. an adventure as it were. :)
There are a lot of different looks at seven. I took some earlier in the week knowing I wouldn't have a lot of time of race day. But, trust me... there are some truly stunning shots. I wanted to be out of there and over to the inside of 7 by 6:45PM... so we didn't spend a lot of time, but got what I mainly wanted.
Inside turn seven is a traffic jam of photographers. They're all shooting the apex with the nasty billboards in the background and the crappy color DOT light washing over the turn. It's NOT the hot ticket. I go over their for a couple of different things. I like to get tight helmet shots and I absolutely love the backlit pan shot coming off the corner. Once in a groove, I can drag the shutter down to 1/30 and even 1/15 and come away with some really crisp looking pans. Great color too. There's also a long going away shot as they go under the Mazda bridge I keep working on. I don't have it right yet... there's a telephone pole in the shot and there always seems to be a big camper there... but I know there's a shot there... one day I'll get it right.
I did a little bit of true night stuff at driver's left in turn 10... some of them I liked, though people were shooting flash and I was picking it up in my shots... so ultimately I got frustrated and left.
Later, I walked over to find my position for the podium ceremony. Basically, I only needed the overall podium shot and that was it. Once I knew where my assigned spot was, I walked out to get a position where the winning cars would be pulled in. I was one of three people in place. It paid off big time.
Allan McNish pulled in first and I got myself right at the nose of the car. The spot produced a great jubilation shot as he stood on top of the car pumping his fist. I stayed in place until I saw the number 5 Porsche pull in. Having heard Helio might climb the fence, I left the winning Audi and got on the nose of the class winner in LMP2. Helio was greeted by a team member and sat patiently in the car trying to gather his emotions. It was amazing. Knowing all he had been through with the weekend events (which included a court appearance in Miami for a tax evasion charge) you could see the flood of emotions racing through the guy. Finally, he climbed from the car and went berserk. Fortunately, the time spent waiting worked well for me. I stayed on him for nearly 70 frames. Then his co-driver joined in. Then his helmet was off and more fist pumping until ultimately they both ran over and climbed the fence (albeit a short 6 footer) together. Talk about the right place at the right time.
It was a pretty cool ending to a long week... actually nine days. I was back at the hotel by around 1AM and off to the airport at 7AM or so. Brutal... but then, that's Petit.