Motorsports and the Canon 5D MK11

Professionally speaking, the 5D MK11 wouldn't be my first choice as a sports camera... but that's not to say you can't shoot sports with it.Earlier this summer I added the Canon 5D MK11 to my arsenal of cameras. What motivated this move was the type of photography I've been doing with my Leica Digilux 2 cameras. I saw a dramatic change in my photography when shooting with the Leica, but honestly, the Leica's file size limits the cameras use for commercial work. My hope was to shoot the same type of images and photography, but using the 5D.

To the point, the Leica was challenging to use at races. While I've produced some of my favorite "scene setters" using the Leica at races, the camera is admittedly more challenging to work with. To a point, it's slow. This isn't a bad thing for me... but the subject matter and subjects are a different story. Most of these shots are semi-candid and frankly, people aren't sitting still.

Of course, it's important to point out that my reference is commercial work. For personal work and pleasure, the Leica just keeps getting better and I'm very happy when I'm shooting with it.

The 5D MK11 certainly produces the file size... almost to a fault. It'll bring my MacBook Pro to its knees... well, almost. And for me, the use of wide angle lenses with the 5D's full frame sensor is phenomenal. With the Canon L Series 16mm-35mm, you almost need to stand pigeon-toed to keep from shooting your own feet. It's wide.

So, how is the 5D MK11 fitting into my workflow? After three races, it's still a mixed bag. I can tell you, it's gotten much better since my first outing at Lime Rock Park. The first on-track session was a nightmare. Even though I'd pushed a couple of thousand frames through the camera at home, there's nothing like the pace of the race track and real-world working conditions to see what a camera will do.

To be fair, I struggled with the 5D. But a lot of that was me and much of it to do with the fact of switching back and forth with the 40D. It made for a total thrash. The layout of the camera's controls cause you to have to think about things you'd normally do by second nature. The full frame sensor changes the focal length (magnification) of what you're anticipating to see in the frame. And lastly, the burst rate causes a total loss of timing. It was a lot to deal with and, to be honest, it negatively affected the mental side of my shooting. My head was thinking about the camera instead of thinking about shot creation.

After the weekend, while it would have been easy to write off the camera claiming, "it's just not a sports camera," I felt it only fair to accept my unfamiliarity with the camera as at least an equal part of the problem... if not more.

Trackside with the 5D MK11 is a challenge if you're used to something faster. The timing is much different.Ten days later we had the Mid-Ohio race. This is a track I know like the back of my hand. I tried to think ahead and plan my shooting around where I might use the 5D. This helped a little... but I still caught myself thinking about the camera and not about the shot. The control layout was becoming more familiar. I also found my self using the difference in lens focal length to my advantage. Places where the 500mm on a 40D had been a bit tight, where now perfect for the 5D. But, the slower burst rate was still an intrusion to the flow.

The 5D still felt like heavy lifting. Honestly, after shooting with the 5D, I'd grab the 40D and it was as if I'd been swinging two bats in the on-deck circle. The 40D was mentally much more comfortable.

This past week, I shot at Road America. Things with the 5D came together. Or, to be more accurate, I got it together with how to use the 5D. I'm using it where it needs to be used. Sure, there are times I'm using it when I'd rather be using the 40D, but I don't like changing lenses in the field (trackside).

Candid head shots with my f/4 500mm on the 5D MK11 are stunning.I'm still convinced that my biggest issue when using the 5D MK11 is that I also carry the 40D. I think the 5D MK11 is perfectly capable of shooting sports if it was the only camera you used. Would it be my first choice for shooting sports? No. Can it be used for shooting sports? Yes. After all, people have been shooting sports for decades using equipment nowhere near the caliber of the 5D. However, if you're shooting professionally, it's your job to be competitive... if there are better tools that help you get the job done, that's what you need to use.

So, I'll probably pick up another 40D. I need two bodies when I'm trackside. I won't go with a 50D since I'd prefer the cameras be identical... and I like the 40D. I will use the 5D selectively where it can help me with focal lengths... especially extra wide shots and "tweeners" where the 500mm on a 40D is too tight. Of course, for scene setters and work in the pits and paddock, the 5D will become a fixture.

I think the biggest part of this story... and the lesson to be learned is the importance of that piece of equipment that doesn't lie in your camera bag... you know, the piece between your ears. So much of this is mental. The greater struggle for me was the differences between two cameras. I struggled early on with unfamiliarity. And while that got better I still struggled with timing. None of that is really the fault of the camera.

The biggest lesson was the observation of my reaction to the situation. It was amazing to me how the situation effected my shooting. Don't get me wrong, I still had good productive shoots. But I was very aware that my mind was on equipment and not on photographs. It was an interesting experience to realize how important it is to be comfortable with the camera in your hand. For me, it was proof of the importance in removing equipment from the equation of making good pictures. The more seamless you can make the mechanical part of the process, the more you can concentrate on the creative side of your shooting.

For me, it was proof of the importance in removing equipment from the equation of making good pictures.So, in the end, the Canon EOS 5D MK11 does fit in my work flow. It can and will do the things I want it to do. Where it falls short is in the areas my wishful thinking hoped it would "bridge" the gap. It's not going to be a reliable tool for fast action trackside shooting. But for scene setters, background shooting, pits, paddock and amazing head shots, it's great. One of the biggest surprises has been candid head shots with the 5D MK11 and my f/4 500mm lens. Great combination.

Here are a few shots from Road America using the 5D MK11