Tuesday, October 26, 2004

How to shoot fast-track auto races - Part II

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

David Starr (No. 75, left) holds off Jack Sprague (No. 16, right) during the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Silverado 350K race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Saturday, October 16, 2004.

In Part I of this post, we went over the logistics of access and pre-race preparation issues. Today we’ll discuss getting the shots. PJs expect to shoot a lot of frames at every assignment. Auto racing requires an even higher take to get solid, publishable images.

Unlike many other sports, the sequence is unpredictable. PJs may get the best shots immediately after the start and not get safe shots until halfway through the race.

Before the race
If PJs have commitments for time and print space (designated open holes), work the area around the speedway. Some racers, fans and sponsors camp on the outskirts of the speedway area or in the infield. There are hundreds of potential features and photo stories available in the camping areas.

If a team of PJs are covering the event, consider juxtaposing team owners at near-by luxury hotels with camping fans. What are the differences and similarities?

Work the parking lot for tailgate party images. These tend to be colorful and flamboyant. Try to work the speedway into the background to give the images a sense of place.

Immediately surrounding the speedway’s front gates is something similar to a race carnival. Sponsors and vendors transform semi-trailers into everything from take-away restaurants to interactive, state-of-the-art race simulators. These displays are extremely colorful and get the fans fired-up for the main event as well as creating brand loyalty. Within a few hours of the final race’s finish, they are packed up and gone. There are several visual possibilities here as well – particularly if coordinated with the Business section reporters.

PJs with pit access work the teams and crews for “down time” images. The motor crews work hard, but they also play hard and enjoy extreme sports. Look for drivers doing something unrelated to racing (cuddling children, skateboarding, playing with toys, etc...).

The pole
The “scoreboard” in an auto race is the infield pole. The pole has typical lighted numbers like other scoreboards, but it is read from top to bottom. The top number is the lap number. The name of most races includes the total number of laps. However, check to get the correct number of laps (as opposed to miles or kilometers) before the race begins. Knowing the lap number is critical as the finish of the race approaches.

Next, vehicle numbers are displayed in order from 1st to 20th down the pole. At the bottom of the pole are the lap times of the two lead vehicles.

PJs can watch the pole for changes as well as estimating if the second vehicle is about to make a move on the lead vehicle (because the lap time might be slightly higher).

Get the safe shots
Again, the safe shots aren’t sequential. Safe shots are determined by the number of starting racers in any particular race. Visual opportunity, stress (of missing “the” shot) and danger increases as the number of racers increase. Meanwhile, the number of safe shots decreases because of the previous statement. I’ll describe the absolute safest route, but scale back as the field size increases.

There is no anticipating who’ll wreck or win from the start to the finish. The absolute safe shots begin before the race. Get shots of each car (preferably with its driver) before the race begins. This lets PJs know the paint colors and patterns of each car for IDs later. At a high 45-degree angle, PJs can capture the front, top and side markings of each vehicle. It’s enough to confirm the difference between each car. The cars are displayed before each race and this allows PJs to run down the line to document each car (as well as its pole position).

Before each race, drivers are introduced and make a quick statement to the fans. Avoid "talking head at microphone" shots and work the line of drivers waiting for introductions. This gives PJs a chance to get quick mug shots or features of the racers interacting while they aren’t wearing helmets.

Watch the flags
Above the start/finish line is a flag stand. The person in this stand determines the status of the race by waiving different colored flags. It’s safe to get an image of this person waiving each color flag. We don’t know what controversies are brewing in the pits or owners’ boxes, but the flags will often be able to represent a problem.

Flag meanings:
Green flag = start (both initial start and restart)
Yellow flag = caution (wreck or debris on track)
Red flag = full stop (wreck on track / emergency situation)
White flag = one lap left
Checkered flag = finish line
Furled flag = final lap before an action (often a furled green flag before a restart)

Caution flags
After a wreck, the vehicles bunch together and move relatively slowly behind the pace car while the wreck is cleared. This is a chance to get tight shots of one to three cars per frame. If something horrible happens to one of the remaining cars, the PJ can use these images to represent the story (because the wreck was on the opposite side of the track behind a wall or some time later in a different city).

Recovered vehicles
Vehicle recovery isn’t like on the highways. The wrecker attaches a hook to the top of the disabled vehicle, lifts and off it goes to the infield. It happens within a few minutes. Because there might be some additional story about why the vehicle wrecked or had a mechanical problem, take one or two loose shots of the recovery vehicle with the car attached.

Winner’s celebration
After the finish of each NASCAR race, the winner burns some donuts near the finish line. Both the roof and infield shooters should expect and document this.

Next, there will be a standard trophy/check presentation with obligatory champagne, juice, soda or milk splashing. This is typically handled by the infield PJs because there’s not enough time for roof shooters to get the finish and make it to the infield before this is a done deal.

These images add a genuinely happy human face to a story about machines. Frequently, these images get better play than actual race images. So, although they're listed as "safe shots," they’re also required.

Luckily for PJs, the racers have seen/participated in enough of these celebrations to know how to make a good show for PJs. They play the scene like most experienced rock stars and give PJs different visual and layout options. Think of it as an elaborate touchdown dance.

What’s important?
Since the difference between vehicles is slight, the winner of a race is all about the driver and pit stops.

Drivers are judged by their aggression to the front. The most successful drivers take calculated risks and expect less-aggressive drivers to back away. It’s a millimeter game of chicken. If neither backs down, a wreck can happen and neither wins.

A driver’s aggression is visually represented by passing. A good driver takes the prime course through a track and tries to pass on the straitaways. An aggressive driver tries to pass in the turns as well (either high or low on the track). The most aggressive drivers will try to force a three-car pass (normally low on the track) and hope the other two realize the danger and back down.

Believe it or not, this may be the most exciting event of the whole race, so the PJ better get it. When all three drivers are superior, the PJ may get two or three turns to follow this battle. If any one of the three has a temporary lapse of reason, everyone goes into a wall, and the PJ is already on it.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Crew members work on Dennis Setzer's truck during the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Silverado 350K race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Saturday, October 16, 2004.

Pit stops
The machines are basically traveling from Dallas to Little Rock (New York to Virginia / Italy to Poland) in about an hour and a half. This requires lots of fuel, new tires and other repairs. Since each fraction of a second is important, all fueling, tire changes and repairs must be done simultaneously in a matter of seconds. This is done by a highly-coordinated pit team.
The team members are well-paid professionals in a potentially deadly area. A fraction of a second is also the difference between a fire and/or a broken leg in the pit. Shoot the activities of these technicians because it’s equally important to getting the win.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Alex Barron's mangled Indy car skids across the infield during the IRL Chevy 500 race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Sunday, October 17, 2004.

Look for wrecks
As with everything else, I don’t wish a wreck on anyone. I hope all the racers finish. However, most of the time, they won’t. Machines break. Editors and readers expect to see wrecks if they happen. PJs are expected to get these (preferably mid-air with a clean background).

Wrecks can happen anywhere on the track at any time. However, there are some predictable situations to watch. An additional problem is speed. If a car even wiggles, hit the auto-winder because the car will disintegrate faster than the brain can tell the finger to shoot.

Major wrecks occur when vehicles are close together. The likelihood of a wreck is increased in the turns. Each track has one or two turns which are wreck magnets. When all are combined, it’s obvious where to watch.

Bunched vehicles
If a vehicle loses a tire, it will spin and wreck. If it’s surrounded by other cars at the time, they all share the joy. Consequently, major wrecks are most likely at the beginning of the race or at restarts after a yellow-flag caution.

For PJs, it’s like jumping on a bus going 60 mph. The cars move slowly for several laps during the yellow, the green is waived, the cars accelerate and another wreck happens. If PJs aren’t ready, it’s over.

To be ready for an initial wreck, follow the largest groups of vehicles during the majority of the race. This is the most likely place for problems. The leader is the least likely to wreck because s/he normally has more time to react (unless passing the tail at the time). The group directly behind the leader is the most aggressive, so it’s the best place to look.

Similarly, when one vehicle tries to pass another vehicle, they may get very close together and occasionally bump. Get the bump, but if the bump is too hard and either vehicle loses traction, both may go for a tumble.

Although fast-tracks are banked, vehicles are most likely to lose traction in the turns. If the track gets wet, expect dangerous turns.

Trick turns
No matter how well a track is engineered, each turn or curve has its own character. Typically one turn creates more problems for drivers than others. Knowing which turn is most likely to cause problems is good for PJs.

Research the track’s history and/or ask other PJs or fans which turns create the most problems. Find a position to cover this particular turn and watch it particularly when more than one vehicle tries to take it at the same time.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Chad Blount (No. 2, left) spins out and pushes Denny Hamlin (No. 03, right) into the wall during the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Silverado 350K race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Saturday, October 16, 2004.

Secondary wrecks
Although PJs may miss the primary wreck, get on it quick because a wreck normally causes secondary wrecks. A damaged car slows down and/or may veer in any direction. Meanwhile, other cars are speeding into the wreck area. This causes additional braking and swerving. Secondary wreck can be caused by both the reaction to the initial wreck or from the original wreck skidding and entering the track again at a different location.

Try something creative
For most of the race, nothing visually significant happens. For PJs running two camera rigs, this allows time for some experimentation. Try some slower exposure pans with the vehicles to blur colorful backgrounds or foregrounds. It’s also interesting to juxtapose still items (people in lawn chairs on motor homes) against the blurring cars on the track.

Some other novel ideas can be silhouettes, nighttime flash synchs, layering speeding vehicles inside interesting foreground elements, reflections, negative space experiments or any number of other gadgets in the PJ toolbox.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Helio Castroneves of Sao Paulo, Brazil takes the checkered flag to win the IRL Chevy 500 race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth on Sunday, October 17, 2004.

Get the finish
I can’t overstate the importance of this singular frame (at these speeds, there’s only one frame). The whole day’s shoot (as well as time trials) leads to this one frame. Better have it or quickly catch the next plane to “anywhere.”

Plan for the finish
There are no visual surprises with the finish of a fast-track race. A vehicle (maybe two) crosses a specific line on the track at a specific speed after a specific number of laps. The PJ must be in place, have fresh batteries and disks/film and know what and how to shoot before the white flag lap.

Before the race, find the best position for a clear shot at the finish line. This isn’t normally the best place to shoot the race, so look at it from several angles. PJs want an unobstructed view and a clean background with a clear view of the finish line and, preferably, the checkered flag.

If PJs cover time trials or more than one race, they should practice timing the finish for each type of vehicle. Since every camera has a different shutter lag time, it’s best to know exactly when to shoot to align the vehicles with the finish line. A few test frames on dit cameras is strongly advised.

When the race has 20 laps left, change batteries. When only five laps remain, get in position and change to new disks and/or film. This should eliminate the sinking feeling some experience when the camera won’t fire at the exact moment it MUST. It also makes editing easier on deadline.

Execute the finish
As the race draws to a close, the PJ is in the right place with fresh batteries and disks/film. The PJ also knows the shutter lag time and has a visual shooting mark to compensate for the microsecond delay.

However, this still doesn’t guaranty a decent image. To get a good shot, we go back to the photography basics: exposure, timing and focus. We have already have timing figured out.

Next, during the last lap or two, use one or more alternate means to verify correct exposure. Because the track may be black or near white with a broad white painted line, PJs may need to manually control the exposure for the finish. Additionally, the winning car might be white or black and again give a wrong meter reading. Set the correct exposure for the light falling on the finish line.

The last of the three elements is focus. Autofocus doesn’t mean it can focus on a speeding auto at the right time. Switch to manual focus and prefocus on the finish line with enough depth-of-field to handle the difference between the ground and the top of the driver’s head or vehicle.

Lastly, get it. Look at the pole to spot the correct leader. As the leader comes into view, pan the camera with the car until it hits the shutter lag marker and shoot and wind through a few frames (there could still be a wreck after the finish). Notice how the first shot is actually the only shot expected.

If a PJ expects to get the finish with frames per second, the finish will be missed. The vehicle will speed over the finish line at around 3/8000ths of a second. Even at 6 FPS, this gives a PJ 7,994 chances to fail. I’d rather take the 1-in-3 chance.

By panning on the leader, the PJ ensures the vehicle is the sharpest object in the frame. Otherwise, the car still blurs.

If PJs don’t want to risk as much on 3/8000ths of a second, they can increase their odds by dropping down EV toward a slower shutter speed. This creates more area blur -- not particularly bad if one’s trying to show speed -- and is more forgiving of timing (249 chances of failure at 1/250th vs. 1,999 at 1/2000th).

Enough for now,

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