Accidents Happen: A Crash Course in Racing Photography




An article I wrote several years ago for "Crash and Burn" Magazine:

Racing is a sport just begging to be photographed! It's filled with color, beauty, excitement, action, and emotion. The racing photographer has his hands full just trying to record all the routine things that happen at the racetrack. But what about when things go wrong? Photographs of racing crashes make some of the most spectacular pictures in all of sports photography.
So, how does the photographer improve his chances of getting great crash photos at the track?
Following are ten tricks I've picked up in nearly thirty years of racing photography.


1.KNOW YOUR RACETRACK
While it's true that a crash can happen at any time or place on a race track, all tracks have their potential trouble spots. On Daytona's 2.5 mile tri-oval it could be coming off of turns 2 or 4. Motorcycles tend to have trouble in Daytona's chicane.
If you're not familiar with a track, check out a course layout map. A tight turn after a long, fast straightaway is a possible trouble-maker, for instance. Also, you could just ask someone who is familiar with the track to point out areas that have the potential for some action.


2. PRE-FOCUS
Once you've picked out that potential trouble spot, pre-focus on a place on the track where you feel the action might occur. Concentrate mainly on that spot, but if trouble happens anywhere nearby, it will be relatively easy to adjust your focus to the offending area.
Also, if you focus temporarily on something close-up, say a bikini-clad race fan, don't forget to reset your focus to your selected area when you're finished shooting that fan.



3. KEEP YOUR SHUTTER SPEED UP
You should always try to keep your shutter speed up to at least 1/500th of a second, preferably 1/100th of a
second or even faster when possible. Of course, some of racing1s nicest pictures are blurry-background pan shots of speeding race cars, and to make these photos you1ll need to drop your shutter speed way down. That's OK, but don't keep it there too long, and always remember to reset it to 1/500th of a second or higher just as soon as you1re done with the pan shots!
Also, if things get really dark in the late afternoon or under cloudy skies, you might consider going to a film rated at ISO 400, 1000, or even 1600, or pushing the film that1s in your camera so that you don1t have to drop your shutter speed too low. If you're shooting digital media, just crank your ISO up as high as you need to.It's better to have a slightly noisy or grainy properly exposed photo than a badly under-exposed image that cannot be salvaged. Keep in mind that shooting a crash picture at too low a shutter speed is about the same as not shooting it at all!


4. THIRTYSOMETHING
Always be aware of how many frames you have remaining on you digital media and try to have at least 30 available or, if you're shooting film, try to use 36 exposure rolls of film whenever possible. This simply gives you more frames to work with. Keep an eye on the frame counter, though, and think about changing digital storage cards or loading a fresh roll when you fewer than 20 frames remaining. Otherwise you could easily end up with no pictures left in your camera when the big crash happens right in front of you.
I know one photographer who had a bird1s eye view of Darrell Waltrip's unbelievable barrel roll down Daytona's backstretch a few years ago. Only problem was, when he pressed down his shutter button his camera fired one shot, then ran out of film! Oh well, at least he had a good view of it.




5. DON'T FORGET THE MOTORDRIVE
Many cameras have built-in motor- drives these days, and I think that is a great idea. Without a drive you have to move the camera away from
your eye and advance the film manually between pictures and you end up missing too much.
A drive which advances your film
at at least 3 frames per second is a tremendous help in photographing racing crashes. In fact, twice since 1984 I1ve shot an entire 36 exposure roll of film on a single crash with the help of a motordrive.


6. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE SPECTATOR AREAS
Don't have a pass to get up by the track where all the pros are shooting? Don't despair. Everyone's got to start somewhere, and sometimes the pictures taken from the grandstands can be better than the ones shot by the pros.
Also, a really nice picture made from the spectator area can open doors for you at the local newspaper or even with a national wire service or
magazine, which could eventually lead to press passes.
My very own first crash picture was shot through a fence at Daytona Speedway and got me on the front page of papers throughout the country when the Associated Press picked up the photo!



7. WHEN YOU CAN'T USE YOUR EYES, USE YOUR EARS!
Sometimes you might be positioned in a spot where you can1t actually see the cars coming to you. So how can you tell when trouble starts? Listen for it!
The loud BOOM! of a blown tire, or popping of an engine coming undone can mean a crash is coming your way! So can an over-revving engine that results from tires losing traction on the racing surface.
Wear a radio headset or a scanner, as they1ll definitely let you know when there1s trouble on the track and exactly where it is.
Often even a sudden roar or gasp from the crowd will alert you to something going awry on the racetrack.
This was the case during the 1984 Pole Clash at Daytona. I was covering pit road, but didn1t have a radio with me that day. On one lap, as the leaders were exiting turn four and still out of my view, I heard a huge collective gasp go up from the grandstands as the crowd jumped to its feet. The leaders came into view, but one car was missing from the pack. While I was trying to figure out who was no longer in the lead group of cars, Ricky Rudd1s Thunderbird exploded into view, flipping violently end over end and side over side in the grass about 100 feet in front of me. I managed to get my camera up and get a few shots. If not for that strange noise from the crowd, I probably
wouldn1t have known anything was amiss and I1d probably been totally unprepared for the big crash coming my way. I would most likely have missed the whole thing!


8. FOLLOW THE LEADER
Remember, when one car spins, many others often follow suit. Try to shoot a few frames of a spinning car, then take a quick glance up the track to see if any cars following the instigator are also experiencing trouble in his wake (or his spilled oil!) Keep in mind that accidents are more likely to happen when the cars are bunched up right after the start of a race or after a restart following a caution flag, so this is the time to keep your shutter speed high and your camera at your eye!




9. DEVELOP AN EYE FOR DETAIL
Watch the racers carefully as they pass you lap after lap. A wisp of smoke might be a sign that an engine is about to let go. A wiggling rear end could tell you that a driver is having handling problems or that a tire is going down on his car. A frustrated faster car having problems getting around a slower competitor might lead to his taking a risk he might not otherwise take.
A fast pack of cars running up on a slow pack might mean trouble.
Observing any little detail of the race could help you to anticipate an accident about to happen on the track.


10. SAVE A SHOT
Always try to save a frame or two for after the smoke has cleared, as often great pictures can be made of a driver exiting his crashed race car at the end of the wreck.
While these tips might help you to get good crash and burn photos, there is one other thing to keep in mind. The race track is a dangerous place
where almost anything can happen when things go wrong, so while you1re out there looking for great photos remember to look out for yourself, too!
Keep something sturdy between you and the race cars so you won1t become part of the accident you1re trying to photograph!
Yes, racing is an incredibly fast sport and the keys to your success in getting good track action pictures are anticipation and the ability to keep up with the rapidly unfolding circumstances and react to them quickly. Earlier we compared racing photography to golf, bowling and other sports. I think this comparison can be carried even further. In most of these sports, the more you practice, the better you get. This holds true in motorsports photography as well. Practice is the only way to keep your eye sharp and your reflexes in tune. So pick up your cameras and get out there and practice, practice, practice!



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