Rally Photography for Beginners

May 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Rally Photography for Beginners

David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew through the jump on SS3.David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew through the jump on SS3.David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew through the jump on SS3.

Rally races are exciting motorsport events and offer numerous opportunities to capture great images with exciting natural and manmade backgrounds.  Photographing rallies is one of my passions and while there are many more talented photographers covering rally, I thought I would share some of the tips and techniques I have learned over the last few years. 

Whether you are a beginner or an advanced photographer starting out with rally photography, this guide is for you.  I assume you have a digital SLR camera and one or more lenses and have some basic photographic knowledge and are ready to switch from full auto mode.  Work with the gear you have and learn to maximize the features of your camera and lens. You will always see others with better gear; however, you can accomplish great shots with minimal equipment and some practice. 

I shoot with Nikon gear for no other reason than that’s what I started with several years ago. While some terms are specific to Nikon, the principles are the same for other manufacturers.  Please consult the user guide for terminology specific to your gear. 

Before we even get started with the photography tips, please be aware that photographing rally races poses an inherent risk, which you can minimize by:

  • Adhering to ALL safety regulations set by the organizers. 
  • Staying within the safe zones designated by the organizers.
  • Having someone by your side as your spotter.
  • Not crossing a live or hot stage.
  • Goes without saying but please use common sense.

Please keep in mind that no image is worth your safety or a trip to the hospital or worse.  At the risk of sounding cliché, safety, yours and those around you, is paramount.  Furthermore, the internet is not very forgiving with memes of photographers standing at the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ve been warned.

One last thing, I enjoy writing as much as I do going to the dentist, hell English is not even my first language, so if something doesn’t read right, keep calm say foda-se and read on.

Hope you enjoy these tips and that they help you somehow.

 

Tips for Rally Photography

I know you came here for the tips, so here they are.  If you want to learn more, just keep reading, the technical mumbo jumbo is towards the end.  Also keep in mind all of these shots were taken from general spectator spots, not places reserved for media.

Slightly darker conditions, ISO 500:

STPR16-26Under low light conditions open your aperture and bump your ISO. Shot with Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm at 30mm, 1/10, f/7.1, ISO 500. Adam Kimmett / Adam Moore (1996 Subaru Impreza - OL class)

Dark conditions, ISO 2000:

stpr15-1713In low light conditions, bump up your ISO. Here I pushed it to ISO 2000 and you can notice some noise in the dirt section. This was also shot with an older Nikon D90 and newer models are much better at high ISO. 55-300mm lens at 58mm, 1/80, f/4.5, ISO 2000The 200th of a second battle between Higgins/Drew and the Yeoman/Schulze at STPR 15.

  • When using flash photography, expose for the background and light up your subject.

  • Use rear curtain sync with flash for proper light trails.

  • You love your digital camera but wish you could upload to your social media networks right from it.  Don’t despair!  While some cameras have built in wi-fi, you can also purchase a memory card that contains a wi-fi chip and accomplish the same.  I use the Eyefi MobiPRO 32GB, it’s not the fastest of cards but fast enough.  This way I can quickly share a shot from my camera while on stage or at the super specials.

  • When you are ready for more Borrowlenses.com is a great site to rent professional lenses, for Nikon, Canon and others.  For this shot I used a Tamron 200-500 f/5 that I rented from Borrowlenses.com.  That thing was like a canon and could shoot from really far away.  stpr15-1323Shot with a Tamron 200-500mm lens at 270mm for a what it looked like a mile away ;-). Nikon D90, 1/640, f/7.1, ISO 200.Lens was rented from Borrowlenses.com.

 

Technical Mumbo Jumbo

You have read this far, so stick around for a bit longer for the technical details in involved in rally photography, and photography in general.

 

Focus

You need auto focus with a fast-moving race car, the question is what mode works best for the scene you want to capture.  One option is continuous auto focus, which will keep the focus point set on your subject as it moves as long as you are pressing the shutter button half way.  The other option is for single auto focus, where the camera locks in to a particular focus point and won’t re-focus.  There’s also manual focus, but you can’t really use it on fast moving cars unless it’s preset. During the daytime, you will probably be shooting somewhere along the f/5.6 to f/8.0 aperture range.  At those aperture values the depth of field is large enough that picking any spot on the car will most likely result in the whole car being sharply in focus. Having said that, I try to lock in to the driver’s, or co-driver’s door, as it is about the middle of the car and with numbers and other decals in there you have enough areas of contrast to assist with the focus and the whole car will be sharp.  If you have a pro level fast lens and are shooting at f/2.8 your depth of field is going to be much smaller and you will need to consider what you need in focus.  At f/2.8 chances are that focusing on the door will leave most of the car in focus with both ends of the car looking a bit less sharp. 

There will be times when autofocus can get tricky or too slow for your camera causing you to miss the shot.  What you can do is focus near the middle of the road where you want to capture the car, and press the auto-focus lock button (usually in the back of the camera).  Now you are ready, when the next car approaches just get ready to press the shutter.  As long as you don’t move too much from your spot, you are good to go.

If you are having trouble auto focusing at night, use a small flash light (sometimes works better than the auto focus light from the flash) to illuminate the area you expect the car will be, and get the focus.  You can use your phone’s flash light if don’t have one handy.  Once you have the focus set, switch your camera and or lens to manual mode and voila, you’re ready to fire off at night without delay.  Since it’s night time, and you won’t get any ambient light from a shutter fast enough for the car’s motion, set your aperture to around f/7.1 or f/8 to increase the depth of field so you ensure the car will be in focus.

 

Metering

Think of metering as your camera’s ability to analyze the scene and determine the optimal settings for a balanced exposure.  Metering works with your focus points to determine the exposure.  Basically, you 3 options for metering are:

  • Spot metering

  • Center weighted metering

  • Matrix metering 

I want the car to stand out so I prefer to use center weighted.  Spot metering could work as well but it would be a lot less forgiving if you picked the wrong spot to focus on.  Finally, matrix metering, will calculate exposure including the car and a larger area around the car which could result in the car blending too much with the overall scene.

 

Height

Where you are standing plays a key role in the framing your shot. Generally, I prefer shots from about eye level as it shows the car in a good angle and you can usually catch the expressions of the driver or the co-driver. Having said that, shots from higher up, or lower, can create dramatic effects, particularly in mountainous areas, where you can capture the car going up or down a stage.  Look around you and try to visualize the shot before the stage goes live.  Whatever location you choose just be sure it’s safe and you have an “oh shit” plan.

 

Panning

Newsflash, race cars are fast. So why do some photos look like the race car is parked on stage, or enjoying a lazy Sunday drive?  No, the decals won’t help it move along.  A static shooting position and a shutter speed that’s set too high will freeze motion and it will look as if the car is completely stopped.  To create an image that evokes the feeling of speed, you need 2 things:

  • Slower shutter speed,

  • Horizontal movement following the car.

It’s been my experience the settings work well for panning:

  • Set you shutter to the fastest burst mode.

  • Set your shutter speed as needed.

  • Set your metering to center weighted.

  • Set your focus to continuous auto focus.

TIP: While Nikon cameras with Nikon lenses with vibration reduction can detect panning, some may not and thus you might need to turn off the vibration reduction feature on your lens for panning to work properly.

First lower the shutter speed to about 1/100 or 1/125 but keep in mind that time of day and overall lighting conditions will determine the best shutter speed.  Secondly don’t shoot just standing there like a statue, move.  More specifically rotate your torso and pan by following the car from the moment you see it, pressing the shutter half-way, until it goes past you, and then gently press the shutter for the picture you want when you want it, and continue to following through with the motion until the car is out of the scene, or you are starting to look like you are doing some dance on stage. 

Make sure you keep both feet planted and only move your torso during the panning.  Only move horizontally, use a monopod if you need extra support.  Also keep in mind the relative speed of the car will change during your panning, being slower when it’s farther away from you on the entry and exit, but faster when it’s in front of you.  Your panning speed should follow the car’s relative speed.  This is another time where planning your shots will benefit you.  Have an idea of what you want to capture and where along that panning trajectory you want to capture it.  It could be right in front of you, on entry or exit, it’s your shot so it’s up to you.  Whichever image you want, zoom in with that shot in mind, but not too close as you can always adjust that later.

Choose a spot where you won’t have any obstacles during the panning.  Generally, shutter speeds of less than 1/30 or so increase unwanted motion and blur. But that could be just me with my gazillions cups of coffee a day.  Practice and then practice some more as this is one technique that can be painfully frustrating (but it helps to build vulgar vocabulary) but also very rewarding.  Stay on the side of the road and practice with moving cars, bikes or even dogs running at the park.

 

Burst Mode

Allows your camera to take several pictures in rapid succession, with the same exposure settings, to ensure you get the shot. While it is a great feature I use it sparingly to avoid the shoot-and-pray-I-get-a-decent-shot.  Why? Simply because you will end up with thousands of pictures and you will find yourself in post-processing hell determining which one to pick out of anywhere from 3 to 10 images virtually identical.  Unless you have loads of free time to analyze those pictures to see what went right and what didn’t, you won’t learn as much.  Personally, I’d rather lose a shot and see it why right away.  That experience has taught me to be more selective and careful when shooting, which allowed me to improve my style and technique.  While I have sold images from rallies, I do it as a passion and if I were to do it professionally, I’d probably shoot a little bit differently. Another reason, you will go through your battery and memory cards a lot faster, so be sure you have extra batteries and memory cards handy. 

 

Low Light and Flash Photography

Super special stages at night are fun to watch but super tricky to photograph.  There’s hardly any light, and there’s the reason for those awesome looking light pods on the rally cars.  So, what can you do?  Oh I know, I know, I will add flash. Piece of cake.  I’ll wait … How did that work out for you?  Not good ah?  During the super special stages, you are usually farther away from the cars and your zoon will out reach your flash.  The key is to increase the light sensitivity of the sensor by bumping the ISO to much higher levels, like ISO 1600 or even ISO 3200 and beyond and no flash. In most cameras, you can set the ISO so that it adjusts as needed for an optimal exposure.  This paired with either aperture or shutter priority will help you tremendously.  Just keep in mind higher ISO values increase digital noise, the pictures are grainy, and some cameras are better dealing with it than others.  Again, practice until you find a balance between a good picture and acceptable noise levels.

If you are lucky to be shooting night stages, your flash can help you get the shot and even add some dramatic light trail effects.  When using flash photography, the idea is to expose for the background and then add enough light to illuminate the subject.  If you have a flash capable of TTL you can set it to that mode and the flash will determine the right flash exposure.  If you don’t, don’t worry, set it to 1/16 of power and work your way up or down from there.  If you are getting a picture that is half black and half somewhat decently exposed, that means you are using too fast of a shutter speed for your flash.  Unless a flash is capable of High Speed Sync it won’t work past shutter speeds of 1/200 or 1/250.

Speaking of dramatic effects remember that tail lights belong towards the back of the car and headlights to the front. Ah? Have you seen night exposures of cars where the light trail emitted from the tail lamps is in front of the car? A flashes fires when the shutter first opens and doing that will cause the light trails to shift forward.  To avoid this when shooting cars at night set your flash to rear curtain sync, where the flash fire right before the shutter closes.  If you aren’t getting the light trails it usually means your shutter speed is set too high.  The light trails require some ambient light, so you need to get more ambient light by using larger aperture (smaller f/ number).

TIP: Shutter speed doesn’t affect the flash exposure; however, aperture affects both ambient and the flash exposure.

 

Post Processing

You have spent a few bucks getting your camera and lenses and other stuff, now do yourself a favor and subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan. This plan includes Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, for either Mac or PC, and retails for about $120 a year. Nope, no excuses, I know there are free photo editing software, I have tried a number of them before I switched to Lightroom some 8 years ago and I’ve never looked back.  The Lightroom/Photoshop combo is what you need.  Period.  Plenty of tutorials online on how to use them. Or maybe I can write a follow up article on Lightroom? Nah, YouTube it.

 

Light

Understanding light and managing it to obtain the best photographs is one characteristic that separates good photos from great photos.  Regardless of what camera and lens you have, light can be managed with aperture, shutter speed and the ISO sensitivity. Whenever possible shoot with the sun at your back and towards the car.  Before you settle in a spot, look around and see how the sun is hitting the stage. If the sun is in front of you try positioning yourself so it hides behind trees or other obstacles.

 

Aperture

Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening and it is expressed in numbers preceded by f/, like f/5.6 or f/2.8.  The lower the number the larger the opening and the more light it passes through the lens and into the sensor.  Aperture numbers, or f stops, are usually given in 1/3 steps and with each full step, the cameral allows double the amount of light in, or half.  Changing the aperture by 1 full stop (3 clicks on your camera dial) from f/5.6 to f/4 doubles the amount of light reaching the camera sensor.  In like manner, going 1 full stop from f/8 to f/11, reduces the amount of light by half.  Wider apertures have small f/ stop numbers, like f/4 while small apertures have larger f/stop numbers, like f/11. Therefore aperture affects ambient and flash exposures as well as depth of field.

 

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed refers to the amount of time light is allowed to enter the sensor.  Shutter speeds are indicated in hundredths of a second as in 1/100 or in full seconds as in 1”.  Slower shutter speeds (lower numbers) allow more ambient light in because the shutter is opened longer.  Because of that it is also more susceptible to camera shake and blur.  Fast shutter speeds, like 1/500 or higher numbers are not susceptible to camera shake and blur and can in fact freeze motion.  If you are practicing at home, set the camera to Shutter Priority and take a picture of the water flowing out of a garden house at 1/50 of a second and another at 1/500 of second and compare the two.

 

Aperture Priority Mode

Now that you understand the photography trio of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, how can you manage them to get the shot?  Aperture priority will let you choose the aperture and will set the shutter speed and ISO settings for a balanced exposure.  You can also restrict the ISO setting so it is not affected. 

 

Shutter Priority Mode

In shutter priority mode, you set the shutter speed and the camera handles the rest for a balanced exposure.

 

Programmed Auto Mode

In programmed auto mode (not to be confused with full auto mode) the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed for a balanced exposure. You can change either the aperture or shutter and the camera will adjust the other, in essence, it is Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority bundled in one.

 

Manual Mode

In manual mode you have complete creative control over the exposure to get the results you want.

 

ISO

The ISO refers to the sensitivity of the sensor in the way it records light.  The lower the number, like ISO 100, the less sensitive to light.  In bright sunny days use lower ISO settings and in darker days use higher like ISO 400.  For night time photography without a flash you may need to push the ISO much higher, like into the ISO 1250 or even higher.  Please note that with higher ISO settings you will get more digital noise, the grainy spots in a picture, and the amount will vary per camera model.

 

White Balance

White balance refers to how your camera distinguishes and sets the color based on the type of light available.  You can certainly leave it in Automatic white balance mode most of the time.  In bright sunny days, I’d recommend changing to Sunny and on cloudy days to Cloudy.  During night time, it gets tricky with multiple color lights, from street lamps, car lights, and others, so you will most likely need to change it to auto white balance mode as well.

 

Depth of Field

Simply put, depth of field is the acceptable area of an image that’s in focus. Images with wider apertures have a shallower the depth of field.  If you want to blur your background, to call more attention to your subject, start with a wider aperture.  Also, the distance between your camera and the subject after the depth of field.  The farther you are from the subject while using a zoom lens, the more blurred your background will be.

 

Wide or Zoom

Zoom lenses are great for all kinds of photography as they allow you to shoot from larger distances and will help with the blurred backgrounds.  Most entry level zoom lenses can go to about 200mm and that’s more than enough from most rally photos.  However, zoom lenses at longer ranges only allow for a very small area of what you see.  You may not be able capture the S-shaped trail leading to where you are standing.  So again before you settle for a spot, look around and take test shots and see what works better for you. If you have a ‘kit’ lens in the the 18-105mm range you are well covered for wide and close up shots.  Keep in mind that Nikon crop sensor cameras have a 1.5x multiplier rate and Canon’s have a 1.6x.  What that mean is that your ‘kit’ 18-105mm lens is now a 27mm-157mm lens.  In layman’s terms, a crop sensor camera gives your lens more reach.

 

Full Frame vs Crop Sensor

So what are crop sensors and what are full frame cameras?  Simply put Full frame (35mm equivalent) cameras have a larger sensor and can capture more of the scene while allowing more light in as well.  Is that important in rally photography?  Not at all.  Unless you spent a few thousand dollars in your camera alone, you have a crop sensor, and that’s all you really need.  Besides, with the crop sensor multiplier (1.5x on Nikons) your 200mm lens is now a 300mm lens.

 

RAW and RAW+JPEG

I keep hearing this RAW thing, what is it and do I need it?  In layman’s terms RAW is to a JPEG the same way a negative film is to a printed picture.  The RAW format is all of the digital information captured by the sensor during that frame, whereas the JPG is the processed image.  The JPG image contains less data and it is therefore smaller in size.  Do I need to shoot it in RAW for rally?  Unless you want to spend a lot more time going through the images and exporting as JPGs, you won’t need to shoot in RAW.  The plus side, since JPGs are smaller you get more images in your card.  RAW + JPEG is a feature of most cameras that write a RAW file and the corresponding JPEG file at the same time.  When I do shoot in RAW+JPEG I only use the JPEG version for a preview or to share an unedited photo.

 

Hope you've enjoyed reading this article and found at least one topic that piqued your interest.  Feel free to comment on it.

Happy shooting!

 



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