Speed Demon; Photographing Race Cars With Canon's Digital Rebel

Photographing race cars is a challenge no matter what kind of camera you use. Most people think that all they need is high ISO, fast shutter speed, and a long lens with a large aperture a.k.a. "big glass." Toss in a high frame per second continuous shooting mode and with a little practice you too can make great looking photographs of fast moving cars. That's the kind of advice that makes me crazy. You can photograph anything you want using whatever gear you have as long as you're aware of its capabilities and limitations.

Ya gotta get a photograph of the race winner. In this case it was the Team Joest Audi R8 driven by Frank Biela and Marco Werner caught as it exits the bottom of the "corkscrew" turn and heads on to victory. Image made with Canon Digital Rebel, 100-400mm IS zoom, at f/16 with 1/250 sec and ISO 200.
Photos © 2003, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

On Track With The Rebel
When photographing the American LeMans Series race in Monterey, California (www.laguna-seca.com), I violated almost all of these "rules of thumb." I took along a few of my own lenses, borrowed some from Canon USA, and used their under $1000 Digital Rebel SLR.

I was surprised by the Digital Rebel's rugged construction. As much as I love the 35mm Rebel Ti (big, bright focusing screen, lightning fast autofocus) it doesn't have the same build quality as my EOS 1n, but the Digital Rebel feels like a real SLR, solidly constructed with controls that blend those of Canon's high-end digital
point-and-shooters with digital SLRs like the EOS D60. All camera controls are clearly marked, ergonomically correct, and easy to use.

Lens Options
For less than $1000, you can purchase a Digital Rebel kit that includes a DR-specific 18-35mm lens that won't work or even mount on any other Canon EOS camera--at this time anyway. I asked Canon if the 18-35mm DR lens represents a new class of lenses, like Nikon's DX digital series but they gave me a polite "no comment."

In the paddock area, I like to use an EF 28-105mm, but made a few scenic shots with the 18-35mm around Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf where it performed well and delivered remarkably sharp images. The longer reach of the EF 28-105mm works better for tight shots of the drivers, but then again, that doesn't always produce the most dramatic images. For people pictures in and around the pit or paddock areas, I also like to use flash, especially with Digital Rebel's E-TTL capability, which guarantees just about perfect fill flash exposures. During race weekend, I attached a Canon 420EX shoe-mount flash, turned it on, set the camera on P, and made a few test shots, adjusting exposure compensation accordingly (more on exposure compensation later). OK, now you know all of my fill-flash secrets.

The best time to get a group of cars together is on the parade or pace lap that precedes the race. They are usually going at the Pit Lane speed of about 60mph (depending on the track) and are bunched up in tight groups so it's easy to get a lot of cars in one shot. Once the green flag drops, the differences in speed between cars shows up in small clumps of cars racing one another. Image made with Canon Digital Rebel,
100-400mm IS zoom, at f/22 with 1/250th sec and ISO 200.

Practice Day
The day before a race is usually reserved for practice and there may be one or two sessions depending on the size of the event. NASCAR races usually have additional practice time they call "happy hour" but the purpose is the same--to fine-tune the cars' suspension setups to extract maximum performance. You can use that same time to practice as well, by working on techniques, checking lens selection and picking out places for on the track that will produce dramatic action-filled shots, all of which will enhance your performance on race day.

Panning Techniques
One of the most useful techniques for photographing race cars is called "panning" and involves capturing a race car in motion moving from left to right (or right to left) horizontally across the frame. During panning the car is captured in sharp focus against a blurred background that emphasizes the car's speed. Some race cars are easier to photograph this way than others and the rapid Audi R8's in the American LeMans Series races are difficult to photograph because they are also the fastest.

I set the Digital Rebel's mode control knob on TV and initially chose a shutter speed of 1/250 sec for panning. If you've ever used any Canon SLR, heck even some of their point-and-shooters, you probably already know how to set camera modes on the Digital Rebel (See Facts.)

You can always stake out a location (see Safety sidebar), use a fast shutter speed and stop the car--dead--on the track, but that makes it look as if it were parked, not doing 160mph. So use your practice time to practice panning. Keep both eyes open so you can see the car coming and frame the car well before you plan to snap the shutter. Follow the car until it's where you want in the viewfinder, tripping the shutter as you continuously pan the camera.

Don't stop after you click the shutter! Follow through, maintaining a smooth motion so the camera isn't jerked at the end of the exposure to ruin the effect. Some race photographers prefer to shoot panning with manual focus, but the Digital Rebel's autofocus is so fast that all of my panning shots were made in continuous autofocus mode and were tack sharp. As you get more experienced you can lower the shutter speed to increase background blur. Some shooters who photograph drag races use shutter speeds as low as 1/15 sec to create "jiggle shake" that adds to the ground-shaking effects that Top Fuel Dragsters or Funny Cars produce.

Panning helps add some motion along with a shutter speed that blurs the wheels so this Millennium Yellow Chevrolet Corvette doesn't look like it's parked on the track during practice instead of blasting by me at ear shattering decibels. Image made with Canon Digital Rebel, L 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lens at f/20 with 1/250 sec and ISO 200.

Comin' At You
Cars moving toward you are a different story and here again the Digital Rebel's fast, accurate autofocus let me capture sharp images on areas of Laguna Seca, such as the aptly-named "Corkscrew," where not only are the cars slowing for twists and turns but it provides a place where slow-moving cars are overtaken by faster ones, which provided opportunities for photographs involving more than one car. For some of the other tight places on the track, I used high shutter speeds, such as 1/2000, to capture action that is obvious in the car's position relative to one another.

Whatever you do, use practice time to stake out these spots to find out where you want to be during race day. Some car shooters use manual focus in these places as well or select the main, center AF point, for autofocus, but I used the old fill-the-frame rule and let the Digital Rebel take care of autofocusing and it never let me down all weekend long.

When faster cars overtake slower ones, such as the race winning Audio R8 coming upon a GT3 car, the faster cars only slows down momentarily--usually the slower one moves out of the way and is directed to do so by a flag waving official. This is a good time to get some close action shots. Image made with Canon Digital Rebel, L 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 lens (at 200mm) at f/9 with 1/2000 sec and ISO 200.

Race Day
Under racing conditions, exposure can be tricky with white cars than black ones blasting past you and the glare off shiny windshields and car bodies. For practice and race day, I set the ISO equivalent at 200 and made adjustments using the camera's exposure compensation controls. I thought it would be more of a pain to use the Rebel's point-and-shoot like buttons than the EOS 10D's (one of their other digital SLR) convenient control wheel, but the Digital Rebel's five button pad proved to be remarkably easy to adjust for changing light conditions and other adjustments, such as image viewing and editing images on the 1.8" LCD screen.

Most of the images you see here were made at 1/2 to one full stop less exposure than indicated as determined by reviewing images as I shot them and making corrections. This was especially important during race day when the lighting conditions were not ideal. I think they pick the times for TV coverage ("Hi Dad, I was on NBC") not for the best still photography and chances are the photo of the winning Team Joest Audi R8 that appeared in Autoweek magazine was probably made during practice, because the light was so much better.

Staying Power
Battery life was remarkable. While Canon says an accessory battery pack will hold two batteries along with a vertical release, the 10D, will double the battery power of the DR and will be available; although none were available for testing at Monterey. Nevertheless on race day I shot more than 1GB of large JPEG files and the camera still had more power available at the end of the day. I'm not a battery Scrooge either and had the preview screen set for 8 second display and used downtime to edit out all of my clunkers, which also burns battery power, but the Digital Rebel performed well under these conditions.

I kept the camera set for continuous shooting the entire time. I prefer to shoot short bursts rather than holding down the button and "letting it rip" at the cameras rated 2.5 fps. But the camera performed well and, based on my experience, that 2.5 fps appears to be a conservative rating. No, the Digital Rebel won't deliver 8 fps like its big brother the Canon EOS 1Ds, but then again, you'll have enough money left over after purchasing a Digital Rebel to buy a used Mazda Miata or maybe some of that "big glass."

How The Photographs Were Made
All of the images you see are unmanipulated. They may have had some minor dodging or burning curves or level adjustments, but nothing more than rudimentary digital darkroom work. Essentially the photographs are as they came out of the camera. Only one of the photographs was cropped (from the top to eliminate visual clutter) in any way, including the photograph of me made with a Canon EOS 1Ds and 200mm f/2.8 lens. The 1.6 multiplication factor of the Digital Rebel means that you are already cropping in the camera and the lenses I used to capture these images worked well on a wide meandering track like Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

A Word About Safety
Racecourses are fun, but hanging out with fast cars can be dangerous. When working in the pits during a race, not only will you need the proper press credentials, you'll also be required to wear a Nomex fire suit. Even when strolling through the paddock area, which allows spectator access, be aware that not only are there cars moving around, but all kinds of small vehicles that transport people are on the move as well. This is a heads up situation.

In the paddock, long pants and long sleeve shirts are recommended and don't forget sunscreen and a hat! While photographing race cars close to the track, wear some kind of ear protection. Keep several sets of inexpensive foam earplugs in your camera bag; one set to use and the other to share with anyone who forget theirs. ""Make a friend." as Emeril says. On a road course like Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca you'll want to change your camera locations around the track several times during the race, so wear the proper footwear. On road courses like this I wear Dunham hiking boots, but you should wear some kind of comfortable all terrain shoe or boot. Above all, use commonsense and be alert to what's going on and you'll get some great pictures.

Provide space for the car to drive from and to. Including the curve in the background adds to the sense of action as one of the ALMS prototype cars navigates through the "corkscrew" section of the Laguna Seca track. Image made with Canon Digital Rebel, 100-400mm IS lens at f/11 with 1/500 sec at ISO 200.

· Type: Eye-level SLR
· Recording Medium: Type I and II CompactFlash card
· Compatible Lenses: Canon EF including EF-S lenses
· Focal Length Conversion Factor: 1.6x indicated focal length compared to 35mm format
· Effective Pixels: 6.3 megapixels (3072x2048)
· Image Format: JPEG and raw (CRW)
· Depth Of Field Preview: Enabled with depth of field preview button
· Focusing Modes: One-Shot AF, Predictive AI Servo AF, AI Focus
AF (Automatically selects One-Shot AF or AI Servo AF selected
according to shooting mode),
Manual Focusing (MF)
· Metering Modes: Max Aperture TTL metering with 35-zone SPC. (1) Evaluative metering, (2) Partial metering at center (approx. 9 percent of viewfinder), (3) Center-weighted average metering (in manual exposure mode)
· Exposure Control System: Program AE (shiftable), shutter-priority AE, aperture-priority AE, auto depth of field AE, full auto, programmed image control modes (Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait, and Flash OFF), E-TTL autoflash program AE, and manual.
· ISO Speed Range: Equivalent to ISO 100-1600
· Exposure Compensation: Up to +/-2 stops in 1/2 or 1/3-stop increments (1) AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing). (2) Manual exposure compensation. (3) Flash exposure compensation.
· Shutter Speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec (1/3 increments), bulb, X-sync at 1/200 sec
· Built-In Flash: Auto pop-up, retractable; Guide No: 13/43 (at ISO 100 in meters/feet)
· Drive Modes: Single, Continuous selected automatically according to shooting mode, Self-timer
· Continuous Shooting Speed: Approx 2.5 fps (at 1/250 sec or faster for all recording qualities)
· Dimensions: 5.6x3.9x2.9"
· Weight: 19.7 oz
· Price: $899

Canon USA Inc.
(516) 328-5000