Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Photographing Superbikes at Sonoma Raceway - Cross one off my photographic bucket list!

Sometimes people will ask me "What would you like to photograph that you have not done yet?" One of the things that comes to mind every time is motorcycle racing. No, I do not ride motorcycles myself, and I am big follower of the sport. So you might be wondering why this would be on my photographic bucket list.

I have seen this sport on television and in photos and always loved the action, the colors, and the way that the riders take control of the bikes. For many years now, I have wanted to shoot this sport to get that shot that was in my mind. You know? The one with the rider, wearing really colorful leathers, leaning deep into the turn with his knee scraping the ground. That is the shot that I wanted for my portfolio.

I have seen numerous races come to the Bay Area, but, with my crazy schedule, have never had a chance to fulfill this vision. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks ago, there was a Superbike race on a weekend when I was in town and not shooting. Since I know the people at the Sonoma Raceway (in the wine country of California), I requested credentials to get on the track. Finally, after years of visualizing this photo, I would have the chance to capture it.

And the best part is, I was not on assignment, I was doing this strictly for the fun of it. This way I could shoot whatever I wanted and not have to worry about delivering certain images to a client. Time for some fun!

(Canon 1DX70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, 200mm, ISO 200, f/5, 1/2000 sec)

I started shooting at Turn 9 for two reasons. Since the first pro race started at 1pm, the sunlight was in the right direction to light the riders from my side. And secondly, this turn provided high action with the quick right / left maneuver. This photo was from the first lap of the race, with the riders still in a tight pack. I started with my Canon 1DX and the 70-200mm 2.8 lens, but quickly switched to the 100-400mm lens to get in tighter. (Photographer's note: In hind sight, if I could shoot this over, I would have taken this at f/11 to get all the riders in focus.)

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 370mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec)

As the riders came around for the second lap, I was able to start isolating them individually.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 330mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec)

This shot was my "money shot" of the race, and it happened within the first 10 minutes of me shooting. It was really fortunate for me and not as much for the two riders. First of all, I should say that neither one of the riders was seriously hurt in this wipeout. I just happened to be at the right turn, at the right time, with the right camera settings, right choice of lens, and ready to shoot, to capture this accident. Since I was using the Canon 1DX in burst mode, I have numerous photos of this, in quick succession. But this shot was the winner, with the rider completely off the ground and the back tire of the second motorcycle off the ground.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 180mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec)

A split second later, the first rider had already slid off the track, as the second rider went down. This guy got back on his bike to try and finish the race while the other rider was done for the day.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 330mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec)

Knowing that I had already captured a cool wipeout at the very beginning of my day, I was even more relaxed in the rest of my shooting. Now I could work even harder to get that shot that I wanted. And this is the one. Let me tell you why I like this photo so much:

* The colors that the riders are wearing stand out against the background.
* Not only do I have one rider coming through the tun, but I have a second rider hot on his tail.
* They are both leaning deep into the turn, just inches from the ground.
* I had a good clean background without any major distractions.
* You can see where they came from and where they are going.
* I used the "rule of thirds" to have the subjects off to the left with the turn in the frame.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 400mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec)

I continued to shoot at Turn 9, until I felt that I had enough of these photos. Then it was time to start moving, to get a variety of photos.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 250mm, ISO 200, f/5, 1/1600 sec)

You can tell from this photo, that I had moved about 40 feet down the track to capture the riders as they accelerated out of the turn.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 160mm, ISO 200, f/14, 1/200 sec)

I made my way towards Turn 10, and decided that it was time to try some motion blur. Panning along with the motorcycle riders, I photographed them as they sped past me at high speed.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 400mm, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec)

Once the pro race was over, some of the club racers came out. I went back to the press center with some of the other photographers, but since I was not under any deadlines to get images to anyone, I decided to go out and practice shooting photos of this amateur race. I figured that this would be good practice for the upcoming 3:45pm pro race. So I headed off towards Turn 2 to see what I could get from this vantage point. I like this photo, since the pack leader had a clear visor and you can see the intensity in his eyes.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 190mm, ISO 400, f/16, 1/200 sec)

Since I have photographed NASCAR and Indy cars on this track before, I knew the layout pretty well and headed to a high point between Turn 2 and Turn 3. I knew that I could get a nice shot of the riders with the rolling hills of the wine country in the background. Once again, I slowed the shutter of the camera to 1/100 sec and panned with the riders to get these photos.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 170mm, ISO 400, f/16, 1/1200 sec)

Notice how the motion blur gives a visual clue as to the speed in which these guys are moving.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 365mm, ISO 800, f/8, 1/2000 sec, +1.0 exposure comp)

Turn 2 of Sonoma Raceway provides something different from almost any other race track in the U.S. When shooting photos below the turn, it provides a shot with clear sky in the background. For the start of the second pro race, I positioned myself to take advantage of this.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 285mm, ISO 500, f/9, 1/1000 sec, +0.7 exposure comp)

I went back to a fast shutter speed to grab these photos.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 285mm, ISO 500, f/9, 1/1250 sec, +0.7 exposure comp)

Some of the riders caught air as they cleared the top of Turn 2. Very cool!

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 400mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/640 sec, +0.3 exposure comp)

After shooting many photos from the outside perimeter of the race track, I wanted to give myself enough time to walk into the inside of the track to shoot photos of the racers leaning in my direction. With 17 laps remaining, I made my way over a bridge and past a couple of locked gates (areas designated only for photographers). As I was walking up a large hill to the inside of Turn 2, I saw this rider coming into the turn. I moved quickly to get this shot. I liked the action, and the overall composition, but wanted to get some more photos with the grass lower in the frame.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 285mm, ISO 100, f/14, 1/80 sec,)

Here is another photo that I had dreamed of capturing. A motion blur photo with the rider leaning into a wide turn, perfectly sharp with the background blurred. Like my other "pre-visualized" photo, this one was really fulfilling.

(Canon 1DX100-400mm, 320mm, ISO 100, f/9, 1/125 sec)

I stood inside of Turn 2 for the remainder of the race, and continued to shoot photos of the riders zipping past me. 

After numerous hours of photographing, the races were over and I was back in my car, heading home (with a big smile on my face) to see what I captured. I could not wait to get home, to download all the photos and see what I got. 

For all of you who love photography, you know what I am talking about. There is a certain thrill when you go through your photos and find those "winners". 

All in all, it was a really fun day, and I accomplished a photographic goal of mine!


If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.


Kevin Brown said...

Hey Jeff,

Thanks for posting this blog up. if I remember correctly, that same weekend was my first time shooting motorcycle racing also, although it was down here in Florida. I've been riding for about the same amount of time that I've been making pictures, about 8 years now. I love racing, and it was a cool experience being on the track for that.

Here's a link to some images I took on that same weekend if you're interested. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


This was a very cool write up about your day. Thanks again and keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

When you're panning to blur the background, is it handheld or tripod mounted?

Ryan said...

Now that you've photographed the high-speed bikes, I recommend trying to photograph one of the low-speed, agility competitions, which are usually done with the larger, touring bikes.

You don't get much of an opportunity for motion blur, but those big bikes, leaning to the point where the bike itself is dragging, and sometimes sparking, as it passes within inches of obstacles, or going over a teeter-totter with a wheel in the air, can make for some great images.

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

Kevin - nice work! And of course, I really like the motion panning shots.

Christopher - I always pan handheld. :)


Kevin Brown said...

Thanks Jeff!
That hill at Sonoma raceway is making me really jealous. Way cool shots from there!

Unknown said...

Love the motorcycle shots, especially the wipe out!

I recently shot some Porsches using a 1/30 second shutter and a mono-pod. Pivoting on the mono-pod really helped smooth things out. Hard to keep the entire car sharp at that shutter speed though.


Unknown said...

Your work is incredible as always. I will get to try my hand at shooting super bikes this weekend in West Palm Beach. I can only hope to come close to your work!