Dusk at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca

The secret of making great photographs is simply “knowing where to point the camera” but that’s harder than it sounds, especially after schlepping a nine pound lens, monopod, and camera body around California’s Laguna Seca all day. So let me tell you a secret, I don’t own the lens. It was borrowed for a short time from the incredibly talented Regis Lefebure.

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A lot of photographers think sports photography is all about using big ticket, fast lenses and expensive cameras but this shot was created at dusk at an ISO setting of 800 using a moderately priced digital SLR, a Canon Rebel. Sure, the Canon EF 500 f/4.0L IS USM lens attached to it cost $8,999, so (I hear you saying it now) “It ought’a take good pictures.” Well, it don’t always work that way.

You can always rent expensive lenses like the EF 500 f/4L IS USM and where I live, this lens rents for just $50 a day. Is it worth it? You bet it is. And don’t even think about making racing photographs with any big lens without using a monopod. The lightweight EOS Rebel I used was a less than perfect counterbalance to this beast; my EOS 1D Mark II N would have been a better fit but where was it? It was safely tucked away in my equipment closet back in Colorado.

The first step in making any kind of racing photograph on a road course like Mazda Raceway is knowing where you should be located. If you’ve never been to a track before, talk to some of the other photogs but walk around during practice and decide where you want to be and what lens you might use. at Laguna Seca, downhill from a turn called “The Corkscrew” is a good place to shoot. The cars break hard for a sharp left turn then go through a series of twisty bits gradually picking up speed as they do. The Corkscrew has a protective barrier with holes that you can poke your lens through, so your final choice of location may be limited and since only two or three photographers can fit into a particular hole, don’t hog the space. Let others get some shots too.

As night began to fall, I gradually began inching up my ISO speed from it’s daytime starting point of 200 at the start of the race to finally 800 as dusk descended over the track. I follow the car, panning with the motion and instead of firing off multi-frame bursts in continuous mode, keep squeezing the shutter in rapid succession squeezing off short bursts with fewer and, I think, better images. I shoot runway models and racecars in Tv mode and in this case the best I could get was 1/320th at f/9.

Tip: Don’t forget your earplugs. No matter how many Janice Joplin concerts you attended as a flower child, nothing prepares you for the unmuffled sound of a full bore racecar. Earplugs are cheap, so keep a couple of sets in each camera bag; that way you can make a friend by lending a pair to somebody who forgets theirs.