Should Amateur Photographers Compare Their Results To Pros’?

Posted on 21 Sep, 2014 by Scott Jones
Jorge Lorenzo full gas Silverstone 2014

Please click on the above image to view it larger.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend who was discouraged because his own photographs from MotoGP at Silverstone, 2014, didn’t look like mine. We had spent some time together in a pub, eating and drinking while I worked on the day’s images on my laptop. Sitting next to me, he was able to see my Lightroom catalog as I first finished keywording the day’s images, then started selecting those I would process and send out to my web customers.

The main thing he noticed about my images compared to his own for the same day of racing was that more of mine were in focus. The environment was the same, at least as far as weather, light conditions, etc. But in my collection there was a larger percentage of images he would keep rather than throw away.

He’d been wondering how much my pro gear contributed to this and if somehow finding budget to improve his equipment would give him results closer to mine. (As I recall he’d been using a Canon 100-400mm L lens and a Canon 7D body.) He also asked how much of a difference my credentialed access to the track made. (I should point out that our discussion was only about trackside images, since he did not have any way to make photographs in pit lane.) He asked how discouraged he should be, and how fair a comparison it was to hold his images from the weekend up to mine.

I doubt he’s the only avid amateur who has wondered about this, so I thought I would write here some of the points I made in that discussion. If the topic rings a bell with you, I’m going to assume that you are not a pro photographer, but that you are a serious amateur. By that I mean you show up to a motor sports event with the best gear you can come up with and give the day or weekend your best effort. You honestly try to take the best photos you can in the situation.

Based on those assumptions, here are some observations which may interest you.

The access and the gear both make a difference in the quality of the images. Being closer to the subject on track helps because the larger the subject in the frame, the more data about it is being recorded for that image. If the subject (bike or car) is too far away, the image in that area will only ever be so sharp, can only display so much detail because there are only so many pixels representing the subject. Also, the farther the subject from the camera, the more opportunity there is for disturbances in the air to distort the image quality. This is particularly troublesome on warm days. But even on cool days, when the air is calm and you’d otherwise expect images to be very sharp, a great distance between the camera and the subject can suffer from disturbed air.

The access usually (but not always) means avoiding fences and other obstructions. While there are tricks for working around fences, not having to deal with them at all is an advantage. The access also allows for a greater variety of perspectives on the track action, and thus a greater chance to find an interesting spot and photograph it from a complementary perspective. Often, when behind a fence, you just can’t get a good view of the action.

As for gear, if a $6,000 camera were no better than a $2,000 camera, we’d be stupid to pay for the $6,000 one, right? Same with a $9,000 lens compared to a $1,500 lens, and certainly to a $300 lens.

But like many things electronic, the price/performance curve is one that sees price increasing dramatically at the far end where quality rises on a shallower curve. I.e., that final bit of performance costs a lot more than does the first, much larger portion.

Years ago I met a very successful and skilled (qualities that do not always go hand in hand) car racing shooter who had a unique approach to camera bodies. Instead of investing in the top of the Canon line every few years, he bought two new copies of whatever the current pro-sumer body was at the time. He used those for a year, sold them on ebay, and at the start of the next season purchased two of the latest model of middle range bodies.

I was surprised to see someone with so many high profile customers not using Canon’s flagship bodies. He said they were a waste of money. The mid-range bodies he preferred were better than the pro bodies he’d used five years ago, so he should be able to do at least as well now as he had then. And since they were much cheaper to purchase, they paid for themselves right away. If one of them had a serious problem, he just bought a new copy, which saved him the down time of waiting for and the costs of repairing more expensive equipment.

So in light of my earlier comment, maybe we are stupid for paying $6,000 for a body instead of $2,000. Personally, I like having that last bit of extra performance, but whether it’s my ego wanting that or an actual business requirement, that’s a bit difficult to say. There are certainly instances where the abilities of the more expensive camera can pull of a shot the cheaper one can’t. But most of the time, for cars, anyway, this is something to consider.

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  • Mikeevstog 2014-09-22

    If anyone wants to they can compare my days shooting as a fan (2009 -2010) to the season I had photo access for MotoGP (2011) and World Superbikes (2011 – 2012) nothing beats experience, I used the same camera’s throughout a Canon 5D and Canon 7D. While shooting as a fan I mostly used my Canon 70-200mm f2,8 and a 2x extender, while I had accreditation I would hire a 300mm f2,8 and also used a 400mm f5.6 (MotoGP Brno).

  • Scott Jones 2014-09-22

    Thanks very much for that, Mike!

  • Jeff 2014-09-22

    I’ve only been shooting for two years at Irish road races and short circuits. Had a few lucky, in focus, shots at the beginning of my hobby, then quality deteriorated badly with too much farting around with the camera. I researched everything I could about settings, equipment and technique. Upgraded to a 7D and 70-200 F4 non IS and practiced, practiced, practiced, Whilst the number of keepers from a meeting has increased 10 fold, I’ve become very critical of my own work and discard 90% of images,

    Whilst I’m technically proficient, I’m absolutely certain that investing in a 300mm F2.8 and occasional use of an extender would improve my image quality no end if I could afford the glass. (At Irish road racing, quite often you’re close enough to the action without requiring accreditation or long lenses). But where us amateurs fall down is, I believe, in the artistic end of the shots. I just wish I could “see” an angle, situation, composition, idea that you pro guys see. Theres nothing worse than seeing a portfolio of the same shots time and time again.

    Without you pro guys, we’ve nothing to compare against. I love it when I nail a shot (nearly) perfectly and wonder if I could pass that off as a Scott Jones or Stephen Davison

    Keep up the inspiring work!

  • Scott Jones 2014-09-22

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I image road racing is a great place to practice as it eliminates the distance issue and you have more time to think while working.

    As for seeing perspectives, this is where experimentation and studying the work of others comes in handy. Trying to create images similar to those you admire is a great learning experience. AND it leads to ideas for creating images that are not in the manner or style of others. This is a great way for your own style to emerge.

    One of my favorite quotations is from Miles Davis: “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” I think this is the same with photography and many other creative work.

  • Gadgetguy 2014-09-22

    The big thing is having a basic understanding of photography so as to be able to learn from the images of the more experienced photographers and then use this info to your advantage in your shots of what works and what does not.
    You can also pic up on using foreground interest to shift composition so as to hide things like our lovely Silverstone backgrounds if you dont have the jaw dropping backdrops of some tracks along with how dropping your shooting position and point of view alters so much.
    Pro’s work gives you a great idea of what works and what does not as for most of us if you have not seen it by now then it more than likely…..

    A/ Does not work!
    B/Does not sell.
    C/Finding unique angles like that your going to be worth a mint!!!!

    On the subject of gear i still think that its more about how you use it than what you have but do think the pro cameras make it easier to get consistent results and are built like tanks to be used every day in harsh conditions but they all do the same job regardless of cost,you just adapt your shooting to your equipment.

    Not only should people compare their work wiith pro’s pictures but also take advantage of social media and the openness of people like yourself and Tony Goldsmith with some of the blog posts and other articles you share that have been kept secret and never discussed in motorsport photography before,

    Keep up the good work.

  • ianmacey 2014-09-23

    Great article with lots of informative advice. I have been using a Canon 450D and kit lenses since 2010 and two of the factors that have helped me improve are 1. learning the art of composition and 2. understanding my camera and lenses strengths and weaknesses.

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