Photography Techniques: MotoGP on the Death Star

Posted on 13 Oct, 2014 by Dan Lo
Indianapolis MotoGP 2012 Grandstand Dan Lo

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
– Sir Ken Robinson

[Editor’s Note: This shot is one of the most often viewed shots since we launched the redone PHOTO.GP website. I received several comments asking how Dan had done it, then persuaded him to share the secret. Thanks, Dan!]

I showed up at the 2012 Red Bull Indianapolis GP with a nagging feeling that my photos at the track from previous years have so far been short on variety. Motivated to try something different and with a generous helping of laziness mixed in for good measure, I decided to do something I have never done before: photograph all three races from the main grandstands.

I had experimented with slight variations of medium range panning shots from the Indy grandstands every year since 2008, so when the Moto3 class kicked off the day’s racing I immediately started looking for a different approach. I had acquired a 10-20mm lens several months earlier to use at the 2012 Isle of Man TT, so I tested out a few different ultra wide shots, none of which really turned out. I basically spent the entire race tinkering with what all turned out to be failed ideas.

Sometime during the Moto2 race I began to settle in on a vantage point from the back rows of the grandstands, purposely allowing the underside of the upper level seats to occupy the top of the photo. The dark framing of the bikes on track started to remind me a little of the space battle scenes from Star Wars that took place in the trenches of the first Death Star.

Trying some oddball angles, and perhaps thanks to my fear of not tracking the bikes properly, I began shooting liberally in burst mode and often started the sequence way too early which yielded a bunch of unusable images. However, the accidental compositions from these throwaway frames began looking more and more interesting to me.

In a bid to create a more suitable look for the new ideas I stumbled on, I began “panning” with the zoom instead of swinging the lens and proceeded again to spend a big chunk of the race further weeding out ideas that didn’t work. Striving for a Death Star trench run effect would become my fixation for the rest of the afternoon.

By the time the MotoGP race started, I knew exactly what I wanted to try but it still took quite a few laps to begin getting the results I was hoping for. I would start at 10mm, wait for a bike to enter the lower left corner of the frame, and attempt to keep the bike in the same spot of the frame as I zoomed in at 1/25 sec while remaining directly centered on the vanishing point of the grandstands for the entire duration of the zoom.

For this particular image, the focal length happened to be at 13mm at the time of exposure. Now, instead of parallel streaks of blurred background elements that I’m used to creating, I instead had motion blur that converges towards a single point. Below is the unedited file, straight out of the camera. Yuck.

Indianapolis MotoGP 2012 Grandstand Dan Lo

After a bit of post-processing, I cropped the photo to relocate the vanishing point to a more interesting part of the frame which also cut out some unnecessary dead areas. In the end, the composition revolved around the streak of light formed by the Indy front straight with a couple of specks on track that happened to be Ben Spies and Dani Pedrosa battling for the lead. The obvious drawback of this method was that the bikes were never going to be in focus in the traditional sense, but I felt that it was an acceptable tradeoff for a somewhat unconventional image.

Photograph: ©2012 by Dan Lo / CornerSpeedPhoto – All Rights Reserved


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