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Last weekend, after my Chicago trip I headed up to Birmingham, Alabama with my close friend Dave Moser to shoot the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. I was really excited because I had just shot the St. Pete Grand Prix a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to take what I learned there and apply it to this shoot while it was all still fresh in my mind,  but as it turned out, I learned A LOT more at this Indy event, than shooting the St. Pete gig (more on that in a moment).

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(That’s me directly above [photo by Dave Moser], in the yellow photographer’s vest with the red headphones on for ear protection, taking the shot you see just above that, of race winner Helio Castroneves).

Dave and I flew up on Saturday and hooked up with our buddies Jeff Rease (better known as “The Chancellor of Birmingham” and Pete “The Juice Collins.” We went shooting out and around downtown Birmingham (mostly HDR stuff), and then we went to an incredible BBQ place called “Dreamland.” Had a great night, then had to get up really early for the mandatory photographers meeting at the Barber Motorsports Track on Sunday.

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The weather was absolutely perfect—high 70s, blue skies, no chance of rain, and a slight breeze. You couldn’t ask for better weather. We shot the Indy warm up session in the morning, and then the Indy Lights, and finally in the late afternoon we shot the actual Grand Prix race itself.

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Trying Out Some Tamron New Gear
Dave brought along a new 200-500mm Tamron lens he had on loan to try out, and I thought I’d give it a whirl too. I though this might be perfect lens for shooting motorsports because it’s so lightweight and compact, and the price was only around $900, which is pretty much insane to get 500mm reach. Dave shot the Indy Warm-ups with it, and when we loaded his images into Lightroom, we found that, unfortunately, out at the 400-500mm end of the lens, it’s just not tack sharp. In fact, the images were so soft they almost seems to have a little haze over them.

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We quickly changed Dave over to the Nikon 70-300mm lens, and I sent Dave back out to the track to take a another round of test shots, and sure enough—these were all tack sharp. It was the Tamron. Although I had great success with their 70-200mm f/2.8 recently, this one is just not sharp enough at the long end of the lens where you really need it to be sharp. Too bad, because the size, weight, and price were perfect. We put it back in the Dave’s camera bag, where it was never to see the light of day again.

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Tech Notes
I shot with two camera bodies: (1) A Nikon D300s for my long shots (I took this one so I could get closer to the action, since it has the standard zoomed crop factor, and (2) A Nikon D3 for my wide and closer shots.

I put my 200-400mm f/4 on the D300s, mounted on a Gitzo Monopod (shown above—photo by Dave Moser), and I put a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens on my D3, which I carried using a Black Rapid R-Strap (that camera is down by the ground near the base of the monopod). I also used a Hoodman Loupe to check my images on the LCD screen (by the way—we were in direct sun most of the day, and there is just no way to really see your screen without one).

Camera Settings
I used two different sets of settings during the day.

(1) To make sure I had wheel spin (so the cars don’t look like they’re just sitting there parked on the track), I shot in Shutter Priority mode and panned along with the cars at 1/100 and 1/125 of a second (though Hal did talk me into shooting as low as 1/30 of a second, but I wasn’t having much luck, so I raised it up to 1/60 second a did much better there). That had the camera setting my Aperture at around f/22 (which is why you see that nice starburst effect on the shot at the very top of this spot. That comes from shooting at f/22 or higher).

(2) If the cars were coming straight at me, where you can’t  see much of the side of the wheel, which means you don’t have to worry about wheel spin, I switched to Aperture Priority mode and set my f/stop at f/4 to get a very shallow depth of field. This put my shutter speed anywhere between 1/1000 of a second and 1/2400 of a second, which just a great job of freezing the car and making everything really sharp. Again, you can only use this setting at certain angle.

A Day of Learning For Me
A number of media photographers were gathering on a hill overlooking the track for the start of the race, and we start chatting and before you know it, I ran into a longtime NAPP member. We started talking, and this guy is an absolute motorsports photography veteran whose been shooting professional motorsports, for teams, magazines, and manufacturers since the late 70s. His name is Hal Crocker, and since he had so much experience, I asked him if he would share some shooting tips (I’m always trying to learn), and he was an absolute fountain of information, and he helped me immeasurably with everything from my panning technique to composition for motorsports.

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I put Hal’s tips immediately into practice, and any time Hal would see me on the track he would come up and offer suggestions and share more tips, and I just can’t tell you how helpful he was (that’s Hal in the background on the left side of the photo with the red arrow pointing to him—-photo by Dave Moser). Hal has done some seminar training and teaching during his career, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that maybe one day soon Hal will be sharing his experience and techniques with you guys as well.

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I wasn’t on an official assignment this time around, so I made a pretty leisurely day of it, hanging out with Pete and Dave as we hiked to different parts of the beautiful road course.

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I’m not sure if we did more laughing or shooting, but we surely had a blast on a beautiful April day doing something we all love, and I got to meet some great people (and learn a lot) along the way (I met a number of NAPP members on the track that day, and some photographers covering the race from Japan as well).

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Thanks to Pete “The Juice” Collins (shown above far left, wearing the unspeakably large gaucho hat for which he took an unending stream of teasing) for putting up with Dave (2nd from left) and I, and for taking a bullet to make sure we made our flight home on time. I also owe a big thank you to my buddy Jeff Rease (that’s him on the far right above—check out his coverage of our trip right here—-he’s got an absolute killer shot of Danica Patrick’s car).

If it wasn’t for Jeff, I never would have gotten to shoot Indy in the first place, and now not only have I gotten to shoot a couple of races on assignment since then, I even got invited by the Indy Racing League itself to shoot for them at the Indy 500. It all started with a comment left by Jeff on my blog, and I’m so grateful for everything he’s done—for his wonderful hospitality—and for hanging out with us while we’re up in his home town. I owe ya, man!

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(Above: This is one of my buddy Dave Moser’s shots, and I’m showing it off because I shared Hal’s panning tips with Dave while we were on the track, and he jumped right on it and got this super sharp panning shot with great wheel spin, yet the car is sharp as a tack from tail to nose. He was nailing these panning shots all day long!).