Shooting Indy Report (and the scoop on getting media credentials)


Hi gang: Thanks for all your emails and comments yesterday (and for understanding when I put up such a brief Monday post). I’ve had so many questions about the shoot from friends, readers, co-workers, and everybody in-between, I thought I’d just dive right in and get to answering them, so here goes:

Q. How did you get a media pass to shoot this event (or sporting events in general)?
A. Big time sporting events only make a limited number of photo passes available for each event (called “Media Credentials”), and to get one of those passes you generally have to be with a legitimate recognized media outlet (a major newspaper, print magazine, major website [like,, etc.], or a wire service, like AP or US SportsWire). Also, they want to know that you’re there covering their event for the magazine, so just saying, “I’m a writer for Sports Illustrated” won’t always get you a pass—most events will require a letter from SI saying that you are there, on their behalf, covering the event for the magazine. Here is some verbatim text from the media credential application if you wanted to shoot the American LeMans Series race held on Saturday: “Photo credentials will be issued to personnel on assignment from recognized and accredited publications or news services. Requests for credentials must be made by the appropriate news outlet, not by the photographer, unless otherwise approved by ALMS in writing.”

You also have to apply in advance, so they can verify if you are in fact on assignment from a legitimate recognized source that is covering their event (you can’t just make up a Website, and they issue you a pass. They’re pretty sticky about who they give these out to). Generally, they seem to close this credential process about two weeks prior to the event, but if you wait until two weeks out, chances are they’ll all already be gone.

Q. So, did you use your “Photoshop User” magazine credentials to get you in?
A. So far, in all these years, that’s only worked one single time, and it was for a pretty minor event. Generally, they want to issue those passes to media that they would like to be covered in. For example, if you’re applying for a pass to shoot a motor racing event, they want you to be from a racing magazine. If you write for a waterskiing magazine, even a big legitimate well-recognized magazine, they’re probably not going to give you a pass.

Q. Did they approve your media credentials request?
A. No. In fact, they turned me down twice.

Q. So, how did you get your credentials?
A. Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll try to make it brief, the crux of this story is the real secret into getting media credentials for “the rest of us,” which comes down to the same thing that controls most of our opportunities in life; it’s who ya know. So, remember a few weeks ago when I wound up shooting the Indy Test Weekend up in Birmingham? Well, I got the media credentials from a guy who had a hook-up at the track. He’s a local photographer and graphic designer who has done a lot of freelance work for the track, and they started letting him shoot some of the events for them. Well, he arranged my pass.

Q. Well, how did you find him?
A. Thankfully, he found me. Believe it or not, he just posted a comment here on the blog saying “Hey Scott, I know you’re into sports photography, and the Indy Test Weekend is coming up in a few weeks. If you’d like to come up, I can arrange a media credential for you.” He had me at “Media Credential.” I contacted him right away—he turned out to be a really great guy (which has been the case with everyone I’ve met through this blog), and I flew up to Birmingham, we had dinner the night before, and then spent the day shooting. It was really a lot of fun, and I made a new friend, Jeff Rease, in the process. In fact, I’m going to fly up soon and shoot another event with him, and this time Matt is coming along. How did Matt get media creds? Matt knows me; I know Jeff; Jeff knows somebody at the track–it’s a beautiful thing.

Q. OK, that got you to shoot up in Birmingham—how did that turn into media creds without Jeff and how did you wind up shooting for the Indy Racing League?
A. When I was up there, I talked to the lead photographer from Indy Racing; told him I was local to the St. Pete area, and that I’ve love to shoot his event for him. He was very nice, but told me all the media credentials had already been spoken for, and there were none left. But, he was a really nice guy, and gave me an email address of the head of Indy photography and told me to contact him directly and see if he needed anyone extra shooting for him.

Q. So how did that go?
A. Well, I emailed him, offered to shoot the gig for him (he wouldn’t have to pay travel expenses—I’m right there local), and I attached some of my favorite photos I had taken from the Indy Test Weekend. He told me that unfortunately all the media credentials for the St. Pete race had already been given out (it’s not Indy’s home track, so they had a limited amount of creds available), but he offered me the opportunity to come up and shoot at the Indy 500 (his home track), which I thought was incredibly gracious of him, especially since he doesn’t know me from Adam (I never played the “I’m a photography book author,” card, or the “I’m a Photoshop Guy” card, which I’m especially glad of because none of them had ever heard of me. To this day, they have no idea who I am; as far as they know, I’m a freelance sports photographer, but at some point they might have wondered why other pro sports shooters covering the event were asking me to pose for photos with them and signing autographs, but they never said anything, so I sure didn’t).

Q. The Indy 500 gig sounds amazing, but how did that translate to you scoring this pass?
A. I wrote back and thanked him for the incredible invitation to shoot the Indy 500, and told him I’d love to! I also let him know, if anything changed in St. Pete, I’d be ready to go. He wrote back this exact email, “I’m still working on St Pete but don’t get your hopes up.” The next day, my cell phone rang, and he said, “I finagled you a media credential for all three days.” In fact, I got a “Hot” pass, so I could be in the Pit areas themselves, while the cars were on the track. He told me I’d be shooting for him (The Indy Racing Series), and he started to give me my assignment and a shot list of what he needed. I took copious notes, but I was so excited I about ruined a perfectly good pair of jeans.

Q. So, what was your assignment?
A. He wanted me to shoot two things: (1) The race, but with a particular slant to showing that the race was held in St. Petersburg (so not just all close-ups of the car on a track, which could be taken at any track, anywhere). This event is a road track (rather than an oval track, like the Indy 500), which winds through the streets of Downtown St. Petersburg, Florida right along the water, so he wanted me to be sure to capture some images where you could see boats in the harbor behind the cars on the track. Without being up high, that was pretty tricky to do, but I was able to find a few good spots (and I was able to shoot up high once, as well). And (2) He wanted lots of shots that show the excitement, people, and fun of the event. The stuff surrounding the race itself, so I spent a lot of my time doing that—shooting people having fun, showing the other events going on like the live bands, and games, and lots of yummy food and drinks, and generally the party atmosphere of a huge event like this.

Q. Were there other assignments that came up once you were there?
A. Absolutely. I covered autograph signings, and the winners circle events, and specific turns and locations on the tracks where they wanted me to be at specific times. Whatever they needed me to cover, I was on it. After all, I wanted to do a good job for them, because I’d like to shoot for them again (they were really a great group to work for—everybody I dealt with was very friendly, laid back, yet very professional. A very well-run organization).

Q. How did you learn what to do—what the rules are, where to go and when? And what about your personal safety when shooting an event like this?
A. They are pretty much obsessed with safety, and each morning at 7:30 am there was a mandatory photographers briefing, where they would talk about safety (again and again), and give you all the rules, what to expect, a list of what you could and couldn’t do, and give you tips on how to get the most of your photos. They genuinely want you to get great photos of their event, so they do as much as they can to help, but because of safety issues, they are definitely limited.

Q. What happens after the briefing?
A. They issue you a photo vest, and ID card which tells security what level of access you have (not all media credentials get you all access to all areas. For example, you had to have a specific “Pit Pass” to enter the pits at all, and not everybody had one). Also, some people had a “photo bib” for all three days, and some just had a one-day bib (the bib is the photo vest you wear. They are numbered and assigned to you, so you have to make sure you turn them back in when you’re supposed to, or you won’t be shooting for them again).


Q. Where could you store your gear?
A. They had a very nice media center set-up (one of the nicer ones I’ve seen, in fact), on the 2nd floor of the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Pete, overlooking the track (photo shown above). They had live feeds of the ESPN coverage on a large projector and two flat panels, and there were rows and rows of tables, all with power outlets, and high-speed wireless access. They had lots of info sheets available with stats, info, lists of drivers and their cars, etc. They also had lockers where you could store your gear, but most folks left their laptops set-up at their desks, so they could pop-in, upload photos to their magazines, wire services, etc. and then head right back out.

Q. Do they provide any food or drinks for the media?
A. They had coffee and drinks (lots of bottled water) available all day. They served a pretty nice buffet lunch, and later in the day brought out snacks, and desserts.

Q. Once you were out shooting, were you concerned for your safety?
A. Let’s just say I kept a good eye out for what was going on around me. In the pits, when the cars are “hot” you just have to make sure not to get in any of the pit crews way. They move at lightning speed, and if you’re in the middle of it, you might get a tire tossed at you. Otherwise, what you have to be careful for are the crashes on track, because Indy cars are designed to kind of break-away (except for the safety cockpit the driver sits in), so when they hit a wall, things start flying. You’re always located behind a four foot solid concrete barrier wall, that’s three feet thick, with a tall fence on top, so if things start flying, you’re supposed to immediately duck down right up against the wall and let the flying debris sail right over your head. The crowd is behind another barrier and a tall fence, so they’re doubly protected—but you’re not, so you really have to be aware of what’s going on all the time the cars are on the track.


Q. Well, if you’re behind a fence, how did you get a clear shot of the cars on the track?
A. There are 30 “Photo Holes” (shown above) located throughout the track where they have literally cut a hole in the fence about 6-feet wide by about 4-feet high. These are usually in areas that aren’t all that likely to have a car crashing into you (these aren’t the “high impact” areas). That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, so when you’re shooting, you have to keep an eye on what’s going on, and not get so sucked into the shooting, that you miss the crash happening around you, because at that point, the upper half of your body is completely exposed. Also, in the Media Center they give you a map of where all the photo holes are located, so you can find them. The public can’t access these areas behind the main fence (so there are two fences between the public and the track), because you have to have media credentials to go in that inside photo area, where the Photo Holes are, which is why it’s so crucial to have a media credential.

Q. So, were there other photographers shooting without media credentials?
A. This was the most surprising thing of the whole event. There were literally hundreds of photographers, with loads of pro gear, and huge long lenses, shooting from outside the 2nd fence. I saw spectators with more gear than many of the pros shooting the event. I saw guys carrying rolling camera bags, backpacks filled with camera gear and long lenses—you name it. I saw one guy bring a ladder, so he could shoot over the 8 foot high fence, and then shoot through a particular photo hole he was able to line up in front of on one of the turns. He was quite a bit farther back than we were with our media creds, but he had a much longer lens, so I imagine he got some pretty good shots. Some folks just shot right through the fence, and since they were focusing far away, you didn’t see much of the fence in their shots.

Q. So did you laugh at these guys who didn’t have creds?
A. Honestly, I felt really bad for them. They are obviously serious photographers—serious race fans, and were it not for a series of lucky breaks, I’d be right out there with them, too. I would see them out there on their tip toes, or up on a truck, trying to peer over the fence with their lenses, and I just wanted to go bring them inside the barriers and shoot, but of course, security would have stopped them and me. I know it sounds weird, but it made me frustrated for them. It also made me even more thankful that I had stuck in there and wound up with the pass. I wish the tracks had a clear, safe spot just for serious race fans to get shots, but to the track’s credit, they did let you in with tripods, loads of gear, long lenses (a ladder), which is more than many events will let you do.

Q. What camera settings did you use during the day, and why?
A. You have to make a decision about how much you want to freeze the movement of the car, and at what angles freezing looks good, and what angles does it look kind of stupid (like the car is parked on the track). I shot in Aperture Priority mode all day. If I was shooting the cars pretty much straight on coming at me (as they’re coming into a turn, or heading out of a turn coming at me), I would shoot at f/5.6 (at 200 ISO), which would put the shutter speed at 1/1000 of a second or faster, which would freeze any motion (wheels included), but it didn’t much matter because you really could only see the fronts of the tires. If I was shooting the sides of the cars, or an angle where you could really see the wheels, I usually like to see the wheels spinning, so I would change my Aperture to f/11, which slowed my shutter speed to 1/500 of a second or 1/640, then I would pan along with the car. This was a slow enough shutter speed to keep the car mostly in focus, but the wheels and tires would have enough blur so it looked like the wheels were spinning (which they were). I also stopped down to try 1/250 and lower a few times, but it’s harder to keep the car in focus (but the tires really look like they’re screaming!). Of course, there’s a tradeoff. At the higher shutter speeds, your shots are generally sharper, because you’re freezing everything. At the slower shutter speeds, you get more of a sense of motion, but less of your shots are very sharply in focus (and some will be just plain out of focus, based on how good you are at panning with objects moving 150 MPH).

Q. Which Lenses did you use?
A. Believe it or not, I never took my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 long glass. The first day I went, I just took my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR zoom lens with a Nikon 1.4 tele-extender, and it worked so marvelously well, that’s all I used for long shots the entire three days (the shot you see at the top of this post was taken with that lens–that photo is the original, un-cropped image). The reason was—we were so close to the track itself that a 400mm would have almost been overkill. I did a crazy amount of walking, in the hot sun, and believe me; I was glad not to be lugging that huge glass and monopod. Instead I hand held the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (by adding the tele-extender you lose one stop of light, so your f/2.8 essentially becomes an f/4). For the first two-days (the time trials, the other faces like the Pro Series Acuras and Porches, and the Indy Lights races), I just used one body—my Nikon D300. I wanted to use it to get closer to the cars and still maintain a 12 megapixel image without cropping. On Sunday, the day of the Grand Prix race itself, I brought me D3 as well—for the wider shots. I left my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens on all day.

Q. Did you carry a camera bag with extra lenses?
A. I used the Think Tank Photo belt system, and as much as I love it for shooting football and golf, I fell in love with it all over again for car racing. It was absolutely ideal, and you hardly even notice you’re wearing it (well, until you have to go to the men’s room, which is a totally different story). On my belt I had two lens cases (70-200 case, and a 24-70 case), and an accessory pouch in front (with my memory cards, cleaning cloth, blower, my new 50mm Nikon f/1.4 lens for FX lenses (which absolutely rocked by the way), and a 10.5 Nikon Fisheye lens. I also had a separate pouch which held a water bottle and an energy bar (both incredibly necessary), and a small pouch just for my cell phone (it’s hard to get to your cell phone in your pocket when you’re wearing the belt. At least, it is for me). This belt system changed everything for me, and I honestly wouldn’t want to shoot a sporting event without one.

Q. Did you use anything else?
A. I also carried my 12-24mm wide angle zoom, but I only used it one day (so I had five lenses with me–two on the cameras, and three in the pouches). I used the Rapid Strap again, and again I’m amazed at how handy it is for sporting events. That made using two cameras actually easy. Also, I had my trusty Hoodman Loupe with me. Funny story: I’m shooting in the pits; Danica Patrick just came in from a practice run, and I’m shooting four feet from her, from right inside her pit. I walked out, and another photographer I hadn’t seen before was angling to try to get a shot of her. He asked if I got close enough, and I told him I was right beside her (I made friends with her handler the day before, and she let me shoot Danica from right beside her). I went to show him the shots, but it was so bright you couldn’t see anything, so I held up my Hoodman Loupe and he looked through it. He commented on the shot, and then said, “Man, that Loupe thing is awesome. Just seeing one photo like that, and I’m sold.” Then out of nowhere he says, “I’ve seen you talk about it on Photoshop User TV, and I always wondered if it was really that good.” I had no idea he knew who I was. Small world.

Q. What kind of images files did they want from you? Did they want you to edit them in Photoshop first? What file format did they want?
A. They told me up front, they shoot in JPEG, and they wanted me to deliver JPEGs, un-cropped, and un-edited. They would do any editing themselves. I wanted to tell them that over the years I had gotten pretty comfortable with Photoshop, and that I thought I could do a decent job editing them, but I didn’t say a word—-I did exactly what they asked and just sent the uncropped, unedited JPEGs at full res (well, I shot in Raw, then converted to JPEGs for them). I shot nearly 45GB of Raw images. In hindsight, since I wasn’t going to be editing the Raw images anyway, I should have just shot in JPEG Fine from the start. I probably wouldn’t have filled a 4GB card.

Q. Is it true that Danica Patrick crashed 31 minutes into the race because she was texting you as she drove?
A. I don’t want to say that’s exactly what happened, but I will tell you this. I did receive a text just moments before her race-ending crash that read, “I want you to be my ‘Manica.” That’s all I’m saying.

Q. How many photographers were there officially covering the event?
A. I would estimate between 60 and 70, but there were “hard card” holders from IMSA covering the American LeMans Series race on Saturday as well.

Q. How many batteries did you go though each day?
A. Believe it or not, I never had to change batteries the entire event. I didn’t even pop in the second battery from my battery grip. I just recharged the batteries each night, and they were good for the entire next day of shooting.

Q. How much different was it shooting on assignment, vs. shooting for yourself?
A. When I’m there shooting for myself, I can pretty much wander around, do what I want, take a break whenever I want, and leave whenever I want. I realized that day that I really LOVE shooting for myself, because it’s so darn easy. There is no pressure—it’s just fun. That’s being said; I loved having this assignment. I had to bust my hump to cover everything, and had to walk for miles, with tons of gear, in the Florida heat from 8 to 12 hours a day, for three straight days, with only a short lunch break, and one other 15-minute break here and there. But it was still great! It gave me an incredible appreciation of how hard you have to work to cover events like this, and a whole new respect for pro motorsports photographers. It is just plain butt-busting work, so you’ve really got to love what you’re doing, but these guys clearly do, and everybody seemed to be having a great time shooting. Except this one grumpy guy (but there’s always one, right?).

Q. What would you do differently next time?
A. Of course, as I said earlier; I would have shot in JPEG, and I would have left the 12-24mm at home. I think I spent too much time out shooting and not enough time in the Media Center sorting and uploading photos. I also think I “Over-shot” the event, but I wanted to make darn certain I covered the things I was assigned to shoot. For example, when assigned to cover the autograph sessions for the drivers, I shot 149 photos. I was shooting the autograph session with one of the staff photographers from the Indy Racing Series, a really friendly guy named Dan (who also had no idea I did Photoshop stuff). Anyway, I took 149 shots. I took a photo of every single driver signing something, along with crowd shots, fisheye shots from above, wide sweeping shots–you name it. Dan took around 20. Ouch! I over shot it big time.

Q. What was the highlight of the weekend?
A. This was my first time shooting for Indy, and I really wanted to do a good job, so on the 2nd day, I asked Dan to sit down and look at my shots from that day and let me know if I was even going in the right direction. He looked through my shots in Lightroom, and said, “This is exactly what they’re looking for.” It made my day. He pointed out some shots that he particularly liked, which was some of the edgier stuff I had tried—some wide angle stuff right up along the track wall, and some of the really tight-in stuff he liked, but I didn’t want to try too many “cool” shots because I wasn’t there to experiment; I was there to shoot what they asked me too. Next time, I would try a few different angles and compositions just to see if anything sticks, but other than that, I was just relieved to learn that I was headed in the right direction, and that gave me more confidence for race day the next day.

Q. Any final thoughts?
A. Just a thank you to the wonderful folks at the Indy Racing League (Ron, Shawn, and Dan) for giving me an opportunity to shoot for them. I learned a lot—hoped I passed on some of what I learned to the readers of this blog, and I hope I get the chance to shoot an Indy event again! I hope you guys get a chance to shoot an event like this, too. Oh yeah, did I mention drink a lot of water? ;-)

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