Shooting the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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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!


(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!).

    1. I hope you make it back down this way and if so we get to work together. Theres a chance I may be covering an amateur race this fall there at the track. Looks like you had fun – and some great photos.

  1. Hey Scott,

    This is your best set of motorsport images yet, luv them. If you have time, I would love it if you could check out a set of images I shot for the Porsche Sport Driving School which resides at Barber Motorsport Park, and a few shots in the snow at Porsche’s Camp4 Colardo program.

    I hope you like them and please tell me if there are any weak images you think would make my portfolio stronger if they were removed.

    There are a few images of a Mercedes Mclaren SLR at the end of the set.

    Thanks Scott

  2. Hi Scott,

    You were speaking about the sigma 200-500. Is it possible that you put 2 pics online from your photoshoot, one using the sigma and one using the nikon lens so that we can see the softness of the sigma ?

    Thanks !

  3. Just for the record, Scott was extremely jealous of my hat and how cool I looked in it!
    Scott was too humble to write about how Danica wiped out just after seeing him on the track…he is one powerful individual… “The Chapter is you” my friend! (sorry for the inside joke)

    Great time with you and Dave, you guys are class acts and a joy to hang out with.

    1. Pete:
      That hat was so large that it had its own eco-system. ;-)

      Great shooting with you, and thanks again for wearing that hat. It helped me sure there was never any “dead air.” (though I think a pigeon did fly directly into a few times). ;-)


  4. I’ve got the Tamron 200-500 and use it mostly for wildlife. You’re right, it’s definitely a bit soft at the end of the zoom range. The contrast is OK-Good at that end and the color is good. The sharpness at that end varies according to the distance to subject. If your subject is 200′ the sharpness begins to drop off pretty quickly as that distance increases.

    I’ve found that f/8 is about the minimum aperture to get good results from that lens at the long end. It peaks, in my years of using it, at about f/11 but you’re talking some sturdy support for a light lens at that point.

    From a value perspective, the Tamron 200-500 is hard to match for the length/weight. But it never compared to my 200-400 or the 400 f/2.8 lenses I’ve used. Just cost 1/6-1/9 as much. :)

    1. Hi Neil:
      Thanks for weighing in on this one. Since we were shooting Shutter Priority most of the time, Dave was probably out at f/16 or f/22 when he was out at 500mm, and you could definitely see the shots weren’t really sharp, but like you pointed out, your distance to the subject has an effect as well.

      The value proposition is definitely there, and for wildlife that’s not moving 180mph, you’d probably get better results than we did trying to stop moving Indy cars in their tracks. :)


  5. Scott, It was like a guest blog Wednesday…only on Friday! I think the only thing louder is the Grand National Drag Racing events. Jeffery’s photo site is great and he has some awesome “go daddy” girl shots :) .

    1. Thanks, Ken! You’re right…it was pretty loud! I was used to the testing/practice events with one or two cars at a time going by, but when 25 cars are together it was something else! Seemed like everywhere I went Danica was there! :-)

      1. Jeff, I got to cover the first NHRA drag race at the new Charlotte Motor Speedway complex a couple of years ago and I had the ear plugs (had never been to a drg race). Well when the first rail cars took off…well let me say that I had about 15 photos of the sky. It liked to scared me to death! I had to buy a set of headphones and then it was still hard to hold the camera down to get the take-offs. I ended up with some good photos of the inaugural event.

  6. I noticed that you are using a monopod / walking stick. Do you get hassled using it in non-sporting environments (Dubai, train stations, public bldgs) as you have documented using a traditional tripod?

    1. Hi William:
      I haven’t had any problems whatsoever with a monopod (so far, anyway). Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have legs that extend out that somebody could trip over, but for whatever reason, people seem to not freak out over it like they do a tripod.


  7. Hey Scott,
    Now I’m officially jealous. Your basketball, football, and fantasy locations world wide are really nice. However, racing is where my heart is. I’m not even going to see NASCAR at Texas Motor Speedway, just North of Ft. Worth, this weekend and I am really bummed. Since I’ve never received a pass, I like to shoot the crowd and off-the-wall stuff. I would give almost anything to have an unrestricted photographer’s pass at any type of racing event.
    Excellent shots Thanks!!!

      1. Hi Ken,
        I am leaving for Yellowstone the week after for a biology class, but I’ll try. This would literally be dream come true for me.
        I’ll let you know

    1. Hi Vladimir:
      I shot mostly on one 16GB card, but just before the end of the race, I had to pop in a 2nd card.

      There were A LOT of very blurry shots when I was practicing my 1/30 of a second panning, so I deleted literally about 1,000 shots during import into Lightroom. That’s what’s so great about digital—-I can practice as much as I want without film costs, so I really took advantage of that. If I had been shooting on assignment, I would have shot a lot less.


  8. A very fun article and looks like a fine day out. One quibble in the post, though. Regarding the Hoodman Loupe you say, “there is just no way to really see your screen with one” when I think you mean to say “there is just no way to really see your screen without one.”

  9. How about sharing the panning tip with rest of us? I’ve shot at the O’Reilly NHRA drags in St Louis. I would like to improve my panning techniques, especially when the Nitros go by.

    1. Hi Kurt:
      It would really take a video to show it (it doesn’t translate very well to print), so I’ll probably show on, on a track, in an upcoming episode of D-Town TV. :)


  10. Hi Scott! Love the shots. If I can ask a dumb question about the shot of Helio. Did you frame the shot that way at capture or did you rotate in Lightroom/Photoshop? Something I have always wondered about.

    Thank you! Love the insight you give everyday!

    Take care.

  11. Scott, you seem to have such an easy, natural way of connecting with people. I wish you would write more about that sometime; what to say and how to approach strangers. :) I often see photographers I would like to learn from but I’m not exactly sure how to ask. (perhaps it’s harder for a woman to go up to a man and say “hey, I want to learn all about your equipment” – lol!)

    We spend our childhood not talking to strangers, then as adults we have to learn how to connect with others so we can be mentored and grow our businesses. …seems silly doesn’t it?When you’re not too busy making Danica crash, it would be really great to get your insight on this!

    1. Anita, seeing as how I was able to watch Scott first hand, I will let you in on a little secret that he uses to get into peoples good graces…money! Pure and simple, he bribes people to be his friend…Dave Moser let me know that he can’t really stand Scott, but the money is too good to pass up:D

      Joking aside, Scott is approachable and willing to glean wisdom from those who have more experience. He comes into a situation asking questions with a true desire to grow in skill and he is appreciative for what you have to offer. A lot of folks tend to ask a question just to get into a conversation so they can tell you how great they are, Scott doesn’t need to do that, he is secure in who he is and that comes across in his conversations with others. It also helps that he is sexy too! (Danica wanted me to write that part!)

  12. Hi Scott,
    I didn’t know of any other way to communicate with you. There is a spelling error on the My Gear section of your blog. ctrl+F to find Collapsable. I think it’s supposed to be Collapsible. Just an FYI. :D I love your stuff. Thanks for making photography better for all of us.


  13. Love the post, love the shots. Great work as always. I have a quick question about the quality settings you use on the D300s for a shoot like this. Since the fps drop significantly when shooting 14bit raw, are you shooting jpeg to keep the fps high or do you drop the raw quality from 14bit to 12bit to keep the fps high?

  14. Scott,

    these shots are insanely cool :-) I need to know one thing: I see from the EXIF Data, that you used a D3 and a D300s. The D3 is one of the best cams Nikon offers. What made you decide to shot (some pics) with the D300s, not with D3?

    P.S.: I am asking, because I do have a D300s (18-200mm) and I am a bit disappointed. I know my glass is not so good and by wayyyyyyyy different from your. I know.

    1. Martin, I can answer this for Scott (I believe) because I have both cameras also (and a D3s). Scott puts the 70-200 2.8 on his D300 for the crop factor and it gives him more zoom. I have the 18-200 also but it just a good “take on casual trips” lens. The 70-200 is 2.8 and “fast”. He is using his D3 with his wider lenses and carries both cameras. (as Scott when I am shooting in a low light situation I then put the 70-200 on my D3) Once you get a hold of a D3 you are spoiled forever!

      1. Ken,

        thank you. You are absolutely right. I was blind enough not to see what Scot himself wrote about it (exactly what you say):

        “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). ”

        Very interesting… and good tipps :)

  15. Wow these pictures are amazing!! I love Indy racing, totally a huge fan. that day I missed watchign the race b/c I was horse back riding! lol. the #11 car, is my favorite drive Tony Kannan, he is awsome. hasn’t been racing to near the front lines lately but is still really good!

  16. question to Scott or anyone.
    on february 7, 2010 I bought a Canon eos rebel xsi, and the one thing I need so badly is a lens hood. except I CAN’T FIND ONE ANY WHERE. Does anyone know where I could find one? I have been on canon, b&h photo and google and can’t find one. if some one could reply that would be awsome. Thanks!

  17. Do you know if you will be going to Watkins Glen, New York for the 4th of July race? I go every year. It is sooo awsome. It will be my first time with my canon slr. I can’t wait to use my 55-250mm telephoto lens, I will come home with mostlikely 1000 pics! Can’t wait!

  18. Hi Scott,

    Superb series of shots on what was clearly a ‘perfect day’.
    How handy was that having ‘Hal’ there to offer some tips & techniques.

    Thanks for sharing the camera settings but I gotta say I sat back and adjusted my focus when I saw you mention shooting at 1/30sec!!! Man, that’s insane but clearly if these guys are using that then it works!!! It’s posts like this when we get to hear settings / tips & techniques from other photographers with other shooting specialities that blogs such as yours become invaluable; I mean where else would we get to hear this kind of info???

    Great post as always, backed up with some awesome shots.

    Thanks for sharing,

  19. Hi Scott,

    Haven’t checked your site in a few days – been traveling and it was to the same event! Barber Motorsports Park is beautiful and have promised myself to spend a little extra to get in some better locations next year. I shot on Friday which was also a beautiful day. Also worked on pan shots, although did not have quite the success as seen here. Have really enjoyed all that you do. Thanks for taking your time to helping all of us enjoy what we do, even if it is only a hobby.

    PS – you can’t beat Dreamland ribs!

  20. I really enjoyed your shots of the IRL race. I am a big fan of open-wheel racing. I think you would really enjoy shooting at Watkins Glen if you ever get the chance.
    If you want a real challenge sometime you should shoot a sprint car race. If you ever come to central PA check out Williams Grove or Lincoln race tracks. Some of the best sprint car racing anywhere.

  21. I’m learning more and more about shooting racing from your blog, thank you! We run ‘crapcan’ races, 24 Hours of LeMons and Chump Car (so these guys don’t usually get above about 110mph – fast enough though). The question I have for you, and forgive me if you’ve written about this before, is how you focus – are you using AI Servo or panning with manual focus?
    BTW, accessibility for photogs at these races is quite nice, no special permits needed, just the need to keep your wits about you and be aware of what’s going on.
    Thanks again!

  22. Pshh… Most likely, all photoshopped!
    Shot in “green screen” (Auto) mode, and loads of blurring layers.

    Also, unbelievable product placement in the cap!

    (Nah, I kid you! Pretty sweet lot of pixels, I’d say)

  23. We love the way you let us tag along with you on these various assignments. I was wondering. Could you someday write your work flow for when you are on assignment for a SouthCreek.
    1) pre photo meetings
    2) assignment meetings
    3) Photo Mechanic and sending to SouthCreek

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