I am a professional amateur photographer. When our staff photographers can't make it out to a race, the buck stops on me to do the shooting. So with my dusty film degree, unreliable knowledge, and my 7-year-old camera, I do my best to get some shots of the world's fastest races.
That was the case this weekend at the Indianapolis GP. With one photographer stuck in Boston and another on a plane to California, it was up to me to take some shots of the MotoGP riders in action. Oh, and without a photographers bib.
So I was stuck on the outside of the fence like all the other amateur schmucks trying to get that perfect shot of a knee touching the ground or a high-speed crash.
My pictures may not be exemplary of professional work, but I've learned a few things during the last dozen or so races that could improve your amateur motorcycle racing photography.
Tip 1: Get to the races on Friday.
A typical race weekend will have free practice on Friday, qualifying on Saturday, and races on Sunday. Free practice may not be what you're dying to shoot, but there are a lot of advantages to getting to the track on Friday.
First off, there's less competition on Friday. At a MotoGP race you're going to have to fight for fence space on Sunday. But on Friday, the photographer crowd will be a lot thinner. That means you'll be able to shoot without pressure and without bumping elbows. You may not get to shoot five races barreling into the corner side by side, but you should be able to get some great individual photos.
Second, you'll get to see all that the event has to offer. Yes, there's plenty of motorcycle racing, but you might find some great photos at some of the demonstration booths. Here's a shot of Geoff Aaron as he does stunts in the Vendor's Market.
Tip 2: Scout the track.
Every track is going to have good places to shoot. Find a map and look for a series of turns that interests you. Your ideal shot may not be available to you, depending on the spectator barriers, but if you follow tip #1, you should be able to find a few good places to shoot.
Tip 3: Walk the track
At Indianapolis, a big wire fence surrounds just about the entire track. If you've got an optical obstacle, you need to find its weaknesses. The best way to do that is to walk the perimeter. Find out where all the holes are and where you can get an unobstructed view.
Here's a picture of what most people see at an event like the Indy GP.
It's also important to find out where you can and can't go. Race tracks have a lot of restrictions about where you can go, but don't be afraid to venture into the unknown. If you're not sure if you can be somewhere, ask. You might be able to find access to a few places that other amateur photographers don't know exist.
Tip 4: Get Above, Beyond, or Through
If you're getting a lot of pictures like the one above, you have to find a way to get around the fence. There are plenty of holes for professional photographers and cameraman to shoot through, but you might not be able to access those. But you should still be able to make do. If you can get up in the stands, you can probably shoot over the fence. But if you do that, you'll probably be too far away for a good shot.
So what do you do? Shoot through the fence.
Here's a shot from Indy as four riders line up to take a corner.
I couldn't get close enough to stick my lense through the fence, but I could frame the shot within one of the small squares. Here's how it turned out.
Tip 5: Shoot everything.
Last weekend, there were four series racing at Indy. The MotoGP, Moto2, 125cc, and XR1200 classes. If you're looking to get good MotoGP shots, practice on the other classes. You're likely to have more space on the fence during the 125cc class, which will give you time to practice your shots. Find out what settings to use and how you want to frame your shot. If you take a few pictures and don't like how they are turning out, you'll have plenty of time to find a new spot before the big boys step on the track.
If you only shoot the MotoGP class, you might find yourself stuff in a bad photo spot. By the time you move on, the race could be over.
In the digital age, the restrictions of how many shots you take are basically non-existant. So keep shooting and keep practicing until it's time for the real thing.
Tip 6 - Max Out Your MegaPixels
Now, I'm not exactly sure what a megapixel is. I know that it has to do with how many tiny little dots make up a picture, and I know that the more megapixels you have, the bigger you can make your picture.
Use that to your advantage. If you can't zoom in on your subject, you can crop your photo later to make it look like you were right in the action.
This is one of my original, untouched photos. You see that line of ants? Yep, those are motorcycles.
And with a little bit of cropping action, you can make the motorcycles the main focus of the picture. Obviously, this isn't an ideal situation. But sometimes you have to make due.
Tip 7 - Think out of the track.
If you can't be on the track shooting pictures, think off the track. As a fan, you're probably more focused on capturing the moment on the race. Try to include things in the frame that will remind you of the event. Signs, flags, jerseys, fans... My favorite racing photos are ones that capture more than just the racer. They capture something extra that reminds me where and when the photo is from.
Tip 8 - Perfect in Post-Production
Most of the time you will not be able to frame your picture perfectly when you're shooting. That's ok. Just make sure that you have everything you want in frame. Then you can go back afterward and rework the picture.
And here's a shot with those pesky photographers removed.
These tips won't make you a professional photographer, but hopefully they can make you a better amateur. Did you take some photos at Indy? How'd they turn out?