So, you want to video motor sport?
Good for you; I have been doing this (and photography) since around 1979 as a hobby and as a professional, both as a journalist and videographer/photographer.
V8s, touring cars, sports sedans, open wheelers, Indy Cars, rally, motocross, speedway and even jet boats in those narrow muddy channels are all on my video / photography CV
And you know what? You never stop learning. Just when you think you have grasped it all, someone comes along with a photo or clip taken at the same location as you, at probably the same time, of the same vehicle and it is miles better.
But unlike many other professions, in this game, in my experience at least, your peers are more than happy to share knowledge.
Where to Start
Of course, stating the bleeding obvious, you need a camcorder. But what sort? What specs?
Over the years, I have used as large number of different beasts in this regard, starting out with a Leica M2 I inherited from my Dad, but that sadly, considering how much they are worth now, had an untimely end at the end of the long tentacles of the Gummint due to a particularly vicious nasty called death duty that was around at the time.
In the 80’s graduated from there to a variety of Pentax units, and settled eventually on Minolta kit. (Minolta is now part of the Sony empire, hence the absolutely brilliant lenses).
When I graduated to video, early in the piece I settled on Panasonic gear, primarily due to the Leica lenses used. Additionally, I also like the ergonomics, and for the occasional “gimmicky” shot, in the higher end models, the twin lens system is brilliant for capturing two angles simultaneously.
Currently I am using the Panasonic WFX1 4K unit but will be trying out the VX series very shortly as well.
I have used both Canon and Sony models and in terms of specifications have no faults with them. None at all.
My main issue is that as most of my work in this area is handheld, the ones I particularly like, the Canon HF-G40 which is HD (now the G50 which is 4K) and the Sony AX100 (4K) are simply too heavy, especially as I have a gammy right wrist.
dSLR or “Proper” camcorder?
Which brings up a very important point.
Yes, using a tripod in these – any – circumstances is important, but in motor sport of all disciplines, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of handheld as you need to be able to switch positions at a split seconds’ notice.
It’s a rule of thumb that the action NEVER happens while you are looking at it, and you find yourself becoming exceedingly agile while standing on the same spot!
Because of this, I have found from many attempts, that for video, a dSLR / mirrorless will just not cut it. The ergonomics are all wrong and you’ll quickly find you’ll have an aching wrist and upper shoulder in quick smart time.
Now we have established what type of camera, what features / specifications does it need? A lot of this is personal, but at the very least I would want manual focus (by a ring where possible) and aperture (either by a second ring, or switchable between it and focus). Variable shutter speed is also very useful to get slo-mo footage.
You’ll need a decent optical zoom too, also by ring if at all possible – none of this digital zoom rubbish though! 32x is a good starting point I find (which is what I have in the Panasonic WFX1). Make sure there is 4 axis stability built in too.
This is why you need a zoom lens. Also be aware of shadows that will obscure your subject.
It’s pretty much a given most decent camcorders today are 4K, but an HD camcorder will still give excellent results by the way.
I also prefer using the viewfinder to the flip out LCD, although I might frame a tripod based shot using the LCD and on-screen guides, but this does of course mean your camcorder’s LCD is up to actually being able to be seen outdoors. Many cannot be!
Variable ISO is also handy.
These basics are to be found in most camcorders in the $800 – $1500 range. If it were me, I’d find a shop that has a range physically in stock and go and have a play to make sure the ergonomics are spot on for your taste and all the features are there and easily accessible.
In terms of accessories, I have a Sennheiser camera mounted mic for ambient audio, and also carry a Sennheiser XSD-W digital Lav set for interviews. If I am doing a simple voice over/commentary the Sennheiser Memory Mic is brilliant.
I do carry a small LED camera mount light from Aputure and a Joby tripod. Everything is kept out of dust, mud and water in a Black Wolf backpack.
Don’t forget the hat, sunscreen and fly repellent too, as well as a bottle of water. Remember also that if you get accreditation (see below) sometimes you may be on the infield for a long period of time, and away from toilet access without crossing the track – which is not to be recommended during a race and will cause the total ire of course officials, drivers and spectators to descend on you from a catastrophic height!
Apart from the agility mentioned earlier, one thing you will learn as you progress, is the ability to be looking through the viewfinder with one eye, but keeping an eye on the action with the other.
A good pair of ears helps too, as often, the first sign of something spectacular is about to happen is the screech of brakes or the sound of tortured tyres! Your ears alert to this as well as offering the approximate direction and location.
In terms of pure camera technique though, learn the intricacies of depth of field backwards, with how focal length, aperture, shutter speed and ISO all relate in this regard. My Emu Beer Can tutorial might help those who have little knowledge in this regard. (This might look like a travelogue to start with, but trust me, persevere!)
You’ll need to find a technique to hold the camcorder too, as a) it will be shooting for longer periods – perhaps up to 60 seconds – at a time and b) you need stability.
I have the left hand wrapped around the barrel with the right cradling the camera with my fingers falling on to the controls. I am somewhat different as I am left eye dominant, so do practice to find your most comfortable method.
As your fingers need to be able to manipulate the controls almost automatically, you need to know your camera intimately, understanding what button, switch, rocker control, knob and ring does what, so you can operate them without thinking.
Spend a lot of time reading the manual and again, practising to get that familiarity is my best advice.
Where To Go
The closer you can get to the circuit, obviously the better. I generally find during the course of a day, depending on the track and the type of racing, I use maybe three or four locations I am comfortable with, that provide good action and add interesting backdrops and other elements to the image.
Position is everything (Photo courtesy Ross Gibb Photos)
For a new circuit, or if conditions are different to what I am used to, I’ll go to the track on the Friday if possible and do a walk around to familiarise myself with the locality, obstructions, areas of danger, where the sun and shadows will be and so on. I’ll then set myself those three or four locations and sit in each for a time to familiarise myself with what does / can happen during practice sessions by the drivers / riders.
While the on-track action is of course the main drawcard, from a story-telling perspective, don’t forget the other locations such as the pits, and even the spectators can become interesting – and usually willing – subjects!
What can be a fun project is align yourself with a specific team and try and document their day or weekend with not just action shots, but shots in the pits of the crew, but also family and even their fans in the stands.
The Holy Grail is to get circuit accreditation and if obtained, means you have pretty much open access to anywhere. Be aware though, in most cases, you need to be allied with some sort of media organisation to get this, especially at the bigger meetings such as V8 Supercars, and you can forget F1 or MotoGP absolutely!
Your local car club or bike club however is often pleased to give accreditation for a meeting as long as you sign the indemnity forms. The trade-off is they might want to use your footage / images to advertise their next meeting or to put into the program book, but this is a good way to start and get yourself known.
From there, you might be able to sell teams and drivers some footage and start making a small dollar out of the hobby. At worst, you’ll have a good time and maybe pay for your SD cards!
Do’s and Don’ts
This one is simple. If ANY official tells you to do something – move, stand still, shut up, whatever – just do it. They are out for your safety, the safety of the spectators and of course the competitors and their crews and know their job well.
In most case they are volunteers and don’t need the grief, and anyway, any issues will have you rapidly expelled from the circuit and lose any further accreditation chances.
Secondly, don’t even bother to ask if you can use a drone to get footage. It’s a rare Clerk of the Course indeed that grants this, often vetoing for commercial reasons, but mostly for safety ones.
And if you ignore this, the fines are high and retribution is swift.
I love motor sport video. It is both fun and challenging, and when you get that magic shot or clip, all the walking up hill and down dale, the dust, mud, smoke and smell of fuel and burning rubber in your clothes and hair makes it all worthwhile.
When you get it right … (Photo courtesy Ross Gibb Photos)
You’ll never make a living from it in Australia, but you might earn a buck or two on the side, and have a great time doing it! And make some great friends and gain valuable experience.
Above all though, stay safe. Keep your eyes and ears open, and if you see a car charging towards you, the advice I was given, and only had to be used once in my lifetime, is DON’T MOVE. If you do the driver has no way of guessing what you might do next, thus making it harder to avoid you.
It makes more sense of course to make sure you never get yourself into that sort of predicament, sp make sure there is always some sort of barrier between you and any oncoming object you can get to very, very quickly at the FIRST sign of danger. Don’t wait.
Good luck, have fun and stay safe!
With thanks to the best in the business – Ross Gibb Photos)