As a credentialed photographer, I’m lucky enough to be able to shoot races from locations inaccessible to average fans, but I certainly remember the challenge of building my portfolio from the “cheap seats”. While it hardly seems fair to have to start from such a disadvantage, this was a period of pretty intense learning for me, and I can look back now and appreciate the ways this helped prepare me to do a better job when I go to the track today.
If you’re in “portfolio building” mode now, don’t be surprised if you have some lemons to deal with, too. Some tracks give spectators lots of great vantage points — Road America is among my favorites. Others (Mid Ohio, for instance) are more challenging — be prepared to shoot through some fences there. Not many tracks hold a candle to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, though, in terms of challenging vantage points.
In 2013, I went to IMS for the Rolex race, and spent most of the day shooting through little openings like this from about 30 feet away:
As you can see, there’s an inner fence with cutouts for the credentialed shooters. The opening above is actually an extraction point for drivers / riders, but you get the idea. The general public gets to watch from behind another fence, waist-high, spaced at least ten feet away, and by the time you line yourself up with the photo cutout, you’re probably shooting at an angle from a good 20-30 feet — something along these lines, which is the vantage point for image at the very top of this post:
Needless to say, your ability to frame a shot is almost entirely limited to moving a couple feet to the left or right so your angle through that aperture moves a bit. Add to that, the fact that you may be stretching to get high or crouching to shoot through these cutouts, and if a credentialed photographer comes along and decides to shoot out of that hole, you’re generally out of luck until he leaves. It’s no picnic, but in some cases, it’s your only way to get a shot at all, and you’re going to have to make the best of it.
The main thing you’ve got going for you in this situation is that any shot you do manage to score is gravy. If you work hard, build your portfolio, and eventually score credentials, you’ll be expected to produce shots under whatever conditions present themselves, which oftentimes is no picnic either. In other words, if you don’t enjoy the challenge of producing a couple of good images as an amateur, you might not find it so much fun to shoot with credentials, either.
By the way, I shot the top photo in this post back on that day back in 2013, specifically to illustrate the setting I was working with when I shot the photo below. This was shot through that exact opening (check the background), but it was ridiculously difficult to pan with the cars and hit the shutter at the exact split-second when they appeared in that little cutout.
This isn’t really a photo I’d be excited about today, shooting from that inside location, but it was great practice to perfect panning, timing, patience, and persistence. The next time you’re shooting at the track or elsewhere, keep this in mind, and make the most out of whatever conditions you find.