Motorsport Photography – capturing the “true” moment

The first thing I need to say before I launch into this essay, is that this really isn’t an attack on a particular photographer, although it’ll seem that way and I can’t think how to express what I’m trying to say without going into the specifics that I’m about to.

I follow a formula that races on various circuits in the UK called “Legends”. These are beautiful cars that provide excellent close racing, something that isn’t always seen with other circuit formula. The name “Legends” comes from the fact the cars are 5/8th’s replicas of “legendary” 1920’s / 30’s American Hot-Rods (as you will see from the images that follow).

The circuit Legends, known as “National Legends”, have been around for 27 years, and for all that time they have had an official photographer recording their adventures. This person recently posted a number of images on their Facebook page proudly declaring that he had “never used any type of photo shop software” and that “what you see is a true record of that moment in time”.

I’d contend the 2nd statement is neither true, nor the badge of honour I suspect this gentleman believes it to be.

Take this image:

This isn’t a bad image, but it’s only really properly exposed for some of the people in it, the chap closest to the foreground is a little bright, and the 2 gentlemen in the background a little dark, and the outside behind the people is bright white with little or no detail. This isn’t what the cameraman saw, or what anyone would’ve seen, the sky wasn’t white, it was blue, it’s just that our eyes can see a wide range of light and shade, whereas the image sensor in a digital camera wants to average everything out to a flat base tone. The exposure “on average” is correct, because the bright bits average out the dark bits, but that’s not how our eyes work.

If this image had been shot in RAW and edited in Lightroom (no need for Photoshop) this could’ve been addressed. The highlights (the bright bits) could’ve been toned down and the shadows (the dark bits) ramped up, and the resultant image would’ve more accurately matched what we see with our eyes.

Here’s an example of an image I took of the oval Legends recently:

You can see the sky is totally washed out and there’s hardly any detail in the car.

Here’s the same image with exposure adjusted, highlights reduced (to bring back detail in the sky) and shadows lifted (to expose detail in the car):

This is what I saw, this is the “true” image, but I had to use software to “correct” what the camera presented me with.

Here is another image:

In this image you can see that the wheels don’t appear to be spinning and the background is not blurred, so the camera wasn’t moving and a high shutter speed has been used to “freeze” the action.

Motorsport is about speed, it’s about movement, if you don’t capture the movement you haven’t captured the moment. This is not a “true” record of that moment, because the cars were not parked on track, as this image would have you believe.

A “true” record of the moment would’ve captured the movement, like this:

Wheels blurred to show they were spinning, and the background a smudge of horizontal lines to show the direction of travel. This car was travelling at speed, and using a slow shutter speed and a panning motion to capture that speed is a mainstay of motorsport photography. Of course not every shot has to be a slow shutter panning shot, but which of the above truly conveys the action, the drama, the excitement of the moment?

There are also some basics that I believe should apply to any image, motorsport or otherwise, in order to capture moments.

In this image …

… who is the subject, the lady on the left who is in focus, or the gentleman on the right, who isn’t?

In this image …

… which car is the subject, the red car in the background that is in focus, or the black car with green numbering in the foreground that isn’t? And what does the rear end of the white car on the right add to this image? And again, why do they appear not to be moving, when they presumably were?

To me, if an image is not in focus, or it’s not clear who or what the subject of the image is, that image should be binned, simple as. It says to me that the photographer in this case either doesn’t care enough about the subject to focus on it properly, and I don’t believe that for a second, as he’s been a faithful servant to this formula for nearly 3 decades and is, I believe, involved in it’s social media / website, or he doesn’t hold himself to a high enough standard.

This is the kind of image I strive to take:

The red car is obviously the subject, as its in focus and wholly contained within the image. The following black car and the blurred background serve to both separate the subject from the background (to reinforce that this is, in fact, a picture of car #66), and that it was travelling at speed.

As I said at the outset, I don’t want this post to come across as a criticism of the photographer who took these images, although I accept it’s hard not to see it that way.

I wanted to counter the assertion that “editing” images was somehow not a worthy (or honest?) thing to do, when in my opinion, knowing that cameras are just devices to capture light with no thought or feeling for the subject, editing images can often be a necessity if you really want to present that moment in its true glory. After all, in the days of film cameras the “negatives” had to be “developed” to produce the final image, editing images in Lightroom (or whatever) is simply the digital equivalent of developing negatives.

I also feel, especially with motorsport photography, that simply pointing a camera at something and pressing a button is not enough to truly capture the moment. Motorsport is fast, and dynamic, and exciting, and dangerous, and the cars are bright, and colourful, and beautiful. To truly capture the essence of motorsport involves more than cameras and buttons, it requires thought, and technique, and practise and I’m not saying I’m there yet, but I’m trying. I’m trying to do these fabulous machines justice. I just wish the photographer who’s the subject of this post did the same, rather than excuse the blandness of his images under the banner of truth, let alone be proud of having done so for 27 years!

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