Friday, May 18, 2012

How to Photograph Drifting

Phil here.  I've noticed a trend of spectators coming to drift events with nice DSLRs hoping to take pictures.  I've also seen several less than optimum submissions on various social networking sites so I thought that maybe a tutorial would be useful.  Let me add that I am far from the worlds best drift photographer - lets just get on with it shall we?

Let's just assume you have a DSLR.  If not, stop being a cheap skate and go get one.  No an iPhone isn't going to work, nor is that snazzy little compact that belongs in your grandmothers purse.  Go get yourself a DSLR or at the very least something that can take interchangeable lenses and has control over shutter speed.  Nikon or Canon are fine, they all work about the same, if you want to borrow or steal lenses from your friends then buy the same brand.  If you have bad friends who borrow and break your stuff then buy the other brand.  Don't buy Pentax, Sony or Olympus.  I have a Pentax, trust me, don't do that to yourself.

Now you have a big camera and an even bigger instruction manual.  You didn't read it did you?  No? Don't worry nobody reads the manual.  That's why you're here reading this anyway.  You showed up to a drift event and took some photos but they don't look like those pro shots you see in blogs and magazines.  Don't worry its not the camera, its YOU.  And we can fix that.

Shoot RAW.  No, not that, put your clothes back on. If you can't find the menu option or the button to figure this out then you need to dig out your manual, or download it since you probably lost the original.  Set the camera to shoot photos in RAW format.  This is important because when shooting moving objects and action (sports whatever) the exposure meter in the camera can easily get fooled by bright shiny objects and can over or under expose.  Shooting RAW means you can change the exposure later more easily and salvage a poorly exposed photo.  Its a life-line for the inexperienced.  You'll fill up the memory card more quickly so think about getting bigger or more memory if needed.

Next you need to determine what kind of photo you are taking and this may depend on what part of the track you or the car is on.  Lets start with the bread and butter of drift photography - panning.

Here is a detailed schematic to show how it looks from above.

I told you it was detailed.
You need to position yourself in such a way that the car is moving past you (at a tangent), not towards your or away from you.  Positioning yourself relative to the vehicle is just the start, now you need to set your camera up to get the right look.  On your DSLR you'll have a whole bunch of numbers that you may not be familiar with.  For panning, the important ones are focal length (you might think of this as your "zoom") and shutter speed.  Refer to your manual as needed here.  The goal of a panning shot is to use a shutter speed that is slow enough to allow the background to blur while keeping the subject sharp as you follow it with your camera.  Like this:

You should have 2 questions on your mind:  What is the right shutter speed? And how do I make the camera do that?

The right shutter speed is determined very roughly by the focal length.  When starting out use this general rule of thumb:  If shooting at 100mm focal length, shoot with a 1/100 shutter speed.  Remember that rule, we will come back to it in a moment.  How do you set your shutter speed?  You need to use shutter priority mode or manual mode.  I suggest shutter priority mode.

Nikon cameras use "S" mode for shutter priority - Everyone else use Tv mode
Shutter priority is a nifty mode that allows you to set the desired shutter speed with the thumb-wheels while the camera will vary the aperture automatically to obtain the correct exposure.  You may also need to adjust Sensitivity (ISO) depending on the light conditions.  Low light conditions might require high ISO sensitivity, otherwise keep the ISO as low as possible to reduce sensor noise and get a sharper, better quality image.

Do not use "sport mode" Note that pro level cameras don't even have a sport mode this is typically for compact and entry level SLR cameras.  Sport mode will prioritize a faster shutter and is totally the wrong mode for panning photos. I suspect this may be a common mistake among new photographers.

Now that you have the camera in Shutter priority mode, and your shutter speed is set according to the rule above you can go practice some.  You may find that its difficult to keep the subject sharp so Here are a few extra tips:

1) You can use manual focus and pre-focus on the part of the track you are shooting.  Then with the focus set you don't need to worry about auto focus as the car comes by you.

2) If you want to use auto-focus you can use continuous auto focus.  You'll want to know which Auto-focus point is being used (usually a little red dot or square in the viewfinder).  Then keep that red dot on the car, and fire away.  Refer to your giant manual to find the auto focus mode selection buttons.

3) If the car is still too blurry then you can use a faster shutter speed (higher number).  If you are adventurous try going slower to blur the background even more.  A good photographer can go a lot slower and still get a crisp shot of the car.

4) use exposure compensation if the photos are too dark or too bright.  This over-rides the exposure meter and adds or subtracts some light from the exposure by controlling the aperture.  This is usually controlled by a little button that looks like this:

If the images are still too dark you may need to increase the ISO sensitivity, or maybe take the lens cap off.

5) Be smooth.  Its like anything else, golf, shooting clays or whatever.  It takes practice and you should be standing up, feet apart and rotate your upper body.  Be the ball or something.  Just don't snatch the shutter button.  You get the idea.

That's panning.  It makes the cars look fast and stand out from the background. The good part is you don't need a $2000 giant lens to do this.  More expensive lenses will make a sharper image, but you can get some very good photos with cheaper lenses.  You don't need the larger aperture lenses in bright sunlight anyway.

Not panning?
Sometimes you cannot position yourself with cars passing you and you find them coming towards or going away from you.  In those situations you may want to freeze motion.  Here is a mediocre example:

Freezing motion is easier in many ways.  You could still use shutter priority mode if you like, just choose a much faster shutter speed, like focal length x 2 or 3 for example.  An alternative is to use aperture priority mode.
Av mode on Canon, Pentax etc...

This enables you to select your widest aperture possible.  Again refer to the manual, but you should be able to set the F-stop at its lowest numerical value using the thumb-wheels.  Your shutter speed should now be very high - 1/500th of a second or faster depending on the light. You can see your shutter speed when you aim the camera at your track and half press the shutter button.  You may dial up the sensitivity some to go even faster.  There is a limit however because if you do freeze everything in the shot the cars may end up looking static and boring.  It's best not to go too fast with the shutter and at least get a little wheel blur to put the tire smoke in context.

The wider aperture lenses will help to blur the background with a shallow depth of field, so this is an instance where a cheaper lens with a smaller aperture has a disadvantage.

And there you have it.  The 2 basic modes you might need for taking pictures at a drift event.

Now learn how to adjust white balance and exposure in the RAW developing software.  Your camera should have some software that came with it, but I recommend Adobe Lightroom.  Its quite affordable (the newest version is under $200).  Use the Software to sharpen and tweak the contrast in the image too.  Typically the photos out of the camera look flat and boring so you can add some contrast and sharpening to make the image look clearer.

Then start a blog with a cool name
Apply for media permits

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