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Car Photography Teaches Us to Keep Challenging Ourselves

There's always room to learn something new.
Formula Drift hero
Kristen Lee

I’ve been shooting cars for more than 10 years now, yet I’m absolutely nowhere near done with learning everything I could learn. This is especially important to realize when you start feeling a little bored and stale with what comes out of the camera at the end of the day. That means it’s time to change things up and try new stuff, push yourself a little bit. It doesn’t matter what, where, or when you shoot. Pick one thing you want to improve on and direct your energies into that. Me? I picked getting better at panning.

I’ve come home with panning shots before from various motorsport events like Formula Drift, the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and the Goodwood Revival, but those were mostly me feeling out how to get my feet under me more comfortably. Not wanting to risk the subject flashing past before my lens, I set the shutter speed high (like 1/100th or 1/125th of a second) and stayed there. The results were fine but didn’t return that gooey, intensely motion-blurred goodness that I so coveted from photographers like Caitlin Ting.

But armed with the latest installment on panning from Victoria’s Picture Perfect photography series and the Formula Drift New Jersey race only an hour away, I packed my stuff and headed to Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown two Saturdays ago. The goal for the day was improvement.

You Can Always Go Lower

The best part of shooting a motorsports event is there will always be other photographers present that are more than happy to give you tips. People like Tyler Kapper, who shoots with Larry Chen‘s crew and who looked at my 1/125th settings and said I should go lower.

How low? “Like, way lower,” he said. “Try 1/30th.” Ew, what?

But I did. This craft is all about practice and experimentation so that’s what I did. For seven hours, I split my time between three locations at the track and really tried to nail grabbing the subject at a much a lower shutter speed than I was both used to and comfortable with. I traded off between my 35mm f/2.0 and my 70-200mm f/2.8 with wildly varied results.

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 70-200mm f2.8 @ 105mm & f/14 for 1/30 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

Here, I was standing about 100 feet away from Chris Forsberg and his new Nissan Z. The 70-200 made sense because I needed the zoom and it was easier for me to fixate on a moving target with a tighter frame.

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 70-200mm f2.8 @ 70mm & f/16 for 1/30 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

I think what gives cars that sense of motion is what’s behind them. That’s what gives them relativity. A grandstand backdrop is far more exciting than a media pit because you truly get a sense of what Mike Power is speeding past here. Also, you can tell he’s going quite sideways, which is always Cool and Good.

Yet, I was still far away and I needed to get closer. It was time to bust out the 35mm and see if I could slow down the shutter speed even more.

The 35mm Prime

Reader, it was a disaster. Again and again, I concentrated my efforts on one corner but just couldn’t grab onto anything. Everything came out blurry, and if it didn’t come out blurry, the wrong end of the car was in focus. It was maddening.

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 35mm f2.0 @ 35mm & f/22 for 1/20 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

I knew I could get a cleaner shot than this. The subjects weren’t popping like I wanted them to. The background wasn’t very exciting. Maybe if I did a tilt it would change things up? I typically adhere very powerfully to a strict x- and y-axis in my photography—I like it when things are symmetrical, tidy, and when the horizon line is parallel to the top and bottom of the frame—but since we were out here trying new stuff, I thought I’d give it a shot.

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 35mm f2.0 @ 35mm & f/22 for 1/20 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

Still bad. Still out of focus. It always felt like the cars were just a foot or two too close or too far.

And because I was so fixated on experimenting, the dreaded thing happened: I messed up the photos when some action happened.

The Corvette should have been in focus! But it was not! Dammit!

But quitting is for losers, and momma didn’t raise no loser. We try again. Again!

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 35mm f2.0 @ 35mm & f/10 for 1/20 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

Okay! Okay! We’re getting the hang of it. What about lowering the shutter speed even more? Let’s be crazy people!

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 35mm f2.0 @ 35mm & f/13 for 1/13 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

Chelsea DeNofa’s Ford Mustang is absolutely out of focus. We’ll just call this one “soft focus.” The same applies to the next photo, too.

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 35mm f2.0 @ 35mm & f/18 for 1/10 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

Yeesh. Maybe 1/10th of a second was too low. In the words of my friend Alanis King, I think I girlbossed too close to the sun, here. In any case, I felt like I had gotten everything I could have gotten out of my 35 for the day. I was resentful, not thinking logically, and tired. Time to try something else. Time for the 70-200 again.

The Long Lens

I don’t know if it took a mere change of hardware or that I generally feel like a hero when I’m wielding my 70-200, but after a couple of tries, I finally nailed my best two shots of the day.

Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 70-200mm f2.8 @ 70mm & f/3.5 for 1/15 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee
Formula Drift
Canon 6D + Canon 70-200mm f2.8 @ 70mm & f/3.5 for 1/15 sec, ISO 100. Kristen Lee Kristen Lee

Oh, my God. I felt like screaming. This is exactly the shot I had wanted the whole time. The car was in focus, passing smoothly in front of the grandstands, the lighting was golden, and I had shot it all on the slowest shutter speed I’d ever really shot on. It’s just a bonus that you can see the rear wheels locked up in the second photo. It felt like snatching a bullet out of the air.

That 1/15th of a second proved to be my magic shutter speed. I cannot tell you what changed—I was just about on hour seven of straight shooting by this point, so I was exhausted—but I think the very act of trying it over and over and over again committed something to muscle memory. Like reciting a song on the piano by heart or tossing fried rice in a wok, a lot of this stuff is muscle memory, which takes over when your brain checks out from sheer frustration.

In the end, I shot close to 800 photos and only kept around 44. Of those 44, I only really like about five of them. But as a matter of perspective, I know that professional photographers like Chen and Ting have shot hundreds of thousands of photos to hone this particular skill. And they probably only like just a small handful from the events they attend, too.

Ultimately, I’m satisfied with what I came home with. But I still think there’s room for improvement. There always is. It felt good to try something new that weekend, though. It felt good to feel challenged and irritated. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m bad at being bad at stuff, so this was very good for me. It was humbling and taught me to slow my game down.

I also spend so much of my time during the week thinking in words that it was an incredible change to not have to do that for a few hours at a Formula Drift race. For those few hours, I could feel out both my gear and my own abilities based on sight and touch alone. I went in with the goal of improving and I came out just a bit better at something I set my mind to. That, to me, is more valuable than any photo I could have shot.

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