Every shoot is, in essence a problem-solving mission. You have to figure out the weather and how to deal with that. You have to figure out the subsequent lighting conditions, and how to deal with those. You have to figure out where you can shoot from and base your movements throughout the day on both your permitted shooting locations and the schedule of events. And you have to figure out how to combine all that, tell the story and get photos no one else will have.
Thus you could say every shoot is also a balancing act. And it is. But shooting drift is very different to almost any other form of motorsport, as it forces you to think in a very different way, and balance an entirely different set of parameters.
For starters, drift courses are small. Most are only two to three turns long, and when you factor in safe zones, you end up with decidedly fewer shooting points than you would on a full track. Thus, you have to plan your day to include as many different variants of certain viewpoints as possible, and make the absolute most of every spot.
For example, at the recent ADGP finals at Calder Park, I managed to get four angles from one viewpoint behind a concrete wall at one end of the track. There was this …
… this …
… this …
… and this.
The same went for all the other shooting spots as well. This was one of several viewpoints I got from standing on the outside of the banking on the outside of turn one. That’s not to say there weren’t many more at each location, either, but it was only my second time shooting this course layout (the last time being Formula Drift Melbourne last year) and you always learn more each time you shoot a venue.
Similarly, because you have limited areas to shoot from, you are compromised to a certain degree in terms of using light. On a full track, you can just walk or drive around to a completely different part of the circuit if the light where you are is not good. This is often not possible when dealing with a drift track, as the furthest you can go is around two hundred metres or so away from where you are. Thus, creativity and planning are required.
Creativity in terms of how you use the available light, and planning in terms of knowing where the light is going to be coming from in the first place.
I have, in the past, mentioned The Photographer’s Ephemeris as a key app I would highly recommend any photographer to use. I plan every single shoot with it, as it allows to me know where the sun is going to be pointing from at any moment during the day, at any location on earth. It’s amazing, and means I know where I need to be to get the light I want every single time. Without fail.
This makes being creative about your locations and subsequent light use almost impossibly easy. Say, for example, I want to backlight the entire shoot. Apart from at midday, it’s simple, because I know where I need to stand at any given time. Same if you want to use side light or to place the light anywhere else.
And lighting in drift, like any other form of shooting, is key. Especially because unlike traditional circuit sports, drifting also throws you a curve ball in terms of smoke, and how you handle that interaction of light and smoke can make or break your shoot.
Like off-road sports, drift provides you with huge amounts of particulate matter in the air that acts as a diffuser. This can be both good and bad. Most of the time it’s good, in that the diffusion effect softens everything up and gives a dream-like feel to many of the shots (like the R31 in the previous image). However, there can be times when the wind (or lack thereof) goes against you and keeps too much hanging in the air.
This brings me to my second and final point about smoke. When shooting it, you also need to consider how much of it there is, how it’s sitting on the track, and its shape and composition. Because modern drift cars throw out so much smoke, it actually becomes an integral composition element you need to consider. Its shape, its thickness, its colour (smoke is often a dark brown just in that split second when it sits under the car, prior to escape) and how you balance those elements with the car and the background all affect your photo.
You can control this to a certain degree through your choice of shutter speed, and here another example of drift photography’s uniqueness, and the balance you need to maintain, raises its head. Due to the spectacular nature of drifting – front wheels on opposite lock, smoke pouring from the rears – you can shoot a far greater number of high shutter speed shots than you can sometimes get away with in traditional tarmac motorsport coverage. That is to say the spectacle of drifting can counterbalance the need to add drama via panning. Of course, that still means you need to consider all the traditional compositional elements, too – you can’t just hope the drifters will do all the work for you.
‘Statics’ are also the only way you can ‘freeze’ the unique shape of the smoke, which adds another reason to use them more when covering drift events. As Larry Chen has mentioned in the past, every smoke cloud is different, and higher shutter speeds are the only way to capture the pulsing nature of the vaporised rubber as it leaves the tyres.
Of course, while you can shoot an entire event at high shutter speeds, I would still suggest using pans to vary it up and convey movement and/or speed as only pans can do, even if you do lose the precise shape of the smoke. But that’s all part of the balancing act as well.
So that’s a little insight into my recent spate of drift shooting for My Life @Speed and how I fulfilled my client’s brief for impactful photography that also tells a story. I hope it was in some way entertaining and/or educational.
Chris Nicholls (Owner/founder P1 Race Photography)