Behind the scenes of the 2014 Dubai 24 Hours with crankandpiston photographer James Davison
Despite my passion for motorsport and my career as a photographer, I do not consider myself a ‘motorsport photographer’. At all. Shooting a race is a discipline that requires patience, practice and a commitment to perfect. You only need to look at the stunning images – by both David Benson and Nick Dungan – that have graced the pages of crankandpiston in our 2014 Dubai 24 Hours coverage to witness the results of two dedicated motorsport photographers.
I do, however, like a challenge. With the Dubai 24 Hours endurance race right on my doorstep, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity of getting out there (for all 24 hours) and getting some practice in. Well, a challenge it was and practice I did get. What follows is my experience – and my images – of the 2014 Dubai 24 Hours.
First up is the all important equipment list. I am the crankandpiston Stealth Ninja and therefore would be traveling light. A Canon 5D Mark III, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, two batteries, one memory card, a hoody (it gets cold here at night… relatively speaking), four Red Bulls and five packets of cigarettes got themselves stuffed into my backpack. Now, I know what you are going to say, and yes, that is totally inadequate for a motorsport photographer. No way was four Red Bulls and five packets of cigarettes going to last me for 24 hours.
I initially started the day cautiously – going for ‘safe’ shots – and my reasoning for this was sound logic. If everything else went tits-up, I would at least have something to show for 24 hours commitment in improving my motorsport photography. It wasn’t long, however, before I started along that downward spiral of attempting originality in my photography. As Darren Rycroft – official Dubai Autodrome photographer – mentioned, “Davison, are you getting all arty-farty with your shots again?”. Yup, well, trying to at least…
The Dubai Autodrome is a fantastic circuit with many drivers rating it above Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina. It is, however, slightly – how do I say this – currently aesthetically challenged. All that will be changing in the next few years with planned beautification scheduled to take place but, for the moment at least, we work with what we got and getting creative can be tricky.
Shooting through the fence will never produce an image worthy of a desktop wallpaper but it does place the car firmly in its environment. I quite like this voyeuristic approach to photography although, sometimes, I maybe take it too far…
… and trying to pan a fast moving object through a five centimetre gap between the bottom of a fence and the top of a wall is taking things to an extreme.
As is shooting over the shoulder of a race marshall and through a small hole in the fence. This is, however, one of my favourite photographs from the daylight hours of the first day. While not being a ‘money shot’ it locates this Ferrari 458 totally at the Dubai Autodrome. The ’24H’ on the marshall’s cap is the icing on the cake.
One of the ‘special moments’ you wait for as a photographer is golden hour. It is a ridiculous name for a period of time that lasts but a brief few moments when the final burst of orange light blankets the earth in a warm glow as the sun reaches the horizon. As luck would have it, this year’s weather wasn’t so fantabulous. Despite golden hour in Dubai normally being a premium pic-snappery moment, this is as good as I could capture . I do not own – nor would have a clue how to use – photoshop, so I am not equipped to drop some golden rays – or a unicorn and rainbow – into the above pic. Sigh…
After golden hour follows dusk. Headlights come on and the atmosphere totally changes. The Dubai Autodrome has totally inadequate lighting but I love and hate it for that in equal measure. At most tracks, under the blaring artificial illumination, you might as well be racing during midday. At the Autodrome, it becomes proper night racing with only small portions of the circuit lit and the atmosphere is fantastic. As a photographer though, it is a pain in the ass to try and capture that atmosphere without cranking up the ISO to level a million.
It is about this time that I start to notice something peculiar. I have an odd approach to photography born out of developing my pic taking ability from a borrowed toy camera. I constantly have my Canon set to ‘single shot’ rather than rapid fire and tend to see the shot in my head before I ever hit the capture button. And yet, the little Stuttgart Porker #20 has become a shot that I consistently nail. How curious…
With complete darkness not so far away, the blood red glow from brake discs being given a tough time is tantalizingly close. Rather than crank up the ISO, I tend to lower the shutter speed to better capture the atmosphere. I rarely shoot above ISO 640 and I don’t think I have ever shot higher than ISO 800. Just as I am getting in the zone, another – I think it is perhaps the seventh – code 60 flags the racers and I drop – for the moment – any pretence at capturing the action.
By this time I have done a full lap, anti-clockwise, on foot around the outside of the Autodrome and have reached corner one. Although a Code 60 is a fantastic opportunity to easily capture the cars while they are tootling along, I have learned from experience that you cannot convincingly fake speed in a photograph. Instead, I busy myself being ‘artistic’ and rest the camera between a brick and my shoe for a six second exposure shot. As fascinating as this is, I am starting to get cold with inactivity, the hoody goes on and I decide to make my way to the pits.
By the time I have made my way to the grandstand and through the underground tunnel that leads to the pit lane, the Code 60 has been dropped and the race is underway once more. The pit lane is a bustle of human activity which, after spending several hours alone focused on the high paced action on track, takes a little getting used to.
Being track side, the action is all about the Mercedes-Benz Vs. Porsche and the Corvette Vs. Ferrari. In the pit lane, you associate with the human element. Expectant drivers awaiting the change-over, casting a steely gaze down an empty pit lane while mentally counting down the arrival of their team mate.
Other drivers feeling claustrophobically cocooned and frustrated inside the car in the team’s garage. Mechanics desperately trying to engineer a fix before dropping it down from the air-jacks and letting him get on with his job, getting it back on track and getting the laps in.
While others cast a glance back at the car they just brought in and wonder if they were pushing a little bit too hard?
Is that steam or smoke? We are only halfway through the night. Is the car going to last the race?
Yes, the pit lane is a stressful, high energy place. Time to make a move again…
A final quick shot from the balcony over the pit lane and I make my way back into the darkness. Well, kind of…
There are areas at the Dubai Autodrome where night photography is easily achievable. Reasonably well lit patches of light that you patiently wait for the cars to place themselves under. That is much too easy though. Time to seek out somewhere challenging.
Night photography is always challenging but the reward is worth it when you get it right.
For me, difficulty level a million is being on the outside of turn 16. You might as well be on the dark side of the moon and, just to make things interesting, the track is lit on the other side. Challenge accepted.
As previously mentioned, I shoot at relatively low ISO and compensate by dropping shutter speed to a barely functional level. And yes, I am shooting through the fence here again just for giggles…
It is all a bit hit or miss with such low shutter speed and my single-shot activity but perseverance pays off.
When a group of cars are tightly packed I focus on the lead car, using the headlights of the others to illuminate my chosen subject. Mmmm, there’s that #20 Porsche again being photogenic…
Morning slowly creeped in. Overcast and not so pretty. The tiredness hits me for the first time and I am out off Red Bull and rationing cigarettes to last me to the chequered flag. This 24 hour endurance racing is a tough gig, even for a photographer.
A few last shots, including that #20 Porsche again, and I head back to the media centre to grab a coffee before race end.