If you click on the link over to the right “The Rider Files Photos” you’ll see the beginnings of my online photo archives. In the coming months I’ll be adding many hundreds of photos to the digital collection. I began photographing races in 1983, although I was so bad at that point almost nothing from that era is usable today.
Gary Van Voorhis was the associate editor at Cycle News East and he gave me the chance to cover my first race, a WERA National Endurance event at Indianapolis Raceway Park. He asked me if I was a photographer. “Yes,” I replied nervously, thinking I wouldn’t get to cover the race if I said no. In fact I wasn’t lying to Gary. One of my first jobs out of school was taking child portraits. However the medium-format cameras used in a portrait studio were designed for non-photographers. The truth was I’d never picked up a 35mm SLR in my life.
So the day before the race I ran to Sears and bought a Canon AE-1 Program with some cheap third-party zoom lens. Needless to say the photos I got from that WERA National Endurance race weren’t going to make the pages of Motocourse. I Fed Ex’d the film to Cycle News East and got a call from Van Voorhis. I think he knew I had never shot a motorcycle race, but I guess my reporting was solid enough and on time, so he at least had someone he could work with.
“Fill the frame,” Gary told me. “Zoom in enough that you see nothing but motorcycle and rider in the frame.”
It’s funny; years later when Cycle News was doing house cleaning they sent me the original negatives from that very first race I covered. I just had to laugh and shake my head. How they were able to get even one useful photo to use in the paper I’ll never know.
I gradually got better, but my photos often suffered because of the equipment I used. I was young, poor and really couldn’t afford the big, expensive lenses it takes to successfully capture motorcycle racing action. I have to laugh when I think back at some of the crap I tried to use. There was this old camera store in downtown Indy that’s been gone for 25 years now, but I think their specialty was junky, old used lenses, but they were cheap. That was right up my alley.
I had a Soligor 200mm f/2.8 that refused to produce a sharp image. The elements were probably rattling around from the former owner dropping the thing. I knew I needed a long lens so I bought a no-name 500-800mm mirror lens! I swear I could focus on and shoot a stationary motorcycle and it wouldn’t be sharp. Fortunately I learned after only a weekend or two that the lens was hopeless and I traded it in.
Finally I came across an ad in the Indianapolis Star for a Canon 400mm for 250 bucks. I went to look at it and it was a like new Canon 400mm f/4.5 SSC. It was an $1800 lens new! Finally I finally had a decent camera lens and my photos immediately took a giant leap.
Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. Good equipment doesn’t guarantee good photographs, but trying to capture speeding motorcycles with cheap third-party lenses is an almost certain recipe for failure.
I shot with my trusty Canon AE-1 Program, later joined by a tank of body in the Canon A-1, for the entire time I shot film – 1983 to 1995. Getting 12 years out of a pair of camera bodies, especially today in the world of digital would be impossible. Nikon produced the excellent F3 body for close to 20 years. These days they’re lucky to keep a digital SLR in production for 20 months.
When the AMA moved me from Superbike communications manager to motocross in 2002 I got my first digital camera to capture MX shots for the website. I didn’t want to go the SLR route because I wanted something compact I could travel with easily. I got the Olympus E-100RS, a camera that could shoot at 15 frames per second (taking movies as they say). I shot motocross with that camera for a couple of years and it produced photos decent enough for web use.
My first digital SLR was a Nikon D70, major jump in quality. I went with Nikon, even though they were behind Canon in digital technology at the time, since I had friends who shot Nikon and had some old lenses I could use. Then came a hand-me-down D2H from Henny Ray Abrams, again another major gain. Of course with motocross you can easily cover it with an 80-200mm lens. But for road racing you’ve got to have at the very least a 300mm, preferably a 500 or even 600mm. These things each cost about as much as compact cars. Seriously! It’s not a cheap hobby.
Today I’m using a Nikon D300 and aiming someday for a D3. Abrams let me use one of his D3 bodies at Road Atlanta and I must say it’s an absolutely amazing camera for motorsports. My primary shooting lenses are a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 and a 300mm f/4. When I’m shooting road races I get by with a little help from my friends (thanks Brian J., Tom and Henny) who occasionally let me borrow their old big dollar lenses.
Digital and auto-focus technology has made motorcycle racing photography much easier than in the old film and manual focus days, but you still have to have a good eye for composition and a steady hand.