Home Can-Am at Laguna Seca Photographing Auto Races at Laguna Seca

Photographing Auto Races at Laguna Seca

by John Krill

The One Big Tip: If you don't want to read this thing, then remember one rule. Photography is all about LIGHT and SHADOW. For outdoor photography that's the Sun. Use the Sun to your advantage and it's your best friend. Ignore the Sun and it WILL be your worst enemy.

I live in southern California and would always pick Laguna Seca over Riverside. Why? Because Laguna Seca is one of the most photographer friendly places to take auto race photos. I'm referring to the race track itself. At only 1.9 miles in length (1969-72) it was easy to get to various parts of the track. Because it was situated in hill country with a hill in the middle of the course finding good locations for photographing the cars is a no brainer. This photographer usually worked around the corkscrew but there are several, if not many, good places to photograph at Laguna Seca.

Today there is no Riverside. Big mistake. Great loss. It was a great place to watch road races but difficult to photograph. This trend of road courses inside oval tracks like they have done at Fontana and Indy is like the multi-use stadiums that cities built for baseball and football. They were adequate but never great or even good. As for taking good race pictures — forget it. If you're in the stands then you are just to far away. If you are in the infield then the land is to flat to get good photos and I'm assuming you can GET onto the infield!

For me photographing auto races is more than pictures of the cars. I don't use long telephoto lenses. The long lens for me at Laguna Seca was a 135mm (using a 35mm Nikon F.) I always prefer to put a subject, whether it's a mountain range or a race car, into it's environment. That means showing the cars within the race track. Most of the photos you see at this site they were shot with the normal lens. Several with a 28mm lens. Most of the race car photos were taken with the 135mm, but not all.

What's important to me is people and place. People make any photograph more relevant. They give photos size. Take a look at any photo on this page. By using a normal lens you not only get the cars but the track and people. People give the photo scale and by including parts of the track you give definition of place. Why photograph a car going into or through the corkscrew if you don't show the corkscrew?

Here are some tips for Laguna Seca or any other race course.

1. Get there on a Saturday, better yet on Friday, and walk around the entire track, inside and out. Locate places where you want to photograph and mark them on a map. While doing this determine where the Sun is. It's best to have the Sun behind you coming over your shoulder. At a minimum never have the Sun in front of you. Determine the best time to be at each location. If you are using a zoom lens determine the best focal length for each location. Zooming the lens in and out while trying to get the photo will result in no photos and time wasted. After doing this prep work you should have photo locations marked on the map, the time of day and the best focal length to use. While at each location practice taking photos. Practice, practice, practice.

2. Get plenty of photos in the paddock area. Do this on Friday or Saturday morning. This is where you can photograph the drivers without the helmet mask on. Get plenty of photos of the cars being prepared by the crew. Don't be afraid to get the names of the crew members.

The paddocks is a great place to take those people pictures. Everyone has a camera and no one is going to be upset when a camera is pointed at them. Just do it. A race course is a public place. Take advantage of it.

The paddocks is where you take those long lenses and stuff them in the bag. There never is a reason to be using a long lens in the paddocks. This is where the normal lens is king. You may need a wide angle lens but always ask yourself is this really necessary?

3. Race day. This is when you concentrate on the race and the cars. Get that map out and determine your first location. And while you are walking the course take pictures of the spectators. They're always fun to shot. Like all the race fans in the trees at the corkscrew.

That's it. Almost.

The Other Big Tip: Always remember that you are photographing HISTORY. It never dawned on this photographer, and it should have, that he was photographing history. But he was. The photos at this site are 30 years old. If you photograph a race car driver just before he is to reach greatness and he is killed, liked what happened to Peter Revson, and you have photos of the driver then you have captured history. If you have photos of an important race car, like the Chaparral 2J, on the track, then you have history. The problem is — you never know.

As I have said: "I should have known better." When I went to Laguna Seca for the first time in 1969 I had only recently returned from Viet-Nam where I was a photographer in the Marines. I KNEW I was photographing history when I was over there. In 1969 at Laguna Seca I watched Bruce McLaren win one of his last races. A short time later while testing the 1970 McLaren Can-Am car he was killed. You don't see any photos of Bruce or his car. Why? I forgot I was photographing history. Don't you forget.

Web Sites To Visit:

  • Jesse Alexander. Alexander has authored numerous books including At Speed, Forty Years of Motorsport Photography and Driven. His work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, and as part of an exhibition of sports photography at the 1996 Summer Olympics. Be sure to visit his gallery of racing photographs.
  • David Friedman. I never heard of David but I probably have viewed many of his photos. He is very good. Found David's site listed at a Porsche site. Take a look and read what he has to say about photographing races.