Trackside Tuesday: First in Flight

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The longer you spend trackside at a given circuit, the more you think you know what that circuit has to offer. The good shots are in this turn in the morning, that turn in the afternoon, and so on. It’s easy to hang on to this belief in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

The fact is that small changes in location or perspective can turn a good image into an amazing one. I see this all the time when shooting at a track such as Catalunya or Phillip Island, where the trackside view of the circuit is not limited by large fences and their gaps. Often a turn looks good from one spot, but if you move a few steps farther along, the perspective changes dramatically.

But the more days you spend shooting at a given circuit, the easier it is to think you have it wired. Laguna Seca is getting to be like that for me. I’ve been attending and photographing races there as an amateur and then a pro for many years. Good friend and fellow photographer Jules Cisek and I were commiserating in July about our shared feeling of being a bit bored with our home track. The weekend before we’d both been at the Sachsenring, he for the first time, I for the second, and that had seemed like blissfully undiscovered country.

But Jules and I have only been shooting Laguna with credentials for a handful of years, so in fact it hasn’t taken long for this feeling of dull familiarity to set in. Just imagine if you were one of the long-time MotoGP regulars who have been following the series for 10, 15, 20 or more years. Back to Assen for the 20th time… That sounds like a good problem to have, right?

If small changes in perspective can make a big difference, what about a dramatic change of location? On Saturday afternoon I was amused to find myself in a spot at Laguna Seca I’d never been before, inside Turn 1. This location doesn’t seem very promising for several reasons, the main ones being the speed at which the MotoGP bikes approach and the fact that you can’t see them coming until they appear in a flash, and are just as suddenly gone.

Another fact of MotoGP photography is that the bikes are often going much too fast for even the best pro photo equipment to keep up with them. We photographers flock to the tightest sections of the tracks we shoot, and look for opportunities to show speed when the bikes are going their slowest–even their slowest is pretty fast. You don’t see many pros trying to catch MotoGP bikes before they hit the brakes at the end of a long straight. Our cameras focus can’t track quickly enough. The only solution is to prefocus on a spot, and try to pan with the bikes into that small area. This is challenging.

Turn 1 at Laguna Seca is one of those challenging spots. Not only are the bikes approaching too quickly for autofocus to keep up, but you don’t know for sure which bike is coming up next. If you’re paying close attention, you might have a good idea that it’s Pedrosa instead of Pesek, but you won’t know for sure until you see an orange blur instead of a black one.

Earlier Saturday, though, I’d heard inside the paddock that some of the MotoGP riders were reporting both wheels off the ground at this spot. So I decided it might be worth gathering up all the skill I could muster, and all the luck I had lying around, hoping the latter was at least equal to the former, and seeing if I could get lucky enough to grab a still image of this short flight.

Laguna Seca has large, troublesome fences around most of the circuit, with occasional holes cut into the fencing for TV cameras and for still photographers. I do a lot of shooting through these fences at Laguna, since the available holes are often not where I’d cut them had I been consulted when the pliers were out. And since certain types of shots are possible through the fence design used at Laguna Seca.

But for a super high-speed shot requiring rapid movement of the camera lens, you need a photo hole. There are only a couple of choices in the area around Turn 1, so any photographer trying to reverse engineer the shot above should find it pretty easy to do. Getting the shot, however, is more of a challenge than finding where to stand.

The trickiest part was that I didn’t know where exactly on track both wheels might be coming of the ground. It took part of Saturday’s afternoon session to figure this out, and even then I had to get lucky to find it. I managed one very blurry shot in which it appeared that both wheels of the bike where in the air. Once I knew where this might happen, I tried to recreate Saturday’s results on Sunday during the race, hoping I could manage to get a flying bike in focus.

As with Blue Fire, it took many, many tries, 99+% of which went into the trash, to get the shot above. When I left Turn 1 to get some different shots of the race, I didn’t know if I’d just wasted my time or not. It wasn’t until I returned to the media center and started trashing shot after shot that this one jumped out on screen. It might have been any other rider, but again, my luck outweighed my talent and the best shot of the few I managed happened to be of Marc Marquez.

So though I was lucky to hear about the flying riders just in time to do something about it, and was further lucky enough to pull the shot off with the winning rider, I expect that to be a crowded section of track next year as some of my colleagues take their chances. I look forward to seeing what other photographers, with more skill and/or more luck, can do in this same challenging section of track.

If you’re a Marc Marquez fan and would like to own a signed copy of the above image, please click here for details on First in Flight, an edition limited to 50 copies each signed by Marc Marquez.

Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blogTwitter, & Facebook.

All images posted, shared, or sent for editorial use or review are registered for full copyright protection at the Library of Congress.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / PHOTO.GP – All Rights Reserved