Shooting Motor Sport at Night with the X-T4

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/40s @ f2 ISO250
The 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place in less than three weeks (19/20 September) and one of the best parts of photographing a 24 hours race is the chance to shoot the track action in the dark.  Because the world's great motor sport event was postponed from its usual mid June date due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the September date, with its earlier sunset and later sunrise times, will provide more opportunities to shoot in the dark  

However, shooting under the cover of darkness also presents a few challenges with regards to exposure and focusing but the results are worth the extra effort required.  Last weekend I was at the Circuit Paul Ricard with the European Le Mans Series for the Le Castellet 240, the only ELMS night event on the calendar and a good opportunity to practice my very rusty skills as the last night race I shot was the FIA World Endurance Championship 8 Hours of Bahrain last December.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2.2 ISO1600

In Le Castellet I was using a pair of Fujifilm X-T4 bodies, one fitted with the XF200mm f2 telephoto prime and the other fitted with the XF50-140mm f2.8, with both lenses were set to their widest aperture for all of the shots.  

Forget about using a flashgun, leave it at home or in your camera bag.  Not only does the flash upset the drivers night vision, especially if shooting into the cockpit from the front, you are usually too far away from the cars for the flash to be effective anyway.  I use the available ambient light for all my shots.

The first thing you need to look for is where the circuit floodlights are putting light on the track and if this light will illuminate the front of the car or provide a backlit opportunity.  The other source of light around the circuit are the cars themselves from the headlights and, in the case during this event, the very bright rain lights.  Finding the right spot is all about doing your homework before shooting.

Now the strength of the light is going to be poor so forget about shooting action freezing shutter speeds, we are going to be working in the 1/250 to 1/30 second range, which means you have to choose your positions carefully.  Because the aperture is going to pretty much fixed to its widest setting the variable is going to be the ISO setting.  

I try to keep the ISO as low as possible to improve image quality but since the X-T2 / X-Pro2 was launched in 2016, I haven't worried about pushing the ISO up the range when needed.  It is better to have a slightly grainy image, which can be adjusted in post, than a completely blurred and useless result, which is only fit for the bin.

I use manual exposure for night shooting as the headlights and floodlights will affect any of the auto exposure camera settings.  I have my X-T4 (and previous models as well) set up with the shutter speed set on the rear dial and the ISO on the front, with the aperture set on the lens dial.  

Th EVF gives me immediate feedback so I can see where the light is falling and how the camera is 'seeing' the overall exposure.  This gives me the ability to adjust the ISO or shutter speed quickly without taking my eye away from the viewfinder.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/200s @ f2 ISO500
Auto focus is another area that can be affected by shooting at night.  Bright headlights can really upset the focus lock so I try to avoid shooting head on to the cars, or if I do I switch to manual focus and pre focus on the track.  The trick is to wait until the car has turned the corner so the headlight beams have moved away from the direct line to your shooting position, as demonstrated in the shot above.  You still get some light flares but that just adds atmosphere to the image and is quite welcome.

Even out of the headlights the lack of contrast in some areas can make the use of auto focus a bit hit and miss but I have to say that I was very impressed by the AF on the Fujifilm X-T4 and I used AF for 95% of the images I took, including the head on shot of the two Graff LMP cars above.

I love shooting silhouettes of the cars, trying to get a backlit outline of the race car as it speeds past your position.  Like this shot of the race winning no22 United Autosports Oreca 07-Gibson.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/125s @ f2.8 ISO3200
The trick here is to find a location where the cars are running parallel to your position and a floodlight is behind the cars position.  The light from the circuit lighting is bouncing off the top of the car, the metal guardrail and the distinctive painted lines on the track.  

The shot below is also a silhouette using the trackside floodlight illuminating the painted lines which provide the backdrop for the no8 Realteam Racing Ligier-Nissan, the race winner in the LMP3 category.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/125s @ f2.8 ISO3200

Another technique is to use the lights of one car to illuminate another as demonstrated by the image below.  The LMGTE class Proton Competition Porsche was being lapped by one of the Le Mans Prototypes (LMP2) as they exited the last corner.  I positioned myself for a rear shot as the cars set off down the start-finish straight to begin another lap.  The LMP2  car was moving to the right to overtake the slower car and this shot also captured the flashing rain lights in full glow, again adding a little bit more to the atmosphere of the image.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
The second example was taken on the exit of Turn 7 before the cars enter the long 2km Mistral Straight.  The set up is similar but this time the LMP3 car had just overtaken the slower LMGTE Ferrari and the Ferrari's headlights are lighting the faster car perfectly

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/100s @ f2 ISO500
Because the shutter speeds available to you in the dark are going to be relatively slow, the vast majority of the shots will be taken using the panning technique, which is tracking the subject with camera to introduce motion blur in the foreground and background. 

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/60s @ f2 ISO400

To freeze the action in motorsport usually requires a shutter speed in excess of 1/1000s, but you can reduce this by choosing your location very carefully.  If you choose a corner where the cars are braking hard then it is possible to reduce the action freezing speed to less than 1/500s.  It might mean you will need to bump up the ISO to compensate for the faster shutter speed because the aperture will already be wide open, but it is possible as the image below demonstrates.

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/250s @ f2 ISO1600
Another advantage of shooting at night is the ability to capture the exhaust flames as the cars downshift the gears into a corner and the glow of the red hot brake disks as the drivers brake hard.  

The exhaust flames are very quick so you need to be on the ball to capture them.  It is best to observe which cars are giving the best effect and at which location.  At the Circuit Paul Ricard the cars are circulating with lap times around 1 minute 40 seconds for the LMP2 cars, which also are the cars that have the best exhaust flares.  At Le Mans, which is a 13km track, you have to wait for a car for at least 3 minutes 30 seconds, so you have to be patient.

This shot of the no31 Paris Team Oreca was one of the few I managed to capture.  The best chance to capture a flaming exhaust is to set the camera drive to CH and shoot a short burst (4-5 shots).

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
I didn't manage to capture any glowing brake disks at the event in Le Castellet but at Le Mans going into Dunlop the LMP2 brakes glow red hot and it is an easy shot to get like this one below

Fujifilm X-H1 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
At this event I wasn't able to shoot in the pitlane due to the Covid-19 protocols in place. We had to choose to either shoot trackside or in the pitlane to maintain the 'bubbles'.  This rule will also apply to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a few weeks.

Here are some examples from Le Mans and Sebring (USA) in 2019.

Fujifilm X-T3 + XF200mm f2 - 1/250s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-H1 + XF16mm f1.4 - 1/15s @ f3.2 ISO320
Fujifilm X-T3 + XF200mm f2 - 1/320s @ f2 ISO1000

I shot a number of video sequences on the Fujifilm X-T4 and also on my iPhone11 fitted with a Moment anamorphic lens, which I edited together in the following short video.

Shooting at night is a skill set that all motor sport photographer acquire over time, especially those working in endurance racing or rally photography.  It is a skill set that requires lots of practice to find the optimum settings and each venue is different.

For example the night race in Bahrain for the WEC is very easy as the circuit floodlight system is superb and is almost like shooting during the day.  Other circuits like Le Mans, Circuit Paul Ricard and Sebring have less floodlighting and it requires a lot of preparation on the part of the photographer to get the best out of what is on offer.  Having said that the shots from these venues are much more atmospheric in my professional opinion and I have always loved a challenge.

Below are some more examples of the shots obtained at the Le Castellet 240

CLICK HERE to visit the European Le Mans Series official website

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/30s @ f2.8 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/30s @ f2.8 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/30s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/125s @ f2.8 ISO3200

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/125s @ f2.8 ISO3200

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/40s @ f2 ISO250

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/40s @ f2 ISO250

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/40s @ f2 ISO250

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/80s @ f2 ISO800

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/320s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/320s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2.2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2.2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF50-140mm f2.8 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO3200

Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600
Fujifilm X-T4 + XF200mm f2 - 1/125s @ f2 ISO1600

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