Common sense says if you’re going to take sharp, dramatic photographs at a fast-action sporting event, make sure you have an autofocus lens that is at least 300mm or longer, and fast (f/2.8 or f/4) and, IMHO, preferably a zoom. As part of our coverage of Sports Week, I thought it might be fun to photograph the opening night of the 2021 racing season at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl using a lens that falls seriously short on all but one of those critical points of common sense.
Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021
The Tokina SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF lens, which is available for a half-dozen camera mounts, is longer than 300mm but it’s a manual focus lens and it’s slow as heck; it’s only f/8… period. That’s the downside. The upside of this little gem of a lens is that it’s tiny (2.9 x 3"), lightweight (12.5oz), and it focuses down to 3' 9", which for a 400mm mirror lens, is simply amazing. Oh… did I mention the lens costs a smidgeon under $250?
In a bid to truly push my luck, Tokina’s tiny 400mm mirror lens was the only lens I packed for the occasion. No wide-angle lenses, no normal lenses, not even a short telephoto. It was going to be a sink or swim situation.
The New London-Waterford Speedbowl is a 1/3-mile oval racetrack that opened in April 1951. The original track consisted of crushed blue stone, which created clouds of dust every time the cars rounded the corners and blasted down the straightaways. Although the dust added greatly to the drama on the track, the neighbors weren’t too pleased about having to dust their shelves and windowsills after every race. In a bid to make nice with the township, the track shut down and reopened three weeks later with a far-tidier asphalt track that is used to this very day.
Something I noticed early on was how evenly lit the image was, corner to corner. Due to design limitations, most mirror lenses tend to get dark toward the corners. Not so with this lens—the exposures were uniformly lit edge to edge.
The Speedbowl is a downhome family-oriented event with racing on Wednesday and Saturday nights during the summer-fall months. The drivers and cars that compete on the track are regular folk, though several NASCAR American Series National Champions can be counted among past competitors.
It’s not unusual to see father-son teams, and more than a few grandfathers can be seen tinkering around the pits and shouting from the sidelines as younger family members blast around the track as they did back in their heydays. Not restricted to adults, there are competitions for younger drivers as young as six years old. Regardless, they all seem to know what they’re doing when they get the green flag.
The trick of shooting fast action with a lens that is not designed for quick response times is to find a good vantage point and pre-focus on the area you want to shoot. I did this from several camera positions during the warm-up sessions. When the races began, I already knew my focus points. From there it was a matter of hitting the shutter at the right moment. Though I typically prefer to shoot in Single frame mode, for these types of occasions I shoot at High-Speed Continuous to better the chances of taking home a high number of keepers.
To guarantee going home with enough images to illustrate this article, I shot in High-Speed Continuous mode on my Sony a7R III. I also made sure the camera’s SteadyShot system was set to 400mm and, rather than using a tripod, I used my Leica tabletop tripod with mini ball head as a chest-pod, which offers a nice balance of steadiness and mobility.
Luckily, the sky was clear when the track opened at 5:30 p.m. The sun was still relatively high in the sky. I set the camera’s ISO to 1000 to maintain a decent balance of higher shutter speeds and image quality. These parameters worked fine until dark clouds put the kibosh on the light quality about a half hour before sunset.
There are several car divisions that have competed past and present at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl. Included among them are the new SK Modified Fast Five Series, Open Street Stocks, SK Modified, Late Model, Strictly Stocks, Mini Stocks, X-Cars, Super-X Cars, Street Stocks, Bandoleros’, and Legends.
The photographs that accompany this story were taken on the opening “Wild N’ Wacky Wednesday” series of the 2021 race season. Divisions racing on this particular evening included Super-X Cars, X-Cars, Bandoleros, and Legend cars.
There are dozens of amateur and semi-pro racetracks located in the US and, no doubt, hundreds more around the world. These smaller-scale racing events are ideal for honing one’s shooting skills in a fast-action environment. The tickets are reasonably priced, and—as the accompanying photographs prove—with the proper mindset, it’s possible to capture dramatic sports event photographs even when using “slow-poke lenses” that cost a few hundred dollars. It’s all about having fun with a camera, a lens, and something you enjoy photographing.
Share your own experiences with fast-action shooting in the Comments section, below.
For more sports-related news, tips, and reviews, be sure to check out the Sports Photography section of B&H Explora.