Plates are for TV.

Last week I went to Talladega Superspeedway, the biggest oval track NASCAR runs on, at 2.66 miles. To put it into perspective, I sat in the center of what is called the tri-oval, basically the round part in the letter D. The big accident on the last lap was just short of a half mile away. Don’t get me wrong, I thought Talladega was a sight to behold. The 33 degree banking is amazing, I swear it is 2-3 stories tall. One thing you don’t see on TV is the backstretch of Talladega declines slightly as the cars run and campers get in the way of the fans’ view. The way Talladega is banked and with the size of the track, NASCAR requires the cars be fitted with Restrictor Plates, which limit the amount of air into the fuel system, lowering horsepower and slowing the cars down. As a result, the cars have little to any differentiation in horsepower and top speed. They run in a big giant pack. The pack reminds me of the Peloton in bike racing. All of the cars are going between 195-200 MPH and they run in 2-3 rows and some of the cars stay in one row, while others move from row to row to try to jockey for position. This is a cool thing to see on TV, because the cameras usually focus on the lead pack most of the time and you see more of the cars. In person it is just odd. I would venture to say, since I have been to other tracks, it is very unappealing. Talladega is so big, you see the cars up close for 5 seconds, and then they are far away for 45. When they are on the backstretch, you can’t even hear them. Here is a photo I took through the catch fence of the pack:

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The two tracks I frequently visit, Charlotte and Bristol Motor Speedway, are smaller. Charlotte is a mile and a half, and Bristol is a hair over a half mile. Bristol looks like a large football stadium! Charlotte is big, but it could fit in the infield of Talladega. Charlotte is the APS-C of tracks and Bristol is a Cybershot, but not in spectator value. At both Charlotte and Bristol, the cars do not run restrictor plates, so they fan out more. There is action all over the track and you can see 90-95% of the track from every seat, where the pole is blocking part of the view and there might be a structure blocking a bit of the rest if you’re too low. Some places you can see 99% of the track. I couldn’t imagine going to Indianapolis where it is also huge and there are no seats that can see everything. Leading up to the race, the crowds are interesting and you see a lot of things you don’t normally see at sporting events. I caught a glimpse of this guy:

SONY DSC I guess in the middle of October, coming to the race track is better than watching elves make toys.

I live outside of Charlotte, North Carolina which is where NASCAR lives. Most of the race shops are within 80 miles of Charlotte and the NASCAR Hall of Fame is Downtown Charlotte. I’ve been fortunate enough to have really expensive seats at Charlotte. Last night was not one of those nights. I was sitting in the cheap seats. I learned a valuable lesson last night. The cheap seats at Charlotte are better than the not-so-cheap seats at Talladega. I’d venture to say they’re better than some of the not-so-cheap seats at Charlotte. I sat in the middle of turns 3 and 4 and about halfway up. Here is a stitch I made of some shots taken from with the A900 and 24mm f/2 ZA SSM lens, stitched together with Microsoft ICE.

DSC01201_stitch_cropOther than the light posts, one small building, and the pole, you can see the whole track. My view was perfect for testing my equipment because I could get the cars in a “well” lit area in the entrance of turn three where all of the billboards are.

I realized last night, I have never had my A77 at a night time big-time stock car race. The biggest thing I missed last night was the Electronic Viewfinder. Charlotte has lights on the sides of the track which light the banked roads and there are lights around the track, but my A390 and A900 have been fooled by the lights so they have a tendency to select a shutter speed far too slow in Aperture Priority or an aperture too open in Shutter Priority unless you pick something arbitrarily high to begin with. I needed to shoot in manual. And I had a hard time getting the white balance right too.

Coming into the entrance of turn three I was able to get my best shots. The biggest problem with the entrance of three is the cars are going about 190 miles an hour into the turn and they decelerate to a modest 150-155 into the turn. So if you’re not panning, you need a shutter speed better than 1/250 with SteadyShot on for a Sony body. So in all, odd lighting, and fast speeds mean high ISO. Last night I lived or died on ISO 1600. Sure, I experimented with values from 800-3200 but I took a majority of the shots at ISO 1600. Here is one of the shots I liked at ISO 3200, untouched, taken directly from the body. This was taken using the 70-300 G lens at f/5.6, and 1/500s.

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Here is a crop of the same shot, taken directly from the body.

SONY DSCAt first glance, we have some noise, which is expected at ISO 3200, I am underexposed a bit, and it appears I have a little too much tint. I could mess around in Lightroom for days to get something I like, but I did a slight color adjustment, white balance adjustment, and noise reduction and got something I could use.

If you’re a pixel peeper, you are going to say the shot is soft, which I concede a bit. More than anything else, I am testing my equipment under less than ideal circumstances. Vivid colors at high speeds under poor light from far away. I can do better. I got really comfortable with ISO 1600 on the A900, so once I figured I would live with the results, I focused on my light and shutter speeds and I tried to use laps under caution to practice. Here is a sample at ISO 1600, again at 300mm and f/5.6 but down to 1/250s. The cars are only going 55mph at this point.

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I tried to shoot at other lengths than 300mm and I even tried out my trusty 85mm at f/1.4. This will give you an idea of how far away I am. This is at ISO 400 and 1/640s.

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And an aggressive crop of the same shot.

SONY DSCI wish I had the luxury of the 300mm f/2.8 G SSM lens or even a used Minolta 300mm f/2.8 lens. Maybe one day I’ll rent one. Until then I will try to make things work with what I have.

Here is my attempt at an aggressive shutter speed. This is my 85mm f/1.4 lens at f/4, ISO 1600 and 1/800s.

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And a super-aggressive crop of the same shot, a battle for the lead at the time.

SONY DSCThe full size shot looks a bit chalky.  At f/4, and ISO 1600 I am not going to get super sharpness. But it is something to work with and get better at. There is another challenge at Charlotte, which is unique to Charlotte in general. The world’s largest HD monitor. I tried to get a shot of a car going by a picture of itself on the monitor. A huge light in the middle of your shot plays tricks on your camera. Here is one of my first attempts, at 230mm, ISO 1600,  f/5.6 and 1/500s.

SONY DSCAs you can see, the shot is slightly underexposed with the monitor seemingly overexposed. 

Overall, I had a better time at Charlotte than Talladega. Talladega is better on TV. Charlotte is better in person. Now I know. I still have a couple hundred shots to sort through.

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