Photographing a 24-Hour Auto Race, with Camden Thrasher

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Camden Thrasher, based in the US Pacific Northwest, is a self-taught photographer with a passion for motorsports and an eye for dramatic lighting that he uses to illuminate his images of racecars and racecar drivers very effectively. He recently shared some of his insights with B&H Photo.

How did you get started in motorsports and photography?

First off, I guess I would say that since early childhood I’ve been fascinated by cars and motorsports, specifically endurance sportscar racing. The urge to photograph this sport came later, but I was lucky to live very close to a race track, so I had easy access and plenty of opportunities practice. Most of my free time through high school and college was spent photographing local racing in the northwest. Since then, I’ve made this into my day job and I’ve had the pleasure to work with some great teams and shoot at some of the most beautiful race circuits around the world.

Now as a “day job,” how do you approach your work?

I now spend most of the year on the road chasing the colorful and loud world of motorsports. I think what initially drew me to sportscar racing was the sheer variety of cars that are all competing against each other. Each car has it’s own very distinct look and, photographically, they can each be treated somewhat differently. There’s also the noise. If you’re going to shoot racing, you need to love noise, from the low growl of the Corvettes to the scream of a Ferrari. It’s all fantastic. Not only are the cars amazingly different, each track has a unique flavor with its own challenges and rewards.

What are some of the photographic challenges you face as a motorsport photographer, especially at night?

The real endurance races that last 24 hours and go through the night are by far the most challenging, but also are the most fun, in my opinion. I have far more time to experiment and try new things, and I get to utilize a great range of lighting conditions. Shooting at night is difficult, as most tracks are not well lit, or not lit at all, so that means you’re pushing the limits of your equipment in terms of the ISO performance, as well as the accuracy of the autofocus system. You’re dealing with, generally, a very dark scene but with very bright light sources from the headlights that make it tricky to nail a decent exposure. If you’ve got your exposure set up for a car on its own, but suddenly another car comes up behind with its headlights shining on your main subject, you’ve got to be able to react quickly to this and adjust on the fly in order to not have a completely blown-out subject. Another issue is having the headlights pointing directly in to the lens. Some of the lights on race cars now, particularly the Audis, are so bright that you need to take care not to shoot directly head on.

What are some ways you try to make your work stand out or give your images a creative edge?

One question I asked myself early on about my photography, and still do to this day, is how do you capture “racing” in an image? Sure, anyone can photograph a car on a track somewhere and it might look a bit neat, but how do you capture all the excitement, drama, and speed in a medium that is essentially, by definition still… frozen… stopped. To capture the pure speed of these racing cars, I often use very low shutter speeds. In a normal panning shot, you can keep the subject sharp while blurring the foreground and background as well as the wheels. However, if you slow the shutter speed down even more, (an 1/8th of a second or longer, for example), and add some additional camera movement you can create some really interesting trails of light and color that seem to stream off the bodywork of the cars. There’s a lot of patience involved in shooting like this. The takeaway is very minimal but the images that do turn out can be quite excellent. I had done a number of times during daylight by ND filters to get the shutter speeds down low enough while also not being completely stopped down with the aperture, but I had never tried it at night.

Tell us about the image that appeared in Racer Magazine recently.

Although I said most tracks are very poorly lit at night, the 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona Speedway is the exception to that rule. Although the race is run in January when the night is very long, there are plenty of lights around the track, so it never really gets too dark. I decided to play around with long handheld exposures at night and see what would come of that. Not only are there lights illuminating the track surface, but there were plenty of random other lights in the background, as well as lights from the car itself that all made for neat streaks in background. I definitely notice the later into the night it is (and the more sleep deprived I am) the more experimental or silly I get with my exposures. I got down to around 1-second exposures, which gave me plenty of time to make some weird camera moves, which result in the crazy streaks of light on the top of the image. Many people ask whether I’m using a flash for these photos and the answer is no. I don’t even currently own one. The car is able to stay relatively sharp because I am only following the car for a brief moment of the total exposure. The time I’m actually following the car during the exposure may only be something like 1/30th second, which is a much easier shutter speed to get the car sharp… somewhat.


Date: January 23 2015

Camera: Nikon D3

Lens: Nikon 70-200 VRI @70mm

Shutter Speed: 1 second

Aperture: f/13

ISO: 250

Camden Thrasher is a motorsport photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. His work has been commissioned by top racing teams and has appeared in publications such as Racer Magazine, Modified Magazine, Speedhunters, Porsche AG, Excellence Magazine, and SpeedTV. You can read more and see more images on his website.

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Hi Todd,

This article returns me to the days when I would trek to Watkins Glen, New York in the Octobers of the 60's and 70's to enjoy 5 days of camping at the US Grand Prix for Formula One in Finger Lakes' foliage when it was held there. It was magical. I still have a few nice shots made with cheap film cameras including some from a helicopter flight I took in 1976 in an old Bell. One year it rained hard from Thursday thru Saturday. Our ancient wall tent never leaked a drop so we stuck around. Everyone else packed up and left. Sunday, race day, dawned bright and beautiful and we had the place practically to ourselves to enjoy the race. With much regret I never made it to beautiful, quaint Lime Rock, practically in our backyard. 

Hey Tom! Good stuff! I took a bunch of photos last year at the IMSA 6-Hours of the Glen and I have actually driven Lime Rock at a BMW performance driving school! I totally wish I had been dragged to the USGP there as a small kid, but I doubt I would remember those early days of my childhood!

As always, thanks for reading!

Todd....I drove my motorcycle on the Glen course (1971?) at night when they allowed that. I believe that was the last year it was permitted. Then they banned motorcycles from the grounds entirely. The USGP at the Glen was one huge camping party!! I can still hear the sweet sound of the cars going through the woods down the long straight! 

I'm now on 500px.com/thomasgorton

Hey Tom! Found you on 500px! Good stuff!