Coming Full Circle
By Jack Webster
MARKING A MILESTONE…
The 2021 racing season marks a significant milestone for me and my photography of motorsport: I have now been a motorsport photographer for 50 years. My very first race as a shooter was the Mid-Ohio Can-Am in August of 1971, which was followed closely by the US Grand Prix the same year. That first Can-Am race saw unlikely winner Jackie Stewart in the Lola T260 break the winning streak of Team McLaren, while Jo Siffert in a Porsche 917PA Spyder and Herbert Müller in a Ferrari 512M rounded out the top three.
Later in the year at Watkins Glen, newly-crowned World Champion Jackie Stewart’s teammate, François Cevert pulled off a major upset to win the US Grand Prix for Ken Tyrrell. Those couple of race events, with their unexpected results and drama, certainly affirmed what would become my lifelong passion for motorsport – and motorsport photography.
Since those events of late 1971, I have never looked back or regretted a single day of my racing and photography life over the past five decades. I have literally covered many hundreds of major auto races, traveled many thousands of miles going to those races and produced many thousands of photographs which have documented my personal journey through motorsport history.
In that time, I have evolved as the photo industry and technology has evolved – constantly upgrading my camera gear and technique as to be able to do a better and more creative job of covering and documenting the sport that means so much to me.
For the first race at Mid-Ohio and that first Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1971, I was using a couple of Pentax cameras: A Pentax Spotmatic and a Pentax S1a (similar to the Spotmatic, but with no light meter built in). Oh, and there was no motor drive either. You had to take a light reading, set the f-stop and shutter speed, focus, take the shot and wind the film to the next frame. Working with such equipment, which was pretty much state of the art in its day, you had no choice but to quickly learn photography and how to set your camera for the best possible result.
MY MINOLTA ERA…
By the time the 1972 season started for me, I had upgraded my equipment to Minolta cameras and lenses. In 1972 that meant the SRT-101, which was a manual exposure camera body with a built-in light meter. In 1972 I used two of these Minolta cameras (one black body, one chrome body), so I could have color film in one and black & white film in the other. I even added a camera I wish I still owned today (as it is quite rare), a Minolta SR-M. The SR-M was essentially an SRT-101 with a built-in motor (albeit without a light meter) and could fire film at the blistering rate of 3 frames per second. Anyway, that seemed pretty fast at the time. I used Minolta Rokkor lenses from 24mm to 300mm and obtained some great results in 1972, covering a number of Can-Am races and once again shooting Formula One (that year covering both the Canadian and US Grand Prix races, for the first time as a credentialed photographer).
A word about credentials. I quickly learned (even at my first Grand Prix – Watkins Glen in 1971), that there were certainly ways to get access without necessarily having the proper pass. My first day at Watkins Glen, I observed the crews wheeling their cars into the pits and merely blended into their ranks and walked in the pits with them, my cameras around my neck and looking as official as I could. It worked like a charm, as no one even gave me a second look. As such, I was on the inside and was able to get better photos. To this day I remember the quote from the great photojournalist Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Being close enough and obtaining better photos from that first Grand Prix experience helped open doors for me the following year and beyond, as my portfolio’s quality reflected the access I had obtained by sneaking in. For the next several years, I was properly credentialed for both the Canadian and US Grands Prix.
Of course, such sneaking about wouldn’t get you very far in today’s racing world, where credentials are checked and double checked and photographers are required to wear bibs identifying who they are. But back in the early 1970’s, it was literally a different world and I was fortunate enough to get my start in racing photography when you were able to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves if you were bold enough. (My mantra was always, “If you’re not getting kicked out, you’re not trying hard enough!” – ed.)
LOGISTICS BACK IN THE DAY…
By 1974 I had upgraded my camera gear once again to include the Aperture Priority Automatic Minolta XK (introduced in 1973) and the Minolta XE-7 (introduced in 1974) to use with my excellent Minolta Rokkor lenses. Throughout the remainder of the 1970’s I covered a lot of races with this combination of equipment with excellent results.
Back in the 1970’s in particular, I was not only shooting color slide and black & white negative film, I was developing all my own black & white film as well – generally at the racetracks (or more accurately, at the hotel each evening following the day’s racing activities). Today, of course, we are spoiled with being able to see immediately on our digital camera’s viewing screen whether we had achieved success or not, but back in the film days there was no such luxury. You either developed the negatives at the event to see if you obtained the desired result, or waited until you returned home. Either way, there was no knowing for sure if you had got “the shot”…or not.
Of course, it was a similar situation with color slide film (in the 1970’s and early 1980’s I used a combination of Kodachrome and Ektachrome for color shots). The difference with the color film was you had to wait a week or so after the event for your processed film to come in the mail from the Kodak lab (we used prepaid processing mailers back then for color slide processing).
How much film did we expose on a race weekend? Well, it would vary with the event (obviously shooting more at a major race like Formula One), but I would average about 15 rolls of Kodak Tri-X 35mm 36 exposure rolls for the black & white work and 10 rolls of either Kodachrome or Ektachrome 35mm 36 exposure film for color. That means that at the end of a race event I would have taken about 540 black and white photos and perhaps 360 color photos – at the most.
When I look back on my archives today, my only regret was that I didn’t shoot more film! But you have to remember that racing photography was a passion, not a legitimate way to earn a living for most of us. There had to be some limits on what you were willing to spend on film to shoot each event.
Let’s try to put that picture count in perspective. Today, shooting digitally, I would say that conservatively I shoot 3000 to 4000 images per race event. At a long endurance race like Daytona or Sebring I may shoot above 5000 images during the week of the event. And believe me, I am conservative when it comes to shooting, because I don’t like to edit photos. Many of the photographers that I see at the track shoot upwards of 8,000 – 10,000 images on a single race weekend! It doesn’t take that long to reach those kinds of numbers when you are blasting away at 20+ frames per second.
Like most all photographers, I love camera gear and I love lenses. But unlike most photographers, I have owned and used a wide variety of cameras over the years at the races. Most of the photographers I know have tended to stay with one brand of photographic equipment over the years, regardless of whatever newer or better gear has come on the market from other manufacturers. You can mark a lot of that up to comfort – the comfort of knowing all the ins and outs of how your equipment works, just like the comfortable feeling of slipping into a well-worn pair of shoes. Secondly, most of these photographers have a substantial investment in the lenses of their camera brand of choice, so there is a financial incentive to remain with what they have, even if it means missing out on an upgrade to something that is more innovative or more technically advanced.
In film cameras, I have used everything from the aforementioned Pentax and Minolta cameras to Canon cameras and lenses, Ricoh cameras and lenses (in particular for some of my remote-control work), Olympus cameras and lenses, even Hasselblad cameras and Zeiss optics and finally Nikon cameras and lenses.
Frankly, they were all pretty darn good, and you could rate each manufacturer on their positives and negatives when it came to how well each camera or lens performed. Some were better than others, but all were pretty decent.
Once 2003 rolled around, it was obvious that the world of photography was going to go digital sooner rather than later and I made the plunge into the 21st century and started shooting Canon digital gear (the best stuff available at the time). I made quite a number of fantastic photos with that gear over the years (I was upgrading camera bodies every couple of years as new models came out with more features or higher megapixel counts).
COMING HOME TO SONY…
But let’s jump ahead to 2014, when I purchased my first Sony branded DSLR (standing for Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera, the A77. Like the Canon cameras I was previously using, the Sony A-77 featured an APS-C sized sensor. The Sony, however, featured 24.3-megapixel resolution, high speed autofocus (great for racing), a 12 frames per second top speed and some really great lenses.
In a very real sense, it was like coming full circle. The first cameras that I used professionally were made by Minolta. In 2006, Sony acquired Minolta and started producing DSLR cameras under the Sony name. I have always had an affection for those Minolta cameras and lenses and with Sony taking over the Minolta line, it made sense to give them a try.
I am certainly glad I did. The Sony A77 was an outstanding piece of equipment, and coupled with the excellent Sony A mount lenses, produced fantastic results. My favorite lens for shooting racing was the superb Sony G 70-400mm lens, which I used either by itself or coupled with the Sony 1.4x tele-converter.
As a professional racing photographer, I would occasionally have the opportunity to try different manufacturer’s camera equipment, as manufacturers would make deals with tracks and sanctioning bodies to loan out their gear to shooters at major events. At races like the FIA-WEC endurance race at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring or the Rolex 24 at Daytona, I had the opportunity to try and test the best digital gear offered by Fujifilm, Olympus and Sony.
As with all camera gear, each had their positives and negatives, and I have always enjoyed having the opportunity to test and try the latest offerings from these major companies.
On the occasion of the IMSA 6-Hours of Watkins Glen in July of this year, I had the chance to check out the following equipment from Sony: the Sony A9II (their outstanding mirrorless sports camera which features a full frame 24.2-megapixel sensor), the FE 16-35mm f2.8 G Master lens, the G Master FE 70-200mm f2.8 lens, the new FE 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 G lens and the Sony 1.4x teleconverter.
I was hoping to be able to put Sony’s new flagship A1 to the test, as it has been getting rave reviews from around the world, but sadly, there was not one in the large selection of Sony gear available for loan at Watkins Glen (I think a lot of it was already in Japan for the Olympics). I did, however, have an extended conversation with one of the Sony Tech reps who has used the A1 and he assured me that the auto-focus on the A1 is even superior to the incredible focus speed of the A9II.
I am going to start right off with my conclusions about this new Sony gear, and then get into details.
Sooner or later, I predict that most professional sports photographers will be using Sony cameras and lenses. Between the two largest digital companies (Canon and Sony), they control a staggering 70% of the digital camera market. Sony cameras are incredibly fast, accurate and produce outstanding results – that is without debate. They are very intuitive to operate and give the photographer the freedom to concentrate on creating his art rather than being concerned with technical details that the camera can handle. Compared with other digital camera gear I have used, the Sony system performs like a turbocharged 1500hp Porsche 917/30 Can-Am car. In my humble opinion, nothing else even comes close (to paraphrase an old Porsche ad).
In speaking with other racing photographers (many of whom shoot Canon DSLR cameras), I was often asked about getting used to the mirror-less Sony camera and its OLED EFT viewfinder. You know what? After using the camera for a few minutes, you don’t even notice the difference between an optical viewfinder and an EFT. Frankly, Sony’s OLED EFT finder is far superior to anything I have ever used before. Plus, you can shoot at 20 fps without any viewfinder blackout! Amazing.
I shot the Sony A9ii with the above-mentioned lenses in the paddock, in pit lane, and on the circuit. I used the camera on full automatic, manual exposure, shutter priority and aperture priority modes. I used single auto-focus mode and continuous auto-focus mode. I shot head on shots with the 200-600mm both with and without the 1.4x tele-converter. I used the 70-200mm for side panning shots and the 16-35mm for close ups in the pits and paddock.
The results speak for themselves. Outstanding. Incredible auto-focus hit rate, even in very tough situations. Perfect exposure, regardless of the lighting conditions.
Of particular note is the super accurate and incredibly quick auto-focus on the A9II (can it be even faster on the A1? Wow!). Working out on the circuit with the cars coming head on toward me it was amazing how well this camera did. It was far better than anything I have ever used before. Add in the capability of 20fps (silent electronic shutter) or 10 fps with the mechanical shutter, the beautiful 3.69 m-dot OLED EVF viewfinder, the 5 Axis Steady Shot for up to 5.5 stops of image stabilization all coupled to Sony’s BIONZ X Image Processor and what more could you possibly ask for? On top of those specs, the camera is capable of shooting up to 204,800 ISO for incredible low light images (I am anxious to try this out at Daytona and Sebring at night).
After 50 years of auto racing photography, I feel like I have finally completed my journey – coming full circle. From the early days with those wonderful Minolta cameras and lenses to this latest incarnation of Minolta heritage with these new Sony products. It has been quite a ride. The bottom line for me, is that shooting with this new Sony gear makes me feel like a young photographer again and permits me to be more creative than ever in covering this great sport. Probably the best part about using Sony cameras and lenses, is that you don’t have to think about whether or not you are getting the shot from a technical standpoint – you know the camera will do its job. That confidence in the equipment lets you concentrate on the artistic side of your photography – composition, lighting and subject – without being distracted by the equipment.
Perhaps that is what makes the current Sony gear the best tool for the job – they permit the photographer to use his mind’s eye to create art rather than be a slave to the limitations of his equipment.
The results speak for themselves.
You can purchase Jack’s book by clicking here.
The cars aren’t the only things that have changed over 50 years…