I grew up racing motocross, so I have always had a passion for the sport. But my passion for motocross and photography have never had the chance to overlap. Until I recently got the chance to document the Ponca City National by Motoplayground.
Being a full time wedding photographer, I have a decent understanding of light, moment, and composition. I’m also comfortable with getting close to my subjects on a wedding day which is why the only two lenses I need are 35mm and 85mm. When the light gets boring or unflattering, I’m also not afraid to break out the off-camera lighting. But with motocross, getting super close isn’t always the safest of options and full power flashes of light in a racers face probably wouldn’t be appreciated. So although I understand the racing aspect, as well as photography, mixing the two, was outside my comfort zone. This is what I learned through the experience.
Zoom Lenses Are the Way to Go
In a way, I’m sort of eating my words for this one. I have long been of the mindset that prime lenses are one of the main ingredients to becoming a better photographer. They make you use your focal length for what it’s designed for and use your feet to get closer or further from your subject. While I still think this is true (especially for weddings), you just don’t have that kind of flexibility when dealing with subjects going around a track. You also have the added benefit of shooting tight as the bikes are further from you and then continually zooming out as they get closer.
You also don't really want to be changing lenses out when the air is filled with dust and you’re being sprayed with dirt and rocks. So two camera bodies, one for wide-angle shots and another for telephoto shots, will be your saving grace. My kit for the weekend was two Sony a9 bodies. One with the CZ 35mm f/1.4 and the other with the Sony G-Master 100mm-400mm. But there are plenty of times I wished I had something like a 24-70mm instead of the 35mm prime.
Motocross Is Faster Then Weddings
I can sense the eye roll. No duh right? While it may be blatantly obvious that motocross is way faster then weddings, it’s still worth bringing up. This is where having higher-end gear can make or break the shot. Yes, you can make great images with any camera. But having a fast-focusing camera with a high frame rate will make your life significantly easier. For images like the one below, where I’m trying to frame a rider between the gap of two tree limbs, it was hard enough to make happen with 20 frames per second on the Sony a9. Had I only had 5 frames per second, I could have worked half the day for this image instead of a single race.
The focusing speed of your camera and lens combo will also play a big role in what you can and cannot do. Like shooting the bikes as they race towards you. Slower focusing rigs will struggle to lock and track focus with a subject moving that quickly directly towards you. This can mean the difference between getting a set of images to work with or just a single image
Creative Compositions Are Hard to Find
One thing I didn’t fully grasp before arriving was just how hard it would be to get creative images. One thing I’m always looking for is interesting perspectives and a clean background. But with a track surrounded by people, RVs, trailers, and power lines, it proved to be a difficult task. Once I found something that could work, it then became a chore to get everything to lineup the way I wanted. Like the image below. I got the framing how I wanted, but for this race, only one or two riders were hitting this jump in a way where things would lineup. So missing the shot the first time they came around meant I had to wait for those riders to complete another lap to get another try.
When it comes to creative compositions, sometimes it just boils down to shooting in places that no one else is shooting. There were a lot of photographers around the track, so finding a new perspective boiled down to seeing where people were shooting and simply going the opposite direction. The problem with this though is that these are good photographers that know more about shooting this race then I do. So there were times that I would be walking away from a better situation and scene simply to find something different. This is generally how I shoot when there are a lot of photographers covering an event. Because even if I’m not getting the “iconic” shot or the best in your face shot, I’m at least getting something that will make people pause. People want to see something different and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a technically better image if it makes people remember it for being new.
There are two situations that stand out where this happened for me through the event. The first being when I joined one of the flaggers in his stand. This gave me a somewhat safe area to shoot where I could be within an arm's reach of riders flying through the air.
The next area was just noticing that the announcers building had a small section of railing on the roof. I simply asked someone if I could go up and they obliged. This perspective gave me an overhead look at the finish line jump and allowed me to get an almost drone perspective.
While these may not be the best of the best images, they stand out for providing viewers a glimpse at the race through an unseen perspective. Something they couldn’t simply see for themselves.
Nailing the Shot Takes More Than Just Getting the Frame
This brings me into one of my biggest realizations after shooting the race. Just because I have a set of images I really like, images with decent light, moment, and composition, doesn’t mean that I have anything worth sharing from a motocross media outlook. Because what I did was spend all my time trying to get certain shots to line up and I simply ignored who I was actually taking a picture of. I didn’t care if the rider was in first place, last place, or anywhere between. I just cared that the bike and rider filled out the frame with what I saw in my minds eye. So while I am happy with the images I’m walking away with, I may not actually be able to get any of them featured or sold.
What I Would Do Differently
Now that I shared some of my realizations after shooting my first motocross event, here are some things I would do differently for my next attempt.
I would stick with shooting two camera bodies, but I would have two different lenses for each body. On one camera, I would have something like a Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 or maybe the Sony 24-105mm f/4 lens. On the second body, I would have something like the Sony 400mm f/2.8. I know I said zoom lenses are the way to go, but when I was shooting long, I would have liked a bit more separation. So while I do think the Sony 100-400mm lens is a great choice, I’d love to try a lens with faster glass to see how that would go.
Try to Get the Shot When It Matters
Once I found a composition that worked well, I’d work that scene a bit more and try to get the shot when a big name rider was in the frame. This would give the image a bit more merit and the challenge would actually make things more fun for me.
Catch More Moments Between Riders and Fans
I’m always looking to tell a great story with my photography. So while I got some images of riders and I got images of fans, it would be a nice challenge to try and layer the two together in a compelling way. There are also some great but fleeting moments between riders as they race each other that would be a nice challenge to capture.
Life Outside the Race
Since the race life was such a big part of my growing up, I would love to attend a big event like this and not shoot a single bike on the track. Instead, I want to document all the things that happen before and after the race. Sort of a behind-the-scenes look into the racing community. For this situation, I would absolutely default back to my 35mm and 85mm lens choice though.
At the End of the Day
Three days of shooting the Ponca City National has been an eye-opening endeavor. I absolutely learned some things for the next time I shoot a motocross event. But more importantly, the problem solving I had to do has helped me see and look for new things that I can transfer into my regular work. This is why I think shooting personal projects outside your normal field is so important. It’s one of the easiest and quickest ways to grow as an artist.