Racing for Portraits at the Brickyard


When approaching shoots, I press for as much information about the shoot as I can. Seems easy enough, right? Life is not always so simple.

I got an assignment to head to NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 race this past July with the plan to shoot some portraits of drivers, mechanics and other race-related individuals. The plan was to go in with mostly portable equipment, but set up at various locations around the infield throughout the weekend. Along with our race contact, we would line up some subjects and have anywhere from 10-20 minutes to make some portraits. Reality? Two 18-hour days running from one location to another with about 2-5 minutes (OR LESS!) to make our portraits. What do you do when you are expecting a fastball and you get a slider? Make adjustments!

I’ve always been one to preach going in with a plan, but in this case even my plans went awry, and I had no choice but to roll with the punches. One thing I could plan for, though, would be to choose my lighting. It was no guarantee that it would be ideal, but at the least, I could control the look of each of the portraits, while my backgrounds, sky and everything else would change.

First Driver
Fortunately, I was able to scout a bit and my assistant, Adam, and I knew our first shot would happen around noon with the sun was blasting. Normally, I would use a LitePanel or even a 12×12 silk to block out the sun and light my subject through separately, but that wasn’t an option here. Without the ability to put any stands up, I needed some shade, and Adam would be my portable stand. Each of the haulers (vehicle transporters) had a small section of shade where the driver’s crew had chairs and BBQs set up for their meals. This was a fairly high traffic area, so the next and only other option I saw was the area between the haulers. I took a quick peek and decided that would be location number one.

Typically, if I need to boom in a light I either use my Photoflex Boom or a C-stand 40” arm. Neither option was ideal in this case, as they really are made for being placed on a stand. Photoflex came out with the LiteReach Plus last year and it is by far the best solution for a restricted set-up like this. Not only are the ergonomic hand grips excellent for long days, but the rubber ball at the end of the stand allows the assistant to rest the pole either against his/her body or on the ground with ease and stability.

I often use a second light as a fill for situations like this, but with both baffles on the HalfDome, I knew I would have a nice soft light, while still being dramatic due to the angle Adam would be aiming the light. To warm up the light slightly, I added a small strip of ¼ CTO gel taped to the inner baffle of the HalfDome.

Nationwide Driver Ryan Sieg would be with us momentarily, and in order to check the sky, I shot one frame with the strobe off. Everything looked good, so we went for it. Final Exposure, 1/200” @ f/7.1, ISO 100

I always like to get a little variety with my portraits. As good as the shot looked with a tight crop, I pulled back and shot a few frames of Ryan full length. The sun just started to peek over the hauler on the left, and it made a nice hair light. This felt like a good parting shot to me, and we wrapped shot one.

Shooting at the Worst Time
As we all know, high noon is no picnic when it comes to shooting. The need for high power strobe to overpower the sun is a limitation I often face – particularly when I am working in a portable situation. Smaller budgets dissuade the larger power packs and for the weight alone, many times they are just not possible. I doubled up the TritonFlashes in my lesson on the Spartan Race, but here I felt confident in pressing my luck with one TritonFlash.

I walked into the area where all the haulers are parked and saw this as a nice location. The sun would be high, but with turning him slightly, I could keep it at my subject’s back. This meant I could use it as a backlight. I tested the background by making one exposure at 1/200”@ f/7.1, ISO 50, as well as at 1/500”. Using the tt1/TT5 units, I was able to bypass the normal sync speed limitation of a Canon 5D Mark III. We dropped to 50 ISO to cut down some of the light on the haulers.

My next subject, Nationwide Driver Alex Bowman, arrived and I was told I would only have two minutes with him. As you can see, the sky was peppered with clouds, and of course, for the first frame the sun moved behind a cloud. While this has a look to its own, I had actually planned for the sun to be a part of the shot.

When the sun came out, I was ready and took the shot. I liked both results, but I think the image with sun has more punch.

Final exposure: 1/320”@ f/7.1, ISO 50. I essentially split the difference with the exposure based off my test shots. With the sun combining with the ground, which was acting like a big reflector, you can see the fill that comes in on Alex’s face, even with the higher shutter speed. Two minutes in, shot two done.

As Long as Things are Difficult…
I guess I am a glutton for punishment, but as long as things were tricky, I thought it would be cool to use the inside of one of the haulers as the background. I knew this would require digital editing to finish, but it would be something different, and I felt like I had gotten what I could outside the haulers.

My plan was to darken the interior and continue the sequence of lights behind the driver. We had a little more time, so we set up a second small HalfDome on a stand. As you can see, we had to work in a fairly tight area.

Our subject, Nationwide Driver David Starr, was running a few minutes behind and guess what time it was? Lunch time! So now we had the added variable of a flurry of people coming in and out of the hauler to cook and prepare lunch. As nice as everyone was, they did not care about what we needed to do, so I had to just go for it.

Now I was even more glad that I had planned the background to be retouched into the shot!

The final image exposure 1/100”@ f/7.1, ISO 100.

Saving the Best for Last
I wish I could say I scripted this one, but it was really done on the fly. The easiest solution when shooting at the time of day when the sun is high in the sky is to find shade and shoot in it. My initial idea for shooting Ryan Flores, one of the pit crew tire changers, was to photograph him with a huge pile of tire rims that were piled up against a wall I had seen walking in to the infield that morning. As luck would have it, the rims were facing the sun, and there was not a foot of shade in any direction.

I noticed another pit crew member taking a break against a pile of tires in the slight shade of a wall across from the rims and liked the graphic element of the tires and a large “C” on the wall. We switched out our small HalfDome for my go-to favorite modifier, the Small OctoDome. Instead of using ¼ CTO, we had 3 of the 4 silver/gold inserts on the interior of the OctoDome on the gold side, and used both diffusion faces.

The sun once again dipped behind a cloud for a moment, and it although it is a very “lit” shot, the overall look was good.

A behind the scenes shot of the set up for Ryan Flores, tire changer.

When the sun cleared the cloud cover, the backlight and shadow created were pleasing and I would have to balance the foreground out in post.

Final exposure: 1/160”@ f/7.1, ISO 100

The shot with full sun, however, is probably the stronger image. The strobe feels a bit less like a strobe, as it is more in line with how the wall looked naturally. And the added hair light looks great on Ryan, as well as the tires on the rack.

At this point, the sun was out to stay. Ryan had a few more minutes, so I figured we could try one more shot. There was a very dynamic stack of tires directly behind us for the first shot, so facing the same direction I placed Ryan in the middle of the stack.

Immediately I knew we had something good. In a perfect world, I would have had the sun directly over the center of Ryan’s body, so his shadow would come right to camera, but that’s just me being a perfectionist. The sun, being at the high angle it was actually helped me accomplish this image. A few degrees lower and the sky would have been more washed out and I would have had to really jack up the shutter speed to try to keep the image dramatic. This is the first test frame with Ryan, nearly a keeper. Only a few frames later I knew we had our winner.

Final image exposure 1/250”@ f/9, ISO 100. My favorite image of the day.

Camera Setup
Canon 5D Mark III
Canon 24-70mm, f/2.8 lens
Pocket Wizard tt1/TT5 receiver

Written and photographed by Ian Spanier.

Outdoor Portraits,


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