Period-Correct DIY: How To Photograph The Le Mans Classic On Film
Photography by Vadym Herasymenko
Whenever I shoot an automobile or a group of them, my aim is to produce a series of photos wherein any individual shot can be printed in large format, framed, and hung in a fine home. The process from start to finish in a complex one that’s much more than pressing a shutter button a few times. It involves a high degree of planning (especially shooting on film), of choosing perspectives, and a constant thought about the composition of each shot and the impact of the full gallery—between the in-the-moment activity of actually taking the pictures and everything that comes before and after, it’s sort of like an ongoing quality control process to distill a machine or an event into a set of static images. So when I recently attended the Le Mans Classic as a spectator, I still made sure to make the most of the photographic opportunities provided at such a place as this.
The first thing I do when I come to an event location is walk through the venue. Getting a sense for what’s important to capture, but also just a general way of easing into the day and getting my bearings. After getting a bit more familiar with the cars and the venue (though shooting behind the fence isn’t ideal), I’m ready to start my work without figuring out where I should be standing five minutes after the cars have already gone by. If you’re trying to capture the feel of an event like this one, you need to realize that you can’t be everywhere at once during the limited times each pack runs on track, so it’s a battle of compromise in picking your angles and perspectives—another reason a preliminary scouting loop is helpful.
Oftentimes I’ll see other photographers lined up next to me with their digital gear, and I see them firing off hundreds of shots in the time it takes me to make just a handful. Digital has its benefits surely, but at historic events like the Le Mans Classic or the Monaco Grand Prix Historique that I also attended this year I make sure to bring a film camera along with the modern kit to make things a bit more period-correct.
If you plan to take a shot that you know is vital to your overall gallery, you have to repeat a shot over and over before you get it exactly right, doubly so when the subject is in motion. Digital is great for this, because each firing of the shutter is essentially free and can be examined and discarded in the moment. Film is obviously not like this; the beautiful, almost alive looking light that can be captured on this format is much costlier, both in terms of dollars and opportunity—film rolls don’t have the many-thousands-of-shots capacity that digital has spoiled us with!
Though I use them too, I think that working with only digital cameras can turn a photographer into a machine: concentration disappears, the feeling of responsibility is gone, quantity starts to edge in on quality, sometimes disastrously so. To sum up my feelings on the issue, a film camera is an exercise machine for photographer that can do great things if stuck with, while digital cameras are the tools that help speed up the process while offering some dazzling capabilities, but a little bit of the atmosphere is typically lost in the process.
With that said, I seem to constantly repeat to my students during lectures, “Do not be afraid of taking lots of shots! Do not feel ashamed because of the fact that among dozens of shots you pick only one.” Great masters of photography sometimes shot rolls and rolls of film before they got a single picture that became iconic, and for which we know and love them now. Don’t be afraid, and don’t be lazy! Clearly this can be seen as in support of digital, but I think the idea is universal, basically coming down to the idea that more practice equals more ability.
Okay, so getting back to Le Mans, I came away from the weekend with more shots than you see here, and perhaps you’re curious about the selection process. Those who’ve never shot on anything beyond a point-and-shoot disposable or a cell phone might think that the job of a photographer starts and ends with the act of making an image, but really the brunt of the work is in planning ahead of time and in consolidation after the fact. Taking the photos themselves is sort of like a data-gathering process with an artistic element to it, and then the culling and arrangement of what’s been selected from the whole can be thought of as making sense of the data, making it tell a story.
Oftentimes when I select my pictures the chief consideration is on the artistic value of a shot by itself; light, rhythm, composition, distribution of motion blurs. These elements that mix into a single striking image when things go well, but beyond evaluating the photos on an individual level it’s extremely important to think holistically about the gallery and how the shots work together—every frame need not be the “cover photo.” When done correctly the set will be coherent and blended, rather than a collage of disparate images that don’t flow together but compete with one another.
And it’s not even just the selection, but the arrangement of such. The idea is to tell a story that isn’t necessarily linear or documentary, but one that elicits the feelings of the subject—in this case, a weekend of former Le Mans competitors taking to the track at speed once more. With my limited access to the event (attending as a spectator and not a member of the press leaves one behind the fence and out of the pit lane), I had to work a bit harder to capture the sensations of watching the automotive action rather than the backs of heads and fence posts. Close-cropped compositions of the cars in the pits, and longer-exposure panning shots for the track help to focus on what’s important—the cars—but they alone can’t convey the atmosphere of the Classic. One can focus on the star car of the grid and spend all of his or her time getting hero shots of it, but I found that some of my favorite frames from the day were those the people who’ve amassed here to race in, work on, or simply spectate. The human element is always present, and I think that should be reflected.
Of course, they’ve all come here for the amalgamations of metal and rubber and paint that we call racing cars though, and if looking at any of my photos is able to produce an echo of the sensations I felt watching them in person, I’m a happy photographer.