Using Your Camera To See The Nürburgring With X-Ray Vision
Story by Oliver Selzer and Steffen Hoffmeister
Photography by Oliver Selzer
Have you ever planned and later attempted to take some nice pictures of an event and found that all you captured was the crowd in front and big bellies behind spoiler endplates? Ta-daaaa, now it is two of us! Except, I think I can help you out for the next time you find yourself in such a predicament…
A Very Full Grid
It all started several years ago when I first went to the grid walk of the infamous 24 hours of the Nürburgring Nordschleife. “Go to the starting grid!” they said, “You will be closer to the cars than anywhere else!” Right, technically I was close, but what did I actually see when I got there? Not a single car in full, just bunches of fuzzy-headed visitors, diligent mechanics, and lots of guys with cameras and astronomical lenses. Right in the middle of that and without the tiniest chance of success: me with my entry-level DSLR that I was hardly able to exploit at that time.
Now I had two choices: put the camera high above my head, shoot blindly into the crowd, and take some lousy lopsided pictures, or: doing nothing but enjoying that moment of motorsport around me without taking any pictures at all. Which is what I did, and it felt good, I remembered it rather than taking unmemorable photos of it. Nevertheless, I was left with a thought which developed more and more into a mission as the hours went by: on that day I decided to learn how to take unique pictures of a moment that resists it.
Later on, I found a picture on flickr (which often provided some serious inspiration for me back then) that left me astounded: It showed the nose of a GT40 sticking out of the pits, surrounded by ghosts. It struck me like lightning: these actually were traces of the people moving around during the exposure! When I looked up the EXIF data (another cool flickr feature on most pictures) it became clear: this was a very long exposure of several seconds, but shot in broad daylight.
Now, normally, if you took your camera and executed an exposure this long in bright sunlight, you would only be rewarded with a white box of an “image.” Even at the smallest aperture and the lowest ISO settings, your image will be overexposed or, more likely, completely blown out within less than a second of exposure time. So there had to be another trick.
You’ve surely heard of camera filters before. Most common by far is the UV filter that in most cases simply serves as protection rather than providing an optical effect on your images. A bit less frequently used though, but indispensable in shooting cars and in anything that is strongly reflective, are circular polarizers (CPL). These make it possible to manage reflections, darken the sky and, thus, enhance contrast and presence of your pictures. If you are into car photography I’d strongly recommend using a CPL over a UV filter.
Both filters will inevitably reduce the amount of light reaching your CCD sensor which, same settings applied, will darken your images—but nowhere near the extent which would be necessary for the kind of images you are seeing here. No ghosts with these filters, sorry!
Of course, there is a type of filter which allows you to bring the ghost effect into your pictures: the neutral density (ND) filter. These are available with different levels of transparency and can even be stacked. I wouldn’t recommend stacking too many though, because overall picture quality and sharpness will be negatively affected. In this case I went for an ND 1000 which only lets through 1/1,000th of the light, resulting in a reduction of 10 f-stops. I combined it with a CPL to manage reflections and sky brightness.
This reduction in light sensitivity has the same effect as shooting at night: exposure time has to go way up. All pictures presented here were exposed between ten and thirty seconds, which means: no tripod, no chance of a sharp focus on the car. For even more sharpness, I use a remote release rather than pressing the shutter on the camera body with my finger. This comes in very handy if you are, like me, lacking the motor skills of a professional sniper. If you are a professional sniper, you might think about switching to shooting pictures instead of animals or human beings!
Using ND filters provides a further advantage: as you are not forced to shoot with the smallest aperture (the highest f-stop) anymore, you can emphasize your object by using a more shallow depth of field. For that, I love using a lens with high aperture and a fixed focal-length on a full-frame DSLR, in this case a quite affordable Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 attached to a 5D Mark III. There are plenty of setups to test this technique with, from a few hundred to a few thousand euros worth of gear.
Now that you know what you need, it’s all about composing the shot. Being on the hunt for this type of image means walking a fine line: you need at least some movement around the object of focus, but at the same time it shouldn’t be completely obscured by blurs. My rule of thumb is: moving people are good, people at standstill, not so. But especially in event situations, things can and will change quickly, so it becomes not just a matter of composition, but also of speed, awareness, timing, and patience. I can still hear the voices around me, murmuring “You’re never gonna make that image!” Can we talk again, please?
If you did everything right, you will not be able to recognize a single person anymore. They will billow through your picture like ghosts, or, in fact, as though you just X-rayed through them. After that, it is all about editing and thoughtful post production to bring out the maximum in your photographs. That is another chapter which I would like to share with you next time. For now, I hope you enjoy these images and learning about the process that went into them.
About the author
Oliver Selzer, founder of speedmatters photography, runs solely on gasoline and works as a freelance photojournalist. You can follow his work on Instagram, on his website, or his blog. If you want to meet him in a circuit environment, you will most likely find him photographing somewhere in the shrubbery.