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Life in the Fast Lane – Shooting a Racing Promo Video with DSLR cameras

Does a man on foot stand a chance at slowing an IndyCar? Doubtful. But a man with a plan and a fast camera can. Allen Farst of Dayton, Ohio-based Niche Productions tracks the laps on foot and from the air creating stunning promo video end results for his clients.

On a recent assignment, Farst captured a multi-location promo video for IndyCar/BMW team Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Bobby Rahal is the 1986 Indy 500 winner and David Letterman is the CBS Late Show host (more info at http://rahal.com). Farst’s high speed race promo video will be placed on the Web, and incorporated into several broadcast feeds for ABC, ESPN and other outlets.

The assignment commenced indoors at the RLL race shop in Indianapolis, start of 2014. There he captured high speed motion using the Nikon D4S at both 1080/30p and 1080/60p frame rates. Work continued a month later at Barber Motor Sport Park in Alabama, where race lap footage plus environmental shots were captured. Part three sent the team to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the final action shots.

Covering a Course

Multi-venue projects such as this can be complex, challenging to shoot and physically exhausting. To tackle, Farst first creates a template that identifies what he has to accomplish, where and when. He then starts pre-determining optimal shoot locations.

Studying overhead course layouts, he does a deep dive on each track. “I then pull up Google Earth and turn on the sun feature to view where it will be at specific times. You may decide a certain place only works early in the day, or that capturing a certain turn is best grabbed late in the day.” Farst also consults a sun seeker app to preview illumination in a location at a specified time. All this pre-planning input is combined into reference storyboards and mock-ups.

When at the site, he does a walk around the large tracks. “We usually run two test sessions, prior to cars on track; it really depends on weather, temperature, wind, etc.” Framing is a big component. “Finding a dynamic sight line or vantage point is what we’re chasing. Cars generally run 60 to 120 laps at speeds of 160-200mph so it’s imperative to determine vantages that capture the action, convey distance between contenders, and produce the best capture over a span of time.”

Nikon - At the heart of the image

For his promo videos, Farst works with a small team. For outdoor work there’s an assistant, drone pilot and lighting tech. “I also hire an off-duty police officer and site security to stay with us when flying our drone. In the field we each wear safety vests and rely on radios to communicate.” He follows a priority shot list. “It’s essential to obtain client requests first. Racing can be unpredictable and an unexpected event can interrupt any plan.” If aerial capture with the drone is required, he does this the day the cars do their initial test laps, later re-timing the clips in post to speed up the action.

Gear in Gear

Constantly on foot, Farst travels light. The Nikon D4S is de rigueur, notably for its compact size versus a traditional cinema rig. “I shoot freehand and steady myself against pit walls or tires. I keep my arms under me and brace my elbows on my stomach for positioning and to help lock-off a shot.” A small HD monitor is attached to the Nikon D4S. “It helps me catch and correct false color, plus I love the focus assist.” Footage is stored to the in-camera XQD memory card.

Other capture essentials include a powerful laptop with lots of space and RAM, various edit software packages and portable back-up drives. He taps the Nikon wireless remote WR-R10 and the WR-T10, which are used to start and stop video recording from the drone and other remote cameras.

Lenses start with the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. “It’s wide, sharp and perfect for what we are doing. It holds detail all the way from 14mm to 24mm–which is helpful when you don’t have time to change a lens.” Much of his work requires him to pull focus manually. “This takes some skill. I place the camera in Auto mode and use a small HD monitor that’s set in Focus Assist. This allows me to see the area that’s in focus. Want to be spot on? Use a tool like this.”

A second lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, reaches out to the track when a telephoto is the only way to get there; he may add a 2X teleconverter sometimes to get even closer. “When shooting close-up or real shallow depth of focus or low light stuff, I swap to a third lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G.” Requisite are polarizers and/or ND filters for all lenses to cut glare and improve overall tonal balance while enabling use of wider apertures in bright sunlight.

Up to Running Speed

Over the course of the day Farst moves between various spots around the track. “I’m in the pits, the garage, the hospitality areas for the National Guard (the driver), grandstands and so on. I work quickly and remain aware. I’ve learned to block out loud sounds of engines and screaming tires so I can focus and visualize. At top track speeds Indy cars cover more than 100 yards per second, so I’m always thinking ahead to the next turn, the next pit stop, the finish.”

Shooting freehand, he spends most time acquiring motion so he prefers to keep the camera set between 100 and 400 ISO and shutter speed at 1/1500 up to 1/8000 of a second. “For fun, I do test shots from time to time,” he smiles. “One look I like is a shot that has a little shake and movement. This is achieved by using a slow shutter speed for a bit of blur.”

His contract requires that he work around the crew, but there are moments where a close-in shot beckons. “Before the car comes in I ask the crew if I can get to a specified position without interfering. Iʼm a big fan of placing the camera right in the action—even right in the driver’s face. But no matter how many times I‘ve done that, I always clear it with everyone.”

Photo by: Allen Farst.

Nikon D4S Flies in the Face of the Competition

And aerial shots—let’s explore how he elevates looks for the client. “The Nikon D4S added to the drone is easy to balance, compact and goes from motion to still with a flip of the remote,” Farst shares. The drone can lift up to 23 lbs. of camera and accessories. The device stays within eye sight, generally operating between 50 and 200 feet off the ground. A flight can last up to 15 minutes, depending on weight and load.

Photo by: Allen Farst.

“We use the Nikon WR-R10 and WR-T10 remote system. This allows us to start and stop video recording wirelessly while the camera is still in the air.” A variety of overhead shots are captured, including the course, cars, immediate area and field. “At the track we’re granted only a few laps to shoot above the cars. I usually set the lens focus to infinity, at 24mm. While the pilot flies it, I work the camera and frame. The drone’s mini HDMI-out to HDI-in sends the live signal to the HD downlink where I view capture on the ground.”

Photo by: Allen Farst.

The danger of shooting with a drone becomes magnified when dealing with several fast moving subjects on the track. Asserts Farst, “We rehearse in advance of a shoot, and I only use professional drone pilots who have thousands of hours of flight time. The car drivers risk their lives every time they go around the track. They trust us to carefully move the drone overhead and aside their cars.”

Loud, Crowded and Loaded with Commotion

Remaining ready for the unexpected can sometimes bring a fun turn of events. “Last year at the Indy 500 I jumped into the parade car with Bobby Rahal to record a lap around the track.” That was an easy-to-do unexpected; he’s seen worse. “I know that some things are just out of my control—a car crash, watching the team solve car troubles on the track or in the pit, shifts in weather. These are just a few of the many things that can happen. I need to stay ready and constantly looking for interesting things that add to overall production value.”

Despite the challenges to shooting in an environment that’s loud, crowded and loaded with commotion, Farst takes it in stride. “You need to take a deep breath and focus on what you are going to shoot; otherwise you will end up going all over the place and coming away with nothing worth using.”

Photo by: ALlen Farst

  1. In frenzied environments, settle your emotions and clear your mind. Stay focused.
  2. Size up what you will be shooting the most, then invest in a good all-around lens. I recommend the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED.
  3. For very fast moving subjects, run test capture with the camera at its highest shutter rate. Follow your subject as it rolls past. Adjust the shutter speed and/or the speed of the subject until you begin to see the rims of the wheel rotating in reverse. I like the effect, but it’s also a great shot in 60p. You can slow down movement to around two to five percent and you still have enough frames for the software to still make the jump without warping out.
  4. Use an external monitor to check focus and ensure accurate white balance plus tonal range. These can plug in right to the camera’s HDMI-out port so you can view the video as it is being shot, on a larger screen.
  5. Invest in an LED light. They are not hot to the touch and provide necessary light to balance out the harsh lighting that can be found on tracks in bright sunlight.
  6. In this sort of environment, wear ear protection and appropriate high-visibility apparel—things get loud, so wearing appropriate ear protection will not only ensure you can concentrate better, but also allow you to monitor audio appropriately if you are using headphones plugged into the camera’s headphone jack.
  7. Set audio levels manually—while in the pit, audio levels can vary wildly as the roar of the engines come speeding past; this means you are sometimes better off with a manually set audio level in the camera so that you get the cleanest audio without it breaking up.

Allen Farst with Nikon D4S setup on a drone. Photo by: Allen Farst.

Click here to see the full video of Allen Farst on youtube

Gear Used

About The Contributor


Allen Farst

Director and producer Allen Farst of Niche Productions has filmed, directed and produced documentary films, music videos, network and cable productions, sports and interview segments for local, national and international clients. He serves as lead camera operator for helicopter drone aerial footage used by Rahal Letterman Lanigan, IndyCar, Hyundai, United Technologies Aerospace and others. Corporate clients include Beechcraft, Carrier, ABC, ESPN and ExtraTV. See more work by Allen at www.nicheproductions.com

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  • Michael J Minardi

    Outstanding photography and videography. My hat is off to you. I’m looking to buy a drone and it was good to see how Nikon mates with that drone.