Motorsports Photography: The Way It Was
The way it was

Photographing events like nostalgic drag racing and Speed Week at Bonneville usually means old race cars and photographers armed to the teeth with the latest and greatest camera gear that money can buy. So at the Long Beach Grand Prix two weekends ago, I decided to flip it around and photograph the newest race cars money can buy using outdated cameras and the now seemingly ancient medium of film.

Was it a challenge? Yes, it was impossibly hard, but at the same time it was very fun and rewarding to see the results.


I haven’t put together a photography-related post in a while, and with the Grand Prix weekend in full swing after the Formula Drift season opener, I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to dive back into it with this challenge. My focus would be on the IMSA United SportsCar Championship race.


This was the 40th year of the Grand Prix and I’ve been attending annually for the past 11. Nine of those years have been spent on the other side of the fence shooting trackside.


I started shooting with film way before I knew digitial cameras even existed, and once I became a full-time photographer I wanted to make a point of continuing with this dying art form. After all, the first few years of this historic race was documented in black and white film by photographers just like me. This time I decided to used two completely different camera systems for the challenge based around Leica and Nikon bodies.


My film of choice for the weekend was Ilford HP5, which has an ASA rating of 400. I use it because it has a very nice grain and the contrast is amazing. I’d only shoot four 36 exposure rolls over the weekend – two on Friday for qualifying and two for the main race on Saturday.


The HP5 also retains quite a bit of shadow detail, and if you need to shoot in low light conditions you can push it all the way up to ASA 1600.


It’s also fast enough to freeze whatever action you are capturing, and if I wanted to slow it down for some panning shots, I just have to throw on some neutral density filters.

Weapons of choice

I normally don’t like showing off my gear, but with film it’s different. I am proud of what I shoot and I really want more amateur photographers to pick it back up. Released in 1984, the Leica M6 is not much of a performance camera – it barely has any features and there is quite a lot to learn due the rangefinder system. The advantage however, is that you can use the best manual focusing lenses in the world on this body. The version I use was manufactured in 1998.


I am a firm believer in using my equipment hard, so as beautiful as it is, my Leica definitely gets used and abused. This is also why I choose to shoot with Voigtländer lenses. They make some of the most unique lenses in the world and they specialise in the M-mount.


While most Leica users would only use Leica lenses, I am the total opposite because they simply just don’t make the glass for the ‘look’ that I am going for. This was shot with the 12mm f/5.6 which is currently the widest 35mm lens in production that is not a fisheye.


It’s impossibly sharp, and even though it has a slow 5.6 f-stop, it’s perfect for those nice wide-angle pans. It’s super-easy to focus as well and you can practically set it to infinity and shoot away most of the time.


The second lens in my film camera arsenal is the one that practically never leaves the body. It’s the 35mm f/1.2, and it’s currently the fastest 35mm lens in production for a full frame camera.


I think it’s the perfect focal length for use in and around the paddock, as you can get close enough without getting in the way. Most of the time at least.


It’s also a great lens in general for panning and semi wide-angle shots.


My next lens for the M-mount is a weird one – a 75mm f/1.8, which I picked up for a bargain. I wanted to get something other than a 50mm since I already had the 35mm, and shooting anything longer than a 75mm is quite difficult on a Leica.


For the price you can’t beat it, and like most of my film equipment, I bought it second hand. From f/2.0 on, it’s super sharp.


It’s not quite long enough to be a portrait lens, but 75mm is a great focal length for some trackside pans.


My second system is Nikon. I actually started photography with an old Nikon FG – the camera I used for my Scion FR-S dream drive post a while back. The FM2 came out in 1982 and in my mind it’s the best analog 35mm film camera ever made. Just like the Leica, I compare the camera to a fine watch. Unless you want to use the built-in light meter, you don’t actually need batteries as they are all mechanical. They just work – and very well.


The body itself is packed with features that the Leica does not have. My favorite is the 1/4000 mechanical shutter speed, which allows you to shoot wide-open more often, as well as really freezing the object you are shooting.


The version that I use is the titanium FM2/T which was manufactured in 1993. It also has a self timer and a multiple exposure mode which is great for making creative shots.


As with most photographers, I use the 50mm for my standard focal length and leave that on the body for most of the time. Nikon actually still makes the f1.2 version that I have, and I love it. In fact it’s the only f/1.2 lens that they still make today. This was shot from the rooftop of a public parking garage, and the same spot where I first watched the race from all those years ago.


My long lens of choice was handed down from my father, who was a hobbiest. The 80-200mm f/2.8 is the ultimate work horse in terms of a medium focal length lens.


It’s great for panning as well, and it’s sharp throughout its focal range at any f-stop.


The third lens that I used wasn’t pictured above, but it’s a massive 400mm f/2.8.  Many of my friends shoot Nikon, and the beauty of the newer lenses still fitting on f-mount bodies meant I was able to borrow a 400mm for a few shots.


It was very hard to use as the manual focusing ring was super sensitive. In fact, if I so much as breathed on it, the focus would change. It was fun to see that a few images actually turned out, though. It was a real challenge to get the metering correct too, and I found that many of my shots were either super underexposed or super blown out. Which brings me to my next point…


Both light meters in the Leica and the Nikon systems are very crude and not very accurate. You really have to think ahead of time to get the exposure you are looking for. Just to give you guys an example, I knew that the headlights and the massive white banners in the background of this photo would throw the meter off, which would result in a dark image. So I took note of this and made sure to overexpose at least a full stop.


When the light gets sideways later in the day, I get some of my favourite pit shots. In order to expose this one correctly I just pointed the camera out where the sun was, set the exposure, and then turned back to shoot this scene.


For this shot I did the same thing, but I set the exposure for the ground and did my best to block out the sun with the driver’s helmet.


Legendary motorsports photographer David Lister would have been underexposed if I did not first meter down at my feet where there was less sun. Check out some of his work from the early years of Speedhunters.


All of my wide-angle shots with the Leica were also very hard to meter. That’s because I have an external viewfinder specifically for the 12mm f/5.6, which means I have to use the main viewfinder to meter on a part of the subject, and then switch to the other viewfinder to frame the shot.


I love shooting into the sun more than anything, but it’s really hard to do so without underexposing all of your shots when using film. Just remember to take it slow and expose specifically for the parts of the image that you’re interested in.


The nice thing is that film has such a wide dynamic range. You could fix it in post if you absolutely needed to, but it still retains the look and the feel.


It’s a little hard at first not being able to change ASA on the fly, but shooting with 400 speed film allows the flexibility needed to shoot cockpit scenes like this. This was Fredric Aasbø lining up to go out for a drift demonstration.


Even if you get your exposures locked down you have to be quick on your feet. Manual film cameras are not like the machine guns of todays digital camera world. Which brings me to my next point…

Fleeting moments

Because there is so much going on in and out of the paddock as well as on the track, don’t ever hesitate to take a shot. Not for one second. Because before you know it, the moment has passed and you missed your shot.


Aside from the headache of getting your exposure right, there is the matter of manual focusing. This is where it also gets fun though.


It’s nearly impossible to actually track your subject, especially because these cars are moving fast. Much faster than when drift cars go through the same few corners. I find the best way to do it is to set focus on a part of the track and shoot as the cars drive through the plane of focus.


It’s not as bad when you are panning, because generally speaking, if you are shooting in the daytime you’ll be doing so with a high f-stop, so pretty much everything is in focus anyway. But then you run into another problem. Since the cars are going so fast, you really only have one shot every time they come by. It’s almost physically impossible to manually wind-on fast enough to blast of more than one pan in a corner.


The best way to get around this I found is to pretend like you are shooting every car. Since I am tracking every car like I am shooting it, I can release the shutter anytime I feel the picture is just right.


Which is how I can get decisive moments like this when the drivers lock up the brakes coming to the end of this straightaway.


Normally coming from an event when shooting with digital, I have thousands of photos to sift through. After just shooting through four rolls of film, I ended up with just 156 shots from the entire weekend.


In a way I was editing out of the camera, but being as picky as possible with my shots and spending much longer on pre-planning than I would with digital. No spray and pray something comes out here.


The photographers around me thought I was nuts. Why would anyone shoot with such outdated media?


But going back to my roots with film photography has really improved my skills. It helps me to slow down, and take a step back. Shooting in black and white is nice because I don’t take color into consideration and I focus more on composition and storytelling.


In a way, I am much more proud of the work that I produce from my film cameras, because I am just doing it for the love of it. This article I did at an amateur drift event  included some of the best black and white images I think I’ve ever shot.


I suggest that any of you Speedhunters really into photography try film out. Buy a cheap camera at a thrift store or a yard sale and try shooting with color if you don’t want to deal with developing black and white. A while back I made a comparison post that you might want to check out. But if you guys want to follow in my footsteps then you can check out this short little tutorial I also put together.

Don’t be afraid to start shooting in film. It’s never too late, and I guarantee that you’ll become hooked.

Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto



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Spot on article Larry. Every shot is just beautiful. Isn't that also the same M6 you hung out the missile window at Just Drift?

But there is just something about shooting million dollar cars with film cameras. People always look at you weird, and think "there's no way he's getting good shots, he's a hipster."  Even more so when the camera is a $3 Polaroid Land Camera. (shooting at Watkins Glen with an ancient and massive Polaroid 103 and getting shots better than most with thousand dollar DSLR's is a fun feeling) 
And you're right, people should go to thrift shops and yard sales and find a Canon AE-1, or just some odd SLR or something (seriously, try a 60's polaroid land camera. I can find them for under $15 most of the time and the film's on amazon for cheap, they're stupidly fun to shoot with) get a 4 pack of Fuji Film and take it to an event. Even if it's not in perfect condition, as long as it works it should produce something cool and give a feel digital just can't replicate.




I shot the Nürburgring Drift Cup on film last weekend, now I have to wait and see what the end result will be :)


Lovely post, thanks. It's wonderful to see that good skills and creativity are still responsible for great photography.

BTW, you should do a promo with these guys:
Old, vs new what's possible?


Great write up Larry. I love the way your talk of film takes
me back to my youth and waiting for the roll to be developed at Thrifty’s. I applaud
your craft and your ability to utilize this “ancient” technology that most
photographers wouldn’t give a second glance towards. Love the black &


I shoot film from time to time too, and I absolutely love the Ilford HP5. The grain is beautifull, I love the ability to push it a few stops and it's quite forgiving on slight developing errors. The last time I developed a roll of HP5 my developer got a bit too warm but the film turned out fine.

And I'm not the only 'young guy' shooting film. I bumped into another guy at the Nurburgring Drift Cup last weekend who was shooting film with an old Pentax. It triggered me to order another batch of Ilford film so I can shoot some photos on film at the next event I shoot. :)


Larry those are some compelling black and white images!  I'm not sure if it was the b&w, composition, or angles, but this is the first time I've ever seen photos from Long Beach that actually makes the course look like they're running on city streets.  Sure on all pictures before you can see some faint building backdrop and stoplights, but these really make you feel like there are wild beasts running amok in LA.

My first true stint with a camera was with a highschool photography class with my dad's old Ricoh camera shooting in b&w and printing the films in a dark room.  It truly is a more rewarding experience when you're forced to make the most out of limited frames.


Thanks for this. I've been patiently waiting since your last film post. SO GOOD.


I can't wait to shoot film this weekend at a vintage motorsports festival at Road Atlanta. I'll be working with B&W and color and my cheapo AE-1 and standard lens. I am not of the spray and pray mentality and I agree that shooting film has made me work slower and think more. My digital photography improves with every time I touch my AE-1. Great work Larry and thanks for the inspiration.


Alex Kamsteeg  Which was me :)


I'm not a photographer at all, but this is just amazing because I love old racing photos. The dichotomy of the most modern sports racers shot in B&W film is fascinating, more so because of the light & shadow of the city backdrop. I particularly like the shot of the GT cars & 1 prototype lined up back to the bridge as the Z4 turns in.  For work like this, people will be buying or downloading your compilations in 50 years, like the Jesse Alexander books on my shelf now. Great stuff. Going analog can be rewarding!


Love it! your the reason I started with film! shot 25rolls of film since i started last years winter and love it! I still find it difficult to master correct exposure, but it gets better with practice :) Ive seen on instagram that u use redfilters. do u use it on all of ur lenses or just some ? I found redfilters to stop some light, and it was more difficlt to see whats in my viewfinder with a stron redfilter. Keep shooting film! film is not dead<3


I barely understand any terms you're using with the camera...just wanna say that all of the pictures are awesome!!!


Dude, I have the barest amount of photography nous but I am in awe of your work. I kept expecting to see a Martini Porsche 917L swooping through one of those frames they look so romantic and other-worldly in the medium of film, and I legitimately wanted to download every single one as a wallpaper. You need to publish one of those gigantic coffee-table-pride-of-place-taking volume. For realsies.


Great article very inspiring.


Nice work. I would think HP5 was a new medium - came into being late in my development as a photographer...
You might like to play with, and share, using Adams' zone system with 35mm. Not quite as straight forward as it is with plate film, and you need to meter manually. I used it with my Contax 139 until the camera finally died. Wish Yashica could repair that old girl (1983), so I could drag out the old and amazing Zeiss lenses again. Still have a basic Practika with a Planar 1.8 50mm and a screw adapter for most of my others. Used an old Kodak press camera some years ago too - with 127 film. Don't think they make that anymore either.
Either way, it is the thinking about what you shoot, and what you want the image to be in camera that makes a difference. Can do that with the range limitations of digital too...


This. Is. Incredible.


Wow this is a breath of fresh air.. people get so caught up in having the sharpest/fastest lens & 39 autofocus points but this is beyond that for me. This set has thought/feeling/passion/emotion & is very inspirational to those who dabble in film or have an old camera just gathering dust.. film is tricky & as a photographer you can appreciate the process gone into these, this is film photography at its finest.


Awesome man, makes me want to go out and shoot with my AE-1 again! last time I tried using it a drift event I hardly got any good shots haha practice makes perfect though I guess


Ok you win, how do I get a Speedhunters Camera strap?


SchmittaMane  Trust me, when I first got back into it I went through a few rolls before I felt good about shooting film again. Also it took a while to stop looking at the back of the camera for a preview screen.


OnCam31  Thanks for the kind words. You are right, it's nice to have the latest and greatest, but sometimes you gotta step back a bit to move forward.


@Difinity  You are right about HP5, and honestly it was hard enough as it is to shoot action with those manual film cameras and using that modern film.


InnerToxicity  Thanks, that makes me feel good. I know that when I get into photographer mode I can get a little too excited sometimes. I will always be a car guy first, but my second love is shooting pictures.


SMRacing  I am glad that I am influencing at least one of you guys.

As for the filter, out of all the bad things about using a rangefinder camera, this is one positive thing about the Leica. You can use whatever filter you want and you can still see clearly, because it's a rangefinder. Because of this I tend not to use colored and super ND filters on my Nikon SLR.

The only downside is that you can't use a circular polarizer because you can't see the effect. Although the trick is to turn before you put it on the lens and mark the top position, but it's a pain to do that everytime.


@T Fritch  I hope so, and that is the idea for all my photography. I want these shots to live on when I am long gone.


midgeman  Cheapo or not it's a great camera, and it has many more functions than my Leica.

A standard lens is all you will need, you have endless possibilities with zooming in and out with your two legs :D


Ezalis  Thank you for the kind words. I have a feeling that most of the photos that you've seen from Long Beach were shot with super zoom lenses. Anybody can frame up a car, but it's about incorporating the background that makes a great photo. This is why I love shooting at Long Beach, it's a challenge at every corner.


Alex Kamsteeg  That is also why I like shooting black and white, I almost never have to worry about temperature. This is also why I have been staying away from shooting C41 films. There is almost no one in Los Angeles I can trust to develop my film, and it's such a hassle to do it myself.


westhave Alex Kamsteeg  See, that is so cool.


The One Otaku  It's much more satisfying than digital in that respect. I also remember how excited I was to see how my rolls came out. Now there are no more Thrifty's, well except for Thrifty's Ice Cream.


gtuned  Yes, like I said, it may look pretty, but I risk it by hanging it out of windows, ledges, back of cars, over large bodies of water etc.....

I know exactly what people were thinking. "Who let this joker in?"

Film cameras are so cheap right now, but the film lenses are on the rise with all those mirrorless cameras on the market now.


Mate you have incredible talent and you're sharing it with all of us, get as excited as you like! =D


I just love shooting 35mm, I use my dad's old Chinon :)


My Nikon FG and Df would look so much better


Ah, didnt think of that! Just ordered a coupple of redfilters, will try and see if i can get used to it, since i like the effekt it gives




I read this article while in jury duty today.  The shots are pretty awesome and It's easily one of the most interesting articles i've read on this site, to me personally, as a film shooter that also shoots with an M6 and various Nikon bodies.

I've taken my film cameras to Willow Springs raceway and a couple FD events as well as various car shows and I do always love the results.  Everything in the article is spot on for the most part as far as my experiences, although I do disagree about the meters being not great in older cameras.  My M6 meter is always accurate and my older F Nikons haven't let me down either, they're just not idiot-proof like modern matrix type meters so you do have to have some photography experience to know how to get your shots, as described in the article. 

Like I said though, great article.  I'd love to see more film shots on speedhunters.


Amazing. As I love to shot my vintage nikon FM2 or F5 with some 400TX inside I totally understand what you felt shooting film. BTW your images are incredible, and it would be great to see more film shoots on speedhunters, the story they tell are so much different than digital ones.


bhop73  Bang on, 'creative' use of the light meter in differing conditions will yield the correct results, it just takes practice and patience!


One thing that you missed in the article, is the excitement that you get with the return of your processed film.  

'What are the shots going to be like?  I wonder if I pulled off that risky panning shot?'

Then the surprise at some of the colours and contrasts that you miss at the time and are only shown when the negatives return :)


What are the red caps on top of your shutter buttons Larry?


Elijah Lane Those are soft releases.  They give mechanical shutter buttons a little more "feel".


bhop73 Elijah Lane  you can also get them for DSLR's too


Thanks to this article I am on a serious hunt for a film camera now, I just love the feel that film provides that digital cant :) I would also just like to quickly ask what your thoughts on Olympus cameras are, I am currently looking at purchasing an OM2.


I keep meaning to pick up an AE-1 to mess around with. Shoot some period cars with period equipment etc. Great stuff as per usuall Larry.


you make it look deceptively easy!!
be interesting if someone made a modern SLR that could shoot on film....!


Thank you very much for your posts on film. Your All Star Bash post had a lot to do with me finally going for it and trying it out. 

I had never used film in a manual camera, only in point and shoots as a kid. I picked up a dirty Kiev 88 with with a 65mm, 90mm, and 300mm fairly cheap on ebay and now all I want to do is shoot film. I meter with my iPhone since the Kiev has no built in light meter. It's actually amazing how accurate and useful the phone is as a meter...

One outing with that camera made me a better photographer. You have to think about every shot so much more.

To anybody who's thinking about trying it, go for it. It doesn't take a huge investment, and it's worth it.

Here's my favorite shot from my first time out, Just Drift's practice session in February, and one from Formula D in Long Beach.


BirdHasACamera  That is so cool, I did not even thing about metering with my phone. I do have an exposure calculator, but there is pretty much no point if I can get an app for my Samsung S5.

I love that shot from FD. Great composition. It just goes to show, the best shots are always in the pits.


Nikhil_P  There is a modern SLR that can shoot film, its called the EOS 1V. and Canon still makes it.


MatthewDear  Do it, they are still fairly cheap on Craigslist and Ebay.


JoshuaWhitcombe  Just to give you a tip, its better to spend more money on a camera that is in good condition, versus getting a messed up one with the intention of restoring it.

I've never shot with Olympus before, but I've known guys who swear by it. The camera is just a tool after all, you can make great pictures with anything.


JoshuaWhitcombe Hrm, which modern dslr has a cable release shutter?


Elijah Lane  I call it camera rice. it allows me to release the shutter with the center of my finger, not the tip. Therefore I can shoot at even lower shutter speeds.

Also I like my film cameras to match....


James_Turbo  Yeah, I touched on that a few times in my previous articles. I try not to repeat myself, but thanks for bringing that up!


Edouard_Bo  Thanks for the support as always. I will continue to shoot with film, but I also don't want to over do it.  Although, you can bet I will post one from Bonneville and from Hot Rod Reunion.


bhop73  Yeah, that is what I mean. I am comparing them to modern cameras.


James_Turbo  great detail in the shadows!


Larry Chen JoshuaWhitcombe  I was more referring to the soft release to reduce camera shake that you can get for modern cameras


Hello Larry,

Great fan of your work!!! I just scooped-up a M9 and searching for my first lens. The Voigtlander 1.2/35 seems like the ideal lens for everyday and it make sense to me knowing the Leica Summilux 1.4/35 ASPH FLE cost 5 times as much. I know this article is already a year and a half ago but it's refreshing to know coming from you point of view. Thanks!