Bonneville: The Movement Of Light

Bonneville is unique. I don’t think there is any other motorsport location anywhere in the world that sees such a drastic change in light conditions within the space of just a few short hours. With that in mind, I wanted to take you guys through an early morning on the Salt.

In order to get a good head start on the sunrise Keith and I woke up at 5:00am every morning. Standing on the Salt and facing the paddock you can see a slight glow where the sun will peek out.

If you turn around you can see a long line of cars following each other’s light trails as they inch their way towards the paddock.

It’s unusually quiet around this time. Maybe the salt is acting as a natural sound deadening, but your speech seems to have less impact. Other early risers like us were getting some photo shoots in.

I tried my best to stay near our rental car as there is a real danger with vehicles coming from all directions. This truck whizzed by me at considerable speed.

In the pits cars are left overnight just waiting to be bathed with intense sunlight.

Slowly fans returned to their encampments to reclaim their viewing spots.

You find some cars parked on the starting grid with hopes of running first thing in the morning.

It’s 6:30am and the light is very blue. Each click of my shutter is muffled by the salt. It sounded like I was shooting my camera while it was wrapped in a big heavy jacket.

Color starts to come out of the sky and it’s evident that the sun is about to make a grand appearance.

Around 6:45am the officials scramble to get to the starting line. At 7:00am the first vehicle will be taking off.

Not a moment later the sun appears, and it’s right now that you want to have a car ready to photograph. In this case I was lucky, as we pre-arranged a shoot with this ’50 Mercury the night before.

Apart from the endless backdrop, Bonneville is an interesting location in that ‘golden hour’ does not happen during sunset. That’s not just because the sun dips below a mountain range and sets at around 8:45pm, but also because everyone gets kicked off the salt at 8:00pm sharp. So the best way to shoot in nice soft light is to get up early and brave those eye crusties.

When I was done with my shoot I laid flat on my stomach waiting for cars to pass by hoping that I would not get run over. At this point I would be happy with anything entering my frame as the light was just getting better and better by the second.

Off in the distance I saw a truck coming and braced myself. I snapped a few frames and this was the result.

Pretty soon the sun was too intense to shoot into. This was my last sunrise shot of the day.

It’s just past 7:00am and the first few cars have already made their runs. The faster teams can arrive late, because if you go over 300mph you can jump the queue once per event.

Pretty soon all four courses were filled with eager drivers and teams spanning many different classes.

This was the best time to get some shots of these cars out of the paddock. It was also a good time to chat it up with the owners to see which teams feel like being featured.

I’m sure it is always hard for the drivers to see where they are going as the sideways light just pierces directly into their visors.

Which is why there were are many umbrella guys walking around the starting line.

At around 8:00am it was a complete whiteout. Good luck trying to shoot in automatic exposure mode from here on out!

Dogs on the Salt need sunglasses too. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it is for our four-legged friends if they are blinded by the glare that bounces off the ground surface.

Whether you’re in a 1000hp muscle car…

… or on the back of a 100cc motorcycle, you have to deal with the same conditions. What amazes me is how wet the salt stays, even though temperatures soar in the daytime. It just traps moisture. Or maybe it sucks it out of the air?

The first teams to go are the ones that had a record-breaking run the day before. They need to back-up their run with another the very next morning.

Since the conditions are favorable to run in the morning, it is the perfect time to match or beat the speed you achieved the day before.

Around this time is really the limit of when I could shoot a car feature, otherwise there would be no detail at all in the salt. It’s just too bright.

Keith befriended one of the guys from the Rollin’ Bones Car Club, and we shot one of their ’34 Ford three windows. Full feature coming soon.

With our stomachs grumbling for breakfast we made one more stop before calling it a morning. We headed for the finish line where the cars come to a halt and the drivers get out of their toasty race cars.

If you’re not careful you will end up with heat stroke, so thick, fire-proof race suits are removed as soon as drivers get the chance.

Then they have a long wait, baking in the sun, for their tow vehicle to arrive.

Or in some cases, drivers will just drive their race cars back to the paddock.

Our normal routine was to shoot all morning, get breakfast, sort through photos and come back out to catch the afternoon racing and the sunset. From a photography perspective, it’s the best way to get the most out of Bonneville.

And the next day we would do it all over again…

Photos by Larry Chen
Instagram: larry_chen_foto

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