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Old Oct 8, 2003, 2:26 AM   #1
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Default Taking Digital Photos of R/C Cars

This is an article I wrote for the Starting Grid Magazine on how to take photographs of r/c cars with a digital camera. Maybe everyone here already knows these things, but if not, maybe it will be helpful. Hey, if you've got any advice, or corrections, please post them as a response. The article was written for people that don't know that much about photography, and want to try to get photos of r/c cars in action.... which is real hard to do, but anyway, here it is:

Taking digital photos of r/c on-road race cars isn’t easy. In the past, doing this with film usually meant a high-end camera, with high speed film. With digital you have all the old problems of film, plus new ones. I took several hundred photos at the 1/8 Worlds in Cincinnati. Almost all that came out reasonably well are are posted on an Image Server which you can access at: http://www.forgas.org:1089/0/index/19421987681549032.
If I took a photo of your car, you can probably find it there. (If you have trouble with that link, just go to http://www.rc-racing.com and click on "Image Server", then follow the links.) If you look at enough of those pictures, you'll see what I did right - and what I didn't do right. While these are mostly on-road photos, the same thing applies to off-road.

The following are some suggestions on how to take better digital photos of r/c cars. It’s really hard. As I’ll explain, it really helps to have a “better” camera. I’ll try to keep this from getting too technical, but to get a good action shot of an r/c car, it really does help to understand the technology. Also important is practice, practice, and more practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get, and the nicer your pictures will look.

To get a good picture, you need to have enough light reaching the image recording device (either film or a digital sensor). If enough light doesn’t reach the recording device, you don’t get an image. Neither will you get an image if too much light gets through.

The longer the camera’s shutter remains open, the more light gets through. The shorter the time, the less light gets through. However, if you want a sharp image of a moving r/c car, you need to use a fairly high shutter speed. Your camera needs to allow you to select this. If all it has is “automatic mode”, your pictures will probably be blurry. At the Worlds in Cincinnati, I found that the sharpest photos I got were taken at 1/4000th of a second shutter speed. Anything less than 1/1000th just looked too blurry. How high a shutter speed you can use, is determined by the amount of light, and your lens (see below).

The second way the amount of light that gets through to the film (or image sensor) is controlled by how big the camera lens is. If the lens were only as big as a pinhole, very little light would get through. If the lens were several inches in diameter, much more light gets through. For a good exposure, you need just the right amount of light. Too much, and your picture is too light. Too little, and your picture is too dark. The important thing here, is the bigger the lens is, the more light it will allow through, and the higher a shutter speed you’ll be able to use, and still get a good picture.

Most cameras nowadays are “automatic”. They control both the lens opening and the shutter speed. You can usually improve your images just by setting the camera to “sports mode” which means the camera will try to use the highest possible shutter speed. If your camera has what’s called a “shutter priority mode”, you can select that, and the camera can automatically try to use the highest shutter speed possible. If your camera has “manual mode”, you might find that it too can help you get better photos. For example, many of the cars I photographed were surrounded by black asphalt. My camera decided it should expose the image for an “average” of the whole image, which resulted in light asphalt, and extremely light (burned out) images of the car. By deliberately under-exposing the image, I could manually set the exposure to get a good photo of the car, on some very black asphalt.

If you just can’t use a high shutter speed, you have one other option – “panning”. This means that you follow the car with your camera, and while your camera is actually moving, you press the shutter button when the car is in a good location for the photo. You keep on “panning” with the camera. Done properly, the car will be reasonably sharp, but the background will be quite blurry. This can produce wonderful images that show how fast the car is moving.

As I said earlier, to get a good exposure, you need just the right amount of light reaching the “film” (real film, or digital). With an ordinary film camera, you can buy high-speed film, which is more sensitive to light. That allows you to use a higher shutter speed. Similarly, many digital cameras allow you to select the “film speed” of their digital sensors. This is called the ISO speed. Usually it’s around 100 or so, but some cameras allow you to set it to 200, 400, 800, or even higher. The good news, is this will allow you to use that higher shutter speed, and you’ll be more likely to capture a nice sharp image of a car. The bad news, is just as with film, the higher “ISO speeds” usually result in grainy images – in digital terms, they’re referred to as being “noisy”.

To get a good sharp image of anything, your camera needs to be focused on the object you’re photographing. If the camera is focused on an area in front of the car, or behind, the car, the car will be blurry. A trick that I found very useful, is to pick a place where you expect the car to be, and focus on that spot ahead of time. You might have to turn off the automatic focus of your camera to do this. Then, you follow the car, and when it reaches the spot you previously selected, you press the shutter release. Bingo – you’ve now got the car in perfect focus. If you’re lucky, the car will be doing something that looks photogenic. If you’re very lucky, there may even be other cars in the image near the one you’re shooting, which makes the photo look much more like a “race”.

With most film cameras, you can pick up the camera, press the shutter release, and the camera will happily snap the picture of whatever the camera happens to be pointing at. Digital cameras don’t work like this – they are much slower. When you pick up the camera and press the shutter release, first the camera has to turn everything on, which on some cameras takes a long time. Then it has to focus – more time. Meanwhile, it’s trying to set the exposure, adjust for the “white balance” (to get the right colors), and so on. All this takes time – and the name for it is “lag time”. If you read through the manual that came with your camera, you can often find ways to reduce this “lag time”. If you can’t or don’t, you’re probably going to miss a lot of nice shots.

It’s easy to take pictures with a digital camera, and since there’s no film processing involved, it’s sort of free. When you get done, you can just erase the memory cards and start all over. However, because it’s so easy and inexpensive, and because it’s so hard to get a good image, you will probably find yourself taking lots and lots of photos. For that reason, you’ll want to have lots of extra memory cards and batteries around. At a minimum, you want three sets of batteries, one in your camera, one that’s charging, and an extra set in your pocket just in case you need them and don’t have time to go get the ones off the charger. As to digital film, you can buy it in many different sizes (capacities), and even in different speeds. Higher speed cards are capable of writing the data more quickly, which means your camera’s buffer will get emptied that much faster. (When the camera buffer is full, you can’t take any pictures at all until some of the data is written to the memory card, freeing up memory space for the next picture.)

Most digital cameras come with a "zoom lens". This allows you to "zoom" right in on the r/c car, and get a better photo of it. Because of the limitations of digital images, the "bigger" you can make the car on the image, the "better" it will look. If you take a photo of a car from 30 feet away, and it takes up a tiny part of the picture, you're not going to be able to get a good image of the car later. If it's a nice racing shot you're after, fine, but if it's an image of a specific car, you really want to get as close as you can, and use the "zoom" lens to make the car take up most of the image. Many cameras only have a 2:1 or 3:1 zoom. For r/c car photos, it's better if you can get a 10:1. Remember, just as with old film cameras, when you zoom in that much, you've got to hold the camera VERY steady. If the camera is moving around because you can't hold it still, your picture will be blurry. A tripod would be good - a "monopod" might be more handy. Once again, the higher the shutter speed you can use, the less your image will suffer from being blurry because you couldn't hold the camera steady. (Many digital cameras have two types of zoom, "digital zoom" and "optical zoom". The optical zoom is what you want to use. Digital zoom sounds good, but on most cameras it doesn't provide very good images.)

It’s always fun to show off your pictures. If you take pictures of a race, you really should post the images so the rest of us can see them. For example, for the IFMAR World Championships, there’s an special area all set up on my Image Server (http://www.forgas.org:1089). You can set up something like this, by going to http://www.denebashare.com/ and setting up your own Image Server. You can either subscribe to the Deneba system, and they will host the pictures for you, or you can purchase the software and set it up on your own computer. The important thing is to let other people see them, both for their enjoyment, and for all the feedback you’re likely to get, which will make you a better photographer.
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Old Jan 10, 2004, 1:52 PM   #2
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Great shots! I've been into R/C for 15yrs. and now into Digital Photography and motorcycles (again). I hope to be able to get good action shots based on the info. you just provided. Thank you and have a great day

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