This was my second year photographing at the Le Mans 24hr race for Ford Performance brought in by my good friend Drew Gibson Photography to help cover this huge 5-day event on the World Endurance Championship circuit.
Last year I was still using half Canon gear for my fast sports action photography as there wasn't a Sony camera up to the task and had my Sony A7Rii for photographing people, branding and scenes that I wanted to take high-quality images.
This year, I had fully switched over to Sony having bought a Sony A9 a month before the race and had transitioned all my lens over to Sony GM or Zeiss lenses over the past year. No need for the Metabones adapter anymore which was great news as it had worked okay but wasn't using the full capabilities of the Sony glass.
I must admit a little trepidation on relying on the Sony A9 to work flawlessly over five days and nights, in temperatures of 30+ every day, with tonnes of dust, long distances to walk and rugged treatment. The 1DX had survived many such events, but this would be the Sony A9's first full test for me. I had used it for many photo-shoots the previous month and set it up, so it worked how I wanted it. Such as the Recall Settings feature, this was invaluable being able to switch over from AF-C 20-fps setup to an AF-S single shot setting with just the push of a button it switched over and releasing the button would have it back to AF-C.
I like to work with a two camera setup on shoulder straps, one being the Sony A7Rii with a Sony GM 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, the other the Sony A9 with a Sony GM 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.
The A7Rii was on AF-S Flexible Spot: M Hi-Speed, AWB, Face detect on, a custom profile from EOSHD on pp2. My shooting setting starts on Aperture Priority f/2.8 and ISO 100 but have learned to use the Auto ISO (100-6400) if it starts to get dark and trust the ISO on the camera, as at 42mb you can very rarely see any graining in the output. I always shoot compressed RAW when I'm on an event with this camera as I need the buffer to clear quickly. For this article I'm going to focus on the A9 as this was its day to shine.
The A9 was on AF-C Lock-on AF: Flexible Spot S, and I started off using Hi-Speed at 20fps but found this too fast for most occasions so would dial this down to medium speed or low speed unless I was shooting fast moving objects such as the cars on track - 205mph is pretty quick I guess. Sadly no profiles or custom profiles as yet so I can't tune the images in camera, but as I'm shooting RAW it makes little difference when processing in Capture One. And as before I like to shoot in Aperture Priority but found Manual to be the best option for shooting the cars, this way I had full control over every aspect of the final image and could easily tweak the settings with a roll of my thumb on the back dials.
I used slow panning when tracking cars and would take the shutter speed down to 1/60th or 1/50th, so I get good motion blur in the backgrounds. I found the focus tracking of the Sony A9 actually awesome for this type of shot I could let the focus point start over on the left as the car came into frame, pan with the car and let the focus track it out of the right side of the frame. I'd be looking at a one in ten hit rate of getting the car tack sharp with the Canon 1DX, this time round I was getting seven out of ten sharp images from a single pan, but... Only when I had a good lock on the car to start. I did find that sometimes the focus would lock onto something else moving nearby but would then jump back to the correct place if I released the shutter and tried again. I have a feeling this is more down to me not tuning the focusing sensitivity correctly. I had it on 5 (Responsive) which for this was too much. I ended up working on 4 - I guess as I was tracking the object it wasn't moving much in the frame. I also used the Wide Area focus setting which felt a little out of my control and something I wasn't used to, but it worked nicely, especially when I had a car coming straight at me with their laser headlights on.
I came to Le Mans with eight batteries for the A7Rii (as six are needed for a full day's work) and only had two batteries for the A9 - as I could only get one from my supplier before he had no stock left. I was very pleasantly surprised as I found the A9 battery would last for over 2,000 shots or 12 hours or so (not on the whole time) and only used the second battery later into the night when I was away from the paddocks. They also charge up pretty quickly, so I had no problems with lack of battery and a significant improvement on the A7Rii.
The ergonomics of the A9 also really helped with the speed of use. The top left dial was used constantly for changing framerate and the joystick too, but I find this a little low on the back on the body for it to fit perfectly under my thumb (needs moving up a bit!).
I tried the touchscreen feature but soon turned this off again as I found my nose would move the focus point when I used the viewfinder, probably better for filming I guess.
My usual workflow would involve ingesting the images into Photo Mechanic a card at a time, applying metadata as it goes, then selecting and tagging the pictures I wanted and importing them into Capture One. I had heard that Capture One had improved the speed of its imports so decided to give this a tryout and even apply my basic tweaks in the process, but I hit a bottleneck here. As in the past, I was using CF cards from the 1DX it was pretty quick to import. This time I was using Lexar Professional 1000x SDXC UHS-II on my Macbook Pro (late 2015). I had not realised the internal SD card reader doesn't handle UHS-II speeds, so I had to import 1500+ images from an SD card at a snail's pace... Taking 40-45 minutes, which in sports action and event work is not okay and would then have to make my selection for processing, easily another 45 minutes to go through 1500 images. I did a little research and with a few questions on forums found some answers and set about my changed workflow.
I bought a Lexar USB 3.0 SD Reader in town, opened the SD card in Photo Mechanic and made my selections directly from the card before importing. And as I'd been shooting at 20fps I had a lot more images to choose from I could afford to make 1-5 selections from a burst of 20+ images and not worry about importing everything, this took about 10 minutes as the preview speed in Photo Mechanic is fast. This way I was importing 300-400 images from a total of 1500+ and they were coming in via USB 3.0 at full speed cutting the import time down to 10 minutes and not having to do the initial selection afterwards. A total of 20+ minutes was well worth doing the change for.
After working day and night for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday's qualifying and another early start on Saturday at 06:00 to go and photograph a very excited Ken Block drive a yellow GT road car around the Le Mans circuit the A9 was still performing! It had not missed a single beat over the four days and was giving me the shots I wanted time and time again, by now I knew the camera inside out; I'd set up a few tweaks, was learning to switch modes and settings faster than I'd ever been able to before. The only I would have changed was to have two A9's rather than the lovely A7Rii, which I love dearly but is not a patch on the A9 when it comes to working an event.
The main race starts at 15:00 on Saturday, and the team I was working with Drew, Chris, Nick and myself had all been hard at it for days but enjoying the work. I had everything charged up, cards formatted, brief in hand and so it began. First off it was the grid and we had a Ford Mustang with one of the winning drivers from the 60's A.J Foyt leading the parade.
Next up the teams and cars on the grid needed photographing and it was hot, so hot the cars had been covered in foil to keep the temperatures down, I could feel the Camera bodies getting hot and had heard of issues with overheating and was waiting for a warning sign to come on but nothing happened, they kept on working.
Next on the list was to go to the main hospitality area and photograph the guests and exec's enjoying the facilities that had been laid on along with a great view of the track by the Porsche curves. I switched lens over from the 70-200 to the 24-70 and used this on the A9 for a few hours; I was finding myself doing this more often than I had planned but was working out fine. I have also programmed the lens hold button to turn on EYE-AF focusing which on the A9 is in another league compared to the A7Rii and something Canon hasn't even thought of or implemented to this day. For working a group of people having the ability to have tack sharp focus on an eye is always the target, this feature meant every shot was bang on, literally ever shot!
As the sun set, I switched back to the 70-200 and tried panning at 60th, tracking the four GT's as they drove past the Porsche Curves, the big wheel and catching the light on the last curve into the final straight. I think I got a few of my favourite shots of the week then. I was noticing that the A9 would focus easily on moving objects directly into the sun and I could predict the sun flare so I moved a bit further along the track so I could get the Ford branding in the background.
Now it was dark it was time to go and shot some people around the Ford areas, I like to do long exposures on a tripod for these so you get a sense of people but can't identify them and no I didn't use the A9 for these, I used my trusty A7Rii!
Then back to the media centre to do some processing, eat more sweets from Dunlop and Drink a glass of bubbly supplied by Michelin... Hmmm, says something that!
As the night went on, I followed a group of guests from the Ford GT owners group over to the Michelin chicane along the Mulsanne straight. This was going to be fun, cars coming at you in total darkest at over 200mph, braking hard, overtaking if they could and on to the next straight. I found a gate a few lads had climbed up for a better view and decided to join them. To capture these took a lot of guess work and tweaking of setting, I needed as much light gathering as possible but didn't want the headlights to blow out the highlights to much. So I pushed the ISO up and up and up, these images are shot at between 8,000 and 12,800 ISO! Seriously I've never pushed it so high and had images I'm happy to show to a client. I was on manual, and I turn the AF off and picked my point to focus on, then used the 20fps to make sure I nailed the shots. I got a few I'm pleased with.
I headed back to base, imported my images, uploaded them for the client and headed out again, by now it was 03:30 and sunrise would start at 04:55. I'd decided to go to a new place for me, Indianapolis Corner, a set of fast sweeping bends. I'd worked out roughly where the sun would rise and hoped I'd get the angle I was after. I got there with about 20 minutes to spare, got my spot and bang! A car crashed right in front of me; I got a few snaps in then ran; I don't mind admitting; nothing to write home about but that was my first full on crash right there. This meant the safety cars came out, so all the cars became backed up, perfect for a different type of picture.
Sadly I should have been on the other side of the road to get the best angle for sunrise but I tried, I got a nice shot with the wire fence and the Ford GT going past. Next year I know where to go now.
I do have a few little gripes and it wouldn't be right not to mention them amongst the rest of the glowing report. SD cards, I don't like them, too flimsy, why the camera has two different speed ones I don't know, they should both be the current fastest UHS-II, obvious really. An ethernet port? And no USB 3.0 or 3.1!! Come on guys these are simple mistakes that slow the workflow down. I love the tilting LCD screen, but this isn't going to last a year or two, it's also flimsy and will get knocked at some point. And profiles, no profiles, this camera is a stills and movie monster and no profiles!!! Please Sony, please!
I could keep on writing about all the different things that happened, moments I witnessed and captured but I need to focus on the purpose of my article. The A9, it kept on performing; every situation was different, different lighting, still or moving objects, people, it did it all for five days solidly and is a superb camera!
The key features for me:
The speed of operation, of focusing and the fps and the buffer - brilliant.
Customisation, tick and tick again.
The image quality and colour are superb, I was never happy with the green tinge I got from the jpeg's I could wifi from the back of the A7Rii. The jpeg from the A9 is perfect and very usable for social media.
So to wrap up, I'd like another A9 please, one for each lens!