Behind the Fence: My Canon 1DX experience at Formula 1

Written by Cheryl Tay on . Posted in Cheryl Tay Blog | Blog Post of Cheryl Tay

The biggest motorsport event of the year in Singapore is the Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix, an event that I look forward to each year, since it first arrived on our shores in 2008. I’ve been attending Formula 1 regularly and it brings me great excitement to witness the world’s fastest drivers do their thing on our everyday streets in the city centre.

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The Formula 1 cars go at speeds up to 300km/h on our Marina Bay street circuit and I wanted to try and capture as much of that speed as possible. I had the luxury of having the Canon 1DX for the Formula 1 week to aid me in my speed hunting.

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Those who are familiar with cameras would need no introduction to the Canon 1DX – the latest full-frame 18.1 megapixel DSLR from the brand. Topping the entire Canon model range, the 1DX is like the R8 of Audi.

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Like how a good car needs a good driver to bring out the best of it, a good camera needs a good lens to maximise its performance. I had the luxury of having access to a friend’s collection of prime lenses (14mm F2.8, 15mm F2.8, 35mm F1.4, 40mm F2.8, 135mm F2, 300mm F2.8), including a 1D Mk IV for backup, and was also loaned a 70-200mm F4 lens along with the 1DX.

I prefer not to shoot with a monopod/tripod so all the photos you see were all shot handheld.

A photographer’s nightmare at Formula 1 is undoubtedly the fencing around the circuit. Having to shoot from behind the fence, what I did was to use a large aperture (I was on F2.8 most of the time) to narrow the depth of focus. The cars are a distance from the fence (the nearer they are to the fence, the more the fence will come into focus) so I managed to get the fence out of focus. Sometimes I would unintentionally lose the focus and end up getting shots like these:

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Thankfully, that didn’t happen too often with the 1DX.

To capture fast cars, what really helped me a lot was the image capture of 12 frames per second (fps) and the focusing technologies. The 1DX has six autofocus mode presets for different shooting situations. The two that I used most often were Continue shooting, ignore obstructions and Subjects that accelerate or decelerate quickly. All six AF modes can be further adjusted for tracking sensitivity.

With the help of these features in the 1DX, I managed to achieve the following shots in Av mode:

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Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing
300mm, F2.8, 1/400s, ISO 800

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Close-up of two-time Formula 1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing
300mm, F2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 2500

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Close-up of Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG PETRONAS Formula 1 Team
300mm, F2.8, 1/1000s, ISO 2500

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Singaporean Yuey Tan racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia,
a support race to the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix
300mm, F2.8, 1/500s, ISO 800

One of the trickier challenges I faced shooting from behind the fence was panning. The fence was a little more obvious in my panning shots compared to my static shots, but I still managed to get the shots I want. I also achieved a higher success rate – for example, instead of getting only 1 in 5 shots that are sharp, 4 in 5 of my shots are now sharp. 

The 1DX’s quicker sensor and greater processing power, with its carbon fibre shutter and revised mirror mechanism, has up to 12 fps continuous shooting, which helped me a lot in securing the shots I want when I do a high burst. It can go up to 14 fps if you lock the mirror up and lock the focus.

Some might think 10 fps from the 1D mk IV to 12 fps in the 1DX is just a mere 2 fps, but the 1DX has a larger sensor so the 2 fps holds more significance than you might have thought.

With this crazy 12 fps, the tendency to get over-trigger happy is high. Canon must have taken that into consideration and hence gave the 1DX a shutter lifespan of 400,000 cycles.

This is an example of a panning shot I got:

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Francis Hideki Onda of Japan racing in the Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli Asia Pacific series, a support race to the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix
300mm, F8, 1/160s, ISO 1600

Pit stops are crucial in a race and can make or break someone’s day. I waited above the Red Bull Racing pit and also the McLaren pit so I could be in the best position to capture the overhead view of their pit stops during the race.

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One of Red Bull Racing’s pit stops for Sebastian Vettel during the race
35mm, F2, 1/800s, ISO 1000 (shooting through glass)

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One of McLaren’s pit stops for Jenson Button during the race
35mm, F3.2, 1/400s, ISO 800 (shooting through glass)

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The McLaren team practising their pit stops on Thursday night
15mm fish eye, F2.8, 1/640s, ISO 640

The Formula 1 drivers are the stars of the show and they give the fans reasons to follow the sport loyally. Sebastian Vettel is only 25 years of age and he is already a World Champion, twice. He is a young guy after all and I caught a little cheekiness from him in this shot with his tongue sticking out slightly in response to a question from the media during a post-race interview.

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Sebastian Vettel being interviewed by the media after winning the race
300mm, F2.8, 1/500s, ISO 2000

On all the occasions I have bumped into Fernando Alonso, he has this perpetual frown about him. But this once, I caught a smile on the Spaniard’s face!

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Fernando Alonso of Scuderia Ferrari retains his position at the top of the driver standings after finishing 3rd in Singapore
300mm, F2.8, 1/200s, ISO 2000

One of the reasons the Singapore Grand Prix is so special, is because it is a night race. When I see the bright lights and colours of our skyline on television, I feel a huge sense of pride as a Singaporean because the city (my home!) looks awesome! Speaking of lights, I was walking towards Gate 10 (on the Helix Bridge) one of the nights and suddenly this view stopped me in my tracks. I shot this handheld and I was amazed at the sharp, low-noise result of the image.

The 1DX has a broad ISO range of 100 to 51,200 (up to 204,800 in H2 mode) that helps you get clean shots even in low light conditions.

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Marina Bay Sands is in the mood for Formula 1
35mm, F2, 1/40s, ISO 2500

Although practice only starts on Friday, before qualifying on Saturday and the race on Sunday, the Formula 1 week for me starts on Monday. At 8am on Monday I was already in the Scuderia Toro Rosso pit garage observing them unload and set up. It’s amazing how they take 2.5 days to set everything up but just 6 hours after the race to pack everything up!

The next few days before the weekend are usually packed with driver appearances and events – one of which was Nico Rosberg’s night out with PUMA Motorsport. Previously I didn’t have the confidence to shoot in clubs because of the low and changing light conditions. However, with the 1DX, that fear was replaced with assurance.

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Nico Rosberg making an appearance at a PUMA Motorsport event at popular nightspot Butter Factory
40mm, F2.8, 1/125s, ISO 1250

I didn’t have any problems shooting indoors with regard to the lighting and noise level, the only thing that I had to be more mindful of is the white balance.

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An interview with Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull Racing, in their hospitality suite
35mm, F1.6, 1/100s, ISO 640

26616_468674836500092_564023733_nSingaporean Gregory Teo who raced in the Ferrari Challenge Asia Pacific at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
40mm, F2.8, 1/500s, ISO 500

With the right equipment and access, the 1DX will ensure that you never miss a shot. Firing too many shots may cause a storage problem but the 1DX can hold two CF cards so you can choose to duplicate images for backup or just overflow one to the next. The bigger problem though, is having too many shots to go through later.

The technologies in the 1DX allow its user to attain higher levels of focus speed and accuracy coupled with superior tracking for even the most challenging situations. It has been a great help to me in times of high speed, focusing through obstacles (the fencing!) and low light. I believe there is a lot more that the 1DX is capable of, but I only had one week to review it before the folks at Canon Singapore called for it. :(

That’s not an issue though – I’m already putting the pennies into the piggy bank in aim of the 1DX! Wonder how many months of grass and tap water I need to consume before I fill it up enough :p 

View the rest of my Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix photos here.

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Cheryl Tay

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Singapore’s only female full-time motoring and motorsports photojournalist. Independent automotive consultant and prominent local motorsports personality Cheryl Tay is uniquely passionate about all things cars and motorsports. She also has a strong passion to share her interest and knowledge, hence having a dream to become the ‘Oprah Winfrey of cars and motorsports’ and create a multimedia platform for her sharing. - A female in a male-dominated world, Cheryl Tay is Singapore’s only female full-time motoring journalist and motorsports blogger and she regularly writes for prominent titles in Singapore, Asia and internationally. (See full list of titles that Cheryl Tay writes for here.)

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