When photographing landscapes we consider light and composition, but to photograph at Bonneville Speedway on the Salt Flats we need to take into consideration sun, salt and speed. There are no plants, bugs or buildings on the salt flats and the speedway appears desolate when an event is not underway. But every August, the world’s fastest wheel-driven vehicles migrate to Bonneville for the sole purpose of having their name listed in the record book with the fastest time. This amateur event was started when Ab Jenkins and his Mormon Meteor began using the Bonneville Salt Flats as a raceway setting many land speed records back in the 1930s. Since the Anthony Hopkins movie, The World’s Fastest Indian, documenting Burt Monro’s 1969 land speed record of 183 miles per hour on his Indian motorcycle, Bonneville’s SpeedWeek has grown in participation. But, how do you photograph fast moving vehicles in the bright sun surrounded by white salt? Here are a few strategies that I have found successful.
Sun. The sun shines constantly in Bonneville bouncing off the white salt creating harsh light during the day. Therefore, I normally set my white balance to sunny with a low ISO of 100 or 200. And if the summer monsoons roll in, I change my setting to cloudy. Just like landscape photography, the best time of day to catch the light is during sunrise and sunset. As a matter of fact, the first runs of the day are always the fastest vehicles working to “back up” their record. (All land speed records must be hit twice in order to count). Once the vehicles are off, the sun glistens along the body of the vehicles and while the engines gain power and speed they disappear from sight two miles away due to the curvature of the Earth. But you can still hear the roar of the engine and the driver shifting into higher gears. Using a 70-200mm f2.8 lens I captured many images at the fast track. The fast track is a nine mile track with timing monitored between miles one through five. Even when these fast vehicles launch parachutes from the back of their car the remaining four miles of the track is necessary to slow them down.
Salt. The salt was great on my boiled egg at breakfast, but can be harsh on your car and camera equipment. When taking photos on the salt, the bright white confuses your in-camera metering. I use evaluative metering, or multi point metering in most scenarios, but to capture a properly exposed image on the salt flats, I must set my camera exposure compensation to 2/3 to a full stop overexposed. Why do I make this change? Imagine I am shooting a picture of a car surrounded by white salt (pretty common at SpeedWeek). Well, with evaluative metering, the camera looks at the entire scene and based on how the camera is programmed expects to see 18% gray. In a majority of scenarios that would be accurate, but this does not work at the salt flats. If the camera doesn’t see 18% gray in the content of the image (like all the white salt), the camera will compensate by making the image darker than reality, therefore, giving me a photograph with gray salt. As a result, I set my camera to 2/3 to full stop overexposed. This captures an image with white salt, not gray. But be careful, if you overexpose too much your photo will lose detail in the salt.
Speed. During my visit this year, motorcycles, roadsters, lakesters, streamliners and muscle cars hit speeds over 200 mph with Poteet & Main’s Speed Demon hitting a new record this year of 421 mph making them the fastest car in the record book. If you like speed, then you should add Bonneville Speedway to your bucket list. This year, Tegan Hammond’s 302 mph run made her the fourth member of her family to drive over 300 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. These speeds require much faster shutter speeds. Racers at Bonneville are in pursuit of hitting the top speed in their class. To capture this in a camera requires a fast shutter speed. For example, when the vehicles leave the start line, many have push cars getting them to engage in their top gears, so a shutter speed of 1/500 was more than sufficient to stop the action. For fun, I slowed down my shutter to 1/60 and panned with a few motorcycles. Motorcycles don’t use push cars and the panning effect added movement to the image. If you haven’t tried panning before, try this: while using a slower shutter, track the subject with your camera when you are perpendicular to the subject. This creates an image with a blurred background and a sharp subject. At mile four of the track when most vehicles are at close to their peak speed, I was shooting at 1/2000 with my 70-200mm using shutter priority mode and panning. At this position the track is a greater distance away from the spectators and a longer lens would have been a better choice. I will be certain to rent one next year.
Although there are landscape photographic opportunities during SpeedWeek, you will want to photograph the action. Remember to adjust for the sun, salt and speed!