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Creative endurance: 24hrs of pressure with the EOS-1D X

Creative endurance: 24hrs of pressure with the EOS-1D X

© Frits van Eldik

June 2015

Top motorsport photographer and Canon Ambassador Frits van Eldik tackled his biggest race of the year recently: the logistical leviathan that is Le Mans, a 24 hour endurance race held in France. He explains to CPN Editor David Corfield what it takes to cover one of the world's most famous motorsport events...

"People think I have the best job in the world, but let me tell you, it's not as easy as it looks!" says Frits van Eldik. The Dutch motorsport photographer has been covering Le Mans for the last twenty years now, and when his friends rib him about how easy it must be to take action shots of exciting cars all day, he refers them to a long list of client demands he has to fulfill inside 24 hours of non-stop activity.

© Frits van Eldik

Ferraris battle for position. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 560mm; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/5.6, ISO 500.

"I basically have about two hours sleep over not just 24 hours, but more like 36 hours!" he advises. "When you work as an enthusiast photographer at this event you have a fantastic opportunity to create some nice creative images over 24 hours. But as a freelance professional photographer it really makes the approach completely different."

"I had a colleague with me this year and I think he had his eyes opened when he saw the pressure I was under. I'm very used to this pressure now after working this way for so long. I am used to working with minimal budgets and with no real chance to wander around and make shots for myself. I would love to make a 10-12 page story in a magazine but those days are long gone. I can't do it the way I would want to do it these days."

Frits continues: "I have to remain commercial. I have sponsors who want to see their logos, I have drivers who want to make sure they can see their helmet in the car, I have the big brands like Audi and Porsche Netherlands who pay me to shoot images for the journalists they bring over from their respective territories, and each person I deal with has a very specific request that I have to fulfill. So you see, I get very little time to think creatively for myself and shoot pictures that I want. So the event has changed for me in that sense."

Preparation and workflow

Motorsport events are not like football or athletic events where all the action happens in one place. Le Mans, for instance, is a track measuring nearly 14km. The action takes place on a mixture of permanent racetrack and closed public roads so there is a great distance involved in covering it effectively. That's why Frits' secret weapon is a small Yamaha scooter, which allows him to zip around the perimeter of the circuit to get to specific shooting locations before the shuttle bus which is laid on my the organisers for photographers and journalists. "I haven't got time to wait for buses because of the pressure to get results for all my clients," he advises. "This scooter allows me to have the freedom to cover ground quickly and on my terms."

But a scooter limits the amount of kit Frits can take with him; so what's in the van Eldik kitbag on an event like this? Frits explains: "In total I take around 30kg of equipment to the event, which consists of three EOS-1D X bodies, five Speedlite flashguns plus a selection of lenses ranging from 8mm to 400mm and all focal lengths in between. I arrive at the event and immediately head to the press room and get a locker, which is where I dump all my gear. I then return to select the specific gear I need for every stage of the event, which totals about 17kg. So the press room is my base and I shuttle back and forth over the duration to download images, put batteries on charge, change lenses and so on. It's a little bit like that."

"You need to make sure you have a desk in the media centre, likewise you also make sure the internet is working and your laptop is securely chained to the desk, and then you go and find the journalists and let them know where you are and how they can get hold of you. They will then start giving you their own deadlines. So for instance, they might request, say, ten action images they need for their 9pm deadline. So I have to remember that, and also give myself enough time to come back to the media centre, download and edit the images they need and then deliver them to their deadline."

© Frits van Eldik

The driver line-up before the start. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 200mm; the exposure was 1/500sec at f/10, ISO 200.

Frits works to a very tight shooting script, which in many ways is set for him by his clients. "You need to obviously cover the start on the Saturday afternoon," he advises. "But then you have to show that the event is not a sprint race, but an endurance event, so once the race is underway it's all about trying to emphasise the dirt on the cars and the toughness of competing over a 24hour period. You have to show the whole story of the event and you need to know in which direction the sun rises and sets and which are the best places around the track to show the action as it develops."

"Planning is everything," he continues. "I do a recce before the race starts, normally on the Tuesday before and from that I work out where I can go and where I can get the best stories. But then on the event itself I also have to respond to some more obscure requests from the journalists that my clients have paid me to look after in terms of picture requests. For instance, some years ago I was told that Audi make about 50,000 cups of coffee during the event and could I illustrate that... So you see, I have to think on my feet all the time!"

All this quick thinking and working on the fly leaves precious little time for gathering thoughts, not to mention getting some down time to rest the brain and recharge his own batteries. Frits laughs. "Once you get in a flow for working, the adrenaline takes over. You start at 7:30am on a Saturday and you don't really finish until 7:30pm on a Sunday night."

No rest for the wicked...

"I work all night long," Frits admits. "I maybe grab an hour at 1:30am and sleep in the car, but then that can all change if something happens during the race. You can never totally relax because it is a live event with stories developing all the time. When you take a break you are always thinking to yourself 'what am I missing?' because you get caught up in the unfolding events and you never want to miss the news or the stories as they happen."

Frits works with available light as much as he can, loving that 'magic hour' at sunset and sunrise when the sun is low in the sky. He uses that period to work creatively, working with the light to pick out highlights on the cars and including the shadows to create the evocative mood shots for which the event is well known. But it's always with the demands of journalists and clients ringing in his ears...

"I always have to make sure sponsor logos are clear and sharp, which sometimes can be hard especially in the action images I take," he advises. "The EOS-1D X is a superb camera for focus, though. It's the best invention ever and is built to take the knocks and the lenses I use are super-fast at locking onto a subject. But sometimes I get caught out by, for instance, when I am shooting panning pictures and a car clips a kerb and jumps up in the frame. Moments like that you can't predict and that is when you place your faith in the equipment. You need a lot of luck too, of course. I take a lot of creative risks with some of my pictures. You need to rely on the equipment and your experience. You see the cars jumping but you need to try. It becomes a profession when you are not just going for that lucky shot, but when you need to have something special for all the eight cars you have been asked to have pictures of."

Reflections after the event

"Unfortunately the event this year didn't have great light," Frits remembers. "There was a lot of cloud throughout the duration of the race with not a proper sunrise or sunset but you have no control over this, so you have to always do your best."

© Frits van Eldik

Porsche made a sensational return to Le Mans this year, and here is the winning car at speed with the lights of the grandstands behind. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 185mm; the exposure was 1/15sec at f/10, ISO 400.

Frits continues: "There is such a lot of pressure on me on an event like this, and of course my most important consideration were the wishes of my clients. Of course, it's great to take nice evocative shots that are full of blur and mood but I am happier these days when I know that clients are happy and they pay my bill! That's the commercial side of motorsport, and that's always the first thing I need to think about as a professional."

"When you go on track, you have one hour maximum in any one area before you have to move on to a new location to cover the entire length of the circuit. The scooter was invaluable for that, like I said, and without it I wouldn't be able to provide the service I get paid to do. I like to keep busy and the challenge is to always push yourself and to always remain creative and still deliver images the clients love."

Frits remembers the pictures he's taken from previous Le Mans events. "When I look at shots I took five years ago I sometimes laugh and think 'did I really shoot like that?' I am always experimenting and trying new things. For instance, when I get asked by photographers on how to put together a portfolio to show prospective clients, I always say to them not show your lucky shots from the last four years of work, but always show the shot you took last week because then they know what to expect."

"I'm not complaining though. I am passionate about my work and I never like to take a holiday. The way I see it, I get paid to have a holiday 52 weeks of the year because I love shooting motorsport. Having said that, though, my family would have something to say if that ever became the case..."

Frits van Eldik's Le Mans kitbag:

3x EOS-1D X
2x EOS 6D (used for remote photography)

EF8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
EF11-24mm f/4L USM
EF14mm f/2.8L II USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF40mm f/2.8 STM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x
EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

EF1.4x III Extender
EF2x III Extender
3x Speedlite 600EX-RT flashguns
2x Speedlite 580EX II flashguns
ST-E3-RT Speedlite transmitter
Pocket Wizard remotes
Manfrotto tripods
MacBook Pro laptop (loaded with Adobe Lightroom)

Biografie: Frits van Eldik

Frits van Eldik

Born in the Netherlands, the son of a garage owner, Frits van Eldik grew up surrounded by cars. He took up photography as a hobby but it quickly became a passion and career. He worked for a specialist automotive picture agency and, after seven years, decided to go it alone. Frits started his own company and photographed his first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 1989. By 1994 he was shooting all the F1 races throughout the season on a regular basis. In the past few years Frits has shot different kinds of motorsports, including F1, the Le Mans races, MotoGP and “everything else that moves fast.” His working schedule now includes commercial projects and he still shoots over half of the F1 Grand Prix season all over the world.


The magic hour of sunset, 7:45pm as the sun sets. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x lens at 232mm; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/8, ISO 800.