“First in Flight”: The story of a unique photograph

Posted on 9 Mar, 2015 by Scott Jones

Marc Marquez first in flight limited edition Laguna Seca

Recently I was asked if I have a favorite among my MotoGP images, and if so, why do I think of that one single image as apart from the thousands of others. I didn’t have to think very long about these two questions before deciding that if I had to pick a single image, it would be the one of Marc Marquez in mid air at Laguna Seca’s Turn 1 in 2013.

I tried to direct the person who had asked me about this to the PHOTO.GP website to read the story of this image. I was the surprised to find that, while I had told the story to several audiences of my MotoGP Stories presentation in the US and the UK, I had not written the complete take here on the web site. So I added this task to my list of things to do, and have just finished. I hope you enjoy reading about this unique image and why it is my pick among my other images.

This photograph’s story starts in Austin at the Circuit of the Americas. There I interviewed Sergi Sendra, Dorna’s director of TV operations, about his position and his plans for the future of televising MotoGP. We ran out of time and finally managed to get part II of the interview scheduled for Laguna Seca.

When we arrived in Monterey, I chased Mr. Sendra around the paddock until mid-day Saturday. At one point he had to change the time of the interview (again!) because this time he and his crew we working on something that had him buzzing with excitement. When we finally sat down to speak, he explained that he’d been working with his team to get the slow motion camera into position to catch the riders ‘flying’ through Turn 1.

He told me that some of the riders had been returning to their garages saying they felt like maybe they’d had both wheels in the air. We went on to complete the interview, but his comment about the riders possibly being in mid-air stuck with me. I wondered if it would be possible to capture this in a still image.

Catch Me If You Can

If I’m honest, at the time I wasn’t thinking at all about trying to catch Marc Marquez in mid-air. I merely hoped to catch someone with both wheels off the ground.

I knew Turn 1 was a high speed section of Laguna Seca’s layout, and for this reason you don’t often see photographers there. MotoGP bikes are going somewhere around 165mph as they crest the hill and turn slightly left, too fast for even the best pro DSLRs and lenses to track focus.

It’s the cresting of the hill that complicates things more than the speed. Because the bikes are hidden as they accelerate from the final turn and across the finish line, by the time they appear they are past you if you’re standing anywhere around Turn 1.

Not willing to burn valuable Qualifying session photo opportunities scouting out this probable Fail, I decided to take a look during FP4 and spent about 10 minutes taking some test shots just to put my mind at east that this was an impossible shot. As I stood there with the bikes screaming past, it looked like the endeavor was a complete waste of time.

After FP4, I went about the rest of my day trying not to think too much about Turn 1. I shot QP1 and QP2 from pit lane as usual, then eventually found myself back in the Media Center preparing to do the real work of sorting and editing images. Clicking the shutter while the bikes are on track is the fun part, editing the photos for hours afterward is the grind.

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy

I admit it, one of the first things I did after copying the afternoon’s images from memory cards to my laptop was to look at the Turn 1 test shots. Frankly I was dying to know what, if anything, the camera had recorded. Even though comment sense was telling my my hopes were in vain, I couldn’t help wondering if the test images would show anything interesting.

I scrolled past the earlier images to the selection that showed the tricky view of Turn 1. The first images, shot with my Nikon D4 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, looked like this:
Turn 1 Laguna Seca MotoGP

Several issues complicate this view. The background is much too busy, the bike is too small, and mainly, Valentino Rossi (in this case) is simply going too fast to track as he flies by.

Sure, I was scouting with my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens because it’s easier to handle when shooting a speeding MotoGP bike than my 500mm lens is. But how could I possibly catch MotoGP bikes in this situation with the 500mm?

Anyway, it didn’t look like this was the perspective that would find the bikes in the air, so I moved toward Turn 2 a bit at a time, turning around to face the oncoming bikes whenever I could, and getting some more sample shots just to see what I could see through the lens.

The situation got worse and worse than farther down the hill I moved, because as I walked away from the top, I could see less of the approaching bikes. By the time I got to the spot where I’d soon give up, the bikes were just appearing in the blink of an eye before shooting past me.

At that point I saw this in the viewfinder:
Laguna Seca Turn 1

The background is still a mess, given how wide the view is at 200mm. But at 500mm it might be workable, IF there were something worth photographing here.

Just out of curiosity, as I had with quite a few images before this one, I zoomed in to see what was going on with the tires…
Turn 1 Laguna Seca MotoGP mid air

I remember clearly the feeling I had as I looked at this on my laptop for the first time. I’d missed the image, which was fuzzy and unusable, but I could see without a doubt that Dani Pedrosa was ‘flying’ with both wheels off the air. Amazing that it was happening, and even more amazing that I was looking at it captured (though poorly) on my screen. In real time this was happening in the tiniest of fractions of a second. That my camera’s shutter had opened at the same moment was thrilling.

It was difficult to go through the remaining images of the afternoon, frankly. All I could think about was how I was going to try to get a sharp image of this happening on race day. For surely I would go back to try. I knew where I had to be now… Wait a minute, did I?

I had taken test shots from several different spots. Where had I been when I got this image?

I did not know.

Continues on the next page:

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