Of Monsters and Trucks

Grave Digger
Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

MONSTER JAM came back to Baltimore last week, and I was there, snapping away as the trucks stomped and tore through cars, mud and fire. I have “perfected” the slow shutter technique I use when shooting monster trucks flying through the air, so I was looking to try out something new. As you can see above, I have started experimenting with spin zoom. Zooming the lens while pressing the shutter button. It’s difficult to pull off, and almost unnecessary (especially when you could just do it in Photshop with the Zoom Blur filter), but there is a greater thrill when you nail the shot, and it comes straight from camera looking like this. Lots of exciting pics below, click!

Iron Man
Shutter: 1/50, Aperture: f/8.0, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

I’ve been working on this for a few years, so now it’s pretty instinctual. In fact, I tossed almost all of my photos that didn’t have this effect (where as this type of shot was the crown jewel in my gallery 2 years ago). You want to slow down the shutter to about 1/50, 1/60 (sometimes 1/40, but it depends on how fast the subject is moving) and then raise the aperture to compensate. With a slower shutter, you’re letting in more light. It takes just a little bit of practice, but you want to move your camera while the shutter is open, thus blurring the background. Move your hand in sync with the truck, matching the arc, and pop the shutter several times mid-flight. In this specific instance of shooting monster trucks, I want the wheels to be spinning/blurry as well. When the logo is crisp and sharp, but the background behind the truck is blurry, it’ll really pop, giving the image more energy. I love when I happen to catch some dirt flying, or a camera flash in the audience. I found that even when moving the camera, a flash is so quick that it doesn’t blur. I didn’t get too many this particular evening.

Monster Mutt Dalmation
Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

Any additional elements showing motion can help too. Here on Monster Mutt: Dalmation, the ears are really going. I sped up the shutter one notch to 1/60 so they wouldn’t be too blurry. They kind of hang airborne as the truck leaps, so the trick is matching the truck speed with your hand, but moving the shutter slower than the tires. I also like in this particular shot, getting a slight 3/4s view, showing a bit more of the front.

Grave Digger the Legend doing donuts
Shutter: 1/100, Aperture: f/5.0, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 250

My son and I love when the trucks do donuts. I sped up the shutter a bit, and lowered the aperture. (This was a bit earlier in the evening, so my ISO is only 250). I wanted a bit more detail in the dirt that was flying, but I still wanted just a touch of motion blur to give it some energy. I was shooting rapidly during the donut, and this was the best angle of the truck. The momentum on the shocks makes it look like Grave Digger the Legend is growling like a dog. Well, to me anyway. I also cropped out a lot of the audience, I wanted to accentuate the flying motion of the dirt, so I cropped it to a more extreme horizontal ratio.

Cheerleaders, on a monster truck
Shutter: 1/125, Aperture: f/4.5, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

No real special technique here. I just want to point out the awesome trifecta here. You have Baltimore Ravens Cheerleaders, riding around in a monster truck, shooting t-shirts from a canon. You’re welcome.

El Toro Loco
Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

I wasn’t feeling challenged any longer with the slow shutter effect, I wanted to try something a bit more risky, so the reward would be greater. I figured I had fulfilled my checklist of getting a good solid action-shot of each truck, now I could afford to fool around a bit. I experimented with shutter speed, and with zooming all the way in, or starting tight and zooming out while clicking. The trickiest part for me was the in-focus part is so slim, if you jerk the camera at all, you’re zooming in on the wrong part. Check out this next pic.

Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

If I hadn’t moved the camera, away from the truck while zooming, I think this could have been the best one. The zoom lines are much more aggressive, and the framing was alright. But alas, the focus is all on the wreckage. Which isn’t terrible, but it’s clearly not the subject I was going after. Also around this time I thought I’d have more luck if I started zoomed in and then zoomed out while clicking. I felt like that method would be a bit smoother and not jerk the camera too much.

Grave Digger
Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 800

I love constantly challenging myself. I didn’t quite master the spin-zoom, so I will keep working on that. One thing that could make it easier is to start with stationary object. These trucks were driving and jumping around, but you can’t tell once you use that effect. It definitely can add movement when there isn’t any inherently, so if there is movement, I’d adjust your expectations. I’d never tell you not to try something. Point is, all I wanted was a picture of a truck in the frame when a fireball went off. There was a certain timing I learned so I knew when they were coming, but most of the time the truck was too far away from the fireball when it went off to give me a good pic. Also, I was in the press box (not complaining) and there was a large seam in the soundproof glass, and a lot of times the truck would be split by that seam when the fireball did go off. But then near the end I got this shot, and I love it. There’s nothing more going on than any of the other times, but the slower shutter speed (I was in the process of getting that dragged shutter look) and the white balance make it look like Grave Digger is surrounded in flames. Nice!

Iron Man racing Grave Digger the Legend
Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 250

Here’s another shot where I got lucky with timing. I have Iron Man as my intended focus, but his competitor, Grave Digger the Legend is blurry. This type of shot tells a lot more story, journalistically, and gives the shot a bit more motion. I love shooting monster trucks, and I hope my son doesn’t outgrow them before I do. Check out my gallery below for a lot more cool shots. And stomp over to MonsterJam.com to see the next time they’re coming near you.

I like setting outlandish goals for myself (like shooting Miss America) and then figuring out how to get there, step by step. New goal? I want to shoot Monster Jam, on behalf of Feld Entertainment… with a bonafide pit pass to get photos from the dirt, and contribute to their official library of images. That would be awesome.

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