It was a crazy idea -- shooting motor sports with an iPhone4. Anyone who's ever used the iPhone's camera would tell you that it can't be done -- it's too slow, too inflexible, too cumbersome. And they'd be right. Out of the box, the iPhone's camera is crippled.
A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded the QuickPix app, and it changed the camera (and my thinking) completely. QuickPix cures most of what ails the iPhone's camera -- it speeds it up, allows you to shoot bursts, and gives you control over the exposure. It also infected my mind, and I began to have ridiculous dreams. Cover a drag race with an iPhone? Well, ok, I said to myself. Let's see what happens at the American Drag Racing League's [ADRL] race at Maple Grove Raceway.
Richie Stevens, Jr., performs a burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011. (All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2011. Click on any image to see a larger version.)
The first things to say is, yes, you can shoot drag racing with an iPhone4 and the QuickPix app. There are some limits, of course (I'll get to those in a minute), but the overall results blew me away. They were far better than I dared to hope. (Remember, you can click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
Richie Stevens, Jr., continues his burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
A couple of factors allowed my to indulge my iPhone fastasies. First, I also had my big ol' DSLR's and big ol' lenses with me. I shot with them about half the time. Second, I was working for East Coast Drag News, last weekend, and Dave Bishop, the editor was there, too, cameras in hand.
Matt Guenther's team works on his car in the pits, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
So, I had the freedom to find out just what an iPhone could do trackside, in the pits, and around the grounds.
Joey Martin's '55 Chevy Nomad, in the pits, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
The Maple Grove race was a good test of the camera's (and apps') capabilities. The Pro Mods that race on the ADRL circuit are some of the quickest (measured by acceleration) and fastest (measured by top speed) on the planet. Racing on an 1/8th mile track , cars like Joey Martin's Nomad can reach the finish line in 3 and a half seconds, at a speed of 210 miles per hour. To give you an idea of just how staggering those numbers are... A quarter million dollar Ferrari -- one of the quickest road cars in the world -- would take over twice as long and would be going less than half a fast.
Looking like cartoon versions of cars that you might see on the street, Pro Mods are also visually appealing.
The hood of Frankie Taylor's Extreme 10.5 race car, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Racers are well aware of both the ferocity and the cartoonishness of their cars.
A car being worked on in the pits, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
The cars, by the way, are technological wonders. It takes a lot of money and talent to keep them moving.
By the way, here you can see the QuickPix app's strong points. It allowed me to adjust the exposure in this shot, something that can't be done with Apple's iPhone software. The iPhone's meter was initially confused by the bright outside light and the relative darkness, under the awning. The mechanics could hardly be seen.
Joshua Hernandez (center) and his team in the pits, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Members of Bert Jackson's and Larry O'Brien's teams in the staging lanes, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Here's another example of the flexibility of the QuickPix app. Facing into the brightness of the sun, the camera initially left the two men in deep shadow. I changed the exposure to reveal their faces.
Clearly, there's not a lot of latitude in an iPhone image. The highlights here are lost. But what's more important is the way that the subjects are exposed.
Steven Boone performs a burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Not surprisingly, the iPhone performs best in ideal conditions -- bright light behind the camera. What's more interesting, however, is it's ability to shoot quickly enough to capture fast action. Here and in all of the trackside shots, I was making use of QuickPix apps' lack of shutter lag -- it's nonexistant -- and ability to shoot bursts at two frames per second.
Kim Morrell performs a burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
This image was over-exposed. That's my fault. I was overly aggressive when I adjusted the exposure. In my defense, I'll say that it's hard to see the iPhone's screen in bright sunlight.
By the way, Kim Morrell (yes, she's a she) is the reigning ADRL Pro Extreme Motorcyle champion.
A crew member guides Bob Rahaim back to the starting line, after a burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Mahana Al-Naemi (near lane) and Joe Dunne (far lane) race down the track, during qualifying, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
To get this shot, I was shooting a burst at 2 frames per second and panning the iPhone (that is, swinging the camera to follow the cars). I caught the action at the perfect moment, with both cars in the frame, just as they pass the "Christmas tree."
Panning creates an interesting effect, which I can't explain. Not only is the background blurred (some that you would see in a photo made by a conventional DSLR), but the static elements are leaning in the direction of the pan (something that you don't see in a DSLR photo). You can see this effect some of the other photos on this page, as well.)
I know that this has something to do with the type of shutter that the iPhone uses. That's all I know, however. I'll be grateful if someone can supply the details. (Well, that was fast. Josh, who works for Two Teeth Technologies, QuickPix's developer, just left a clear, detailed explanation. Scroll all the way down to read it.)
Update, 17 May 2011: Josh has now blogged about the "leaning" effect. He describes why it happens, how to create it, and how to avoid it. It's a fascinating read. You can find it on the Two Teeth Technologies blog, here.
A Marine high school ROTC honor guard, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Photogs (the grizzled veteran is the legendary Roger Richards), Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Here's another example of QuickPix's ability to deal with harsh backlighting. I adjusted the exposure to reveal the photographers' faces.
Vendors, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Rain stopped the racing, late in the day. That gave me a chance to wander through the midway and make a new friend.
A reporter interviews a racer, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
A motorcycle racer performs a burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
Ok, now let's talk about some of the downsides of shooting drag racing with an iPhone.
QuickPix or no QuickPix, the camera still has a tiny sensor, with a limited dynamic range. It produces a 5 megapixel image, which is marginal for cropping and not suited for magazines or for making large prints. The iPhone's screen is very hard to see in sunlight, making it difficult to judge exposures. I badly over-exposed the photo above. What you see is the result of trying to save it in Lightroom. It's nice and arty, but sometimes arty isn't what you want.
Anybody who shoots action sports is also going to get frustrated with a maximum frame rate of 2 per second.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that drag racing is the only motor sport that's suited to the iPhone's wide-angle, 28mm (equivalent) lens. Unlike road courses and circle track racing, drag racing photographers can get close enough to the cars to fill the frame, when shooting wide. Sometimes, I was no more than ten feet from the cars and bikes.
But even drag racing photographers can't survive on a steady diet of wide shots. We often shoot long -- very long, 300mm and up -- and you just can't do that with an iPhone.
Mick Snyder performs a burnout, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
So, will I take the iPhone back to the track? More to the point, will I continue to shoot race cars with it?
Yes, indeed. It's a lot of fun and the photos are often surprisingly good -- if the light is right and the photos are intended for the web or newsprint. iPhoneography is no joke.
But the limitations are real. My main battle cameras will remain my Nikon DSLRs. (At least until the iPhone5 arrives, with its 16 megapixel sensor and 24 to 300/2.8 zoom.)
Todd Tutterow burns out, Maple Grove Raceway, 7 May 2011.
* * *
Here's Josh's explanation of the leaning "Christmas Tree": The "leaning" you see is caused by the iPhone sensor having a rolling shutter rather than a global shutter. With a global shutter, all pixels in the image are capture at the exact same time so you wouldn't see this effect. With a rolling shutter, each line of the image is captured one at a time. So the first line is captured right away, then the second, third and so on. Some time later, although not long, the last line of the image is captured and the photo is complete. So if the camera is moving, the first line will be from the initial position of the camera. The last line will be from another position. This is what causes the leaning effect. You can see this obviously by holding the camera in portrait mode and moving it up and down. You should see a slanting to the left and then to the right as you move.