Watching an air race is mesmerizing, but photographing one is a workout

With blue skies, light winds, and temperatures in the low 70s, we couldn’t have asked for better conditions for an air race than what we had in San Diego, California over the weekend. The second event in the 2017 Red Bull Air Race World Championship, held Saturday and Sunday, brought the high-speed, low-altitude action back to Southern California for the first time in eight years. We were invited by Red Bull to take part in the event (as media, of course, not pilots), where we tried out our photography skills on low-flying, fast-moving planes. The race track was set up over the bay, identified by inflatable white and red pylons that dotted the blue surface of the water. As the planes dropped over the San Diego-Coronado Bridge to enter the course at 200 knots, it was the job of the photographers stationed on the media boat to simply keep up.

For safety reasons, a 500-foot buffer zone was maintained around the race track, but the media boat was allowed the cross into this area (you can read more about the safety measures). As such, we occasionally found ourselves a literal stone’s throw away from the No. 7 pylon at the end of the course, where pilots would pull up hard into a vertical turning maneuver, the screaming engines of their aircraft momentarily drowning out every other sound. At this distance, keeping the planes lined up in a camera’s viewfinder — especially when shooting with a long lens — was incredibly difficult.

photographing red bull air race canon t7i san diego 11
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Not bringing a monopod was a rookie mistake, but we were able to consistently pull off sharp photos.

The motion from the boat rocking back and forth in the waves provided another challenge, especially as we were shooting handheld. Not bringing a monopod for the Sigma 150-600mm lens we were using was a rookie mistake, but with a little practice, we were able to consistently pull off sharp photos. It helped that we had two days of racing and a full day of practice to nail down our technique and camera settings, but shooting fast-moving subjects from a moving platform at an equivalent of 960mm never got easy.

However, this task is simpler today than it would have been a few years ago. While other members of the press were weighed down with full-frame sports cameras like the Nikon D5 and large telephoto lenses, we made due with a Canon Rebel T7i — an entry-level consumer DSLR — and the relatively compact Canon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 (amateur) and Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport (pro) lenses. We will have a full hands-on report on the gear soon, but for now, suffice it to say that we were surprisingly impressed with the results we got from an entry-level DSLR. The camera doesn’t make the photographer, but when autofocus and burst rate can keep up with the action, it sure makes things easier.

By the end of the weekend, we photographers stepped off the boat with sunburns, aching backs, and tired feet — but also with big smiles. For most, photographing an air race is a rare opportunity — for some, it’s once-in-a-lifetime. It was tremendously challenging, but equally rewarding, and made for an experience we won’t soon forget.

The Red Bull Air Race heads to Chiba, Japan, next on the 2017 circuit, while the final race will return stateside on October 14-15, in Indianapolis.

Editors’ note: We were guests of Red Bull, but all opinions are our own.

Product Review

AKG's signature studio sound goes straight to your head with these stunning cans

With gorgeous looks and great sound, AKG’s N700NC are a formidable entry into the wireless noise-canceling headphone race. We put them to the test to see if they can beat out the absolute best in the business.
Photography

From DSLRs to mirrorless, these are the best cameras you can buy right now

From entry-level models to full-frame flagships, many cameras take great photos and video. The best digital cameras, however, push the industry forward with innovative sensors and improved usability, among other things. Here are our…
Cars

Nissan and Italdesign’s GT-R50 concept will become a $1.1 million reality

The Nissan GT-R50 is a customized sports car built to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of both the GT-R and design firm Italdesign. Underneath the sleek bodywork sits a 710-horsepower engine fortified with race car components.
Cars

Volkswagen may be planning a tougher challenge for its all-electric I.D. R

The Volkswagen I.D. R electric race car may head to the Nürburgring in 2019 for a lap-record attempt, according to a new report. Volkswagen will reportedly aim to set the quickest lap time ever by an electric car.
Photography

The best mirrorless cameras pack all the power of a DSLR, minus the bulk

Mirrorless cameras offer a lot of photography firepower, inside a compact body. Explore the best mirrorless cameras, from the pro-level to the beginner-friendly shooters, in this guide.
Photography

Photography News: Startup redesigns tripod heads ‘inside out’ for more flexibility

Well, this doesn't look like the ball heads that we've seen before. Instead of designing a tripod ball head with a small cutout, the Colorado Tripod Company created one with most of the ball exposed, allowing for more possible angles.
Photography

MIT science photographer isn’t an artist, but her work could fill galleries

Felice Frankel is an award-winning photographer, but she doesn't consider herself an artist. As a science photographer, she has been helping researchers better communicate their ideas for nearly three decades with eye-catching imagery.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Photography

Leica targets street photographers with a pricey camera bundle

Described by the camera company as "your perfect companion in the city," Leica's Street Kit comprises a Leica CL camera body, a 23mm (35mm full-frame equivalent) F2 lens, batteries, a handgrip, and a black leather carrying strap.
Product Review

Meet Z6, the breakout star in Nikon's new mirrorless lineup

The Nikon Z6 is the sibling to the new mirrorless Z7 -- but for some photographers, the cheaper Z6 may be the better option. Read where the $2,000 camera beats the $3,400 one (and where it doesn’t) in our Nikon Z6 review.
Social Media

Snapchat facial recognition could soon power a new portrait mode, code suggests

Digging into Snapchat's code suggests a handful of upcoming camera features, including a portrait mode. The feature appears to use facial recognition A.I. to blur the background. The code also suggests an updated camera interface.
Social Media

#ThrowbackThursday is only the start: Instagram hashtags for every day of the week

Not getting your hashtag fill with #ThrowbackThursday or #ManCrushMonday? Here's a list of some of the more popular Instagram hashtags, so you can outfit your next post with the proper tag, regardless of what day it is.
Photography

Photographers can now customize the layout of Lightroom Classic controls

Tired of scrolling past Lightroom tools that you don't use? Adobe Lightroom Classic now allows users to reorganize the Develop panel. The update comes along with new sharing options in Lightroom CC, and updates to the mobile Lightroom app.
Social Media

Instagram could be making a special type of account for influencers

Instagram influencers fall somewhere between a business profile and a typical Instagram, so the company is working on developing a type of account just for creators. The new account type would give creators more access to analytical data.