Rallye Perce Neige Intro
The first round of the 2018 Canadian Rally Championship is now over. Rallye Perce Neige ran in Maniwaki, Quebec the first weekend of February, and I was part of the official series media contingent sent to cover it. Up until last year, Perce Neige was the only proper winter rally in the Canadian Championship series. Now, Big White Winter Rally bookends the series, but Perce Neige is still known for brutal conditions, long stages (Kitigan Zibi is 40 km, and the total event has 233 km of racing), and a very long day. As media, I found myself on the first stage of the day by 7:30 in the morning, and finally sat down for dinner after the podium at 12:30 am the next day. Single day rallies are notorious for starting early and finishing late, and Perce Neige is pretty epic in that regard.
Part of the challenge of photographing any rally involves sorting out the logistics of getting around, being in position at the correct time, and staying safe while doing all of this. Many of the stages used this year are repeats but this time the organizers shuffled the order of a few stages in the morning and changed the direction of Kitigan Zibi, in order to shorten the amount of transit driving the teams needed to do. The knock on effect of this is that I had less time to move from stage to stage since once car “00” drives through a stage, the route is considered “hot” and traffic is no longer allowed. Typically, media need to be in position as much as an hour before car “0”, and with the shorter transit times involved, doing this was more difficult than last year. It is never possible to photograph every stage. Some stages have transit times of just a few minutes, so by the time you are free to leave your position the next stage has already been raced. Knowing where to go and what stages are important is a matter of experience and, to a degree, luck. Safety is paramount. Because of these factors, it is important to conduct your own “recce”, usually the day before the race, when you drive the stages yourself in order to find your best spots. When I do this, I track my time and my distance driven in order to determine if my movement plan is feasible. This movement plan needs to be submitted to the marshal for the rally. This holds me accountable, and provides them with a document indicating where I will be, and when.
Still, be ready to make adjustments and improvise. I had planned on photographing EC1, EC3, and EC5. EC5 was the second pass of Blue Sea, but it was converted to a transit stage because on EC2 (the first pass of Blue Sea), Nick Laverdiere and Vince Trudel cut a telephone pole in half with their car when they slid wide on a long left hander at full speed. That also put them out of the rally.
Working in the Cold
Rallye Perce Neige happens in North/Central Quebec. On the first stage of the day, the temperature gauge in my car showed -31 degrees C. At this temperature, camera equipment can encounter problems. Lithium ion batteries deliver a lot of power in a small package, but they do not handle cold as well as older lead acid technology. The Nikon D810 is pretty good at dealing with cold temperatures, but I still made sure to have extra batteries. I also kept them warm throughout the day by storing them in the chest pocket of the fleece I wore under my parka. Batteries that are stored in sub zero temperatures will lose power even when they are not used. While it is possible to get away with poor battery storage technique, anything can happen in a rally. Stages get delayed. Cars go off, medical emergencies happen, and radio communications break down. Be prepared for this.
Be careful when bringing your gear in from the cold. At Rallye Perce Neige, there was a heated tent in the Service Park provided by Subaru. Some of the in town stages are tantalizingly close to hotels, or fast food restaurants. It is tempting to quickly duck in and grab a coffee and poach the free wifi, but if you do this and open your cold camera bag, the warm air in the restaurant will condense on the cold surfaces, potentially causing problems. When you go back outside this condensation will freeze leaving you with an frosty, icy mess. Deal with this problem by putting your camera in a sealed plastic bag before you enter a warm area. That way, the camera can warm up without the humidity condensing on it.
For larger batteries, like strobe batteries, you may not have pockets large enough to store them. In those cases, I use two pairs of socks. The first pair fits over the battery, and the second pair fits over the first pair. Between the two pairs of socks I place hand warmers. The first sock prevents the hand warmer from touching the battery directly. I find that this system works well enough to enable me to shoot long into the night stages. The alternative is to use lead acid batteries, the same technology used in a car battery, but these types of batteries are quite heavy and may not be suitable for using on stages when you have to hike in several kilometers in order to get to your position. It is not always possible to park your car near your position.
Even lenses and tripods will freeze up. Fluid pan heads on video cameras can get slushy, and zoom and focus rings on lenses can become really stiff. For lenses, a lens coat works well. You can tape heat packs to pan heads to keep them moving well.
I keep my gear safe and sound in either my F-Stop Tilopa or Sukha backpack, depending on how much I am carrying. The Tilopa can really hold a lot of kit, an the Sukha is positively massive.
There is probably no “right” or definitive way to photograph a rally. What focal length you use and what camera settings you choose depends on what the shot is and what you want to achieve. Personally, I find high shutter speed photos dull and uninteresting. The exception to that is when the car is traveling directly towards you. Obviously, this is a long focal length shot (be careful and give yourself room), and a high shutter speed will freeze action without having obvious wheel movement also frozen. For nearly everything else I shoot, I use slower shutter speeds and pan through the movement of the car. This adds a dynamic aspect to the shot, blurs the wheels, and lets dust and snow billow into clouds behind the car. Flying rocks will appear blurred as well. For Rallye Perce Neige, I generally positioned myself on the inside of corners, and panned cars as they slid by. There were very few safe opportunities to photograph cars head on, and so this was not a consideration for me. Canadian rally is often in heavily wooded areas so this is often the case. Rocky Mountain Rally and Pacific Forest Rally do offer some longer sight lines and if you are there you are welcome to experiment.
People of Rallye Perce Neige
For me, rally is about more than just cars. I make it a point to visit the service park during at least one of the short service breaks and also to the start of a stage’s ATC (Arrival Time Control)). This gives me an opportunity to photograph service crews working frantically to fix cars, and to photograph drivers and co-drivers up close, while they check tire pressure or talk to other teams. It puts a personal spin on racing. Rally is quite unique in this regard, since in most other motorsport events you are separated from the action by barricades and fences. This has become a priority for me. The nice thing about shooting these areas is that you do not need to enter the stage and thus are not really bound by restrictions imposed by the “one hour before car ‘0’” rule.
I hope that some of this proves useful to photographers looking at getting into photographing rally. It is challenging, but very much worth it. Thanks for reading!