Frits van Eldik has shot all the world's major motorsports events, but one ambition remained unfulfilled. While taking action shots trackside, the Canon Ambassador dreamed of photographing the Monaco Grand Prix from mountains outside the city, in shots that place the race within the broader context of the city's spectacular location.
The Monaco Grand Prix is one of the world's most glamorous and exciting motor racing events, unfolding on a challenging circuit that winds through Monaco's maze-like streets, close to its opulent, yacht-filled harbour on the Mediterranean coast.
"Monaco is a very special event, because the whole world is watching," says Dutch motorsport photographer Frits. "Even people who have no idea about Formula 1 know about the Monaco Grand Prix. For photographers, it's always a hassle to get clearance from local security, and you often need to have big discussions before you start shooting. But when you're working trackside, it's a marvellous place to take pictures."
However, while doing this varied work, Frits has hankered after completing one particular project that he conceived while driving around the city. "Monaco is always such a hectic place at the time of the Grand Prix," says Frits. "I like to drive as high as possible around Monaco. One mountain has a beautiful view over the city, and I go there to relax with a pizza and a drink.
"When you look down from that point you can see part of the race track, and I always had in mind that I wanted to shoot the Grand Prix from there. I wanted to show the boats in the harbour and in the grandstands filled with people. The problem is that it's about 2.3km away and the cars would look very small. So I had to photograph it at the start, so the cars would be all packed together."
Frits knew that if he was on top of the mountain there was no way he could get back to shoot anything of the race itself for his clients. So, over the years, he did his job covering the race from trackside, while imagining the elevated shots he would one day like to take.
Frits wasn't going to give up, though. "If you really want to achieve something, you put all your energy into making it work," he says. So, on the Sunday morning when the race was going to take place, he drove up the mountain and assessed the situation. Although the city was visible, there was a very strong wind that was moving the tripod-mounted cameras so much that he had to consider whether to abort the shoot. Instead, he decided to alter his plans to fit the circumstances.
Instead of shooting with eight lenses, Frits decided to use just four: the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM, the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM and the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM. By setting them at focal lengths of 70mm, 135mm, 200mm and 600mm respectively, he knew he would have two sets of shots at each of those focal lengths. Despite the wind, he hoped at least one of those sets would be sharp.
Each lens was tested to find out the aperture at which it would produce its optimum results for the scene and conditions. Then, each camera was set to a shutter speed of no less than 1/2000 sec to ensure the cars' movement was frozen. The light was poor, so Frits had to increase the cameras' ISO to make a 1/2000 sec shutter speed possible at the aperture he wanted to use.
Frits set the cameras on a high frame rate and removed the lens hoods so they didn't catch the wind so much. He nervously watched the build-up to the race with his binoculars, and finally the moment to start shooting came. As the race started, he used remotes to trigger the eight Canon EOS 5DS R cameras simultaneously. Then, although the big moment was over, he shot a few more laps, but ended the shoot when there were big gaps between the cars and they could hardly be seen in the images.
With his job done, Frits and his team packed up all the gear, jumped in his car and began their journey back to the Netherlands while the race was still on.
"I had all the memory cards, but in the beginning I didn't have the guts to look at the pictures," he admits. "Eventually I looked at them on my laptop and I thought, 'Yes, I've done it!', I'd created an image of the Grand Prix that had never been seen before.
"But although I'd looked forward to this moment for 20 years, I wasn't really excited about seeing the pictures on the screen." The sense of achievement came later, when Frits saw the images as large-scale prints made on a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000 printer. "That was the moment when I really got excited," he says. "When you have a print more than two metres wide, you realise the only way to prove the quality of the camera file is by making a big print. Only then can you see how incredibly detailed it is."
Frits had two Grand Prix prints made: one that was shot with the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm and one shot with the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM. Both were taken at the same moment, right at the start of the race.
"Normally, when a print that size is put on the wall, people step away from it to get a proper view of the image. But in this case you step forward to see everything – the detail is unbelievable. You see people hanging over balconies with their phones to capture the moment, and you see other people having lunch and not even looking at the race. You see sparks coming off the cars and the whole field packed together, but you also see the whole of Monaco. When you see these two prints together and realise they were taken from almost 2.5km away, it's very impressive."
So, after the years of dreaming about the shoot, taking on the last-minute change of plan and seeing the final prints, how does Frits feel? "In the end, it worked really well," he says. "The images look amazing from my point of view. Okay, it could maybe have been a bit better if it was a sunny day, but if it had been 30 degrees I would have had heat haze and possibly cloud at that time of the day. So, the strong wind and the cooler conditions helped me in the end.
"Taking this shot was on my to-do list for a long time. Now I've done it and I'm very happy with it."