The big race picture: photographing the Monaco Grand Prix from 2km away, with a Canon EOS 5DS R

An aerial view of the start of the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix, photographed from a distance by Frits van Eldik using a Canon EOS 5DS R camera.
Frits van Eldik captured breathtaking detail photographing the start of the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix from a mountaintop more than 2km away. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens at 200mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO800. © Frits van Eldik

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."

Frits van Eldik looks through the viewfinder of one of four Canon EOS 5DS R cameras mounted on a rig on a mountaintop overlooking Monaco.
Frits took his position on a mountaintop overlooking Monaco, with banks of Canon EOS 5DS R cameras fitted with different lenses. © Jip Barth Fotografie
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Frits has had more big-race experience than most photographers. After deciding he wanted to be a motorsports photographer at the age of 11, he shot his first Grand Prix in 1989 and has regularly shot major races ever since, including the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24-Hour Race.

As the son of a garage owner who was also a keen photographer, Frits was attracted to this work by a similar dual passion for cars and photography. Today, he still loves the variety his job involves. "Motorsports photography has all kinds of photography in it," he says.

"In a day, or even a short session, you are an action photographer, you also do landscapes, you shoot portraits, you are a news photographer, you are a paparazzo running after celebrities. That's what I like about the kind of photography I'm doing."
An aerial view looking down over Monaco, with the edge of a rock out of focus in the near foreground. Photo by Frits van Eldik with a Canon EOS 5DS R.
The view from the mountaintop using a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at a focal length of 55mm. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 55mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4.0 and ISO200. © Frits van Eldik

Shooting action from a distance

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.

Canon EOS 5DS R cameras on a mountaintop looking out towards Monaco in the distance.
Frits's bank of Canon EOS 5DS R cameras demonstrated their impressive resolution, capturing detail that couldn't be seen with the naked eye. © Jip Barth Fotografie
A low-light photo from the rear of the racing car driven by Fernando Alonso, its brake lights emitting a red glow on the wet track.

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That dream became more possible when the 50-megapixel Canon EOS 5DS R was released in 2015. Frits realised he could now shoot from the mountain and, in combination with specific lenses, create files that could be made into large-scale prints that would show the detail he wanted in the scene. So in 2018, he decided to give up all other work at the Monaco Grand Prix that year and concentrate on shooting the start of the race from the mountain viewpoint.

But which lens should he use? "When you look down and see the whole of Monaco, it is nice with a 17mm lens but it's also nice with a 600mm – and everything in between," he says. "If I was going to skip all my projects for the whole weekend, I wanted to do it as well as possible. So I decided I would have eight cameras shooting at the same time from the same point of view with eight different lenses, to make sure I capture that one moment."

In the days immediately before the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix, Frits asked his crew to take the equipment to the mountaintop viewpoint and make sure it was safe and secure. But the news they gave him wasn't good. Every day, clouds formed over the sea, drifted towards the land and completely obscured the city.
Photographer Frits van Eldik stands on a rocky outcrop, with cameras mounted on rigs beside him, looking to one side with binoculars.
Frits at his post awaiting the start of the race, with clouds rolling in from the sea. © Jip Barth Fotografie

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.

Picking lenses and focal lengths

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.

Eight Canon EOS 5DS R cameras mounted on rigs stand on a high mountaintop viewpoint, with only the open ocean visible behind.
Frits's banks of cameras were in such an exposed position, he had to attach water bottles for ballast and remove their lens hoods to help prevent the wind catching them. © Jip Barth Fotografie

Printing the big picture

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."

An aerial view of the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix taken with a Canon telephoto lens. Photo by Frits van Eldik with a Canon EOS 5DS R.
With a 600mm lens, even from more than 2km away, Frits captured astonishing detail of the cars, the streets and the crowds watching from the city's balconies. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/5.6, ISO800. © Frits van Eldik

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."

Autor David Clark

Frits Van Eldik's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The contents of motorsports photographer Frits van Eldik's kitbag, including 14 Canon camera bodies and several telephoto lenses.


Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail. The ultra-high resolution enables extensive cropping and still delivers sharp image quality.


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

A modern classic, this fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens is a favourite with photographers in virtually every genre. It’s now even better in bright light, and engineered to perform in the most challenging conditions.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. A four-stop Image Stabilizer maximises sharpness. Instinctive controls enhance handling.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM

A high-magnification super-telephoto lens featuring integrated Image Stabilizer technology and a fast f/4 maximum aperture. Perfect for wildlife, nature and sports photographers working in the field.


Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4000

Delivers stunning quality prints on media up to 44 inches. The LUCIA PRO 12-colour Ink system and 1.28-inch print head ensure vivid colours, deep blacks, fast print speeds and superb quality. "The detail is unbelievable," says Frits.

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