Motorsport Photography Explained

Motorsport Photography Explained

Motorsport is naturally exciting due to the high speed and potential incidents that may occur, as such it can offer some wonderful photography opportunities.  There are a few rules and tips which should be understood and followed if you are to make the most of your day at the races…..

motorsport photography

Motorsport involves many different elements and obstacles that should to be taken into consideration including;

  • Weather – As pretty much all motorsport is conducted outside the weather is a factor that can make or break your shoot.  It is entirely possible to capture a great set of photographs in the rain, it may even be that this adverse weather adds a whole new perspective to your images with the added features of the splashing ground water as the cars/bikes etc race over it or the additional texture of the rain beating down on the paintwork of the car/bike bodies.  In order to be prepared to get shots in this weather as well as sunshine you should consider waterproof clothing, waterproof housing/cover for your camera, a faster lens as the light will no doubt be not as good as a bright sunshiny day.
  • Crowds – Depending on the popularity of the venue, crowds of spectators can be a major factor in whether you get anywhere near to the track or not and as such it is worth getting to the race VERY early in order to get the best spot.
  • Security – Large gatherings and busy cramped crowds will inevitably mean that there will be a few opportunists who will quite happily steal any equipment of yours that they feel they may get a few quid for.  If you need to take a lot of kit then try and pack it into as fewer bags as possible and also try to secure the zips or fasteners in some way so as not to make it too easy for any would be thief.  One thing I do on my camera bag is to use the clip on my Spudz lens cleaning cloth to connect the 2 zips, this way it would take someone longer to open and they would also have to use both hands and as such look pretty obvious.  If you are standing by your bag taking shots then I usually put one foot through the strap so that the bag cannot simply be picked up as someone walks by.
  • Timetable – With a lot of race days there will be a variety of different classes racing throughout the time that you are there, you will probably want to get shots of all of the races but if you are there for a specific class or race then be sure to check what time it is on, if the race you have waited for starts and you suddenly become desperate for the toilet then you have wasted your day (sounds obvious but it could happen!).
  • Equipment – Take plenty of spare batteries and also memory, with motorsport it is best to shoot in bursts so as to increase the chances of a great shot, this has the knock on effect of using a lot of battery power and memory!  Other equipment to be sure to take is a tripod/monopod and DSLR camera (not point and shoot, I’ll explain further down the article).
  • Position – If you have a chance it is also recommended to visit the track beforehand (maybe for a smaller (cheaper) event so that you can scout out the best spots around the track and decide on the lenses that you feel you will require based on the distance that you are from the action and the rough speed that you feel the cars/bikes will be travelling past your position (slower on corners, faster on straights etc).  Also try to position yourself in front of any gaps in the fence (for obvious reasons) however, if you are unable to do this then there are ways to minimise the fence’s presence in images which I will explain further down the article.
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Planning a motorsport shoot

Taking photos of fast moving objects invariably requires a fast shutter speed, this however can also have drawbacks as the cars can look static as opposed to portraying the sense of speed that you experience when watching the action first hand.  In order to capture the car/bike in sharp focus but blur the background (and therefore achieve the portrayal of speed) you will need to introduce ‘panning’ to your photography, to do this successfully there are some simple tips to follow;
  1. Before the shot find a position on the track that has an interesting background (even if this is to be blurred for the shot).  Backdrops with varying colour or textures are a good start but should not be too prominent as to overpower or draw the eye from the subject, this is really up to you.
  2. Use a monopod or tripod if you have one as this will allow you to swing the camera round smoothly, following the action.  It is also worth making sure that when the camera is turned on the tripod that it is level so as not to end the shot pointing at the floor.
  3. Try not to zoom is too much, if the car/bike takes up most of the frame then it will be tricky keeping this all in view and you may end up cutting part of your subject out of the photograph.
  4. Use a shutter speed from 1/25 second to 1/500 second depending on your confidence and effect you wish to achieve (the slower the shutter speed the more ‘blur’ you will achieve but it will also be harder to get a good focussed shot.
  5. Using a wide aperture such as F2.8-F5 will not only enable you to increase the shutter speed but also create a shallower depth of field and bring the subject to the front of the image.
  6. Set the focus to manual and use a spot on the track where the cars will pass as your focus point (generally most racing follows a line on the track so this should be easy to decide).  Once you have the desired focus range, lock the focus.
  7. Stand with your legs slightly apart so that you can pivot without losing your balance.
  8. If you are able to have the car in your frame as soon as you can and follow it down the track to the point at which you wish to take the shot.
  9. Once you press the shutter release smoothly follow the car for the duration of the exposure, the more smoothly you can do this the better.
If you start with a slightly faster shutter speed and practice for a few shots then, once you are achieving the results you want, you can start to reduce the shutter speed to increase the blurred effect.
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Vantage Point for motorsport photography

Where you choose to take your photographs from is of course completely up to you.  Whether you stay in the same spot for the entire race or move around will be dictated by the type of ticket you have, how busy the day is and the view of the track from different areas.

  • Standing along a straight will allow shots of the action from a side view and also from a diagonal view as the cars/bikes approach and move away from you.  This position gives a lot of flexibility regarding the images but will also require room to take the shots from different angles and also pan to capture the action as it goes past you.
  • Standing at the end of the straight will allow you to capture images of the cars/bikes coming towards you directly and also as they slow for and move around the first corner.  As the racing slows for the corner this will allow slightly more time to capture the action, should prove easier to hone your panning skills and also may provide some action shots of crashes and overtakes.
  • Positioning yourself on the pit straight will not only allow the same advantages as any other straight on the track but may also provide access to the driver award ceremony at the end, the pit lane and the starting grid.
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If you are able to get above the action then you will inadvertently have a view to more of the track than if you were at ground level.  Grand stands offer this vantage point however you will require a telephoto lens and also be able to get a clear shot of the action from behind the crowd (unless you want your images to include the crowd or are at the front of the audience).
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Camera Settings for great motorsport photos

  • Setting a wide aperture (F2.8 to F5) will allow for faster shutter speeds without the image being too dark.  This will also help if you are stuck behind a fence as using a wide aperture and focusing past the fence will almost completely eliminate it from the image.
  • Setting a higher ISO (if required) will enable faster shutter speeds to catch the action, be careful of ‘graininess’ in your images with high ISO settings.
  • Manual focus and focus lock when happy.
  • If not panning then shoot in bursts to increase the chances of a great action shot.
  • Preferably shoot in shutter priority mode and adjust the aperture/ISO based on a few test shots BEFORE the action starts.
  • In an ideal world you will need a lens from 300mm upwards however, I have attended F1 races with a Tamron 70-300mm and come away with shots I was happy with.  If you have a couple of different lenses then all the better as this allows a greater flexibility when shooting, if you don’t then it’s not a big deal as you can always buy more with the money from your action shots!! ;)

motorsport photography

Perspective/Variety of photos

Try and mix up your shots a bit, having the same composition for all your images will start to get a bit tedious.  Tilting the camera in line with a corner/curve will create additional interest within the shot as will taking the photographs from different vantage points.
During post processing experiment with monochrome, lighting effects and other filters as these elements can offer great variety in a gallery of photographs.
As well as taking shots of the action there are plenty of other interesting subjects to capture such as sideshows, characters in the crowd, flags being waved, marshals and  events being held around the track such as bungee jumping and concerts.

Remain Ready for great photos

In any fast paced sport it is easy to miss the perfect shot through simply not being ready.  When moving between shots or even having a quick drink or something to eat, remember to keep the camera switched on and ready for use, you’ll regret it if you don’t and it’s a small thing to do!

Useful links for race timetables

With all photography shoots I recommend taking a friend that is also interested in photography as you will invariably get differing shots and perspectives which you can compare and critique to help you both improve on your next shoot, plus it’s a great excuse for a day out with a mate and a few beers and hotdogs!”

So, all there is to do is get some tickets, get there early, get some shots…..good luck and enjoy! ;)

motorsport photography

f1 photography

motorsport photography

british grand prix

motorsport photography

british grand prix

Full gallery can be found here.

Written by Barry Chignell

I believe that advice should be free, with this in mind FPR contains over 500 photography articles covering all aspects of the photography world, from Wedding Photography to HDR and interviews from online retailers to professional photographers. I am always interested to hear from anyone in the profession regarding new and exciting ideas and ventures and am happy to help photographers publicise their work. If you would like to discuss your photography and how FPR can help, email me at bchignell@gmail.com.

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