Motorsport photography is an exciting and challenging field that requires both technical skills and artistic creativity. When race cars are racing past you within a few feet away, sometimes in excess of 100 MPH, it really gets the blood pumping.
In this guide, I’m going to go over tips and tricks to help you get into photographing race cars at your local track. These tips can be used for all types of racing, including oval, street courses, and even drag racing.
How to Get into Motorsport Photography?
You may have asked yourself, how can I get started with motorsport photography? The answer is quite simple. General fans are typically allowed to bring their cameras into most race events, without credentials, unlike concert photography, which I mentioned in my previous article. Be sure to ask, but this is generally the case.
Most race tracks have great vantage points behind the fence, and as long as you bring a little step stool, you should be fine to see over the catch fences. This is a great way to get a nice portfolio together so that when you apply to cover larger races for publications, you have a variety of past work to show them.
Recommended Gear for Shooting Motorsport Races
To capture motorsport photographs, you need equipment that can handle fast-moving subjects and unpredictable lighting conditions. Here are some equipment recommendations for capturing cars or bikes at a high rate of speed. Again everything here is personal preference, but it is a good starting point.
You’ll need a camera that can shoot in burst mode and has a fast autofocus system. You will see many types of cameras on the track. A high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera is ideal, particularly one with a fantastic autofocus system.
You’ll also want to make sure that your camera has a large buffer system so that it can process a large number of photos taken in a short amount of time via burst mode. I use a Sony A1 but again, this can vary based on the photographer. Make sure to also have a rain cover for your cameras and lenses, as the weather is unpredictable.
A zoom lens for capturing action shots is a must. A 70-200mm lens is a good choice, but you can also use a longer lens, such as a 300mm or 400mm lens, for greater reach on larger tracks. Having a variable zoom lens really gives you an edge because you can adjust your composition on the fly.
Also, be sure to get a fast lens with a wide aperture to take in the most light for an aesthetically pleasing background blur.
I like to use a 100-400, as it gives a nice zoom range for not only shooting motorsports but also other types of sports photography.
Although not always necessary, a monopod can help keep your camera steady and reduce the camera shake in your image. A monopod is also great for helping to alleviate arm and shoulder fatigue, especially with larger, long lens setups. They are also a great tool to use when performing panning shots or keeping the cars in frame coming down straightaway.
You’ll need memory cards with fast write speeds to keep up with the rapid burst shooting. Look for SD cards with a UHS-II rating or higher. These will allow a large amount of photos to be written to the card much faster. This is crucial so that you are not waiting for your camera’s buffer to clear.
Having proper hearing protection is also crucial. I have custom-molded hearing protection, but simple foam earplugs work just fine. Races are extremely loud, so be sure to protect your hearing at all times.
What Do You Do When You Arrive at the Track (No Media Credentials)?
As I said earlier, most tracks allow fans to bring cameras into the events. If you are not credentialed, the first thing I do is get an idea of the layout of the track. This is important so you know which sections of the track have the most action. Also, be sure to pick up a schedule so that you know the race times for the day.
Start by finding a good spot to set up behind the fence and start photographing. Try different settings and techniques to help you capture the perfect shot. Move around the track to different turns that are accessible to fans, and continue to shoot. Focus on capturing photos of cars at different angles and locations around the track. Keep doing this to build up a nice portfolio of motorsport photos for that race. Rinse and repeat for races in your area.
If your ticket includes paddock access, make sure to check that out as well. A paddock is a fancy word for garage, where the teams prep the race cars for the day of high speed racing ahead. It is a great way to get up close and personal with the cars. Just be sure not to go past any roped off sections and not get too close to any particular car.
What Do You Do When You Arrive at the Track (With Media Credentials)?
Once you have a portfolio built up, you can start reaching out to motorsport publications to request media credentials for races. Most larger races require you to be on assignment with a publication. However, some tracks and small events do allow solo freelance photographers.
Typically a week or so before the race, there will be a photo meeting held via Zoom. Some events hold the photo meeting day of the race in person. In the photo meeting, event staff will go over safety, photo rules, the track map, etc. Pay attention! The race track can be a dangerous place, especially with the level of access you receive as credentialed media.
When you arrive at the track on the day of the race, pick up your credentials from the designated area and proceed to the media center to get your gear setup and pick up a photo vest. The photo vest basically tells event staff that you are a credentialed photographer and are allowed inside the fences. Make sure to be wearing it at all times.
With media access, you can get extremely close to the access, usually with only a fence or a barricade between you and a hot track. Never ever go on a hot race track. A hot track is when there is a live race happening. This is extremely foolish and will get you banned from the track for life. Only shoot photos from designated photo holes (breaks in the fence or spots behind barricades). These locations are gone over in the photo meetings.
Be sure to watch out for any flying debris, cars that could possibly collide, etc. Being this close to the track, you need to be ready to get out of the way in a split second. Keep your head on a swivel and never turn your back to the race. Be aware, don’t rest your lens on the wall or fence, and always keep at least one knee off the ground. I’ll see photographers on two knees and always think, what if something bad happens? How will they get out of the way? Always have an escape plan.
If you have any questions, be sure to ask the event staff before making a decision yourself. Everyone is typically very helpful and more than willing to assist. I will even befriend other photographers, especially when shooting at a new track, to learn all of the best spots there. Most photographers are kind and helpful.
Video shooting is typically not allowed unless you are approved by the event to do so. If you are not sure, ask.
Recommended Camera Settings for Motorsport Photography
Settings for motorsport photography are not always set in stone. With a variety of race track environments and stylistic differences among photographers, settings tend to vary for motorsport photographers. The manual mode settings that I have listed below are a great starting point for capturing motorsport images. I prefer manual mode over shutter priority as it gives full control over the camera.
Feel free to experiment and try new things once you become more comfortable shooting race cars. You’ll quickly learn what manual settings you prefer once you have your own unique style.
The shutter speed is one of the most important settings for motorsport photography. A fast shutter speed is necessary to freeze the action and prevent motion blur in an image. Using a fast shutter speed also freezes the action, almost stopping time. This is great for capturing cars in the paddock, cars coming down straightaway, etc.
However, a slower shutter speed will help to create a nice motion blur in your photos. This definitely helps to enhance an image. A good starting point for shutter speed is 1/1000 second. Once you are more comfortable photographing at the track, you can try a technique called panning, which I will go over later in this article. Photographers will use a shutter speed of 1/60 or below to create a severe background blur in their images while keeping the car in focus.
Play around with various shutter speeds and see what works best. The shutter speeds that I use may not work for you, and vice versa.
For motorsport photography, you’ll typically want a shallow depth of field to isolate the subject and blur the background. A good starting point is f/4, but you may need to open up the aperture to f/2.8 or wider for even more bokeh. However, it is not uncommon to see photographers shoot at a narrow depth of field, such as f/16. The reason for this is that when shooting with slow shutter speeds, a lot of light is let in. The narrow aperture helps offset this light, creating a better-exposed subject in your image right out of the camera.
In bright daylight conditions, you’ll typically use a low ISO setting, such as 100 or 200, to maintain a good exposure for your image. In low light conditions or when shooting at night, you’ll need to increase the ISO to a higher setting, such as 800, 1600, or even higher, to capture a clean image. Luckily, most races are during the day, so ISO 100-400 is usually the most used.
Autofocus is essential for capturing sharp images of fast-moving cars or motorcycles. You’ll typically want to use continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode to track the subject as it moves across the frame. This tells the camera to continuously focus on the subject as it speeds down the race track. Personally, I always track the car as it is coming by and never pre-focus. There is too much action happening, and every lap will be different, so predicting where the car will be is difficult.
As mentioned earlier, panning is a technique where you follow the subject with your camera as it moves, creating a sense of motion blur in the background while keeping the car or bike tack sharp. Panning is a popular technique in motorsport photography because it can convey the sense of speed in a still photograph.
Tips for Getting Great Panning Shots
1. Look for a spot on the track where you can see the cars coming towards you and have a clear view of the background. This will give you a nice sense of motion blur with a clean background for the image.
2. To create motion blur, you’ll need a slow shutter speed. Start with a shutter speed of around 1/120 second, especially if you’ve never panned before, and adjust as needed. I have seen photographers go as low as 1/13. The sweet spot for me is around 1/60-1/80.
3. As the car approaches, begin tracking it, with your camera, with a half-press on the shutter button. Keep the car in the center of the frame and continue tracking it as it passes by. I recommend keeping your feet planted and rotating at the hips in a smooth motion. Almost like a golf swing, you want to be smooth and follow through, with no jerking motion to your camera or lens. Smooth is key.
4. To keep the car in focus, use continuous autofocus (AF-C) mode. This will allow the camera to adjust focus as the car moves closer or further away.
5. To increase your chances of getting a sharp shot, use burst mode to capture multiple frames as the car passes by, and as I said, the smoother you are with your rotation and pressing of the shutter button, the better.
6. Panning takes practice to get right, so don’t get discouraged if your first few attempts don’t turn out as you’d hoped. Keep practicing, pan a lot, and you’ll soon get the hang of it. It’s one of those things that, once you get it, the light bulb in your head goes off. Your photos will look better and better the more that you practice.
In conclusion, motorsport photography can be incredibly rewarding to be an arm’s length away from a car while photographing it. Like I said earlier, once credentialed, the amount of access around the track is fantastic. Be responsible and safe but also make sure you’re having a good time and enjoy every lap.
Capturing motorsport photos becomes addicting, and I hope this article helps satisfy your need for speed and becoming a motorsport photographer.