3 Tips for Taking Better Motorsport Photos

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If you’re a fan of motorsport, then you’ve probably tried to take photo of a race car on the track. It’s not as easy as it looks is it? The high speed nature of motorsport photography tests even the best photographers and cameras. So it takes a special skill set to move your motorsport photos up to the next level.

Taking a photo of a car on track is one thing, but if you’d like to add one or more of the following elements to your photos, you’ll start to create some special images. So make sure you keep these three things in mind next time you are at a race track shooting motorsport: speed, action and emotion.

DPS Panning 001

#1 Speed

One of the biggest things that draws people to motorsport is the speed. If you’d like your photos to stand out, you need to showcase that speed in your photos. The photographic technique for doing this is called panning.

Panning is basically using a slow shutter speed to introduce motion blur into your photos. The easiest way to do this, is to focus on a particular point of the car, and move your camera in a smooth motion in the same direction as the car. This will keep the car nice and sharp, and blur out the background.

I would recommend that you start with a shutter speed of around 1/200th of second. As it takes a lot of practice to get a nice smooth motion. As you improve your technique and grow in confidence, you can progress to slower shutter speeds.

DPS Panning 002

Panning is one of the hardest techniques in photography. It takes a lot of practice to get it right. The slower the shutter speed, the less likely you are to get the car sharp in the photo. But the trade off is a more dramatic the effect when you do get it right.

Just remember that not even the professionals get every shot perfect, though they may not admit it. But once you have mastered the art of panning, you can look to add some more creativity to your shots by panning through objects, or using interesting angles.

DPS Panning 003

#2 Action

Getting a photo of one car on track is great. But those action moments are what really tell the story of the race.

Ideally you want to be on the look out for the moments when two or three cars are jostling for position. Usually in the opening laps of a race. Shots of the race leaders fighting for the lead will give your photographic story more definition.

To capture those actions moments, you will want to position yourself at one of the slower corners of the track. One that encourages passing. To do this you’ll need to be familiar with the venue. Each and every track is different.

DPS Action 001

Photographically, you’ll be looking to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. I would recommend using a shutter speed of 1/1000th at a minimum. Although the speed really all depends on how fast the cars are traveling at that section of the track.

Now, since you are freezing the action, you’ll still want to make the cars still look fast. To do this you will need to hide the wheels of the cars. Either shooting the cars directly front on, or from behind. Hiding the lack of motion in the wheels will give the cars a sense of speed, while still showcasing the action.

DPS Action 002

DPS Action 003

#3 Emotion

Motorsport, much like all sports, has high highs and low lows. That is reflected in the emotions you’ll see around the race track.

To complete a photographic story of the race, you’ll need to capture either the fans, teams, or drivers celebrating victory. That could be a victory burnout, it could be driver waving to the crowd, or it could be the team applauding as their driver crosses the checkered flag.

DPS Emotion 001

While the highs are good, the lows also tell an equal part of the story. It could be a crash between two competitors. It could be a driver walking away from his broken down car. These all add up to telling the story of the race.

Unfortunately, it takes a little bit of luck to capture the emotion in motorsport. That’s why these shots are the most rewarding.

Photographically these emotional moments take split second decisions to capture. If you’re photographing a driver doing a burnout, you’ll need to quickly drop the shutter speed to showcase some motion in the wheels. but not so much that the car starts the blur. I’d suggest something along the lines of 1/250th.

For capturing other celebrations, which are often just fleeting moments. I’d recommend a high shutter speed and wide aperture to create shallow depth of field to draw focus to the part of the celebration that tells the best story.

DPS Emotion 002

Summary

If you can keep those three things in mind while you are taking photos trackside, you’ll take your motorsport photos to the next level. Then you’ll really telling the story of an event, instead of just capturing cars on a track.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rhys Vandersyde is an Australian based motorsport and automotive Photographer. Documenting his travels as he covers events all over Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more about his photography portfolio and his travels.

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  • rvandersyde

    Nice work! That’s a great example of panning.

  • rvandersyde

    Another great example of panning. Well done!

  • Markallison22

    Another example of panning

  • Markallison22

    Here’s another one, travelling a bit faster than the bike below 🙂

  • rvandersyde

    Well done. Capturing Formula 1 cars as speed is a good challenge.

  • rvandersyde

    Nice application of panning outside of Motorsport. It’s a good skill to have in the repertoire.

  • Vincent Chiaro

    What camera settings do you recommend for panning? This is what I’d tried…

    Shutter Priority – set to around 1/160 to 1/200th
    ISO – 100-400 depending on light
    AI SERVO mode
    All focus points active
    High speed continuous

    Anything else?

  • rvandersyde

    AI Servo is great for incoming and outgoing cars. So shooting cars either front or rear. When panning, particularly with a shutter speed of 1/160th or less, I recommend pre-focusing. You should have a fairly narrow aperture, should give you enough focus cover a moving target. Otherwise the settings are fine, it’s just about having a smooth technique.

  • Vincent Chiaro

    Awesome, thanks for the tip! I recently switched to back button focusing so pre-focusing will be easy to try out in this situation.

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