Shooting Motorsports with a Micro Four Thirds Camera

Shooting Motorsports with a Micro Four Thirds Camera


Can you use micro four thirds or other mirrorless cameras to photograph motorsports? Well, the answer is a resounding YES, but with some caveats.

You can certainly make good and interesting images using any camera at a motorsport event. All of the images in this article were made with either a Fujifilm X100S or an Olympus OMD EM-5 and two lenses – the m.Zuiko 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 and the m.Zuiko 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II.

Mft motor sport KLP 1


Perhaps one of the most important things to consider when you intend to photograph motorsports with a micro four thirds camera is the pre-planning you need to do before you actually get to the race track. Think about how you’re going to shoot the event. Remember that professional motorsport photographers use high-end dSLR cameras that are both fast and expensive; their choice of lenses is equally fast and expensive! A typical pro photographer covering motorsport may have two or three camera bodies and a selection of lenses ranging from fisheye to wide angle and telephoto. They could easily have $35-$40,000 worth of camera gear with them at the track – plus their laptop!

Mft motor sport KLP 2

You probably won’t have that amount of gear with you, and if you intend shooting with micro four thirds you definitely won’t. Micro four thirds cameras use different focusing systems to dSLR’s and their lenses are often slower, that is they have smaller maximum apertures, than the typical lenses used by professionals. They’re also slower to lock focus due to the type of focusing system they use.

You’ll need to consider the limitations of the camera system you’re using, as well as many other factors.


Weather will play a big part in how you shoot motorsports. If it’s bright and sunny, you’ll be able to use lower ISOs and higher shutter speeds. Of course, if the sky is overcast and grey, or even stormy, then you might need to raise the ISO or lower the shutter speed. Bright sun creates harsh shadows which also need to be considered when composing your shot, simply because cameras don’t have the same dynamic range that our eyes have. You’ll also have to consider the position of the sun when framing. Even if the sun is coming from behind you, there can often be bright reflections bouncing back towards you and your camera. A few specular highlights on the front fairing of an approaching motorcycle is not usually a problem, but a large super-bright reflection from a sponsor’s sign is certainly going to be distracting and will probably ruin your shot.

Mft motor sport KLP 3


Modern cameras are able to shoot at relatively high ISO without too much in the way of distracting noise. Micro four thirds cameras are no exception. The noise produced by most cameras manufactured in the last few years is more like film grain, rather than ugly colour noise, and simply isn’t an issue. It’s much better to correctly expose your image with a high ISO than it is to use a lower ISO and end up under-exposing the image. When you increase the exposure of an under-exposed image in post-processing you introduce a lot of digital noise and the image begins to break up and lose detail. There is much more data stored in the highlights compared to the shadows of a digital image. Exposing to the right, or for the highlights, is generally better than underexposing the image and boosting the exposure in software.

Mft motor sport KLP 4

Shutter Speed

You can say a lot in an image by controlling your shutter speed. Using a slow shutter speed while panning a fast moving vehicle will blur the background while keeping your subject sharp. The slower the shutter speed, the more blur in the background and the more you convey a sense of speed. Conversely, if you use a high (fast) shutter speed you’ll probably have a nice sharp image, but the vehicle will look like it’s stationary, or parked on the track. With a high shutter speed the background will be sharp, unless you’ve used a large aperture to send everything behind the vehicle into soft focus, and the wheels will also be frozen in time.

Mft motor sport KLP 5

Moving Towards / Away / Across

When a vehicle is moving towards you, you can get away with using a much faster shutter speed than if it’s moving across your path from one side to the other. Most race vehicles use slick tires on the track, which means there is no tread pattern. If the wheel/tire is frozen in time by a fast shutter speed it doesn’t really matter. There will be no visual clues that the tire is frozen because the tire is smooth anyway. Unless you’re zoomed right in on the tire you can’t tell whether it’s rotating or not. However, If you’re photographing something like a motocross bike or an open wheel race car in the rain, which do use treaded tires, then you should keep the shutter speed slow enough that the tires are blurred but the rest of the bike or car are still sharp. Blurring the tires helps to show motion rather than having the vehicle appear to be stationary on the track.

Mft motor sport KLP 6

When you’re panning with a vehicle as it moves across the frame it’s much better to use a slower shutter speed because then the rotation of the wheel is still visible. You get a nice blur of the spokes or writing on the tire’s sidewall. The rotation of the wheel, combined with the blurred background as you move the camera while following the vehicle, really adds a sense of speed and motion. The slower the shutter speed, the more dramatic the effect.

Mft motor sport KLP 7


When photographing sports such as football, a large wide open aperture is beneficial to isolate your subject from the background. However, when shooting motorsport, that’s generally not necessary. Remember, as you pan with the moving vehicle, the background remains stationary. By using a small aperture, which means you’ll have a much larger depth of field, you’ll also lower your shutter speed. Having a large depth of field means you don’t have to be as critical on your focus point. It won’t matter whether you focus on the rider (driver) or the vehicle, there will be sufficient depth of field to ensure the entire vehicle is in focus. Even if the background is in sharp focus with a stationary shot, it will become blurred due to the movement of the camera and the slow shutter speed.

Mft motor sport KLP 8

Manual Focus

Expensive dSLR cameras, and their similarly priced prime telephoto lenses, focus very quickly. That’s why you pay a lot of money for them. But micro four thirds cameras and lenses aren’t as fast. They use a different focussing system which is very good, but not as good at tracking focus of fast moving subjects, particularly when they’re moving towards or away from you. So, how do you get around that? You focus manually!

You can focus completely manually or use autofocus and then switch to manual focus. Either method is easy to do. If you’re going to use the autofocus first method, simply choose something that is the same distance from your camera as the subject you will be photographing, and use the camera’s focus system to lock onto that; then switch off the autofocus and wait for your subject to appear.


Mft motor sport KLP 9

Pre-focussing is another form of manual focus. An example of pre-focus in motorsports would be to focus on the apex of a corner using either of the manual focus methods above, then waiting for your subject to appear. In this case, you would wait for the motorcycle or car to approach the apex, then make your photograph. Most cameras have a burst or continuous shooting mode, so as your subject approaches the apex you can begin capturing images. Keep the camera still and capture numerous frames as the vehicle travels through the corner. In this case you can use a high shutter speed because your subject will be travelling towards you. You should get at least one sharp image as the vehicle passes through the corner. By using a small aperture you will have a reasonably large depth of field allowing the motorcycle or car to be within the zone of focus.

Mft motor sport KLP 10

Stationary – Motion

There are numerous ways to show motion on the racetrack. Using a small aperture and slow shutter speed as you pan with your subject is one method. Another method involves keeping the camera still and using a slow shutter speed, combined with a small aperture for a large depth of field. Keep the camera stationary as you make your image and let the motorcycle or car pass through the frame. The slower the shutter speed, the more blurred the racer will be. Try to capture the racer as they enter the frame on the left and allow plenty of space on the right of the frame for them to travel through.

Mft motor sport KLP 11

Of course, you can break the rules and have the vehicle on the right side of the frame, but it will generally look better and feel more natural if you capture it on the left, or perhaps both left and right.

Mft motor sport KLP 12


While most of your action shots will probably be made using manual focus, if you choose the right locations you can still capture sharp images using the camera’s autofocus system. Choosing a very tight corner on the track will mean the racers will be travelling at their slowest as they travel through the bend. That may mean they’re going slow enough to capture without switching to manual focus. You’ll need to experiment because even the slowest part of some tracks will be too fast for your camera. Of course, some cameras are better at focusing than others too. The Olympus OMD EM-1 tracks focus better than its sibling the OMD EM-5, for example.


You certainly need to think about how you’re going to shoot a motorsport event when using micro four thirds and other mirrorless cameras, but it’s possible to achieve very good results. Plan your shots and position yourself so you can pre-focus; use manual focus, and pan with your subject.

Mft motor sport KLP 13

Don’t forget to also make images with some background or foreground elements that help to tell the story. Images of track marshals, medical staff, and signage help your audience to appreciate the whole event, not just the action happening on the track.

Mft motor sport KLP 14

You should also try to make images of things that are happening off-track. Photograph the fans enjoying themselves and the crowd after the main event. Think about your shots and make them happen, but above all, have fun at the event!

Mft motor sport KLP 15

Mft motor sport KLP 16

Mft motor sport KLP 17

Mft motor sport KLP 18

Mft motor sport KLP 19

Mft motor sport KLP 20

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Ken Lyons is a photographer and world traveller living in rural South Australia. He has a relaxed approach and loves to teach others about photography; making images that tell a location’s story – the place, the people and the culture. You can learn more about Ken where you can also get information about his latest workshops.

  • Carla Mongelluzzi

    Question – did you use both m.Zuiko lenses on each camera? If so, did you an adapter for the Fuji camera? I just recently bought the Fuji x-t1 camera and I’m looking for a telephoto lens. But when I search under m.Zuiko, it appears they only fit the Olympus camera.

  • fattanz

    Micro 4/3 sensor is smaller than Fuji’s one, so Zuiko lenses can’t be adapted on Fuji’s cameras.
    Probably, he used the X100s(which have a fixed lens)for the paddock shots only, and not for track action, where he used the 75-300 on the E-m5.
    Zuiko is a division of Olympus, so you will never see Zuiko lenses for other system cameras, you can only use it on Olympus and Panasonic cameras.

  • Carla

    Thank You for your response and clearing up my confusion. It all makes sense now. Have a great day!

  • Edmund

    I’m not convinced that using spot metering and AF-C (continuous autofocus) is any worse on M4/3 than on a Canon 7D Mk 2. A lot has to do with the lens and the pair that you had were cheap and very slow, Panasonic make a 12-35mm and 35-100mm at f2.8 and some really good prime lenses (Leica).

    Of course you will never get the ultimate quality from a smaller sensor but that’s like saying that a full frame 35mm camera is rubbish compared to a Pentax 645Z. I have tack sharp A2 prints from my M4/3 and don’t actually want bigger ones but I’m sure they would scale to at least A1 with a little Photoshop interpolation.

    Most of your tips were very good, I took my first Formula 3 photos with an Olympus OM2 when I was 12 years old and in those days you only had to know who to ask to get a press pass and be allowed to lie on the grass at the edge of the track (don’t do it, it is incredibly noisy and you get showered with grit, which hurts, as the cars go by). Obviously, that was all manual focus and waiting for the action, no harm in that!

  • Thanks for stepping in and answering “fattanz”… I’m not sure what happened to the commenting system, but at least my replies are showing up now 🙂

    You were pretty spot on with the X100S only being used for the paddock shots, except for the track shot of the bikes going under the “Melbourne” sign. That one was also shot with the Fuji – manual focus, composed and waited for the bikes to be where I wanted them to be 🙂

  • Hi Edmund and thanks for your comments 🙂

    You’re right about the Panasonic zooms. They’re great lenses! The image quality really is the sum of all the parts isn’t it. MFT sensors are very good and produce excellent images. I too have printed images up to A2 in size without any problems. My printer maxes out at A2, but I’m sure going larger would still be very usable. I’ve even printed ISO6400 night images from my OMD at 17″ x 22″ and unless you get right up and “pixel peep” you really can’t see any noise. It looks a little grainy up close, but is perfectly acceptable. They’re great cameras, even without the full-frame sensor 🙂

    Track access certainly used to be easier. I remember when you could just ask for a pass too… and have been covered in my fair share of debris LOL. Regional meetings are sometimes still okay to get passes if you contact the media team before hand, especially if you can show a legitimate usage (such as a blog). Of course MotoGP is a little different – these images were all made from general admission spectator areas at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island. It’s a great race track for both spectators and competitors alike.

    Thanks again for your comments! Happy shooting.

  • David


    Great article and very nice action shots! I have a Panasonic Lumix G5, and although I haven’t shot motorcross with it, but I think your suggestions are spot on for most sports action photography.

    The G5 has “tracking focus” mode. The idea is you touch an object on screen you want in focus and it keeps that object in focus, even when it moves around in the frame. Motorcross might be too fast a sport to do that, but I find it useful for some action photos. There’s also the back-button focus technique, similar to your pre-focus technique.

    I’m not sure I would use AFC mode as Edmund suggested. Suppose you’ve framed a section of track waiting for a rider to come into frame. AFC will focus on the backboard or track, then change focus as riders cross the frame. When you take the picture, the focus servo might be set between the backboard and riders. As you said, using a small aperture will increase depth of field. AFC would work if you’re tracking a rider. Although my experience with AFC is that it tends to favor focusing on objects in center frame.

    Also, I tend to look for peak action, where the action pauses for an instant. In motorcross, this might be that moment when a rider changes direction in a curve. You have to anticipate a little, and snap the picture at just the right moment. You mention using burst mode for this, too. But, I learned on film, and I never had a burst mode film camera.

  • Stephan Handuwala

    Great article. Especially for m4/3 enthusiasts. Because we are not seeing any 4/3 related articles around DPS or other media. However I’m kind of disagree to put the M4/3 systems behind the DSLRs. Both DSLR and M4/3 has pros and cons.

  • Thanks for your comments Stephan. I’m glad you liked the article!

    You’re right, both systems have pros and cons. I don’t think one system is better than the other overall, but I do think dSLR’s have the edge for professional motorsport – simply due to their focusing systems and the availability of high quality fast telephoto prime lenses.

    I have to say I like m4/3 so much I’m about to sell all of my dSLR gear. Not because it’s bad, simply because I hardly use it any more. The style of shooting I’m doing these days lends itself more to m4/3. Even if I was continuing to photograph weddings, I’d be using something like the Olympus OMD E-M1 or Panasonic’s GH4.

    Thanks again for the kind words!

  • Hi David and thanks for your comments. I don’t think m4/3 or other ‘mirrorless’ cameras are quite there yet when it comes to tracking focus on fast moving subjects. They’re restrained by the type of focus systems used in the cameras. I’m sure it will improve, but it’s not quite there yet.

    I’ve always used back button focus on my dSLR’s and sort of fell out of that habit on my m4/3 cameras. It can be set up on my OMD E-M5 and I’ll probably set it up and get back into that habit. I also tend to use zone focusing when I’m out shooting street photography with my X100S.

    I also started out with film… 110 & 126 cartridge followed by 35mm negative and slide. It was certainly more expensive per click back then! Looking for peak action before releasing the shutter is a great idea. I certainly don’t advocate ‘spray and pray’ but sometimes shooting multiple frames can be advantageous 🙂 Motocrossers on a jump, just as they stop at the top before heading back down; or just as they’re hitting the berm and changing direction are good times to look for.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  • Stephan Handuwala

    Thanks Ken, your words are inspiring. I’m more than glad to hear and I thrilled by your last words. “Even if I was continuing to photograph weddings, I’d be using something like the Olympus OMD E-M1” Great!

  • jefrs

    Micro four thirds cameras and lenses generally focus faster than any DSLR now. Shooting fast moving objects is a bit of an art that requires knowing your camera. Most of the article is based on the false belief that CSC cannot track and cannot focus fast enough whereas the latest models simply out-preform DSLR for this work.

  • jefrs

    Most of the wedding photographers around here have switched from Canon to GH4; less kit to haul and lighter, it can shoot stills and movie (not the E-M1), it can shoot in next to no light like in a church without flash.

  • Thanks for your comments jefrs 🙂 I should point out I guess that this article was written and published in 2014, so yes, it is based on older MFT cameras. I’d have to disagree with you though in one respect. I don’t think that mirrorless cameras “simply out-perform DSLR for this work” when it comes to tracking focus. It really depends what you’re tracking, what direction the subject is moving in and how fast it’s moving. Mirrorless cameras have certainly come a long way in the last 18 months or so as far as auto-focus goes and I would agree that some of them are faster at single auto-focus, but I’d still contend that they simply can’t keep up with high-end dSLR’s. I love my mirrorless cameras and obviously believe you can use them for motorsport, but I think if I was a professional motorsport photographer I’d still be in the Canon / Nikon camp. I’d certainly have my mirrorless cameras with me and would use them, but there would be circumstances where the dSLR would simply be the more appropriate tool for the job. Jason Lanier is doing some great work with his Sony cameras at various sporting events, so mirrorless is certainly capable, but there are (in my opinion) still circumstances where dSLR’s are more suitable 🙂

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed