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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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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