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7 Tips for Breathtaking Racing Photography

Tips for breathtaking racing photography

Looking to capture stunning images of race cars in action? You’ve come to the right place.

I love racing photography, and in this article, I share plenty of hands-on tips and techniques to level up your own photos. I explain:

  • The best cameras and lenses for race car photos
  • How to choose the perfect settings for sharp (or deliberately blurry!) shots
  • Tricks for more creative images
  • Much more!

So if you’re ready to start photographing race cars like a pro, then let’s dive right in!

1. Bring the right cameras and lenses

Racing photography does require a certain amount of equipment. Sure, it’d be great if gear didn’t matter, but when it comes to racing photoshoots, you’ll need specific cameras and lenses to capture plenty of detailed action.

In particular, I’d recommend grabbing a camera with impressive autofocus capabilities. These days, some models even offer vehicle tracking, but if you can’t afford the best of the best, that’s okay. Just make sure you get the highest-quality camera you can afford, learn to use it well, and do your best with what you have.

You’ll also want to carry at least one telephoto lens. A 70-200mm zoom will let you capture a variety of compositions; at 200mm, you can shoot car details, and at 70mm, you can photograph wider scenes. A 55-200mm kit lens is also a good choice, though the optics and autofocus won’t be as good.

Racing photography tips

If you can afford it, carry two cameras with you – one bearing a telephoto lens, then the second with a shorter lens for interesting wide-angle shots. (If you only have one camera, try to switch up your lenses every so often, but be careful not to miss any key moments in the process!)

Racing photography tips

2. Prefocus on the track

When you’re just starting out with racing photography, I encourage you to learn the ins and outs of your AF system. Find a fast-moving road, then practice focusing on cars as they go by.

Use this time to evaluate your camera’s autofocus capabilities. Some cameras offer amazing tracking, while other cameras are a lot more unpredictable. If you’re impressed by your camera’s autofocus, that’s great, and you can hopefully rely on it when you head out for your first real race car photoshoot.

But if you aren’t satisfied with your camera’s AF capabilities, then I’d recommend a different tactic. Instead of reacting to the cars, switch over to manual focus, prefocus on a spot on the track, and wait for a car to come into sight.

As soon as the car appears, you can press down that shutter button, and you’ll have an in-focus shot of your racer! I’d also encourage you to use your camera’s burst mode, which will increase your chances of getting the car in sharp focus.

Racing photography tips

Every track has an ideal racing line, so it’s likely that all the racers will speed through at the same location (unless they’re passing or being passed).

3. Try some creative panning shots

Panning is a technique that involves slowing down the shutter speed while moving your camera setup along with a car. And it’s a great way to produce racing photos that clearly communicate speed and power.

Just drop your shutter speed to around 1/30s or so – you’ll want to experiment here because the perfect speed changes depending on the car movement – prefocus, then follow a car as it moves across your field of view. Make sure you take plenty of photos as the car moves; even in the best-case scenarios, you’ll still end up with lots of missed shots.

Racing photography tips

When panning does work, it’ll keep the race car relatively sharp while blurring the background. If you capture some panning shots and don’t like the results, try photographing a few laps at different speeds, then check them on your camera’s LCD screen. Once you get the effect you’re after, shoot in earnest.

One more thing: You’ll need to find the right balance between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Since you’ll be using a slow shutter speed, you’ll generally need to keep the ISO at its base settings – otherwise, you’ll risk overexposing the shot. And unless you’re shooting in low-light conditions, you’ll probably also want to use a somewhat narrow aperture. It’ll prevent overexposure, and it’ll also give you a bit of wiggle room when focusing. (If your aperture is too wide and your depth of field is consequently very shallow, it can be difficult to nail focus!)

The key here is really just careful testing and checking. Don’t just set your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, then forget about them. Instead, adjust your shutter speed until you get a nice blur effect, then adjust your aperture and ISO until you get the depth of field and the exposure you need.

4. Bring additional support

I’ve talked about the camera and lenses you should bring to race track photography, but I’d also like to mention one more key piece of equipment:

A tripod or a monopod.

You see, tripods and monopods will stabilize your camera setup so you can capture sharp images. They can also help improve your panning technique, and they often make for a more comfortable shooting experience (as you won’t need to hold up your entire rig all day long).

Racing photography tips

So which should you choose? Tripod or monopod?

Personally, I’m a monopod fan. They’re lightweight, plus they’re easy to carry around if you switch seats, move to another location, etc. Tripods are more supportive, however, so I encourage you to test out your different options and see what works best for you.

It’s also important to recognize that, if you’re photographing moving subjects, a tripod or monopod won’t keep your photos sharp on its own. Race cars move fast, so unless your goal is to do creative photography (such as the panning approach discussed above), in addition to bringing the support system, you’ll need to keep your shutter speed at around 1/1000s and above. Remember: If your shutter isn’t fast enough to handle the movement, it doesn’t matter if you have a perfectly stable camera!

5. Don’t be afraid to let the cars blur

In the previous tip, I discussed the importance of using a fast shutter speed to keep the race cars sharp.

But sometimes you don’t need to aim for a perfectly sharp shot. Instead, you should simply embrace the blur.

Racing photography tips

Carefully focus your lens on the spectators just behind the track, then slow down the shutter speed. Don’t drop it too much – you don’t want the spectators to blur – but a 1/250s speed or so should do the trick.

Then, when some cars zoom by, take the shot! The cars should blur, the spectators will stay sharp, and you’ll create a very unique image.

As with panning, make sure you experiment with different shutter speeds. Review your images frequently, and if you don’t get the results you’re after, keep tweaking until you do!

Note that this blur technique is useful for both daytime and nighttime racing (though if you’re working during the day, you may need to keep your ISO low and narrow your aperture for a sufficiently slow shutter speed).

6. Adjust your angle

Most race car photographers capture cars from their place in the stands. Yet if you want to stand out, it helps to mix things up!

First, consider potential high-angle and low-angle vantage points. Depending on the venue, you may be able to get down close to the cars and drivers. You may also be able to get up high, which always makes for interesting shots.

Racing photography tips

You can also get creative with a tripod or monopod; attach your camera to the head (make sure it’s secure), then hold it out over the track. Fire the camera using a remote release. With a bit of luck, you’ll get a unique shot that showcases the cars and/or the drivers from above:

Racing photography tips

You can also capture unique images by changing your camera’s tilt. If you hold the camera at a 45-degree angle and shoot cars as they go diagonally across the screen, your photos will have an interesting sense of speed:

Racing photography tips

Not every image you take needs to be ultra-creative, but if you can incorporate a few unusual techniques into each photoshoot, you’ll end up with a much more diverse portfolio.

7. Photograph the pit stops

Racing photography tips

I love to photograph pit stops; they always offer lots of action. Some race tracks even allow you to purchase a pit pass, which will give you access to the pit road and can make a huge difference to your images.

If you do obtain access to photograph pit stops, however, be sure to maintain your situational awareness. Every pit crew member has a job to do, and you definitely don’t want to get in their way; there’s the potential for serious injury for you and the crew members.

So pick the moment that you want to shoot, get on in, take your images, then step back so they can do their jobs.

If you own a wide-angle lens, use it for pit-stop photos. I like using a lens in the 16-35mm range, which offers a wider perspective and really ratchets up the sense of energy.

Racing photography tips

By the way, some forms of racing allow photographers to climb over the pit road wall (provided you wear a firesuit). This type of access lets you photograph pit-stop action up close and personal; in my opinion, it’s the absolute best.

You can even move around the car, which gives you the opportunity to capture the kind of race car images that most photographers will only ever dream of. But as always, maintain that situational awareness, don’t get in people’s way, and be aware of cars entering and exiting their pits.

Racing photography tips

Racing photography tips: final words

Race car photography can be challenging, but it can also be tons of fun.

Take advantage of the areas you’re able to access, and if you can afford it, buy a pit pass to get closer to the action. The camera equipment can be expensive, but learn to work with what you have, and upgrade your equipment when you can.

At the end of the day, just give it your best shot. As long as you remember the tips I’ve shared, I guarantee that you’ll capture some great images.

What type of racing do you plan to shoot? Which tips will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jim Wise
Jim Wise

is currently a Senior Multimedia Developer at Gulfstream Aerospace. He has photographed motor sports professionally at Daytona Int Speedway from 1987-2006. At the end of 1997 he began working at Kennedy Space Center as a photographer, documenting the build-up and post-flight disassembly of the solid rocket boosters. This work also took him to other NASA locations, on through the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. He’s taken photos for numerous publications.

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