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“Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.” – to quote Michael Delaney (played by Steve McQueen) in the movie ‘LeMans’. You don’t have to be a race car driver to feel the adrenaline rush that is auto racing. Being a photographer, and being part of the action can also be very exciting and a lot of fun.
There are a number of different types of racing such as sports cars, stock cars, rally cars, open wheel cars and even your local short track cars that might race on dirt or asphalt. Each type will have different tracks with their own level of accessibility for you to take photos. Nothing beats having unlimited access and if you can get a press pass, that is definitely the way to go. But if you don’t have that option available what can you do?
Road courses offer opportunities to get great action photos without having any special access. The images above was taken from the same vantage point of all spectators. By using a short ladder, I was able take this image over the fence instead of trying to look through it. A 300mm lens was enough to more than fill the frame, so an extreme telephoto lens was not required to get this photo.
I also used the technique known as panning. Panning with the car allowed the focus to stay on the main subject, but by slowing the shutter speed down enough you are still able to get the feeling of speed. You will need to find the right balance between aperture, shutter speed and ISO. If the shutter speed is too fast the car will look like it’s just stopped on the track. If it’s too slow then everything could be blurred. You want to slow your shutter speed down until the lettering on the tires just transforms into a nice short blur. Photograph a few laps at different speeds and then check them on your camera’s LCD screen until you get the right effect that you’re looking for.
Next, take notice of your aperture because this will determine your depth of field. Depth of field is typically less with a telephoto lens than it is with a wide angle. Adjusting your aperture will require a corresponding adjustment of the ISO to compensate and keep your exposure accurate. A depth of field that is too shallow may make it difficult to obtain a critical focus, so again take a look at a few practice images and make sure that your focus looks good to you (zoom in to 100% on your screen to be sure).
Autofocus is still sometimes unpredictable and it may lock onto a subject in the foreground or background just as you are about to take the shot. By switching to manual focus you can prefocus a location on the track and just wait for the cars (or motorcycles) to come to you. Once there, a simple click of the shutter and you’ve captured your racer in focus. There’s always an ideal racing line on any track so more than likely all racers will speed through at that same location unless they’re passing or being passed.
This photo (image above) shows that sometimes you need to look around, notice your surroundings and try something a little different. By focusing on the spectators you can allow the cars to become a blur and emphasize their action on the track. Try different shutter speeds until you get the effect that you desire. This technique can be used for daytime or nighttime racing. A neutral density or gradual filter was not used for this image, but one could be used to increase the blur.
Tripods and monopods are helpful to stabilize the action and help give you a sharper image. If you don’t want to use them there’s a formula for hand holding a camera with a long lens and it is as follows:
The shutter speed should be equal to or greater (faster) than the focal length of the lens (eg., 200mm lens = 1/200th shutter speed or faster) to avoid camera movement as you take your photo.
If you have a zoom lens like a 75-300 then this rule would apply at the longer focal length (1/300th of a second or faster). Don’t forget to add in the crop factor if this applies to your camera’s sensor also. With cameras that have stabilization systems either in the lens or camera body you can typically bend this rule by a couple of stops, but the tripod and monopod are still there to help when you need them. They are definitely preferable when using a super telephoto that you may be carrying around all day. I prefer a monopod because they are lightweight and easy to move around with, but you will need to find what works best for you with a little trial and error.
Photographing auto racing does require a certain amount of photographic equipment. We would all like to have the best that’s available, but most times that is not the case. Get the best equipment that you can afford and learn to make the best with what you have. If you can, carry a second camera with you so that you’re ready for that unexpected shot. Keep a telephoto lens on one camera and a shorter lens on the other. Being prepared for the unexpected to happen is when you’re going to get that great action photo.
Be on the lookout for creative images. If you see a crowd of photographers in one location – try looking for an angle of view that they haven’t seen. You can hold the camera at a 45 degree angle and take photos with cars going across the screen diagonally to emphasize speed (see image above). Try taking photos from a low angle or a high angle. You can attach your camera to a monopod with a remote release and capture a high angle such as this car being rolled out to the starting grid (image below). Even though there are crowds of people around, this car is isolated and not something that you see everyday.
Pit stops are some of my favorite things to photograph because there is always a lot of action! You can get a lot of great images with a relatively inexpensive wide angle such as this image (below) taken with a 20-35mm lens. Some race tracks will allow you to purchase a pit pass, or a press pass will gain you access to pit road. If you do obtain access to photograph pit stops maintain your ‘situational awareness’. Be aware that every one of the pit crew members around you has a job to do and you don’t want to get in their way while they’re doing it. There is the potential for serious injury for you and crew members. So pick the moment that you want to get in there, take your images and step back so that they can do their job.
Some forms of racing allow photographers over the pit road wall to photograph pit stop action as long as you wear a firesuit. This type of access, in my opinion, is the ultimate and you are able to move around the car taking images that few photographers get to take (like the image below). If you are able to gain this type of access you also need to be aware of cars (or motorcycles) entering and exiting their pits.
Photographing auto racing can be challenging but a lot of fun. Take the best photos you can from the areas that you have access to and buy a pit pass to get closer to the action. The camera equipment required can be expensive, but learn to work with what you have, and upgrade your equipment when you can. There are also numerous rental companies available now and you may want to consider renting equipment to try before you buy. Good luck and good racing!
If you have racing photos that you’d like to share with others here please add them in the comments.