How to shoot a motor race

The most important shot is often the start

When I first started taking motor racing pictures at Brands Hatch as a teenage race fan I came back and developed my black and white images and was thoroughly disappointed with my blurred and rather dull photographs. Equipment did play a part in the bad photos for ,certainly nowadays, long lenses are important to get great action imagery at the race track but also my approach was all wrong.

I was trying to pick out individual cars and not concentrating on telling the story of the race. If you want to cover a motor race properly you need to make a plan. Study the program, watch the qualifying heats to pick the exciting drivers and walk the circuit to ID the best spots to shoot the race from.

Shooting in the assembly area before the race is a great place to spot famous faces…can you see Jensen Button?

As above, shooting in the assembly area before the race, will give you a feel for the cars and there may be opportunities to photograph the drivers before they put their helmets on. If you have a track pass the grid is an exciting place to be but make sure you follow the marshals instructions and leave early to get to your start position.

There will often be a warm up or green flag flag lap before the race starts proper and this is a good time to hone your first lap location and pre-frame your angle of view to be sure you are in the best spot for that all important start shot. This is the time to check all your camera settings are as you want them, you won’t have time to change exposure or motor drive options when the cars are thundering down the track towards you. Set your autofocus to ‘Servo’, this means it will follow the moving cars as they progress through the frame towards and across it.

Follow the cars as they bunch up into turn one to catch that dramatic moment

One of my rules of thumb is that I try to pick a shooting postion where I can get more than one angle so as to make the best of the location, either with different focal lengths or by turn around and shooting the other way. So for that vital first lap shot, above and top , I’m about 300 metres from the start line with my 70-300mm lens. I can swing around to follow the cars into turn one and pick out any action that happens as the racers jostle for position. You’ll need a fast shutter speed of between 1/400-800th second for this but don’t go too fast ie over 1000th as this will freeze the action completely and you’ll lose any sense of movement from your photo.

Head on racing shot require shutter speeds of around 1/800-1250th second and ear plugs if you are on the pit wall !

Most classic car races are short, 10 laps or 20-30 mins duration so once the cars have gone by on lap one move to your next shooting position.You may have to run so as not to miss too much of the action. In your new location you may now not know who is leading the race so ask a spectator or try to see the TV screen if there one to catch up on who to shoot. Try to shoot battles between multiple racers as this will tell the story of the race better than picking out single cars.

Try to shoot battles between multiple cars

Keep safe.If you have the right track side passes think of your safety and never turn your back on the race or cross the circuit until the race has finished and the marshals say you can .Check up in your program which cars the star drivers are in and be sure to get some good shots of them.

Jensen Button guides the light blue Cobra through the Goodwood chicane

Vary your focal length and your shutter speed so that all of your images don’t look the same. Shoot some wide angle views that might work as scene setters or establishing shots and try some slow pans down to 1/30th second to capture the movement. Remember, not all of the car needs to be in focus, as long as one part is sharp the image will work.

The pits is a great place capture driver changes but watch your back ,it’s a dangerous place to work

Make sure you’ve got a few frames of the leading cars especially towards the end of the race.I’ve been caught out many times thinking I have the winning car only to find it was overtaken on the final lap…and if you can shoot the prize presentation you’ve got a top and tail to your motor racing story.

Read more about photographing motor racing and rallying in the book ‘How to Photograph Cars’ where there is a whole chapter on the subject.Get your copy at the best price on this website.

Tracking photography with the BMW i8

Had a great day recently at the Longcross test track in Surrey, just outside London, photographing a friends new BMW i8.It’s an awesome piece of kit with a hybrid power-train of electric motors driving the front wheels and 1.5litre turbocharged petrol engine the rear wheels delivering 0-60 in just over 4 seconds.

BMWi8 car to car
BMW i8 car to car 50mm f11 1/30th second

One of the advantages of photographing at a test track is that you don’t have to worry about other traffic making it great place to shoot car to car or tracking images where the camera car and feature car have to run along together.The idea of tracking is to show the car moving through its environment with the background and wheels blurring to give the sense of motion whilst keeping the car crisp in the foreground. Success is all about variables, a slower shutter speed will give more blur but it’s harder to hold the camera still on a moving platform. A faster shutter speed will freeze the car but offer less blur, so a balance is needed.

BMW i8 tracking
BMW i8 tracking 17-40mm f8 1/60th second

Hatchbacks make the best tracking cars and ideally a powerful estate where you can put the seats flat to allow you to lie down if needed. If you don’t have a harness wrap the rear seat belts around your waste and position yourself near to the open tailgate. It’s good idea to use walkie-talkies or mobile phones to communicate with the feature car but some simple hand signals will suffice. You’ll need good drivers in both cars who are capable of driving in close formation without panicking.Best speed to track a car for stills is about 40 mph.Faster and you may find the tailgate will close, although you can prop it open, slower and you won’t get the sense of speed necessary.

BMWi8 low angle tracking shot
BMWi8 low angle tracking shot

Start out with a wide angle lens or zoom and direct the car into the frame changing your angle to move the car within the viewfinder to include more or less moving roadway.Start with a faster shutter speed of about 1/125th second slowing down through 1/60th to 1/30th as you become more proficient and confident.

As with all action photography safety is paramount and your responsibility so don’t forget to hold on and don’t drop your camera.!


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