Mastering Motorsport Photography | Digital Photography Tutorial


Mastering Motorsport Photography | Digital Photography Tutorial

Sports photography, and motorsport photography in particular, present the keen photographer with numerous challenges in capturing the perfect moment. From international race circuits to forest rally stages, the world of motorsport is full of potential hazards and pitfalls for the photographer to master.

Mastering Motorsport Photography Digital Photography Tutorial
Mastering Motorsport Photography Digital Photography Tutorial

Unlike many other types of photography, the world of motorsport photography requires the photographer to not only be able to correctly setup the camera, but also be quick thinking and pro-active in their approach to getting the shot.

Perhaps the trickiest aspect of motorsport photography is that you are dealing with the fast moving cars or bikes in locations you have little or no control over. The problem of fast moving vehicles can be handled to an extent with the way the camera is setup, the location can be handled with good planning. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, shooting motorsport can be very tricky due to shutter lag and the lack of manual controls. For that reason, this article is aimed more at the DSLR owner. Thats not to say you can’t have some success with a point-and-shoot digital camera, its just tha tlittle bit harder to get right.

DSLR Camera Setup for Motorsport Photography
For all types of sport photography, you need to set the camera to work on shutter priority mode. Controlling the speed of the shutter is what will ultimately determine how frozen the action is in the shot. The faster the shutter speed, the more likely the subject is to be frozen in place.

The offset to this is that the faster you set the shutter speed, the less light that can reach the sensor, leading to an under-exposed photograph. This can be offset by bumping up the ISO rating (the sensors sensitivity to light), the compromise being that this adds noise to the final image.

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One of the reasons why the professional sports photographers you see at events all use large fast lenses is that they can shoot with high shutter speeds and a very wide aperture, without having to resort to the high ISO values that introduce noise.

Ideally, if you are not using an ultra-fast lens, you want to at least be shooting on a bright day, shooting with a slow lens on a gloomy or overcast day just compounds the problem of getting light to the sensor.

When I’m shooting motorsport, I aim for a hutter speed of around 500th of a second. This normally freezes the action enough to get a sharp image, without the effect of freezing wheel movement. If you look at any high quality motorsport photographs taken side-on, you’ll notice that the car or bike is normally pin sharp, while the wheels and background retain a motion blur, giving a sense of speed.

Many people will recommend using burst or continuous shooting mode on your camera to get that perfect shot. While this may work for some, I prefer to practice getting that single shot right. This eliminates the need to go through hundreds of shots at the end of the day to find the perfect one. While I may be missing out on the opportunity to get the best photograph by not using continuous shooting, in the past I’ve always found that if the first photo doesn’t get the shot, its unlikely the next 10 or 15 will either.

Motorsport Photography Composition
FunCup Racing – head on view at the chicane

If you’ve got your camera setup right (it may take you two or three trips to the circuit before you are completely happy with what you are doing,) the next stage is to make sure you make the most of the motorsport venue’s location.

One of the more common probelms with composing shots at a motorsport events is the crowds of people all trying to get as close to trackside as they can. This can make it difficult to get close enough yourself to get a decent position.

To counter this, its important at a big race meeting to get there early and get to your choosen position before the crowsds turn up. Unless you’ve got a media or press pass, you are at the mercy of being in the right place early enough. It sometimes helps if you know the circuit, or can reccy it before hand. I’ve found trackday events help here, as they are usually free to spectate at, and give you chance to try plenty of locations around the circuit.

Its also important to try and get to a location that doesn’t have its view obstructed, either by a security fence or other trackside safety features. Some circuits are completely encased in fencing, others only have fencing where there is a danger of a vehicle coming off the track and ending up near the spectators. Sometimes getting up into the stands is better than being down by the track and obstructed by a fence. You do need to remember that the further away you are from the track, the longer your lens needs to be, and the more cumbersome it can be to handle it around other members of the public.

As well as trackside objects on the nearside of the track to be wary of, you also need to consider anything that will appear in the background of the shot, including things that will stand out even when panning. Marshalls in their brightly coloured vests can offer a nice photographic opportunity on their own, but when you are shooting a car with a panning shot, a bright orange vest blurred across the background can be distracting.

As well as these general composition rules, you may also want to consider altering your panning angle, to introduce a little bit of interest to the shot, if you are finding shot after shot of side-on panning is proving a little dull.

If you can get to a location near a corner or hairpin bend, its gives you more scope for getting something different – motorsport shots with the subject coming towards you can work very well, and if you can get up high, shooting down on the participants can also turn out well.

As with all motorsport photography, practice really is important, and don;t be afraid to experiment with both setup and composition. And finally, remember that motorsport events can be dangerous, and you shouldn’t put yourself or the competitors and marshalls at risk by trying to get access to places you shouldn’t be.