My approach to motorsport photography

I’m a massive petrolhead, so motorsport has always held a raw attraction to me, all that noise and violence contained inside those sleek little boxes racing round the track. I was fortunate to live close enough to Oulton Park race circuit that i could make regular visits to see both modern and historical racing and from this grew a desire to capture what I love about race cars in my photographs.

Motorsport photography was the one of the first ‘specialised’ areas of photography i got into. By that i mean it was the first thing i went and bought specific gear for and made a concerted effort to develop a technique that would give me a decent return on my day out at the track.

This is my guide to shooting motorsport. I am often disappointed by the ‘5 top tips for shooting….’ type blogs as they rarely cover anything more than common sense. Your experience will vary, but these are the steps I took to develop my skills, and this is how I go about making images like this.

This hangs on the wall of my study as an A4 print and represents exactly what i have worked so hard to achieve, pin sharpness where it counts but enough sense of movement to convey something of the nature of the subject.

So, where to start?

I started with a Nikon D80 and a kit lens and several hundred shots from a day at the track. Disappointment rained supreme, nothing was sharp, most wasn’t in focus and quite often i had half a car in the frame. It wasn’t all the camera’s fault through, so i needed a plan.

That plan was simple. It was also big, heavy and expensive, but came in a nice leather case. A Nikon 80-200 f2.8 ED AF-D had arrived in my life. Now some may say overkill, but I needed two things, sharpness and speed and this lens maxed both up to 11. I observed a great deal of fellow photographers at the track before I made this decision, I saw them with their superzooms and monopods and high burst rates shooting everything that passed them and I had nightmares about the scale of the task of sorting, editing, and storing all those images.


So I wanted a decent hit rate from a fairly low amount of shots taken at a quality that would print well with minimal post-processing. These are my steps to achieving that.

Step 1 I bought a high quality, large aperture telephoto zoom lens.

Having f2.8 available at 200mm is my single biggest asset. On a crop frame DSLR this is like 300mm f2.8 (suddenly the expense is paying off, those are real ‘pro’ numbers!). This gives you the reach to frame the shot tightly in camera and lets enough light in to give you a full range of shutter speeds to control the movement in your shots.


Step 2 I learned to pan the camera well

This serves 2 purposes. Firstly, following the subject and through the viewfinder prior to taking the shot gives you more chance of getting it fully in the frame, and secondly with a low enough shutter speed you can blur the background while keeping the car sharp, giving a sense of speed. The shot above is basically as it came out the camera, the subject is pin sharp and fills the frame fully, while the back and fore ground are blurred from panning to give a sense of depth and speed.

Step 3I took control of my focussing

These days I shoot with a Nikon D300 and the same 80-200mm lens. 51 auto-focus points and 3D tracking something or other. However, as fancy as it sounds it is much better to keep it simple. I set a fixed single focus point that will pick up the front of the car, this is usually 2/3 of the way across the frame in the direction the car is moving and just below the middle of the image. I put the camera in continuous focus mode and track the car with the illuminated focus point on the front grille.


Step 4I thought about angles

I wanted variety from each shoot, not just the same location with a different car each time. It helps to know the circuit, but finding different locations to give different perspectives on the cars will ensure you get something different each time.

Step 5 I went behind the scenes

I like to approach a day at the track like an assignment and try to round it out with some background and not just the cars on track. Using a wideangle zoom or macro lens and walking round the pit garages is a good way to some different perspective on the cars and the work that goes into preparing them for the track. Especially with historical race cars there is a wealth of details that make excellent photographic opportunities.


Step 6I got lucky

Luck favours the well prepared, and through the steps above I have reached a point where my camera setup and shooting technique are in order and I am free to concentrate on making interesting images. There are always one or two shots from each session that just come together perfectly. The shot below is one of my favourites. The car is nice and sharp, I panned enough to blur the background nicely, the shutter speed is just right to blur the motion of the wheels and the driver went into the corner a bit hot and has a dab of opposite lock applied and a hint of tyre smoke. The perfect moment occurred and I was In the right place to capture it nicely.


So then. Thats how I do it.

Many of my all-time favourite shots are motorsport images shot in this way and I certainly get a lot out of the overall experience of spending a day at the track with my camera.


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