Do you want some tips, tricks and pointers to improve your motor sports photography? Well you ‘ve come to the right place as below are nine tips that will help you be a better motor sports photographer in 2017.
1. Use a long reach zoom lens
Health & safety has had a huge impact on motor sports, and consequently spectators (and photographers for that matter) are kept a long way back behind safety fences, tyre walls and other protective barriers. Long gone are the days you could actually stand close to the tarmac. Oh well……
Because of the distance between the circuit and where you’re allowed to stand and watch/photograph the action you need a long reach lens to get frame filling shots, and if you don’t have a long reach lens (and by this I mean 300mm and over) you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities. Sure, you can use shorter lenses, but with these you won’t be able to zoom right and capture specific parts of the car/bike.
In my experience the best lens for motor sports is a zoom lens because it allows me to get closer to/further away from the action without having to go in the “no enter” zones, reserved for race marshals. With a zoom lens I can zoom in nice and close and isolate specific parts of the car/bike, I can pull back a bit to include the entire car/bike, I can pull back a little more to include two cars/bikes fighting for track position, or I can pull right back and get a wider shot showing multiple cars/bikes plus some of the track plus some of the run off areas and even some spectators for good measure.
Shooting with a long reach fixed focal lens, such as a 400mm prime I wouldn’t be able to get the variety of shots and all the shots I did get would be the same type, which is pretty boring. Variety is the spice of life after all.
The lens I use for motorsports is the Canon 100 – 400L IS lens (I believe Nikon make a lens that is 80 – 400 ) and it is my go to lens. Being an L series lens this lens is not only made out of the best materials but it is also weather sealed, which protects it from the elements and what Mother Nature decides to throw at it, as well dust (and race circuits are notoriously dusty places). The image quality of this lens is superb and I have no complaints whatsoever.
I generally use a monopod when shooting with a large and heavy lens however there are times when I do like to take some handheld shots (it allows me to get in to different positions and angles) and since this lens has 4 stop image stabilisation I can capture sharp hand held shots.
The 100mm – 400mm focal length allows for both wide and nice and tight shots, therefore I can capture a variety of different types of shot and mix it up a little.
Buy the Canon 100 - 400L IS lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
2. Take a wide angle lens as well
As well as a long reach lens I also take a wide angle lens for a motor sports shoot. Obviously, the wide angle lens is pretty much next to useless when the cars and bikes are racing around but it is useful for taking photos of drivers/riders and their car/bike during pit lane walkabouts, whilst on the starting grid and also on the podium post-race.
As well as photographing drivers/riders and their cars/bikes a wide angle lens is a great tool for capturing photos of mechanics and engineers working on the vehicles, runners sorting out the garage, derivers/riders mentally preparing themselves for the race etc.
When I go for a day out to the circuit to shoot motorsports I like to record the action both on and off the circuit, and a wide angle lens helps me do this.
The wide angle lens I use for motorsports shoots is the Canon 16mm – 35mm f4L IS. Being an L series lens is it made from the best grade materials and is weather sealed, which is essential for outdoor use. The seal not only stops the rain but also stops the dust too – and race circuits are notoriously dusty places when dry.
The image quality of this lens is superb, and whilst f4 isn’t considered wide, it provides the perfect depth of field. I like to intentionally blur the background to make the subject “pop” but I don’t like to blur the background to the extent you can’t tell what is going on. For example, when I take a photo of a mechanic working on the car I want the person looking at the photo to know what the mechanic is working on, and also that the mechanic is in a garage (full of tools and equipment) and shooting at f4 allows me to do this. Similarly, when I take a photo of a car on the starting grid I want the person looking at the photo to be able to see other cars around it, and shooting any wider than f4 would simply show the background as a blur.
Zoom lenses are versatile and having the ability to change the focal length without having to change the lens is essential when shooting at motorsports events. These events are vibrant, busy and there are people rushing around trying to get things organised. Whilst these people will stop for a quick photo, they won’t stop and pose for a photo or hang around while I change my lens to a more “appropriate” focal length therefore a zoom lens is essential to get in, take the photo and get out.
Buy the Canon 16 - 35 f4L IS lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
3. Use a monopod
It never ceases to amaze me how many photographers I see on the side of the circuit taking hand held shots with their camera and long reach (not to mention heavy) tele lenses. Okay, these lenses have image stabilisation/vibration reduction but you still need to be very steady to ensure sharp shots – even with high shutter speeds. I have heard the “I am strong enough” argument several times over however I question anyone who claims to be able to take sharp handheld shots after spending several hours snapping motor sports.
A monopod is an essential bit of kit of motor sports and I guarantee that if you use one you will see an improvement in your motor sports photos, especially when it comes to sharpness.
In the big scheme of things monopods aren’t expensive however when buying one I would recommend staying away from the very cheap ones. Cheap monopods can’t take a lot of weight and they flex and buckle during use. Trust me, I have been down the “cheap monopod” route before and the results were very disappointing. Besides which I didn’t want my expensive camera/tele-lens set up being at risk of crashing to the ground. My advice is to spend a little more and invest in a sturdy tripod – I wish I had done this in the first instance because I would have actually saved money in the long run.
The monopod I use is the Manfrotto Xpro and I highly recommend it. This tripod is strong and sturdy and appears to be made out of top quality materials. I don’t know what exact materials are used, so I can’t confirm this, but I can confirm I have had this monopod for several years now and, after a lot of abuse, it is still going strong and in the same working order as the day I bought it.
When I first started using a monopod I screwed it directly in to the bottom of my camera. After a few months I came across a bloke using a ball head on his monopod and it was something I soon invested in, and boy am I glad I did. Having a ball head on the monopod makes everything a lot easier and rather than tilting the monopod itself (making it less stable and putting it under undue stress) I can keep the monopod upright and tilt the camera itself to get the shot.
The ballhead I use on my monopod is the Manfrotto XPRO. This ballhead joint is strong, sturdy and once locked down it remains in position with no camera/lens creep at all. Moving the ball head is smooth and fluid, once you unlock it of course. Like all Manfrotto products this ball head joint is built to last, and if you get one of these I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. It’s not cheap, but then neither is the equipment (i.e. my camera and lens) I have sat on it.
Buy the Manfrotto Xpro monopod from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
Buy the Manfrotto Xpro ball head from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
4. Learn to pan
Panning is a difficult technique to learn and you will miss loads of shots during the process, if you are like me that is. Even though learning to pan is a challenge, and very frustrating at times, it is a technique all motor sports photographers should learn to master because the results are superb.
Panning leads to shots that show movement, and more importantly speed which is, at times, what we want to project in to our photos of moving cars and bikes. A correctly panned photo shows a tack sharp car or bike against a, for want of a better word, “streaky” background.
There are plenty of books that note how to pan however I found nothing beats a proper demonstration, and in the digital age getting hold of a demonstration is easy. Go over to Youtube, search for “panning” or “how to pan” and you will find lots of video footage, such as the one below;
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.