If you are serious about motor sports photography the first lens you have, and I mean have, to buy is a long reach zoom lens. Health & Safety has ruined motor sports, and with all the legislation in place race circuits are now required to fence of large areas between the circuit and the spectators, which means you need a long reach lens to get up close and personal to the racing cars and bikes and get frame filling shots.
I regularly find that I am shooting at focal lengths of 300mm plus (although I do take some motor sports pictures at shorter focal lengths – albeit not many) so I would consider a lens of this focal length essential.
There is the age old argument that prime lenses are sharper and have better image quality than zoom lenses, and whilst this is true, the image quality of the top end modern day zoom lenses is exceptionally good and to see any different in image quality you are going to have to go pixel peeping on the computer, and no-one does that in the real world. The difference in image quality between a top end zoom and a prime lens is negligible nowadays, so you should never be put off buying a zoom lens.
In my experience of motor sport photography I would say that prime lenses are the inferior lenses. With a prime lens you need to be able to physically move closer to, or further away from the circuit to change the framing and composition, and if you tucked up tight against a safety fence with a crowd of spectators behind you this isn’t going to happen is it? With a zoom lens you can zoom in and out, without having to move so you can get a variety of different shots. With a zoom lens you can zoom right in nice and tight or you can pull right back and go wide to include the racing car/bike and a bit of background too.
80mm – 400mm or 100mm – 400mm zoom lenses are ideal for motor sports photography. There are some 150mm – 600mm zoom lenses available on the market but the range of focal lengths it simply too much for good image quality. The image quality of these lenses is acceptable, and if you only want to post your photos in low resolution to websites, social media sites and the like these lenses are suitable. If you want to capture high quality motor sports photos to make money with the 150mm – 600mm lenses simply aren’t good enough – period.
As well as a long reach zoom a more general purpose lens is needed for pit lane walks, taking photos of mechanics, taking photos of drivers etc. When taking “environmental portrait shots like this you don’t need a lens with a very wide maximum aperture because you will need a depth of field sufficient to identify what is going on in the background. Shooting at f1.2 or f1.4 is simply too wide, and I usually find I don’t shoot any wider than f4 - f5.6. Arguably you can use a prime for these type of shots, however race circuits are busy places and space is often restricted. Because of this I would always recommend a zoom lens to make framing and composition easier. Some photographers would call this lazy – I call it common sense and I would prefer to use a zoom lens and get the shot than be pig-headed about it and miss the shot because I “only shoot with prime lenses”. At the end of the day it is your choice though.
The ideal lenses for motor sports photography need to be tough, durable and also weather sealed. Mother Nature can be (and often is) nasty at race meetings and will provide terrible weather, and it is important the lens can withstand this. A weather sealed lens also keeps out the dust and dirt, and we all know what dusty and dirty places race circuits can be.
Race circuits are busy places and with a lot of spectators, as well as other photographers, milling around your camera/lens is likely to take a few knocks and bangs. Cheap and inferior lenses will not withstand a lot of abuse so you need to get good quality lenses for motor sports.
So, when buying a lens for motor sports photography you need:
Now you know what features you should be looking for in a lens for motorsports photography the hard part is now choosing which one to buy, and only you can tell what is going to be the best lens for your circumstances.
THE LENSES I USE FOR MOTOR SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
"Just one of the lenses I use for motor sports photography - the Canon 100 - 400L IS lens"
The first lens I use for motor sports photography is the Canon 100 – 400L IS lens, and I think it is the perfect lens for taking motor sports photos. The Canon 100 – 400 lens is tough, durable and weather sealed, making it perfect for outdoor use in all weathers. I can use the 100 – 400 in the rain (which is an exciting time and hence creates plenty of photo opportunities) safe in the knowledge I am not going to damage anything. The weather sealing also helps keep out the dirt and dust, and race circuits are notoriously dusty.
The image quality of the Canon 100 – 400L IS lens is superb. Photos are sharp, bright and vivid. Distortion is well controlled, as is fringing. I have no complaints over the image quality of this lens, and since I have managed to sell many motor sports prints taken with this lens I can only assume the paying public have no complaints either.
The Canon 100 – 400 is a versatile lens that allows me to take a variety of different shots, and this is one of its best features. With this lens I can zoom in nice and tight and isolate specific parts of the cars/bikes, I can pull back to include two or three cars/bikes fighting for track position or I can pull right back and capture several vehicle plus some background and even spectators.
The Canon 100 – 400L IS lens isn’t the fastest of lenses, and this is the biggest drawback of this lens. When the light levels start to fall it is necessary to push the ISO to keep the shutter speeds fast enough for sharp shots. This is not too much of a problem since modern day cameras are very good at dealing with noise, and it is possible to shoot at pretty high ISOs and still not suffer excessive noise and grain.
Buy the Canon 100 - 400L IS lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
Since the release of the Canon 100 – 400L IS MK2 lens the Mk1 has been discontinued and the price of used and second hand versions have gone through the floor, which means you can capitalise on this and save yourself a ton of cash. If you want to buy used and second hand lenses the go to site has to be eBay, where there is always a big choice. If you want to see the current deals on the Canon 100 – 400L IS lens use the search box below.
Go find yourself a bargain
"Another lens I use for motor sports photography - the Canon 16 - 35 f4L IS lens"
The second lens I use for motor sports photography is the Canon 16 – 35 F4L IS lens. I don’t use this lens for capturing the racing action, instead I use it for taking photos of mechanics and engineers working on the race craft, photos of cars and bikes on the starting grid, photos of race winners on the podium and photos of drivers and riders mentally preparing before going out on the circuit to race.
The 16 – 35 is a wide angle lens, and I find it gives the perfect field of view for the types of shots I want to take. F4 may not seem very wide, and it isn’t, but it gives the depth of field I want in my photos. I don’t want photos where the background is totally out of focus and instead want photos where you can tell what the background is. I want the viewers to know that the mechanics are in a garage, I want the viewers to know drivers are on the starting grind and I want viewers to know the race winner is on the podium. The only way of telling the story I want to tell is to use a slightly narrower aperture, and f4 – f5.6 is perfect for this.
Being an L series lens the Canon 16 – 35 f4L is tough, durable and well made, and also contains top grade glass. The image quality of this lens is superb, and I have no complaints in that department. The 4 stop image stabilisation is useful for taking sharp shots at slower shutter speeds, and means I don’t have to push the ISO very often. The Canon 16 – 35 f4L IS lens is a great lens for capturing these types of motor sports shots and it is a lens I definitely recommend.
Buy the Canon 16 – 35 f4L IS lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
Alternatively you may want to pick up a used Canon 16 – 35 f4L IS lens and if you want to buy used there is only one site to visit, and that’s eBay. To see the current Canon 16 – 35 offers and deals and eBay use the search box below.
So what are you waiting for? Go and grab yourself a bargain.
An alternative wide angle lens for crop sensor cameras
"The Canon 10 - 22 is an alternative wide angle for crop sensors that gives the effecitve 16mm - 35mm focal length"
The 16mm – 35mm focal length is perfect for the “reportage” type motor sports shots and if you shoot a crop sensor camera the 16 – 35 lens will give an effective 26mm – 56mm, which I don’t think is wide enough. Fortunately, there is another lens for crop sensor cameras that give the effective 16mm – 35mm focal length, and that is the Canon EFS 10 – 22 f3.5-4.5. Before I bought my 6d I used a crop sensor camera for the pit lane walkabouts, starting grid, winner’s podium shots and I have to say it is a great lens. This lens is small, discreet and lightweight. The image quality is exceptionally good, and if you shoot a crop sensor you won’t go too far wrong with it.
Buy the Canon EFS 10 – 22 f3.5-4.5 lens from Amazon.com (US citizens) or buy from Amazon.co.uk (UK citizens)
If you want to save yourself some money on the Canon 10 – 22 lens take a look at eBay and see if there are any current used or second hand deals going using the search box below.
You could end up saving yourself loads of money.
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.