wikiHow to Photograph Motor Racing

Four Parts:Get the Right GearFind a Good LocationSet Up Your CameraTake Photos

One of the most rewarding sports to photograph is motor racing. The cars are colourful, and the action is fast without being impossible to capture. And you don't need a ton of expensive gear to get amazing photographs.

Part 1
Get the Right Gear

  1. You don't necessarily need the latest and greatest equipment; this was shot with a 4.1 megapixel Nikon D2Hs from 2005 and a "kit" lens.
    Buy the appropriate equipment. You can get great shots without buying stuff; after all, any great motorsports photo taken before about 1988 would have been done with a manual-focus film camera! But you will make a lot less work for yourself if you get the right kit.
    • Camera: No compact or bridge camera can match the high-ISO performance and brutally fast auto focus of a real SLR. So get any Canon or Nikon digital SLR camera, even an obsolete used one if that's all your budget will stretch to (remember, professional photographers shot with the obsolete cameras too, back when they were new). Don't bother with other brands; just about all professional sports photographers use Nikon or Canon for very good reasons. The more expensive SLR's are nice; they'll generally give you faster frame rates and better high-ISO performance. But they are not essential.
    • Lenses: If your budget will stretch to it, then of course you should get a top-line professional 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. But remember that fast auto focus is much more important than anything else; indeed, some older professional f/2.8 telephotos have slower autofocus than newer, cheaper lenses.

      If your budget won't stretch to a fast-focusing telephoto, and you know you can get close enough to the action to use one, get yourself a fixed 50mm f/1.8 lens. These are the cheapest lenses in the Nikon and Canon systems. They're also among the sharpest lenses you can buy, they autofocus as quickly as any professional $1000+ f/2.8 zoom, and they'll let you shoot in less than half as much light. Even photographers who own the big professional telephotos will often carry a fast 50mm as well for these reasons. And of course, if you can't do that, shoot with your kit lens. Learn its limitations and work around them.
    • Storage: Get as much as you can afford. Getting at least 16GB of storage is a good idea for high-resolution cameras; your "keep rate" will be low at the start.

Part 2
Find a Good Location

  1. Image titled DSC_0248sm.JPG
    Scout the track. If it's a road course, look for the most dramatic corner. Then find a straightaway where there's a lot of passing and drafting. Don't worry about covering the whole track - it's better to get quality shots from a couple of locations than junk from everywhere. Oval tracks are a cinch: you can usually see half the track from one location. Above all, go where the cars appear to be battling it out in wheel-to-wheel combat.
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    If an opportunity presents itself, chat with the marshals during the downtime (only the downtime.) Let them know you are a well-intentioned photographer who will behave during a race and obey the rules of the track. They may have suggestions as to where the action will most likely be dramatic. They may share stories of significance about a driver or team.
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    Ask longtime veteran photographers what they do to get good shots at a particular venue. You would be amazed at how much people will share about their experiences and what works best. Be a good learner and later, when you are asked by a novice, pass on honest advice as well. Fellow shutterbugs are not the competition.
  4. Image titled Stay alert; it'll either keep you safe or make for a good shooting opportunity. Stay alert; it'll either keep you safe or make for a good shooting opportunity.
    Stay safe. Be sensible and set up in a safe location. If a car comes at you, all of those great shots you got will be published posthumously.
    • Know where you will go in the event of an emergency. A car out of control comes fast. Real fast. You won't be running out of the way, so you had better be within a step of a pole or barrier that can shield you. Make yourself visible. A struggling driver will not have time to assess what he is seeing, so don't hunker down and make it hard for him to decide whether he needs to avoid hitting you. Make that choice easy.
    • Keep alert. Your view of the action may be limited to what you see through the eyepiece, but keep alert to the track as a whole. Even with earplugs, you can usually hear variations in the drone of engines and tell when someone is having trouble. Find out where it is coming from without delay. If it is coming at you, this may save your life. If it is not, it may present a great shooting opportunity.
    • Always obey track rules and track marshals. They are there for your safety. Ask them if it is OK to go out to this point or that point. Do what they say. Never do what they say not to.

Part 3
Set Up Your Camera

  1. Image titled Starion_of_Doom_36.JPG
    Set up your camera. If you don't know some basics about camera exposure, white balance and ISO, learn them now; see How to Adjust Your Digital Camera's White Balance, How to Understand Camera Exposure and How to Use Your Digital Camera's ISO Setting.
  2. Image titled Shutter-priority mode was picked for this shot to cause the background to be blurred by motion blur. Shutter-priority mode was picked for this shot to cause the background to be blurred by motion blur.
    Pick an exposure mode. Professional photographers will use any of the PSAM modes (program, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, manual), or even all of them on the same day. Use whatever fits your shooting style. Don't use your camera's "sports" mode, though; this is an "idiot mode" that locks out some critical controls, such as ISO.
  3. Image titled Things move quickly; you'll need to set your camera to continuous autofocus to track and predict motion. Things move quickly; you'll need to set your camera to continuous autofocus to track and predict motion.
    Set up your autofocus. You'll want to be shooting in continuous autofocus mode. Nikon cameras call this AF-C, Canon cameras call this SERVO. This autofocus mode works continuously; it will track subjects after focus has been acquired.
  4. Shots that require split-second timing are much easier to get with your frame rate turned up, but it requires fast autofocus and good shooting technique.
    Set your frame rate. You'd think that faster would be better, but this is not always the case. Remember, your SLR camera cannot find focus while the mirror is up, and you can't track the action through the viewfinder either, so having your viewfinder blacked out a lot is one way to get worse photographs. Professionals know how to get great results at the 8-frames-a-second or more of high-end SLRs, but if you're starting out, you might want to dial it back a little. Experiment to find what works best for you and with your equipment.
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    Set your camera to shoot JPEG photos. While RAW is great for its post-processing flexibility, using JPEG will allow you to shoot many more pictures (you will need this when you're first starting out), and the buffer will be much larger. You don't even necessarily need to shoot your camera at its highest resolution (especially with the insanely high pixel count of modern cameras); this, too, will allow you to shoot many more photos and make your buffer much bigger. Once you start getting consistently great results, then by all means shoot RAW if you like.

Part 4
Take Photos

  1. Image titled Monster_drift_car
    Shoot. Focus on the "face" of the car. Just like one always focuses on the eyes of a portrait subject, focus on the closest headlight or the front grille of the car. Otherwise, focus on the closest thing to you, like a door (if you're shooting from the side) or a tail-light (if you're shooting from the rear).
    • Practice following cars while zooming in and out to keep them in frame. If you have time, do this for a few minutes without taking any photographs just to get used to following fast-moving subjects.
    • Shoot hand-held. A monopod or tripod severely restricts your ability to react to events on the track, which makes you less safe and results in worse photographs. You may have to use a faster shutter speed than you'd like (although the VR of most modern telephotos helps you out there), but you'll get the shots the "monopod mob" will miss.
    • Start off with a shutter speed of 1/250. This will minimize camera shake while showing some wheel spin. If you have rock-steady hands you may be able to shoot slower. Don't be afraid to crank up your ISO as high as you need to get the shutter speed you need; today's digital SLRs look great at ISO 1600 and up, and a noisy sharp photograph is always better than a clean blurry one.
    • Shoot from as low a position as you can. Cars look much more dramatic if they're at eye level.
    • Anticipate. If you see one particular car drifting dangerously at a sharp corner, be prepared for the spin-out.
    • Shoot lots. At first, 90 per cent of your shots will be blurry, badly composed or have some other flaw. Much of the time you'll be pointing the camera at something and praying. Don't be disheartened if your first time out results in only one or two keepers; stick at it and your keep rate will rise dramatically.
  2. Image titled Nissan_drift_car,_white,_front_591
    After you've mastered the basics of getting well-composed, non-blurry shots, start getting creative.
    • Try some panning shots at slow shutter speeds. Shoot as slow as you can using hand-held without getting shots blurred from camera shake. If you've gotten good at tracking motion through your viewfinder then this will result in much more exciting shots; the background will be blurred and, if you have planned it right, the subject should remain sharp.
    • Zoom in "too far" to get some get semi-abstract shots. See the photo above.
    • Shoot into the sun in the late afternoon to get great silhouettes and lens flare.
    • Shoot at last light when the light is at its most beautiful..


  • Stay alert. The moment you look away, there will be a spectacular crunch. Don't relax until the racers have gone out of sight.
  • If you get hooked on this stuff and feel the need to upgrade your equipment, spend your money on lenses -- better quality optics and faster auto focus. A camera with a higher frames-per-second rate will help, but not if the frames are of poor quality. Upgrading to a camera with cleaner high-ISO performance will let you keep shooting when the clouds roll in.
  • To get a "group shot" (lots of cars), be in position to shoot the pace lap and the first couple of laps. Cars tend to spread out as the race goes on and it may be the last chance you'll get.
  • A clear view of the cars is essential. If there's absolutely no unobstructed spectator viewpoint (no wire fences or barricades) you have two choices: try to wangle a media pass from the track honchos, or go to another track.
  • If your images start to look strangely soft during the summer, don't panic. Increased humidity in the atmosphere combines with long focal lengths to create a gauzy effect. Console yourself with the knowledge that everyone else's pictures will look gauzy, too.
  • Many stock car races are in the evening when it is difficult to get clear dramatic shots. However, most of the bigger races will have daytime practice sessions and qualifying. During the day, lower ISO settings and slower shutter speeds are available and can lead to bright, dramatic panning shots with vivid colors. The track marshals are less restrictive during these periods, but you still need to be very, very safe in where you position yourself. During qualifying, you usually get three laps by each car individually so you can get a full representation of every car competing. During the practice or Hot Laps sessions, cars usually practice safely passing each other so you can get the same multi-car shots you would during a race (except these will be well-lit and colorful).

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