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Top Tips for Shooting Motorsports

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With fast moving subjects comes a lot of problems, in today's article we are going to look at some great tips to help you improve your photos when shooting motor sport events.

1. Pack your telephoto

When shooting vehicles there is a very good chance you will be taking your photos from in the stands of a race track or on the roadside. In order to be able to shoot clear tight shots, you will find that a telephoto lens will do you wonders.

When shooting bikes or cars, around 90% of what I personally shoot are the moving subjects. You will find owning an image stabilised lens will also improve your chances of getting sharper and clearer shots.

I personally use a 70-200mm L series canon lens on a 1.6 cropped sensor. However I'm often wishing I had more distance for tighter crops on the subjects or for when the subject is on the other side of the racetrack. I would advise that you go for a range starting around 70mm, but no lower than the top end of 300mm. Remember, you can always buy tele-converters in order to increase the focal length.

Also remember the further away you are from the vehicles, the safer you are if there happens to be any accidents!

Unless you plan to shoot video, I wouldn't bother packing a tripod. With vehicles rushing around you never know where you might have to move in order to get the best shot. A tripod would also slow down the speed that you can pan with the vehicles. However, I would suggest purchasing a monopod if you find your lens is too heavy to hold all day.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

2. Shoot in high speed mode, aka burst mode or continuous mode

Setting your camera to the fastest shooting mode allows you to capture all the events happening. Most introductory DSLR's offer a minimum of three frames per second. But if like myself you wish to capture things slightly faster, I would suggest looking into the semi pro ranges which offer seven or even ten FPS.

Make sure you buy a fast memory card with a high write speed to go with your camera as often the photos cannot be written to the card quickly enough.

I personally don't shoot RAW on a raceday as I see little point, as 90% of my dodgy photos are actually of out of focus shots, rather than colour issues, which simply cannot be fixed in post.

Remember to take as many photos you can. You can always delete bad images, but you can never add good ones.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

3. Remember to pre-focus

With motor sport you can predict where the action is going to happen, the two most common locations being in the corners or on the fast straight. It is very important to work out where the action is going to take place, you can then prepare yourself for the perfect shot.

Focus on your point and then pre-focus by pressing your shutter release half way down to focus in on the current scene. When the action comes along you then only have to press the shutter release down the other half to take the picture.

You are not always going to predict where the main action will take place every single time but when you get it right you will find that you will have nice in-focus sharp shots.

You could use manual focus, but be aware that if suddenly something happens in a different location on the track, you cannot quickly turn around and start snapping quite as quickly.

Credits to Patrick Mayon for the image

4. Learn how to Pan

Panning refers to the horizontal movement or rotation of your camera. The idea is that you follow your subject and then you capture the shot in order to freeze the action while the background will be blurred creating the illusion of movement.

Panning is used for side shots of all types of vehicles and is one of the most important techniques to learn when dealing with motor sport photography.

For more advice on the subject have a read of Capturing Dynamic Photos With a Panning Effect by Tomer Arazy or if you would prefer a video tutorial check out Simon Plant's Capture the Perfect Panning Shot Every Time.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

5. Try tone mapping

When shooting racing you will often wake up to find the weather is overcast or slightly gloomy (I know I do in the UK). So your shoots can come out a bit too dark. When used correctly tone mapping can help bring out the colours to make the image stand out without looking fake.

In the example below, I took my photo and then using Adobe Photoshop used the exposure tool to create a fake over and under exposed image. I then used Photomatrix to combine the three images and then adjusted the result to warm the image up slightly.

Don't be afraid to experiment with it. As long as you don't go over the top and make the images look too cartoony, then it is a great style of photography.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

6. Go in for the crop

Don't forget about the people riding/driving! With bikes especially go in for a cropped shot as you can often see how hard the riders are focusing on racing. Cars make it harder to get cropped shots of the driver, but give it a go and you might be lucky.

With these shots you can often knock the background out of focus, and try more creative angles.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

7. Go into the pits

With smaller events you are often able to freely enter or get near to the pits. The style of photography changes instantly when you enter the pits because you suddenly go from shooting fast moving objects to static vehicles.

When shooting static vehicles you can spend a lot more time framing your shots as well as being more creative. Try different styles of shots including some macro shots and even some portraits of the racers. Check out 10 Tips on Creative Car Photography for more tips on shooting static cars.

When shooting motor sport I find this is really the only time I ever have to change my telephoto lens to a wide angle.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

8. Shoot using Shutter Priority

With motor sports I stick to shutter priority mode and start with a speed of 1/640th. However depending on the type of racing you might want to increase this, for example when I shoot motor cross I often need to shoot faster to capture all the dirt flying up.

If you find your images to be too dark then crank up the ISO slightly or open the aperture wider.

If you statically place yourself at corners this will be when the riders/drivers will be at the slowest and also produce some of the most exciting photographs.

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

9. Go see through

Unless you are lucky enough to have a nice shiny press pass you will often be stuck behind a nice metal protective mesh of steel. Shooting with a wide aperture can help your lens focus on the action rather than the mesh in front.

It's not a perfect fix and you will encounter problems at times (especially if your camera just wants to auto focus on the mesh) but its better than nothing.

In a ideal world, find a spot which you can avoid shooting through any fence. Finding the higher ground and shooting the lowest point of the track has often worked well for myself.

Credits to letscommunicate for the image

10. Practice

Moving subjects are always hard to shoot, but with the excitement and unpredictable events of motor sport, you will find that practice makes perfect.

Remember to experiment, even by tilting your camera you can add effect. Often diagonal photos add a sense of speed or danger so go forward and try it! Shooting low gives you a more dramatic shot (better for cars).

Where as with other styles of photography you can often uses post processing software to help fix your problems, you will find with motor sports you simply cannot recover blurry images or out of focus images.

Practice and don't be afraid to shoot away!

Copyright Peter Sawyer ©

Other vehicle related articles on Phototuts+

10 Tips on Creative Car Photography

8 Tips for Taking Sports Photos Like a Pro

Manipulating the Colour of an Automobile in Photoshop

Thanks For Reading!

Remember motor sport is dangerous and you should never shoot from anywhere that might put yourself or others in danger. Don't use equipment that might cause a driver to be distracted (eg: powerful flashguns).

Also remember that generally other photographers are fun to talk to, and if they know the location they will often be more than happy to help tell you the best vantage points.

I hope these tips and ideas have come in useful. Why not post up your favourite shots below or help by submitting your own hints and tips for others to read.

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