Techniques in Racing Photography

As we move further in the racing season—Sebring is just past—I thought we might talk about some specific techniques for racing photography. Remember, too, that these techniques are equally applicable to autocross, driver ed, and other automotive competition photography. For that matter, anything that moves, including bicycles and children.

If you think about it, there are really only two types of usual racing pictures, although with lots of variations: the dramatic head-on shot and the side, or pass shot. These require very different techniques and, to and extent, equipment.

The more dramatic of the two, the head-on, is pretty equipment intensive. Our May cover (left) is a classic head-on shot showing the Porsche leading the Audi, both drivers visible (1/1000, f5.6).

In the best of all worlds, you’ll have a primary lens in the range of 300-600mm, it will be “fast” (in terms of light-gathering ability), f2.8 or, for the longer lenses, f4, and you’ll use a camera that can pop off five to ten shots per second, and has enough computing power to continuously follow focus once it locks on to the car. Problem is, this rig can pretty much destroy your bank account; a pretty good 944 Turbo could be yours for the same price of a good basic rig, and it goes up from there. 

These are physically big and heavy outfits too; add an assistant on your best-world want list, to carry this stuff around. I once had the opportunity to borrow one of Nikon France’s 400mm f2.8s at Le Mans; it was the best lens I ever used, $8000 or so to buy one, a dream lens. But I only lasted about half a day, then took it back. Got some great shots, just couldn’t carry it around any longer. And I was a lot younger then.

Happily, there are some great alternatives. There are two types of 35mm digital cameras, those with the sensor about the size of a piece of 35mm film and those with a somewhat smaller sensor. Both have their own advantages, but for this purpose the smaller sensor in my cameras gives an effective magnification of 1.5 times, so that my relatively small and light 300mm lens produces pictures at 450mm; add on a small 1.7 extender between the camera and the lens and you’re up to around 700mm. You can go one step further; a 300 mm f4 is much lighter and tremendously cheaper than the 300mm f2.8, and you give away only one f stop of “speed” (for instance, you might have to shoot at 1/500th of a second instead of 1/1000th). Particularly as the latest digital cameras are increasingly capable of getting around this without a quality penalty, it’s not a bad way to go.

Shooting slightly from above can produce a neutral non-intrusive background (f5.6 1/1000, Laguna Seca)

 

A variation of the head-on shot done in essentially the same way (f5.6 1/800, Laguna Seca)

 

The shot itself is pretty simple. A monopod is a real help; relatively light and easy to carry, this supports the camera and lens and can prevent fatigue and tremulousness from supporting your rig over longer periods of time as well as making your shooting platform a bit less shaky. Start out shooting with the sun behind you, particularly if it is late in the day and there is light on the drivers’ faces from the low sun. Open the lens aperture wide, f2.8 or f4 as a starter; this both lets you use a higher shutter speed and causes the background to be out of focus, isolating the car and adding a sense of speed. Begin with a shutter speed of 1/1000 or more; slower is usable, down to maybe 1/500, but at some point you’ll noticeably lose sharpness. Remember that 120 mph is 176 feet per second or 2112 inches per second. Divide by a thousand and you’ll see that the car still has moved a significant distance during the brief time the shutter is open. Nevertheless, with the car coming toward you, the picture will likely be acceptably sharp. 

You’ll want to either set your camera on shutter preferred “S” or manual “M.” Shutter preferred has the advantage of adjusting for the differences in very dark and very light cars, but can give serious underexposure if the cars are running headlights which can throw off the metering in head-on (but not side) shots; I learned all about this shooting film across the ocean—at Le Mans—with no chance of repeating the lost shots. The manual setting gives you complete control of the exposure even with headlights, but requires constant reevaluation as the light changes.

The headlights have caused the camera meter to underexpose; the solution is to use and correct manual exposure rather than "S" (shutter preferred).

 

With a high end autofocus camera, use the continuous autofocus setting so that the camera can in effect track the position of the car as it comes toward you, maintaining a sharp focus. For important shots, such as those early in a race when you want to be sure to get a shot of each car before damage, dirt and attrition set in, you may want to use a fast continuous shooting mode in short bursts to document each car in several slightly different positions: straight on, then with a little of the side showing, and then with a little more. With cars tightly bunched at the start or after a yellow flag, you get the bonus of other cars behind and a more intense feeling of action. I usually find that I like pictures of single cars more if they’ve already started to make the inevitable turn that keeps them out of your lap. If you’re shooting from a low angle, you can catch the ones that are really stiff lifting an inside wheel, too. Do remember to let the camera “see” the car by beginning the focusing sequence a second or two before you plan to start shooting; do this by partially depressing the shutter to “wake up” the camera’s computer and let the autofocus tracking begin its work.

But you may have some concerns revolving around your Lotto-based digital camera equipment fund having not yet come into its own. No worries. Superb film cameras are available and are really cheap (I’ve been trying to sell my old favorite for over a year and it’s priced lower than many a much less capable point-and-shoot). Older 300mm 2.8s are out there from the manual focus days, and are capable of great quality; I used one for a long time, and, before that, one of the compact and light weight 500mm mirror lenses. I’ve already mentioned the relatively economical 300mm f4. The difference is, to a large extent, quantity and not quality. The shot is made by using manual focus, pre-focusing on the track and then shooting just slightly—experience will teach how far—before the car gets there to compensate for the slight shutter lag. Try using the rumble strips commonly placed at the apex of a turn as your focusing point and shooting as the car gets to that area; it’s easier and probably more accurate than trying to judge when the car comes into focus in the viewfinder. Downside—one shot per lap. Upside—a result every bit as good as autofocus on the ones you do right, at a super bargain price. 

Good “pass” shots are much less equipment intensive. A decent camera with a lens in the neighborhood of 35-200 mm is generally all you need. A “fast” lens isn’t required either, although it can be a help for late in the day shooting, and having a camera that can follow focus is less important than with the head-on shot. 

The GT1 at Spa in 1996 provides extra value to a pass shot by laying down some flames (Spa 1996).

 

Choose a safe position that lets the car pretty much fill the camera’s frame when the car comes into the position where you want to shoot. Plant your feet in a comfortable place that lets you swing from one side to the other smoothly. Focus on where the car will be when you shoot. Set your shutter speed (use shutter preferred or manual setting) to an appropriate number.

Appropriate? There’s the rub. The slower you select, the better the blur of the wheels and the landscape behind the car, but the greater the likelihood of blurring the car, too. You usually want a sharp car with blurred background here. For cars pretty close to you—say you’re using a lens in the neighborhood of 35-70 mm and the car is moving not more than about 60 mph, try making exposures at 1/30, 1/60, and 1/125 second. If the car is further away and moving faster, you can get decent shots with up to a 300 mm and 1/500th. Watch the monitor on a digital camera, and let it help fine tune your speeds. 

Shallow depth of field allows the background to be non-intrusive (Le Mans 1996).

 

1/125 second gives good background and wheel blur - except that the front wheel has locked up under braking! (Laguna Seca).

 

1/1000 of a second at Daytona freezes the car, late afternoon sun illuminates the driver, but f8 gives too much depth of field, letting the background be too intrusive.

 

Last turn at Sebring - late afternoon sun lights driver while the shadow of the bridge frames the car (1/320, f10).

 

Try to keep one part of the car—I like the outside mirror—in the center of your viewing screen at all times during the pass. Start well before the car comes to your position and track as smoothly and steadily as possible; this is where practice will make you better, but luck always helps too. Release the shutter very gradually and smoothly; a jerky release can cause the camera to rotate slightly and blur the ends of the car. Continue to follow the car for a second or two after you shoot, even if you’re not doing multiple shots during one swing. 

Between races, practice on your kids. The principles are the same, but less shutter speed is needed (f3.2 at 1/320).

 

1/125 at f5.6 provided a good background blur with some blurring of the feet, but sharp features.

 

Remember there is no absolute right or wrong; sometimes a really blurry picture communicates speed better one that is technically “better.” The more you shoot the more you will know what you like and how to do it.

Keep shooting, and let me hear from you at leonardt@pca.org.