A Need for Speed

I just got back from a short trip occasioned by Northern New Jersey Region’s invitation to speak and show some pictures at their dinner meeting. NNJR has many fine photographers, and it was a great pleasure to visit with them on their home ground; I hope the attendees enjoyed it as much as I did.

Speed. More is better, right? Well, no, not necessarily, in cars or cameras. Mach 1 is not going to get you through Turn 1, and 1/8000 of a second isn’t often going to be your best choice. Balance is required.

First, a couple of basics. Even though you know about this, I think it’s helpful to keep it in mind. In this age where cameras have algorithms to solve everything except world peace, it can be too easy to shoot without thinking, and you can miss the chance to go from an acceptable shot to a good or even great one.

Every time you double your shutter speed, you cut the available light in half. This means you must compensate by opening the aperture by one f-stop, which doubles the light each time. 1/30th of a second at f8 allows the same amount of light into the camera as 1/60th at f5.6, or1/15th at f11. (The progression of f-stops is1.4, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, and 32; the larger the number, the smaller the aperture). With your camera in an automatic mode, it will decide these relationships for you, rather like an automatic transmission; not always good. Many cameras offer a way to alter the algorithm; a “sports” setting would favor higher shutter speeds, a ”landscape” setting a relatively smaller aperture for better depth of field. Better, perhaps, but not as good as it gets.

The next step toward taking control of your pictures involves going from the “program” no-brainer mode to either shutter or aperture control, requiring you to think more about what you want from your picture. If your main need is to control depth of field, go for the aperture preferred mode. The higher the number the greater the depth of field, so if you are focused on the Porsche crest on the hood but want the maple leaf on the windshield to be sharp at the same time, you’d want to think about a number like f16 or higher. Unfortunately, this is not the only variable; you have to also consider the size of the subject and how close it is to the camera. If you are close enough to fill the picture with a three-quarter frontal image of a 1/32 scale car, you are not going to be able to have it all sharp, tiny aperture or not (there is a work-around; I doubt that you’re interested, but if you are, send me a note).

Indy cars are really moving at the end of pit straight, and holding a successful pan at slower speeds is quite difficult. This was probably about 1/800th of a second.


But numerically higher (physically smaller) apertures are not always your friend; many times you want a background to go away so that attention is focused on your subject. Here, a 200mm lens at f2.8 to f4 or a 300 at f4-5.6 can do the job for you. Think of head shots of drivers, or isolating a car from the spectators in the background. Pulling this off can change your shot from being confusing, with no apparent focus of interest, to very dynamic. The eye is drawn to areas of sharpness.

This informal portrait of driver Allan McNish was done with a 300 mm lens at 1/800th of a second. Even though the aperture was at f6.3, more than I would usually suggest for this type shot, background blurring is good, and separates the subject from other potentially visually confusing elements. .


If it’s a race or other speed event you’re shooting, your thoughts will go more to shutter priority. You tell the camera the speed you want; it adjusts the aperture appropriately (within the range of the light available). Advantage: you have total control of the shutter speed, but the camera still adjusts for changing light conditions, and light vs. dark cars. Disadvantage: if you are doing head-on car shots, you will often encounter cars with their lights on, even in the daytime. If this hits your sensor, it can inappropriately adjust your aperture for the bright light, darkening the image (see April blog). The same thing can happen with a strong reflection such as sun off the windshield.

This problem can be avoided by playing your next card, using the manual mode for complete control, no input from the camera. Decide whether you are mainly interested in aperture or shutter, set same, and use the camera’s meter to give you a starting point for the other variable, be it aperture or speed. Fine tune if you’re shooting digital by looking at the monitor and perhaps the histogram. Just don’t forget to alter appropriately when the sun goes under a cloud or you head back to the pits for some candid crowd shots!

OK, now back to speed. How much do you need, for people, for static cars, for autocrossing cars, for racing cars? The answer is completely clear: it depends. Let’s keep it relatively simple, and limit our discussion to speed events.

First of all, it depends on the speed of the car. The end of the pit straight at Indy is a lot different from the hairpin at Sebring, and a land speed record car would be something else again. It also depends on whether the car is coming straight toward you or is moving at right angles, and whether you are holding the camera still or moving it to follow the car (panning). Let’s say you are panning the car, tracking it with the camera, that you have practiced and are pretty good with it, and are careful not to rotate the camera when you shoot (easy to do, and often not a recognized problem). A regimen I’ve found usable is to do a couple of high speed (around 1/1000th of a second) shots for insurance and then work my way downward, expecting to need in the neighborhood of 1/300 to 1/500 for very high speed situations with a long lens and maybe down to 1/60 to 1/125 for slower corners and shorter lenses. 

With fairly slow car speeds, 1/100th second as used here can provide good background motion blur and some wheel blur while maintaining reasonably good car sharpness; note there is a little car blur both front and rear from slight camera rotation during the shot.


If you are moving along with the target, shooting car-to-car, a shutter speed of 1/60th with a normal focal length lens is a good starting place (assuming that both cars are moving quite slowly, 15-20 mph, which is the way I like to do this; if this is beyond control, like shooting from a pace car before a race, a much higher speed will be needed). If you are blessed with Really Big Bucks go buy a gyro stabilizer and shoot down around 1/15th for starters. A stabilized lens may be of some help here, and they are readily available, but not as impressive as the heavy, bulky, but effective gyro.

A borrowed gyro stabilizer allowed an entire sequence of shots (of the latest GT3, from the back of a Cayenne) to be done with otherwise impossibly slow shutter speeds, in this case 1/15th second, with good background blur.


This shot is more complex because two cars will seldom be at the same speed, causing one to blur. Track the more important car, the Porsche in this case, and let the secondary subject blur. 125th second at f16.


With head-on shots, car pretty much filling the viewfinder, I generally like all the shutter speed I can easily muster, ideally at least 1/1000 although you may get away with 1/500 or occasionally 1/250. There are a couple of reasons for this: unlike the pan shot, you can’t cancel the effect that the car is moving in relation to the camera, and shutter speed is the only way to minimize the blur from that. Then too, the fast shutter speed forces the use of a large (numerically small: usually 2.8-4) aperture which isolates the car from an often “busy” and even ugly background. 

Utilizing 1/800th of a second at f9 gives a good compromise between car-freezing speed and enough depth of field to show the other Spyders in the picture with good clarity. Background blur here is provided by depth of field rather than motion.


Remember a few things: there is no right or wrong; sometimes the most evocative picture is the most blurred, all color and speed. Sometimes you will want to see a car so sharp that it looks like a portrait, even though you sacrifice wheel and background blur and with them, the sense of speed. Most of the time, though, you will probably want, as I do, the middle ground with an at least acceptably sharp car, blurred wheels, and a very blurred background. You will want to discard a lot of shots; that’s okā€”this isn’t a test you can score 100 on, this is an ongoing learning process, and the more you practice it the more you will have a feel for which of your camera’s tools to use, and what instructions to give them. 

Until next time, keep shooting, and let me hear from you. Are there any particular subjects we should think about together?

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