Photoguide for motorraces

When you attend a motorrace it is obvious to bring your camera along and take pictures of the handsome racecars. Unfortunately you are often disappointed when you sees the pictures developed. The reason is that there is a big difference in taking a picture of your family and a racecar passing at 200 km/h.

In this small guide I will go through some tips for improving your camera handling so you will get better pictures - for after all it is not that difficult.

Equipment and technical:

When you are shooting photos there are a lot of parameters to adjust. I will now go through a couple of them and give you some advice for taking pictures at a motor race.

Aperture: The aperture works like our iris in our eye and decides how much light to be let into the camera and onto the film. The values can be e.g. f/2.8 - f/5.6 - f/16 - f/22. f/2.8 is a large aperture opening, and is therefore known as "a high F-stop". f/22 defines a small aperture opening and is known as "a low F-stop".

By adjusting the aperture it is possible to control how much of the picture, before and after the object in focus, to be sharp (dept of field). By using f/2.8 only a small area will be sharp, but at f/22 the picture will be sharp in the depth.

For portrait shooting a large F-stop will be appropriate as it will soften the background - while a picture of a landscape will be most decent with a small F-stop as it will make the picture more sharp in dept of field.

  • Are you going to take a portrait of Jan Magnussen or Tom K. then use f/2.8 or f/5.6. This will give you a sharp portrait with an unsharp background.
  • Have you found a Ferrari 246 Dino at the parking ground and want to take its picture, then use f/16 or f/22. This will make the car sharp from the front to the tail.
  • If you use a compact camera or a digital camera where you cannot adjust the aperture, then use a build-in programme. I presume your camera does have a portrait- or landscape programme.

Shutter speed: The shutter speed defines how long time the film is exposed. A fast shutter speed is e.g. 1/500 sec. or 1/100 sec. A slow shutter speed is 1/15 sec. or 1/8 sec. The fast shutter speed will freeze even fast movements, while the slow one will blur even small changes in the picture.

It is important to choose a shutter speed which does not result in shaky pictures. Normally you should not go below 1/60 sec. If you are using a tele lens (or have zoomed in) then you should not go below 1/250 sec. Else you will get unsharp shaken pictures.

The secret of handsome race pictures is the choice of shutter speed. If you choose it too fast your picture will be actionless (it looks like the racecar is parked on the track), and if you choose it too slow the whole picture will be smudged.

  • The shutter speed for motorracing I will recommend you to use either 1/125 sec. or 1/250 sec. This will give you a picture where the car is not too smudged, but softens the background.

Here is Henrik Lundgaard's Toyota Corolla T-sport DTC photographed at 1/500 sec. With this shutter speed it looks like the car is parked on the track - even the wheels are sharply frozen. This is useful when you want to freeze a quick moment, but will result in a static and stationary picture. If the shutter speed were slower - e.g. 1/125 sec. a more realistic feeling of speed will be achieved.

Here the photographer has turned when the car passed. Kurt Thimm's DTC racer is now sharp against a blurred background - if you want the car to be more sharp then choose a faster shutter speed. For this picture 1/30 sec. is used to give a feeling of speed. Compare the picture with the one of Henrik Lundgaard's car above - taken with 1/500 sec. This one gives an impression of action.

Lenses: Most cameras have a standard lens at 28-80 mm. This will be sufficient if you are going to take some overview pictures. If you want to come closer you need a tele lens - most likely a 80-200 mm. I prefer a zoom lens as it is easy to decide how much of the picture to capture.

Choice of film: There are two types of film: slide film (transparency) and negative film (print film). The negative films are the most widely used and for motorrace it is to prefer to slide films as slide films are very sensitive for wrong exposure. If you use negative film you can still use the pictures even though you have under- or overexposured it.

Films are light sensitive and the ISO value defines how much. A 100 ISO film takes four times the amount of light as a 400 ISO film if you shoot under the same conditions. On the other hand is a 100 ISO film more fine grained and sharper when making large prints.

  • Use a 400 ISO film when the light conditions can vary a lot.
  • Kodak or Fuji films are to prefer.
  • 36 exposure rolls are much cheaper than 24 exp. rolls.
  • Never keep films in direct sun light.
  • When you are to a motorrace then keep the film rolls in their canister and in your pocket - always ready for a film change. At home you can keep your unexposed films in the fridge or the freezer. In this way they will 'Stay fresh' even though they exceed the use before date. This also allows you to buy a large number of rolls and thereby get a discount.

Digital: There are two ways of getting digital pictures. Either you can shoot the pictures with a digital camera or you can take the pictures with a normal film and afterwards scan the pictures. This can be done through your local photo service or you can use a scanner. There are both traditional flatbed scanners and the more expensive and optimal film scanners.

If you choose to use a digital camera then it is important to ensure you have enough memory cards with you. It is not very smart to run out of memory space in the middle of a great motorrace.

As you can never know when you will shoot your super picture, it is important to have your camera set for the hightest resolution and best quality. If the picture does not look right, then delete it at once so you don't take up the space on your memory card with bad pictures.

The shooting:

Now both the technical side and the equipment are covered we are ready to go through the last section: the shooting. This is where the crucial moment for your photo. Miss this and your picture is nothing worth - so stay tuned :-)

The pan: Often I see people take pictures of the racecar by standing static and waiting for car to be right in the viewfinder - and then they push the button. This is one reason for so many not-that-good-pictures…

When the racecar passes you at e.g. 160 km/h or more, it is important to swing the camera along with the car. This is called panning. You simply aim at the racecar when it arrives at the right and pan as the car passes you and disappears at the left. When the car is right in front of you and your camera it is the right time to release the button. Remember to keep moving the camera - so don't stop panning when you have shot the picture! Practise so you are able to pan at the same velocity as the car.

This picture shows a beautiful McLaren F1 GTR from Le Mans 1996 driven by John Nielsen. Unfortunately the car is completely blurred as the photographer was standing staticly and shooting pictures. If he had followed the trajectory of the car the result would have been another.

Focusing: Many modern cameras have auto-focus - that is where the camera takes care of adjusting the sharpness. This is a brilliant device but is put on a hard test when using it at a moving racecar. Often the build-in motor in the autofocus is not fast enough to keep the picture in focus when the car passes at high speed. There are two main methods for focusing.

You can set the camera to use pending focus (AL-servo etc.) then the camera will adjust the distance setting for the motive. This method needs a very fast and precise focus motor and therefore this method is not always useable.

The second method is to prefer as it is better for fast moving object: Turn off the auto-focus and adjust the distance manually. You can either turn the distance-setting (if your camera does have such a device) adaptly when the car passes - creating a manual-auto-focus, or you can use a focus trap.

The basic in a focus trap is to find the line almost every racecar uses when passing you (the racing line). Then you locate the spot you want the car to be on when taking its photo, and then preadjust the focus to this spot. With the focus already set you just have to follow the racecar as it passes you (as you learned under panning) and push the button when the car enters your photo trap. The easiest way is to find a place where the racecars drive parallel to you as the distance between you and the car is somewhat the same for a longer time. The use of a photo trap results in a lot of sharp pictures...

Notice that if you are using f/2.8 or f/5.6 then the dept of field is reduced - that is the sharp area in front of and behind the object in focus will be very narrow. Therefore you have to be very accurate at focusing, or choose a higher F-stop. If you use f/22 then you will ensure the car to be very sharp - but also the background. The best trade-off is to use a shutter speed of 1/125 or 1/250 and a F-stop of f/8 or f/11. If the light conditions varies it is not always possible to use this setting.

The shooting:

Camera parallel to the car.

The first illustration shows a racecar passing parallel to the photographer. The 'V' shows the visual angle of the camera, and the red line shows where the focus point is. The light area around the car shows the dept of field..

As the car arrives from the right and passes you, you aim at it, pans along, and when it is nearly in front of you, you release the trigger. The camera has to be adjusted in advance with the right F-stop and shutter speed and it also has to be focused, but then all you have to do is to push the button.

This method results in a lot of good pictures if you can find a place where the cars passes parallel to you and where there is not much fence. If this is your only way to take pictures the result can be a bit monotonous, but it is a good and useful way to document the cars running at the race. It is possible to get some variation by using slower F-stops and thereby cause the picture to be more speedy and actionful. Another way is to zoom so much onto the car that only a small part of the vehicle is present in the viewfinder. Notice that the more zooming the more important is it that the spot is in focus and you pan accurate.

Camera non-parallel to the car.

The other illustration shows the same racecar but here shot diagonal to you. This method is much more demanding than the first one. The result however is much more exciting. The problem is that the racecar moves so quickly that you have to be extremely fast at the trigger. It takes a while before you decide to push the button before you actually do it, and to the camera exposes the film. If the car drives e.g. 180 km/h then it will move 25 meters within half a second.

You can either do the focus ad hoc and then shoot - or you can make a photo trap as described earlier.

Night shooting: Even though it is after dark it is still possible to take good pictures. It just takes some settings on your camera to get a good result.

If you want to grab the car lights as rows of light along the track, then you have to use a shutter speed on a couple of seconds - this is self-evident as the humble light conditions demands a long shutter speed. It is important to use a tripod for the camera, or use some stable object (e.g. concrete wall or fence).

If you can come pretty close to the cars you can achieve a fascinating effect by using a flash and a long exposure time. Adjust your camera to synchronize the flash to use the second (last) shutter curtain. This function is often called '2nd sync' and makes the flash fire just before the camera stops exposuring. If using a shutter speed of e.g. 1/8 sec. then all light will be outlined while the shutter is open - and at the end the flash freezes the moment before the shutter shuts. This looks neat. If you don't have such adjustment choices on your camera, then you should save your pictures to the sun returns again.

Night shooting with a long exposure time and the camera on a tripod. Notice how the cars leave behind rows of light from their headlights.

Use of flash in the middle of the day: In the middle of the day the bright sunlight generates solid shadows. One side of the car can be bathed in sunlight (highlight) while the other is in shadow. The difference between these two extremities can be too demanding for the film to cope with, and as a result the part in the shadow will be completely black.

This can be solved by using the flash - yes, that's right - flash in the middle of the day! Its job is to light up the shadows so the picture will be more homogeneous. Especially for portrait pictures, as the portrait will be improved. The contrast in the motive is lowered by lighting up the dark areas, so the difference between highlight and shadow becomes more capable for the film. So this trick results in better pictures.

If your flash supports adjusting the level of flash, try using this. On some cameras this function is called 'fill-in'. A setting of -1.5 can be used as a standard if there is already light at the motive (e.g. using flash in the middle of the day). This setting tells the flash to adjust 1½ F-stop below what is to be used for the exposure. The TTL function will then make sure to prelight the motive enough without making it looks artificial.

The picture of Jason Watt taken in full daylight with the use of a flash. The flash made sure the picture got a homogeneously light setting.

Picking the place:

When picking the place to take photographs from it is an advantage to know the track and surroundings. A way to get to find the spots is to walk besides the track - against the direction of driving - and find the places where it is possible to take pictures of the cars. Be creative and try to find different angles to the track, so your pictures will be varied.

At Le Mans it is possible to walk from Tertre Rouge and down to the Ford chicane on both the inner- and outer part of the track, and here you can look for places without fences. By mooving against the direction of driving you both keep track of the racecars and you are also able to see how the cars looks at the track in a given position: Normally you would like to take the picture with the front of the racecar towards you.

At Tertre Rouge it is possible to take pictures of the cars without fence before they enters Mulsanne. Before the Esses there is also a spot without fence. Vary your shots, and not exposure all fifteen rolls of film at the same spot: Too many pictures from the same place will be monotonous - even though the cars appears without fence!

By both choosing places where the cars races at high speed and at low speed you will get a fascinating mixture of pictures with you from the race track. Remember to take pictures of the crowd of spectators and grab some of the atmosphere. At Arnarge at Le Mans you also have a place without fence. In front of the curve there is a huge embankment so you can take pictures above the fence.

The obvious photo opportunity is Friday afternoon inside the old town of Le Mans at the drivers presentation. Each driver team is driven around a route in an old vintage racecar. All the names are present and passes you just in front of your camera!

If you can come close to the garages at a race you are able to get good still pictures of the cars, mechanics and drivers. Such pictures can be very informative (especially if you afterwards are going to do a scale model of the racecar) but also such pictures can be artistically if you are using your imagination.

It is easy to find the handsome cars at the parking space or around the race track.

The area after the Dunlop bridge is a fine place for taking pictures.

Friday from 10am to 10pm it is possible to get inside the pit area and very close to the racecars and maybe also the drivers.

Using pan and a suitable shutter speed makes the picture sharp and properly blurred. Here is an Audi R8 shot at the Esses.

By zooming close to the racecar you will get the feeling of speed.

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