Mastering Motor Sports Photography

I’ve recently been heading to Barbagello Raceway, just north of Perth in Western Australia, to catch some motor sports action. I really enjoy the challenge of sports photography and the events run by the WA Sporting Car club at Barbagello Raceway are always entertaining

And better still, there is a great variety of motor racing action, including Historic Touring Cars (a favourite of mine), the entertaining HQ Holdens that are so much fun to watch, Excels that bounce and bump all over the place, Saloon cars that take no prisoners, and a heap of exciting and closely contested open wheel categories.

They are all quite different to watch and photograph. Most events aren’t crowded, so I can move around to different parts of the raceway and get a good view of the action.

It’s a great way to get to know your camera and hone your sports photography skills.

I’ve heard many complain they are disappointed in their efforts, often blaming their camera or generally being disappointed because their images are blurred or not what they expected.

Given what I‘ve learnt, I thought many of you might be interested in some sports photography tips, based on my learnings.

For those interested, my choice of camera for sports photography is an Olympus OMD EM1.

The main advantage I find is that it’s smaller than the large full frame models from Canon and Nikon, the “big two” and yet still provides exceptional performance. I can carry it around all day with a powerful telephoto lens and I don’t get fatigued or need a monopod or tripod given the camera’s fantastic image stabilisation and autofocus systems.

Cameras are very personal and everyone has their own preference and opinions. The tips explained here apply with any camera

So, for those keen on sports photography, in particular motor sports, here are sports photography tips to get you going from Mondo Photography.

1)   A High Shutter Speed

You’ll notice with many photos on my gallery, there is just a little bit of movement evident with the wheels and tyres, and sometimes motion blur in the background, which gives the impression of movement.

Use your camera’s shutter priority mode and keep the shutter speed around 1/1000 to 1/1500 secs. Much slower and you risk too much blur. Much higher and the shots become too static.

2)   Work the Depth of Field

Be aware of the depth of field when using a zoom or telephoto lens.

Keep the aperture on a low “f. stop” if you want the race cars in the background to be out of the depth of field with softer focus. I like this effect as it portrays motion and highlights the subject.

If on the other hand you want more of the image in focus, use a higher “f stop” (11 or more). In doing so, you’ll need to reduce the shutter speed (which risks motion blur) or increase the ISO to ensure the correct exposure.

3)   Consider the position of the sun.

Think about the sun’s direction. I generally avoid shooting in the midday sun as you get harsh lighting with deep shadows and very bright highlights.

The morning and later in the afternoon work well as you get softer shadows, less glare, and you can often see the driver’s face better without the dark shadows.

4)   Get in a good position.

Position yourself at a corner or bend, where the cars slow down and bunch up.

At Barbagello Raceway, the sharp right-hand corner leading into the main straight is a great location. The cars bunch up and it’s where you get a lot of close up action.

5)   Deliberate motion blur.

If you want motion bur, especially on the straights, increase the depth of field, reduce the shutter speed, and pan with the race car from the side. The shutter speed will vary depending on the speed of the cars, the distance from them and the reach of your lens, so it can involve a bit of trial and error. But when you do get it right, the result is awesome.

Modern cameras have great continuous autofocus systems, including “tracking”, but it is important to practice and get to know your camera. Be prepared to experiment.

Alternatively, put the camera in manual focus mode, pick a point on the tarmac or barrier to focus on and manually focus on that point. Then wait for the car and before it gets to that point, start panning with the car and activate the shutter as the car reaches the point you had focused on.

6)   Rapid fire (sequential) shooting.

Sequential shooting is really useful. When using it, I generally shoot at about 7 frames a second. But be prepared to sift through a lot of very similar photos if you use sequential shooting all the time and at a fast rate.

I limit mine to two or three shots at a time, otherwise post production becomes a nightmare.

7)   Watch your exposure on sunny days.

Take care to get the exposure settings right as motorsports can be in a high contrast environment and the camera may over or underexpose, depending on your light meter settings.

This can lead to photos exceeding the exposure (dynamic) range of the camera, leading to a loss of detail in the shadows (they just become black) or clipping in the bright areas (clouds, sky and bright parts of the cars are “blown out”).

I use the histogram feature of my camera, which shows where this occurs. It’s a feature I’d encourage all photographers to become familiar with and isn’t difficult to master.

8)   Polariser filters.

I don’t bother with a polariser filter. While polarising filters can reduce glare through glass windows, they can be fiddly. Worse still, many racing cars have perspex windscreens and headlight covers, and polarisers can give weird and unnatural rainbow effects.

Instead, moving to a slightly different position can reduce glare by changing the angle of reflection.

These principles, with some adaptation, apply to most action and motor sports photography in particular. Once mastered, you can develop your own style and produce great sports photographs.

I hope you find this article helpful and enjoy the photographs on my website.

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