Shooting motorsports photography can be a fun and enriching experience. It does not matter if it's two wheels or four, harnessing the horsepower and the on the edge driving in one frame can grab the eyes of many. A lot of times though, a photographer can be left guessing on how to get started and how to receive the magical access to get “behind the scenes.” In this article, I provide several tips that will help you get started. The vast majority of my motorsports photography experience has been off road racing, with a dash of local dirt track sprinkled in for variety; but these tips can put you ahead of the power curve if you have a passion to head down to the local track.
SAFETY FOR MOTORSPORTS PHOTOGRAPHERS
Motorsports is an inherently dangerous activity, both for participants and spectators. Crew members and spectators have been killed at motor sports events around the world. When it comes down to it, you are ultimately responsible for your own safety. Along those lines, you are also responsible for the safety of those around you.
Here are some things you can do before you even show up to the track:
It goes without saying, be familiar with the particular genre of racing you are going to shoot. More than likely, you already are, hence the reason you are wanting to do this, but you might be like me and there will be several vehicle classes racing. At all the races I have done, the class ranged from slow, stock based class vehicles up to high horsepower unlimited machines. I have never felt unsafe while shooting off road racing, but I cannot say the same thing about the local dirt track. The dirt track experience was fine when it came to the stock and modified vehicles, but when the winged sprint cars took to the track, it was basically too much. There were cars all over the track and they were the fastest cars of the night and although none crashed, when those cars go out of control, they really go out of control. When I decided to shoot racing, I was already familiar with the sport from following it, plus I had been to several races either as a spectator, a crew member or a member of the promotion staff.
If you can, go to the venue and watch a race before even shooting. Watch what other photographers are doing, both right and wrong. Look at where they are shooting from and take notes. If you already have at least a mental image of the venue before you shoot, you will be able to make better decisions about shooting in a safe way.
This section is not about the camera or glass, I will cover that later, but this is about some of the other gear you might want to invest in either by choice or requirement.
The yellow safety vest, or as it is commonly called, the media vest. This is an investment that you do not have to make, but if you do, you can spend just a few bucks for a basis vest. This is what I have done. I know some photographers who want a lot more functionality, so they will spend $60 on up.
Different promoters have different rules for media vests, so you will want to ask about this before you shoot. Some promotions have their own vests that they issue out. The vests will be numbered so if you happen to do something that is against the rules of the promoter, you can be identified and possibly have your media credentials revoked. Other promoters will have their own vests that they will issue out, but also allow you to wear your own vest if you so choose. Lastly, I have shot at some places that do not require a vest. For me personally, when I go to a race, my vest is with me and I will either wear my own if I can. I also have my vest imprinted with my logo and the other photographers that I know that have their own will have their logos on their vest. It is an easy way to be recognized and network.
I strongly suggest having someway to keep hydrated while you are shooting. A lot of times, you will be on the track for hours on end and usually, the air will be warm to hot. I use a 3 liter Camelbak for my hydration needs. The nice thing about it is that I can stash snacks and some other small extras such as a GPS in the backpack part.
As for what you want to use liquid wise, that is up to you, but water is the best, basic source you can use. Since I hate drinking water, I will add a scoop of Gatorade powder to the mix for taste purposes. I also like my drinks to be ice cold, so when I am prepping my Camelbak, I will fill the bladder full of ice, then add the water. There has only been a couple of times when I finished the day and all the ice has melted, but the water was still cold.
For me, clothing is another aspect of gear that one should look at before jumping in. I prefer shorts and flip flops when I am around town and when it is warm, but at the race track, I am in long pants and hiking boots. At some of the off road tracks that I have shot at, I have had to deal with bugs and thorny vegetation that will cut and poke. I have seen some photographers wear shorts, but that is them and not me. As for shirts, I will usually be in short sleeves unless it is cold.
As for other clothing, this is all dependent on what type of racing you are shooting. Some types of racing will be postponed based on the rumor of rain, while other types of racing do not care about the weather. My first race that I shot was 40 degrees and it rained all day. I was prepared, but I was still miserable. It does not matter what the weather forecast is for the off road race I am going to, it has been mostly been spring time here in the High Plains and the weather can change drastically, so I will always have some cold weather gear along with rain gear along. In fact, the last race I shot down in Texas, the forecast called for rain up until the day before the race. I invested in a better rain jacket than what I had at the time. On race day it was 90 degrees and the sun was out.
CAMERA GEAR FOR MOTORSPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
I have absolutely no opinion on camera bodies. Run what you brung. If you have a body that has a semi fast frames per second, the better off you will be; but I started shooting with a Pentax KX. I have moved up to a body that has better fps, but I have seen some awesome images shot with bodies with a whopping 4 frames per second speed, so don't fret if your body is slow. If you have a body that has a high frames per second rate, then go for it; but please do not think that just because you have a starter level DSLR that you are shut out from shooting.
I tend to like smaller capacity cards with good to fast write speeds. Early on, I read a piece of advice from another photographer who stated that by using several different cards for the same event, if one card goes bad, the event is not an entire loss as there will be more images on other cards. Depending on your body and if you are shooting RAW, JPG or both will dictate the capacity of the card you will want to go with. I shoot RAW exclusively with a 16 megapixel body and I have found that using 16gb cards are perfect for me. I get 500 shots per card. If I am shooting several different classes, I will use one card per class. If it's a race class with a low number of entries, I will usually drop down to one of my 8gb cards.
Card speed is a big thing to look for when you are selecting what you want to use. The nature of the best that is sports photography, most shooters will shoot numerous times and there will be times that you might lay on the shutter for a 20 shot burst. You really don't want to bog down the camera's buffer, but you will. By using a fast card, it will take more to bog it down. My cards range from 45mb/s to 95mb/s. For the most part, the 45mb/s have served me well, but I would consider that a bare minimum.
Glass can be about the most important part of the gear you will need to think about. A lens body with a long reach plays into that safety aspect as it will allow to be take a safe shooting position without putting yourself in harm's way. While I will not discount a 200mm lens as a viable option, I have used a 70-300mm at every race that I have shot and a lot of my shots have been between 200mm and 300mm. I will not say a wide angle lens has no place at the track. It does, but in a very limited space and I will cover that in another article. In short, if you only have 200mm, you can probably get away with it but I would recommend no less than 300mm for someone shooting their first race.
Now if you do not have any glass that has that sort of reach, you have options. You can always rent a lens from one of the many companies that offer that service, but for the more sadomasochistic yahoos among us, there is possibly a cheaper option, Ebay. Yes, that's right, Ebay. I can only speak from my experience as a Pentax shooter, but I have been able to find a lot of glass on Ebay for pennies on the dollar and my first several races were shot with an old 75-300mm manual lens that I bought for about $35. I have been lucky that all of my cheap lens purchases on Ebay have been decent, but there are a couple of things you need to realize before going this route. More than likely, it will be manual focus only. This can possibly drive you up the wall, but once you start using a lens with auto focus at the track, it will not seem like work. The other thing you need to be aware of is the body might be beat up and in my case, the zoom ring was loosey goosey. I was able to get some good shots with that lens, but I missed a lot just by the zoom ring being loose.
So if you can afford it, either rent or buy something with auto focus; but if you are stuck with manual, go ahead and take the leap.
When it comes to camera settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, white balance and shutter mode, it is good if you have an idea of where you want to start so you will be in the ballpark.
The first thing is RAW vs. JPG. I will just cloud this argument up some more with my opinion, but this is totally up to you. I shoot RAW exclusively, but there are shooters out there where JPG is mandated because they are working with deadlines. This is up to you and while I would recommend shooting RAW, if you do not feel comfortable shooting RAW at this point, do not feel like you have to.
Shutter speed is your key camera setting. With action photography, we want to freeze the action. The same holds true with motor sports, but to add to the degree of difficulty is the fact that you want to freeze the body of the car, the motorcycle, the rider, and the driver while having a slow enough shutter speed that will give blur to the wheels. This allows the viewer of the image to know that the vehicle is in motion, because if you jack up the shutter speed as fast as it will go, the vehicle will look like it is parked and that takes away from the image, unless of course the car is not moving.
I like to start at a baseline of 1/500th for my shutter speed. This will depend on exactly what you are shooting. The slower classes may need a slower shutter speed to keep that wheel blur, while the faster winged sprints, unlimited off road cars will need a faster shutter speed. Your best bet is to make it to the track during practice and take some practice shots using different shutter speeds.
I started shooting manual. By doing this, it allowed me to get a firm grasp on the exposure triangle and if you are a new shooter, I would recommend shooting in manual. If you have a good understanding on exposure, then switch that mode dial over to shutter priority and go from there. Let the camera do the work for you when it comes to aperture
I set ISO manually. From the beginning of my photography journey, it was ingrained into me to keep the ISO as low as possible and from what little I have seen from my particular camera body, if I allow it to control ISO, it is going to adjust the ISO to a lot higher number than what is really needed for the scene.
I used to shoot in manual white balance also, but I got to the point where I let the camera make that decision for me. Is it always spot on? Nope, but it is always close enough that a lot times, I cannot tell that it needs adjustment. Just like shooting mode, if you are a new shooter, use manual white balance so you can learn about it, but after awhile, turn it over to AWB and let the camera do the work.
SHOOTING POSITIONS FOR MOTORSPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
The next to last thing you need to know is how to pick a good shooting position. The top priority when choosing a place is safety. Your safety and the safety of the participants. This is why you need glass with reach because it is not safe, and in many cases you will not be able to get close enough to use that 18-55 kit lens to shoot. This is where familiarity with the track will help you out. There will be spots that might look good on first glance, but if you are there during practice, watch a couple of cars go by it first. When I first shot circle track, I found a place that looked great and I was imagining what kind of shots I could get. The problem was the spot also caught a lot of roost coming off the tires and there was no way I would have been able to shoot there, so I had to pass it up.
So here are the key points you need to look for:
Do you have access to that spot and can you safely shoot from there?
The uniqueness of the view from that spot?
Will you be impeding track crew, race crew or the cars themselves?
Just like with media vests, some promoters have rules regarding where the photographers can go. Depending on the promoter, these rules will be enforced to the letter, the promoter might just not care, or the situation will be assessed on it's own merits. NOTE: I do not condone violating the rules of the promoter/track ever. If you are new to the sport, the venue, and/or promoter and find yourself crossways with the rules, you can have your credentials revoked and you will lose out.
GET TO KNOW THE PROMOTER AND THE RACERS
More than likely, the first contact you will have in this venture will be the race promoter. You will not be starting out shooting a huge series, but it will be at the local circle, motocross tracks or if you are near off road racing, it can be there. In many cases in regards to the smaller promotions, the first contact you will have will be the track owner/promoter. When you show up at the track, if you can, track that person down and introduce yourself if you already do not know them. The promoter might ask you for some shots from the race. That is up to you, but in my case, if the promoter welcomes the coverage with open arms, I do not have a problem letting them have some shots.
Get to know the racers. In my case, my first race was as a member of a team and from that point, every off road race I have shot since, minus one, my first priority was shots for that team. The off road world is very tight knit and when they are not racing against each other, they are working on each other's cars and it is a very family oriented community. Making these connections has allowed me to cover the cost of gas/lodging at times, and it has opened up some opportunities for me if I did not have those connections.