Tips for Shooting Motor Sports

Motor sports photography can be one of the most technically challenging types of photography there is. Even when you know the theory behind the right technique, that award winning photo is, many of the times, just impossible to get. Add to that the high speed action and danger of motor sports photography and you have a recipe, not only for photos coming out badly, but  also possibly a quick trip to the hospital.

I say this because only a few months ago, a South African photographer covering a round of the SA Rally Championship, was hit by a car that veered off the road and hit into him, running him over. Even I have been very close to the action, often closer than what I would have liked and what would be considered safe. First and foremost, your safety should be your priority. Particularly with rallying where there are no barriers between the competitors and yourself. But that’s not to say you can relax at a track just because you’re barricaded from the action. It’s not uncommon for spectators to have been hit by stray tires bouncing down the track after an accident rips a wheel of a race car.

The best thing you can do to stay safe is to watch where you stand. Having a good understanding of how race cars and bikes behave when at the limit of control will help. You don’t want to stand in an area that has a high risk of having a competitor driving into you.  As a general rule, if shooting from a corner, if a car looses control, it can slide to the outside of a corner, but they are just as capable of losing control to the inside of a corner, so special care must be taken when standing in the perceived-to-be “safer” inside. Bikes on the other hand tend to only slide outwards and so the inside of a corner is the safest. The earlier in a corner you sit, the less likely it is for a competitor to go off. Try not to stand late in the corner as there is a higher chance of “offs” there. Also to maximise your chances, if you’re going to be standing in a high danger area, wear a reflective high visibility vest.

In terms of good visual areas to stand, a good vantage point is always a benefit, especially when in the middle of large crowds. Most casual shooters will be confined to the grandstands and areas accessible to the public. Sitting high up in the grandstands of a racetrack will give you a great vantage point, but this also means you will be further from the track. At these distances you will need a very long telephoto lens, preferably something that goes up to 500mm, to get in tight enough on the action. The more common 70-300 lenses will usually not be long enough. Which means that to get in close enough to the action you will have to stand close to the fencing that separates the stands from the track. The problem here in lies in fact that you can’t shoot with a fence in your way. With good scouting, a perfect shooting position can be found. I recommend arriving early before the racing starts and surveying the entire track for good spots. Also remember that most tracks have in inside and outside track perimeter that should be surveyed. For example, Kyalami Gran Prix circuit can be viewed from both the inside and outer extremities. This has pros and cons. The pro is that it has many possible vantage points. The con is that it requires a lot of walking to cover all possible viewing angles. Baring in mind that Kyalami is the largest track in the country, covering both in the inner and outer circumference makes walking distance twice has long. But not all tracks work this way. Tracks like Zwartkops can only be viewed from the outside as only marshalls have access to the center, due to safety hazards and relatively small size of the track.

Also keep in consideration the size of your subject matter. Bikes are quite a lot smaller than cars and so need considerably longer focal lengths to get the bikes to fill in the frame as much as a car would if you’re standing in the same spot for both.

Should you find yourself in the grandstand,  photographers who have long telephoto lenses with variable and relatively small apertures, (for example, a Sigma 150-500 f5-6.3) to maximise the effect of getting as shallow a depth of field as possible, one needs to shoot to as low as the ground as possible in order to get the background to stretch far off into the distance. When shooting in a grand stand, your vantage point will be great, but because you are shooting in a downwards direction, you are shortening the distance of the background in the photo, making the background have less bokeh.

In rallying, for those who don’t know, an event is taken place over multiple dirt stages which are spread around the country side. Usually a stage has a particular starting point with a completely different ending point, so walking the distance of the stage to find the best vantage point is very unlikely, as a single stage can sometimes stretch as long as 20km. All well organised rallies will have a program guide. It is a booklet with a detailed description of the stage with it’s starting and ending position, and all the points of interest along the stage that are considered to be the best viewing points for spectators. This will be your guide to finding great shooting positions. These sections are usually directly accessible by car, so you don’t have to walk a long distance. For example, usually it will describe the spectator section as having a water splash or jumps (if there are any. If so, keep a look out for these as they make great action shots.) The program usually also has GPS co-ordinates, so if you have a sat-nav, it would be a good idea to use it as it is easy to get lost in back forest roads. (also ,it would not be a bad idea to make sure your spare wheel is in good condition and that you know how to change a tire. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire, sometimes without cellphone reception and no way of changing or fixing it. Rally access roads can be rough.)

As the time between the start of every stage is usually just a little over an hour apart, don’t hang around a particular stage for too long and shoot every competitor. Rather shoot, the faster, more popular cars to get as dramatic shots as possible. The slower tail enders tend to not drive as fast and can mean more static looking photos. Once the leading class has finished, pack up and head to the next stage to get more angles of the faster cars. If you wait too long, you will miss the rally leaders on the next stage.


Something to be wary of when shooting on rally stages – rally cars kick up a lot of dust and stones. And if the dust is very dry, the dust will hang in the air for a long time. Ba careful of changing lenses during this time or you will have a lot of dust inside your camera and possibly on your sensor. Also, if you’re standing on the outside of a corner, be careful to not let flying stones hit your lens as you will have big chip in your glass, at best, or more likely, a very large crack going down the middle.

When shooting at the track, it is quite nice to get some shots in the pits as well and not just out on the track. As a general spectator, you might be able to get access to the pits, depending on what track you are at and what event is being held. Generally security tends to get tighter at national events at Kyalami. It is not uncommon for a security member to come up to you asking for your media pass. As they are the premier race track in the country, they have higher security standards. At provincial events, they tend to become more lenient. At all other race tracks in the country, regardless of whether it is a national event or not, access by the general public (and even shooting by the public) is not controlled or frowned upon. Pit lanes do get extremely noisy so wearing protective hearing equipment is strongly advised. As you are in close proximity to the competitors, always be wary of your surroundings when in the pit lane. It is still one of the most dangerous parts of a race track even though there are no high speeds achieved there.

For those who don’t have the fastest of autofocusing cameras and lenses or high frame rates, tracking high speed race cars and getting all shots pinsharp will be difficult. There is a way around this. Prefocus on a particular spot either where you think the most action will take place or where you think you will get the best composition. Once you have achieved focus, switch your lens to manual focusing. Track the vehicle before this point so you can get your timing right but don’t shoot until the car crosses the point at which you prefocused your lens. This will require great timing as you won’t be relying on taking hundreds of photos on continuous shooting and hoping a few will come out good. But rather, once the technique has been perfected, you will have few photos, but with most of them sharp and usable.

There can often be long periods of waiting for cars between heats at the track or for the first cars to arrive on stage at rallies so I always keep a small, light weight three legged chair that straps on to the tripod strap on my camera bag for waiting out those long periods. Without it, my feet and legs would be dead at the end of a long day standing. And finally, always listen to the directions of the marshalls. Your safety is their priority.

As motor sport photography is an outdoor activity, I advise you read this article as well which gives further tips on spending hours with your camera equipment outdoors.

Author Bio

Armani Quintas

Originally from Nelspruit, a photographer and camera salesman based in Johannesburg. Studied visual communication at The Open Window School of Visual Communication

2 Comments

  1. Armani Quintas September 8, 2011

    Hi Deon.

    When I first heard about the accident, there was not much information available on the outcome so I didn’t know any more than an incident had happened. I tried finding more info but could not. I am sorry for your very unfortunate incident but I am glad it was not worse and that you survived with your life. I wish you a speedy recovery and hope you are back to shooting full time soon. I hope your story will help other photographers, and even spectators, in staying safe.

    Regards,
    Armani Quintas

  2. Deon van der Merwe September 8, 2011

    Hi

    Some really great thoughts here. Safety at motorsport events has become a major factor in my life.

    I am the photographer run over by the rally car. This has changed my life so much, 4 months later and I am still unable to drive, work or play. This has not only caused me pain but also incredible strain on my family.

    Think and look after yourself when you are out there

    Deon
    http://www.deonvdmerwephotography.co.za
    http://www.deondfund.co.za