How to Photograph Motorsports: Part 1 - A Question Of Focus

Shooting Motorsports © Giles Babbidge Photography 2013

One of the greatest and most rewarding challenges for any photographer surely has to be capturing a moving object at considerable speed. Thankfully, you don’t need to travel far and wide or spend lots of money in order to learn how to do this; the techniques can even be practised in and around the comfort of your own home.

Whether it be your pet dog running along the beach at full pace, birds in flight high above a cliff-top or the thrills of a weekend motor race, there are a few key techniques which can be quickly and easily applied to a wide range of subject matter. Over the course for this four-part series, I’m going to look not just at how you can freeze motorsport action, but also how you can really make the most of a trip to any motorsport event.

There is such a wealth of picture-making opportunity out there, it can sometimes feel rather overwhelming – especially if it’s your first time in the thick of the action. So from now on, forget about simply pointing your camera at a speeding car, capturing a bunch of uninspiring and repetitive images or taking a scatter-gun approach in to assembly area. What we’re talking about here is squeezing every last bit of detail out of every opportunity as it presents itself, in a considered manner!

How to focus

First, let’s talk about what is perhaps the most immediately attractive and exciting aspect of motorsport photography: capturing a speeding vehicle as it does its thing on the race track. Most of us instinctively take pictures with our cameras set to handle the focus for us. Let’s face it, autofocus (AF) is so quick and accurate, it’s just easier to have the guesswork taken out of the equation, right?

Well, yes and no. AF is fine 99% of the time, but it isn’t totally foolproof. For example, imagine you’re holding your camera completely still as a car speeds by; even if you have a movement-stopping shutter speed selected, there’s a chance the camera won’t correctly focus on the subject in time, if at all. Ever find that your background is pin-sharp but your subject isn’t? Perhaps your camera’s over-confidence is blame!

Shooting Motorsports © Giles Babbidge Photography 2013

So how do we get around this? There are actually three main focusing techniques which will improve your chances of capturing the action. If you’re feeling confident (and why wouldn’t you be?), why not flick the switch and put your camera into manual focus (MF) mode? Using the central focus sensor (this is always the most accurate), pre-focus on a spot on the track, such as the approach to a corner, and follow the action with the camera held up to your eye. A split-second before the vehicle reaches the pre-focus point, press the shutter-release button. You may find it takes a few attempts – proving that practise really does make perfect – but this tried-and-tested method is still a great way to secure the shot.

Failing that, you could simply switch your camera to the ‘continuous AF’ mode (sometimes referred to as ‘Servo’ or ‘Sports’ mode). Using this setting, the camera tracks the focus, adjusting itself as the subject moves along in front of you. Again, follow the action through the viewfinder and release the shutter when your subject is positioned where you want.

Shutter speed – fast or slow?

Now then, here’s where things get a bit creative. Whether you realised it or not, by following the action through the viewfinder, keeping it composed in the same position right up until the moment the shutter is released, what you’ve actually been doing is what’s known as ‘panning’. Using a fast shutter speed (1/250 sec and above), you should have a perfectly focused picture showing all the detail of the vehicle, including the driver. However, by default, your subject will most likely look as though they’re parked up on the track.

So now we need to rectify this, to really convey the action. What we need is a slower shutter speed, something like 1/60 sec or below. As before, follow the action and release the shutter gently to avoid a sudden jerking movement. What do you see? If all’s gone to plan, the vehicle will be lovely and sharp but now the background will be blurred with movement – creating the impression of speed and drama. For best effect, aim to have the body of the vehicle nice and sharp, but its wheels showing movement.

On some occasions you’ll want to show more background detail than on others. Or you might want to go crazy so that both the vehicle and its surroundings are recorded in an artistic flurry of colour (below).

Shooting Motorsports © Giles Babbidge Photography 2013

Either way, it really is a matter of trying a few approaches and playing with settings, to see what works for you. My starting point for panning shots is usually an aperture of f/8 (which gives good depth of field) and/or a shutter speed of 1/125 sec, which allows me to gauge how well the movement is recording.

My preference is also to shoot in Aperture Priority mode, as I like to have complete control of that depth of field. I leave the camera to pick the corresponding shutter speed, while keeping an eye on it to make sure it’s within the range I want. Once I have my settings, and I know the lighting is not going to change a great deal, I’ll often switch the camera to Manual mode to give me consistent results.

Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface here and there’s plenty of scope for discussion. If you have any thoughts, questions or ideas about any of the above, please jot them down in the comments!

In Part 2, we’ll be looking at how you can push the creative side of things even further, stepping away from the obvious take on capturing the action.


About the Author

Giles Babbidge is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Hampshire. He travels all around the UK and works with a wide range of clients – you can find out more about his day-to-day activities over at his website.