How to Photograph Motorsports: Part 3 – Seeking out the details

Giles Babbidge - How To Shoot Motorsports

Over the first half of this series, we’ve been concentrating on how you can effectively capture fast-paced action around the track at a motorsport event. As I mentioned before, it’s nearly always the racing action that most people think about when planning their day out, and so they sadly forget (or fail to realise) that there is often arguably more scope for photography away from the circuit itself.

In this third part, I’m going to be taking look at what else you could, or should, be turning your camera towards in order to make the most of your time at a given location.

Where to begin?

If you’re anything like me, you sometimes get a little bit giddy when first setting foot in a location you just know is going to be great for photography. People often use the expression ‘a photographer’s dream’ in these circumstances and clearly what they’re getting at is spot-on: excitement (and sometimes anxiety) when presented with more potential for dynamic pictures than they imagined. However, this plethora of opportunity can easily be a curse as much as it can a blessing; with so much subject matter to sink your teeth into, it’s all too easy to find yourself wondering exactly where to begin.

Honing your eye for a picture is the key – and knowing how to pick out the best or most pleasing details from a wide scene is the secret to success. While it’s true that digital capture means there are no longer weighty film and developing costs associated with shooting hundreds of pictures at an event, I would always recommend adhering to the old adage of ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. Be selective and you will soon find that less really is more; your pictures will be stronger and, ultimately, more rewarding.

So, what should you be looking for? Well, for starters, think about why you’re there and what you’re trying to do with your pictures. If you’re simply wanting to capture stand-alone images that’s fine, but having a tighter framework in mind can often help in the long run. Perhaps you could set yourself a project or theme, for example looking for interesting textures, vivid colours or reflections?

Giles Babbidge - How To Shoot Motorsports

Consider all that is around you – the sights, sounds, smells, characters, overheard conversations – and be guided by unexpected opportunities. Happy accidents should be embraced and you should not be too quick to delete files before you’ve had a really good look at them (ideally when you’re back home and in front of your computer).

The simple approach

If you’re lucky enough to have a camera bag full of kit, that’s great. Now leave 90% of it right there!

One of the best ways to fine-tune your powers of observation is to limit yourself to a basic one-camera/one-lens setup. If you really want to push yourself, try sticking with a single prime lens (one which doesn’t change its focal length) such as a 35mm or 50mm. This is a great approach because it forces you to physically move around your subject in all directions in order to get those all-important striking angles. Zoom lenses are very handy, but, in such a situation, wouldn’t a prime lens challenge you more?

The other advantage of limiting your kit, of course, is that you’ll be less fatigued over the duration of a long day walking around a site. Granted, this isn’t a photo technique as such, but you should never underestimate the pressure that a loaded camera bag can put on your back and shoulders.

Picking out people

As well as the range of shiny, high-performance vehicles at these events, don’t forget to keep an eye on the people that are running them. You will obviously see the drivers themselves, but what about the mechanics, support crews, officials, families and fans? They all play an important part and are equally worthy of your attention as they convey all the emotions of the day, be it elation, disappointment, or anything in between.

Giles Babbidge - How To Shoot Motorsports

If you’re really into candid photography, this is naturally where you’ll want to spend a good amount of your time. Besides, photographing people at various points around a motorsport venue is no different to photographing them on the street, at a party or in any other social setting – you’ll still get a wide range of expressions, as well as colourful and diverse clothing, infinitely variable backdrops and interesting viewpoints to play around with.

A telephoto lens (somewhere in the region of 200-300mm) is perfect here, as it will allow you to stand back and capture pictures relatively unnoticed. No need for a tripod – just hold that camera steady and shoot with a wide aperture of around f/4 for a movement-stopping shutter speed and nicely-blurred background.

One quick word of advice, however. Bear in mind that not everyone likes having their picture taken, even if it is at a public event. For this reason, it’s worth considering a couple of approaches you may wish to take when photographing them.

Firstly, go with the long-lens approach. Nine times out of ten, no-one will be any the wiser and you can just walk away with a smug grin on your face, delighted with what you’ve captured. If, however, your subject does spot you and looks like they’re concerned about just why you’ve been pointing a camera at them for the past five minutes, take a moment to walk over to them (if possible) and start up a conversation. Offer the chance for them to take a look at their portraits – it’s only polite and you never know, it just might lead to something.

If they really do object, you can do one of two things – either do your best to reassure them that your intentions are good, or offer to delete those pictures there and then. The latter might seem a little excessive, but could mean the difference between a trouble-free conversation and one filled with back-and-forth heated wranglings. Also remember that there are restrictions in place if you ever consider selling such images to microstock libraries or elsewhere, and most will not be accepted without a model-release form signed by the subject.

Giles Babbidge - How To Shoot Motorsports

By now, I hope you have formed a better understanding of how you might make the most of photographing a motorsport event. Up to this point, we’ve been considering the visual and impactful side of capturing images. Next time, in the fourth and final part of this series, we’ll be looking at how you can bring everything together to tell a visual story. After all, what is photography if not a way to communicate a message?


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