Photographing a Day at the Races

by | Mar 27, 2012

Photographing race cars is a challenge no matter what kind of camera you use. Most people think that all they need are high ISO, fast shutter speed, and a long lens with a large aperture aka “big glass.” Toss in a high frame-per-second continuous shooting mode and with a little practice you too can make great-looking photographs of fast-moving cars. That’s the kind of advice that makes me crazy. You can photography anything you want using whatever gear you have as long as you’re aware of its capabilities and limitations.

 ALMS at Laguna Seca

You can always stake out a location,  use a fast shutter speed and stop the car—dead—on the track, but that makes it look as if it were parked, not doing 160mph. So use your practice time to practice panning. Keep both eyes open so you can see the car coming and frame the car  before snapping the shutter. Follow the car until it’s where you want in the viewfinder, tripping the shutter as you continuously pan the camera. Don’t stop panning until after you click the shutter! Follow through maintaining a smooth motion so the camera isn’t jerked at the end of the exposure to ruin the effect. Some race photographers prefer to shoot panning shoots using manual focus. As you get more experienced you can lower the shutter speed to increase background blur and shooters that photograph drag races use shutter speeds as low as 1/15th of a second or even slower to create “jiggle shake” that adds to the ground-shaking effects that Top Fuel Dragsters or Funny Cars produce.

Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca

Cars moving toward you are a different story and fast, accurate autofocus lets you capture sharp images on tracks, such as  Laguna Seca’s aptly-named “Corkscrew,” where not only are the cars slowing for twists and turns but it provides a place where slow-moving cars are overtaken by faster ones, which provides opportunities for photographs involving more than one car. For some of the other tight places on the track, I used high shutter speeds, such as 1/2000th, to capture action that is obvious in the car’s position relative to one another. Whatever you do, use practice time to stake out these spots to find out where you want to be during race day. Some car shooters use manual focus in these places as well or select the main, center AF point, for autofocus, but I used the old fill-the-frame rule and let the camera take care of autofocusing.

Joe Farace is  author of the e-Book “15 Tips for Better Car Photos” from Flatbooks.