Photographing Race Cars at Night with Flash

by | Mar 22, 2018

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

Races are not always run on bright sunny days, sometimes they race at night. Events such as the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, some races in the American LeMans Series and even local drag and oval track races include occasional night races.

Caption: This image of a racecar made during a night race at Laguna Seca Raceway has an exposure of 1/80 sec at f/5.6 at ISO 800 and an on camera flash was used. In this case, I “dialed down” the Canon 550EX flash by minus one and one-third stops, reducing the impact of the flash.

One of the problems of using flash at a motorsports event is that if you’re not careful you will produce a static-looking image that looks like the car is parked on the track, instead of going fast. That’s why in addition to using flash, you’ll also want to pan the camera using the kind of techniques covered in my post “At the Track.” Sure, using panning and slow shutter speeds can produce a slightly blurry photograph but the car will look as if it’s in motion, not stationary.

How much flash you should use under these conditions is not just a matter of applying a formula and depends on many factors including ambient light, camera’s ISO setting, lens used as well, as the speed and reflectivity of the car itself. As in much of sports photography, experience will be your guide. Start by using the flash at full power and then lower the output after reviewing the results on your SLR’s preview screen. If you can adjust the flash output, use the flash’s diffuser panel (if it has one) to spread the light.

Caption: Why you would even want to make flash photographs of night races? This photograph was made during the night portion of the six-hour American LeMans Series race at Mazda Speedway at Laguna Seca. The cars use reflective decals and the additional combination of headlights, dark backgrounds, and flash produce drama. Exposure with a Canon EOS 50D and EF 75-300mm lens was 1/250 sec at f/4 and ISO 800 with an EX 550 flash.

Safety Tip: Shooting at any racetrack especially at night can be dangerous. You should only make photographs in designated areas and if you use flash make sure that you only fire it at the side of the racecar. Using flash when a car is coming directly toward you is not only foolish but places you and the driver in serious jeopardy. He or she has enough to do without being blinded by your flash.

car.bookIn How I Photograph Cars, there’s also lots of information on photographing cars including motorsports from sports car racing to drag racing including safety tips when working around fast racecars. You’ll go behind the scenes as I photographs a small car collection for a client and look at not just the challenge of photographing a group of cars but the logistics involved in making the shot happen.