THE EXCITEMENT OF SPEEDWAY
If you’re passionate about speedway like me, then you know that capturing the right moment is key. I meet a lot of people out at the track who want to take better photos – it’s not easy to get the perfect shot! Here are some tips I have for getting great speedway photos.
Speedway is dusty and dirty. I always leave the track with my camera and myself covered in dust and mud. Dust can be disastrous for your gear – whatever it is. There are things you can do to look after your gear.
Are both your camera and your lens weather sealed? If not, add a rain cover to help keep dust from finding its way in through tiny cracks and crevices.
No matter what camera you have, always clean the outside of both the lens and camera body before taking the lens off the body – otherwise you will expose the sensor to dust.
I always advise photographers to avoid changing lenses at the track. However, if you’re moving from pits to tower to infield and really need to change a lens, then find a spot in the clubrooms or go to your car out of the dusty atmosphere. Brush and wipe your camera and lens clean, then change the lens.
If you don’t have Speedway NZ and track accreditation, plus track permission, then you’ll be shooting from behind a fence. Use a wide aperture to help blur the fence, and set your focusing distance manually so the autofocus doesn’t get stuck on the fence.
Getting up close shots
Getting up close and personal to sprintcars speeding round a track at speeds in excess of 160kph just isn’t possible! If you have one, pack a good telephoto zoom lens. My go-to lenses at the track are my trusty FE 24-240mm zoom and my FE 100-400mm.
I started motorsport photography with just my 24-240mm and an iPhone. I found the 24-240 to be a great all-purpose lens that goes from pits portraits, to wide-angle track shots, to a single race car on track. My phone has a zoom that has been good enough for many shots in pits or infield. So you dont necessarily need the flashest gear – I managed to produce good, solid motorsports images with my 24-240 lens that got published.
Don’t get too close and miss the action!
Sometimes you can be so focused on getting a close-up shot of a race car that you don’t see the car spinning out behind it. Sometimes it’s better to take a wider shot to catch all the action, then crop in post.
How can you anticipate what will happen next?
Anticipation is key! But how do you know when and where to take the shot?
On an oval track, the curves tend to produce a lot of the action. My home track Central Motor Speedway is actually a D-shape, so drivers often take off too fast at the green flag and get out of control on turns 1 and 2.
Make sure you get there early and watch the warm-up and practice rounds. This will give you good insights into which parts of the track to focus on for the action. Look for corners, bumps, curves or track that is not well compacted for the most excitement.
The question of shutter speed
Fast race cars require fast photography, but not always a fast shutter speed.
Yes, a fast shutter speed freezes the action and gives you a sharp, clear photo. However, if you freeze every last bit of motion, that car ends up looking like it’s parked out on the track! The trick is to use a shutter speed that’s fast enough to freeze the car but slow enough not to freeze the tyres and to give you motion blur.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to creating that perfect mix of sharpness and blur.
You also have to remember the role shutter speed plays in exposure. Fast shutter speeds let in less light, so you’ll need a wider aperture and/or a higher ISO. Slower shutter speeds are the opposite. There’s more time for light to get in, so you will need to adjust aperture and ISO accordingly.
Not all race cars go at the same speed. At any event I could be shooting multiple grades from youth ministocks to super saloons and sprintcars. Warm up laps and practice laps are my friend! This is where I experiment for that day’s conditions and play with settings.
Panning to convey motion
This technique takes practice, but gives you great results. The key is to have a shutter speed slow enough to get motion blur in the background, but fast enough to get the race car sharp. I can’t use a tripod in the infield bunker, so I’ve learned to do this hand-held – even at speeds as slow as 1/40sec for the fastest sprintcars.
I set my camera to manual mode and continuous autofocus. I dial up a shutter speed (I have my starting points for each grade based on previous experience), then adjust ISO and aperture to suit.
I half press the shutter and allow the lens to focus on the car. I keep my feet in one spot and move my body with the car, fully depressing to take the shot once focus is locked and the background is where I want.
When shooting Joel Myers Jnr recently, he was so much faster than the rest of the cars, that I also used burst mode. This gave me 2-3 images per straight, and meant I didn’t have to think about the background.
My advice – just keep practising. It’s well worth it!
More on focus
One of the trickiest things is to get a sharp focus on that fast-moving race car. That’s why I use continuous autofocus. This mode allows your camera to continue to adjust focus even after you’ve pressed the shutter.
It is important to also consider the autofocus area mode. I use a dynamic mode, which means I choose a general part of the frame to focus on. The camera uses the surrounding focal points as well and increases your odds of getting a sharp, focused shot.
Continuous autofocus is great for down the straights, but what about the action in the corners? This is where I might use a pre-focus technique combined with burst mode. To pre-focus, focus on the corner before all the action gets there. Then press the shutter just before it all happens.
Variety is good
Don’t take all one style of shot, or photograph a whole event from one angle. All your images will just
look the same.
Try shooting low around the side of the bunker if you’re infield. What does that give you?
Where does mud fly the most? Will you get a better angle on this from the arena?
What about some wide angle shots showing drivers being passed, or a group all jockeying for position.
Photographers often spend the event worrying about whether they’re getting good enough shots. Get a few ‘safe’ shots, then get creative. Try new angles, new ideas – and above all, have fun! You may just end up getting the shot of the day.