Regis Lefebure
Regis Lefebure

Regis Lefebure chronicles and captures the world of Motor sports with the grace and beauty of speed with still photographs that have life, movement and depth, and with a palette that would be at home in the company of the great Impressionists.

How to Photograph Fast Moving Motorsports

October 08, 2014

Various forms of motorsports occur on a regular basis, from lawn tractors to diesel truck rigs to 3500-horsepower dragsters capable of going from zero to 300mph in just five seconds. My work and passion is focused mostly on sports car endurance racing held on closed-road courses.

Making a good photograph isn’t always easy. Knowledge of the camera, lens functions and the operation of them are skills usually acquired through experience. Using the light and how it strikes the subject must be determined, and camera settings adjusted accordingly. Working with a cooperative, motionless subject helps. The challenge increases when the subject is a car, boat or motorcycle moving at speeds over 100mph. Add using long lenses, the harsh contrast of mid-day light or wet weather that is dreary dark, and the degree of difficulty quickly ramps up.

A good single lens reflex (SLR) camera is your best solution to capture the speed and action of motorsport. Most compact point-and-shoot cameras won’t be up to the task, as the focus tracking ability is not fast enough to render the subjects in the frame in sharp focus. A long lens is also a plus, as safety elements place the fans and photographers further away from the action. More on lenses later.

Becoming well-versed in camera and lens operation can help you make quick exposure adjustments on the fly. It also helps to know specialized shooting skills, such as panning the camera hand-held or using a super-telephoto lens. Computer skills for editing and processing large groups of images will follow after a day or weekend of shooting.

The length of these races run from 50 minutes to two and three-quarter hours, plus two or three practice sessions on the day or two prior to race day. There are even several races in North America and around the world that can last 6-25 hours. Most of the events require two or three drivers. There are pit stops for driver changes, fuel, and tires because mechanical failures lead to unexpected stops in the pit lane or the garage for repairs. So, too, does a mistake by a driver.

The longer races offer the opportunity to create images in dramatic lighting conditions. With advanced planning, you can capture backlit scenes making silhouettes of the cars in gold light. Pre-dawn and dusk can be special times to shoot, as the ambient light of the darkening or brightening sky comes into balance with the artificial lights of the circuit and the cars racing around it. The racers rush by and, if you have mapped your day, you are shooting in predetermined locations in killer light, then hustling to the next shooting spot to capture more great images. Photographing a twenty-four hour race can be an especially challenging, arduous task. Twice around the clock you shoot from midday sun, late evening light, sunset, dusk into the dark of night, through dawn and early morning light, and back to midday again.

Packing for the weather

Preparation for weather extremes is helpful, as road races occur in all kinds of weather conditions. Check the forecast for the weekend and arrive with proper gear to maximize your photography. I always carry my wet weather gear, even if the forecast calls for no rain. Depending on the time year, pack sunscreen, bug repellant, layers of clothing, rain gear including wool shirt or sweater if cold and wet is in the forecast, and waterproof shoes. I suggest boots for good ankle support — a friend suffered a sprain recently after stepping on a pipe behind the pit wall and rolled his ankle.

Stunning images can be made in severe weather. Don’t hesitate to shoot in rain. The heavier the rain, the more spray the cars will create in their wakes. Giant raindrops splashing yellow in the powerful beams of the cars’ headlights add drama and atmospheric perspective. Sportscar racing, whether at amateur level or professional (including Indy cars), almost always race in the rain. There are rain jackets to protect your gear, designed for specific lens lengths and made from materials like that used in scuba wet suits. These can cost over $200 and I carry three of them. A less pricy alternative some photographers employ is to cut the pants legs from waterproof clothing and adapt the leg to their cameras, using tape and/or rubber bands. These easily roll back to the camera body, exposing the lens controls prior to rain and after.

An economical solution to protect gear is to cut a hole in a garbage bag for the lens opening, and, using large rubber bands, wrap the camera and lens. Trash bags, rubber bands, tape and a penknife serve many photographers well as a quick means to protect your gear.

You have to use rain covers for your cameras and lenses if you want to make any photos in the wet. I once killed a point and shoot pocket camera in the slightest of rain showers in Long Beach, California. The retractable lens, with only a drop or two of light moisture on it, retracted upon turning the camera off, never to extend again.

Don’t forget protection from the elements for yourself. A good rain jacket, lightweight, breathable clothing and waterproof shoes or boots are a must. Otherwise, you will be miserable and cold, or miserable and sweaty during hot summer months. Bring an extra pair of socks and shoes to the track each day, in case there might be a long, soaking rain.

Removing dust spots from images is a major nuisance and a waste of time. Make sure the camera’s sensor is clean before the start of a race weekend. Keep it clean by avoiding changing lenses trackside. There can be lots of dust and debris at a noisy race track. Change lenses in a building or car. A lens swap in a portable toilet is better than outdoors on a windy day at a dusty racing circuit.

I’ve yet to experience snow at a race event, but one of coolest photos I’ve ever seen was one made in the early 1970s of Sweden’s F1 hero, Ronnie Peterson, in a black and gold Lotus 72 that’s totally sideways exiting the 160-mph Woodcote corner at England’s Silverstone F1 circuit in a freak blizzard of falling snow.

Lens choices

Bigger is better when discussing lenses for racing photography. You are going to need a long lens because this sport demands big glass. There are more and more barriers, larger runoff areas, bigger gravel traps and higher fences added every few years to existing safety measures, all designed and installed to keep fans, course workers and photographers from potential danger and find themselves forced further away from the track and the race action.

Many professional motorsport photographers have 500mm and 600mm lenses with fast f/4 maximum apertures in their arsenal. But there are many pros who rely on a variety of EF lenses, both fixed focal length such as 300mm or 400mm lenses that can be easily hand-held, and/or zoom lenses such as the EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, EF 70-300mm f/4-f/5.6 IS USM and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6L ISM USM.

The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L lens and the less-expensive f/4L lens are the workhorse lenses of motorsport photographers. This zoom ratio is wide enough at 70mm to work as a kind of “landscape” lens, enabling you to show the car in its environment. At 200mm, it can bring the car into a sharp view while the fast aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 allows for soft backgrounds. This combination is also superb in its flexibility for driver portraits in the paddock, as well as for highlighting details of the cars themselves, such as suspension bits, bodywork, stacks of wheels and tires and other cool elements found in and around race tracks.

The EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM supertelephoto lens with built-in 1.4x extender is an amazing piece. The versatility, zoom range, and ease of use — imagine going from 400mm to 560mm with a simple flick of your finger — allowed me to score great results at a road race through the streets of Baltimore, Maryland last year. I could zoom from the 400mm range down to 200mm, as the cars leaped over the curbing at me with two wheels in the air. Every image from this location is pin-sharp due to the superb autofocus.

The “big white lenses” — EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM, EF 500mm f/4L II USM, EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM — are in a class of their own. The lens build, lightning-fast autofocus speed, and (relatively) light-weight optics make for gorgeous images. The subject snaps into focus within milliseconds when the focus button is pressed and focus tracking of fast moving racing cars is accurate and true. These lenses are also in a class of their own regarding cost, but the image quality they provide is second to none. Clarity, color saturation, fast focusing and “bokeh” are amazing.

Being able to quickly yet smoothly move a lens/camera combination to steadily follow a fast-moving car is a key part of race photography. Because of this, two super-telephoto lenses truly stand-out for motorsports photographers. One is the EF500mm f/4L IS II, because of its relatively light weight and easy monopod handling. Another is the EF400mm f/4 DO or new EF400 f/4 DO IS II (Diffractive Optics) lens, which uses special optical technology to reduce length and especially size/weight. The result is a lens that can be readily hand-held, and is noticeably lighter than a 300mm f/2.8 lens. It’s particularly well-suited for daytime shots when you’re primarily shooting front-lit subjects.

Unless you are making time exposures at night capturing streaks of headlights or taillights, leave the tripod at home. They are cumbersome when trying to capture action. Get a quality monopod if you are using longer lenses that have a tripod mount, or foot. Practice shooting with it, but remember to not hold the monopod when shooting. Instead, place your left hand on the top of the lens hood while your right hand grips the camera and controls the various camera functions, wheels and buttons. Placing your hands at far ends of the camera/lens combination gives you better balance and handling in following the action or making candid portraits.

Choosing your settings

In changeable weather conditions where the light shifts, use Shutter priority (Tv mode) for stopping action. Use the exposure compensation dial to adjust the aperture up or down 2/3 stop or so to ensure proper exposure when the subject is lighter or darker, adding “+” compensation for a light-colored car or scene, and darkening the final exposure with “-” compensation when the car or scene is dark.

I try to get various images “in the can” early in the weekend for my clients: Side-on panning shots, head-on and front three-quarter shots with long glass, packs of cars, candid driver portraits, and crew working on the cars. Once these are in the can, I will play with longer exposures, panning the camera while the cars are coming at me or going away at three-quarter angles, backlighting, edge light, or silhouettes. This is when creative fun starts.

A shutter speed of 1/500 for long glass (500-600mm) is adequate for freezing the action and revealing details. Adjust the camera’s ISO up or down to maintain the shutter speeds and apertures desired. Shoot with a wider aperture to blur background more, giving more attention to the subject by letting it stand out against a soft background. You want to reduce distracting objects in the background that otherwise might compete for the viewers’ attention.

My cameras’ autofocus setting almost always stay in AI Servo AF mode. For those frame-filling shots, the center focus spot or a lower focus spot in the viewfinder is best for rendering sharp images. An AF point in the lower part of the frame lets the AF system put sharpest focus right on the front of a car, while preserving good composition in the frame. I switch to back-button autofocus to pre-set focus, when I want to show the car in the environment. I pre-focus on a point on the track where I want sharpest focus to occur, then pull my thumb off the back button. Since this locks focus, it’s easy to then compose the image within the viewfinder and squeeze the shutter button just at the moment the subject arrives within the focus area I’ve determined. Using back-button focus allows me to quickly change what’s in sharpest focus, should I want to quickly recompose and change focus for action occurring elsewhere.

I will also use back-button focus when I am making candid portraits or shooting scenes in the paddock or pit lane. When using a wide angle lens or shooting a landscape with a short telephoto, I’ll switch to Aperture Priority (Av mode) to control depth of field and what I want to be in focus.

You want to convey motion in your action shots, otherwise the cars can look like someone parked them on the track. When cars are traveling 120mph or higher, as on NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) or IndyCar ovals or long straights, a shutter speed set to 1/500th will reveal a nice pan blurring of the spinning wheels and background. Side-on panning shots work best if you create space between you and the subject. The closer you stand to the subject, the faster you have to swing the camera , therefore it’s more difficult to get a good result. A shutter speed of 1/250th will provide a blur to the wheels while rendering most, if not all, of the car in sharp focus. Trust me, team sponsors and advertisers like to see their company names in crisp, readable focus.

Panning at slow shutter speeds is an art form. Hold the lens or the lens hood with your left hand at its furthest point from your eye in order to get the best steadying effect. Pivot your body from your hips or feet while tracking the cars. The lens length you are using, your angle to the car’s direction, and distance from the car will affect what the optimum shutter speed is. And, of course, your taste in what works for you is subjective. It takes lots of practice. And even when you’re well-rehersed with panning, back yourself up with multiple shots, because inevitably some will still come out with less-than-ideal sharpness.

Focus manually for critical focus while keeping back-button focus fully enabled allows you to quickly grab a shot by just pressing the rear button with your right thumb, should something interesting occur in the background or out of the frame, and you want to quickly change focus.

Slow-shutter speed pans, from 1/30 second down to 1/4 second, makes for very cool action images, but your hit ratio will fall off dramatically with slower shutter speeds. Find what works for you by experimenting.

Safety, planning ahead and how to create better photos

Shooting from spectator areas can pose problems. Safety fencing often border the tracks to keep spectator areas safe. Oval tracks are ringed with it. Often, the best solution for shooting action at an oval is to shoot from the infield. You might consider a seat higher in the grandstand and shoot over the fence, although this might need a longer lens, or a 1.4x or 2x extender on an appropriate lens.

Your safety is always a priority. Never stand too close to the track, and always have a safety barrier between you and the speeding cars. Never turn your back to the cars. Always be looking in the direction of where the cars are coming from. Avoid all red zones, areas of danger where you are not allowed to stand and shoot. Also, step away from the track if you are viewing your images, changing cards or lenses or batteries.

Carrying a small stepstool or stepladder of one to three steps (depending on your height) can get you enough elevation to shoot over the spectator fences at road courses. Even if you’re shooting from restricted areas, safety fences keep the cars from photographers, course workers and flag marshals. I will shoot directly through a fence by using telephoto lenses with lens as close to the fence as possible, with the apertures at or close to wide open, such as f/2.8 or f/4. A can of flat black spray paint is helpful to paint a small area of the fence if the fence is reflective in bright sun.

Go online to search images from the event you are attending and determine in advance what are the most popular turns, the best places to shoot from, etc. Is there an iconic, signature shot? Also, think differently and look for areas that might be away from the track fence, areas that offer a different perspective. There are professional photographers who spend all of a practice session or the race itself shooting only from spectator areas without setting foot in areas reserved only for photographers. They are looking for shots that are separate from the images that are the standard. They are looking for images that are new, unique.

Plan ahead. Get familiar with the sport you are shooting and the location you are traveling to. An online search for area info and a track map will give you useful knowledge, including parking, concession stands, grandstands and bleachers, pedestrian tunnels or bridges, and toilets. If you have a photo credential, know the locations in which you are allowed to shoot from, but it’s also more important to know the “red zones,” or areas photographers are not allowed in. Use apps and sites like www.suncalc.com to determine the sun’s positions during the various times that the cars are on track and go into each session with a plan, whether its to shoot front-lit, side-light or backlit cars. At high noon in sunny conditions, most often you will be shooting “top-lit” cars. Not the prettiest sight on your computer screen! Neither is an overcast day with cars reflecting gray skies. A polarizing filter is often your best friend in these conditions. These can minimize reflections while, at the same time, increase color saturation of the cars, the track, clouds and skies.

If you are credentialed as a photographer for an event, there is often a photographer’s map showing access gates. Learn the combination to any locks and use them. There are tracks where the management will yank your photo pass if you jump spectator fences. These maps highlight “red zones” and walk-through zones that you can use to get another location, but do not stop to shoot from.

Find out if photo meetings are held. At some race events, they are mandatory. These meetings often target shooters who may be new to the circuit or the sport. Listen carefully and abide by what is said. Be respectful of the teams, give them plenty of space, always ask permission before entering team areas in the paddock or pit lane, and keep your head on a swivel. When standing trackside, always keep an eye in the direction from where the cars are traveling.

You will see professional photographers with long glass. Don’t be misled by this. Of course, dramatic images can be made with 500mm and 600mm lenses, but there are great images you can make with shorter telephoto lenses. Look for color, composition, line and direction. Before you raise a camera, look around you and compose in your mind. See various elements that may work as framing devices or lines of direction that lead a viewer’s eyes to the subject, then choose the best lens, aperture and shutter speed and ISO to convey what your eye sees into what the camera sees.

Filling the frame with the car allows the car to stand out within the image frame. Details of the car, its lines, curves or angles are made quite visible. Closed cockpits make it more difficult, but you might pick up nuances of the driver at work, his hands working the steering wheel, adjusting his visor or shielding his eyes from a low sun.

A car can look really cool when it is in your face, so to speak. But with too much, every shot can start to look like “Any Track USA.” Be more revealing and show the car in its environment by backing off or using a shorter lens and selectively add elements to the image, giving it a sense of place. Make it an interesting landscape by including fans, grandstands, hills or mountains — what ever helps to identify that track and its location.

When shooting a race at night, I most often go with natural light. Occasionally, I will use a strobe and mix ambient light with light from an accessory Speedlite flash. The ambient light might be natual light from a sunset, but it could also be from artificial light sources. The combination of light sources can make for really cool images, whether it’s action on the track, a pit stop, or repair work in the garages.

How to get access

If you have no experience with motorsports events, start small. Photographer credentials and media passes are not a free ticket to get access and take pictures.

Find out where your local tracks are and when track days are scheduled. Become familiar with your equipment and the techniques for making quality images. Sharpen your skills at your local dragstrip, oval track and/or road course. You will get to know the locals, the event managers, employees, the racers and their “families,” including crew members involved when you attend. They might become clients and buy your photographs.

If you have experience with motorsports and have access to a valid photo pass, talk with the pro photographers, pick their knowledge of the tracks including best shooting locations, processing tips, etc. If they have the time to talk, photographers love to talk about their work.

The internet is your best friend that can help you find what types of racing is happening where and when. There are racing organizations for all forms of motorsport in the USA — even a group for lawn mower racing. Race events occur regularly on local, regional and national levels throughout North America. There are categories including off-road racing through deserts in the Southwest, performance rallies across the Northern states and Rallycross (these events can be extremely dangerous to spectators and photographers as there are no safety fencing or barriers). Stock car racing and sprint car racing track exist in nearly every state across the country and are run by various groups, including NASCAR, ARCA (Automobile Racing Club of America), and ASA (American Speed Association).

NASCAR, alone, hosts nearly a dozen series of race championships on everything from half-mile ovals and various road courses to the granddaddy of stock car racing, Daytona International Speedway. Websites of the racing organizations list their race schedules and locations. NASCAR’s website has a “find your home track” page listing nearly seventy tracks in thirty states. The SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) website goes further with a wealth of information listing its various regions, their websites, phone numbers and email addresses of those regions’ directors.

Acquire the skills, learn the locations, make friends and clients, but, most of all, have fun while making motorsports photographs. The rewards multiply when you’ve successfully combined all the above.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

All images are copyright Regis Lefebure

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