Beginners guide to getting started in motorsports

With every increasing zooms on compact cameras and the affordability of digital SLRs, the world of fast cars is open to everyone, as Duncan Evans explains.

|  Sports and Action
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 shoot at a jaunty angle
Using a wide aperture and jaunty angle to create a dynamic close up picture.

In recent weeks in the office we've been regaled with compact cameras with ever increasing zooms. There's been 10x, 12x, and the last one through the door was an eye-popping 18x, offering a focal length equivalent of 504mm. Ideal for getting close to the action in motorsports. Alternatively, budget DSLRs are so cheap, you only need collect five tokens from a cereal packet, plus £2.50 p&p to get one these days. Add a 300mm zoom lens, and with the focal length shift of a typical DSLR, it's a 450mm lens and you're sniffing the exhaust fumes already.

So, you can afford the gear, where to go and what to shoot? Well, there are motorsport activities all over the UK, from off-road scrambling, to Formula One, from bikes and buggies to sleek racing cars. To begin, it's best to start at a track that has open days, where for a nominal sum, racing fans can bring their own cars and speed safely around the track. Here you are likely to see everything from a Lotus Elise to a TVR, kit cars and the odd Subaru. In fact, Lotus tend to be very popular at these events, and the low-key nature means that you'll be able to wander around the cars being cleaned and prepared, prior to heading onto the track. What you'll miss of course, are large crowds cheering on internationally-famous drivers, but you can upgrade to that later.

So, find out from your nearest race track when they are having an open day, and you can go along, generally for free. When bigger events are being held, you can expect to pay £12 for club events, and around £27 for something like the Bennetts British Superbike Championship. Check out the MotorSportVision website for details of Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Snetterton, Cadwell Park and Bedford Autodrome here.

 frozen in place
A fast shutter speed freezes the car on the spot.


Once down trackside, the most obvious problem is that motorsport is a very fast event, whether it's cars or bikes. Unless you have a camera that has very fast focussing, the best option is to pick a spot in the frame where you are going to capture the car. Focus on that spot and wait for the cars to come round into view and as they pass, fire away. You'll need a fairly fast shutter speed to freeze the action - something like 1/400sec or faster will do the trick. However, bear in mind that the further away you are from the action, the longer the telephoto lens or zoom you will need and the more chance there will be of camera shake.

There's a quick rule of thumb that's worth applying to help you keep a fast enough shutter speed, and that's take the focal length and make it a fraction of a second. If your focal length is say, 200mm, then you need a shutter speed of 1/200sec to avoid shake. If it's 400mm then you need a faster shutter speed, so 1/400sec should help. These are only guidelines though, because the more zoom or telephoto you use, the more secure the camera should be. You can't wave it around while running alongside the track and say, well, 1/400sec is fast enough.

 In the action
Find a long stretch of track to look down to capture cars racing in a line.

This next bit is what you need to do if you're a beginner so you might want to skip through. In practice then, you need to check the light level of the area you are shooting. I personally always use Aperture Priority mode, even when I want a specific range of shutter speeds. So, I'd start with dialling in say f/8 aperture and half-pressing the fire button on the area where the shot is going to be taken. This will take a meter reading and tell you in the camera what the shutter speed will be. If the speed is too low, select a lower f-stop number, which widens the aperture and let's more light in. If you get to the widest aperture and the shutter speed still isn't fast enough, then increase the ISO rating.

So, once you have your aperture sorted out that's going to give you the shutter speed required, then when you hear the cars coming, half-press the fire button at the point where you're going to take the picture. The camera will meter and focus. Hold it there and as the cars come through that spot, press the fire button down fully to take the picture.

As well as single cars racing along, it will look more dramatic if you can capture a bunch together, so look for a long stretch of track that extends out from your position, rather than shooting side on.

 Using a shallow depth-of-field
Using a wide open aperture limits the depth of field so that only the front end of the car is in focus.

The wider the aperture that you use for shooting with, the less depth-of-field will be in the pictures. When this is combined with using a telephoto lens, which have less depth-of-field than a wide angle lens, you can find that there's a very narrow area of sharp focus. If you get the shot right, this can look good, but aim to get the front grill of the car as the sharp area, otherwise it won't look right. After you've taken a few shots, review them on the camera's LCD and zoom right in to check sharpness. If you find that the area of sharp focus is too small, revise your shooting options and use a narrower aperture, which is to say, a higher f-stop number, up to f/8 which should be fine. This may require an increase in the ISO rating, which will double shutter speed as you go from ISO100 to ISO200, and subsequent increases. Beware though, on compact cameras, anything over ISO400 is usually pretty poor quality.

 Panning shot
The idea of panning is to keep the car sharp, but to blur the background to show movement.

This is a tricky technique, and is best tried from close up, rather than at the end of the telephoto zoom. So, find a space trackside where are sideways on to the cars. The thing about normal shots is that they freeze the car on the spot so it looks like it's parked there. The panning shot aims to keep the car sharp, but blur the background. To do this you need longer shutter speed and to pan the camera with the car. To start, set the aperture of the camera to something like f/16 or f/22 and this should give a slower shutter speed. If using a compact camera, set it to f/8 which is likely to be the narrowest aperture setting, and set the lowest ISO available. If you have the option of ISO50, then that will halve the shutter speed.

You should ideally aim for something less than 1/125sec, though it depends on how fast things are going. The downside is that the slower the shutter speed, the harder it is to keep the car in focus. Prefocus on the spot where the car is going to race through, sort out your aperture and shutter speeds by testing the metering, then wait for the car to arrive. As it comes towards the area where you are going to take the shot, line it up in the middle of the shot and start moving the camera - pan it with the movement of the car. Press the fire button down when the car hits your pre-focussed zone and keep panning it through the exposure. The longer the shutter speed, the more you can blur the background, but the harder it is to keep the car sharp. It's worth practising a few different combinations of shutter speed to see how well you can do this.

 about to race
About to race - this Lotus is waiting for the marshal to signal that it's clear to hit the track.

Those are the technical shots to go for, but there are easier and still pleasing photos to take. Look for cars heading out onto the track, perhaps including some of the track in the background. This is an easy shot - the car will be going slowly and be close to the spectators. On the days at the racetrack where drivers can bring their own cars, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and you can wander around the staging areas - which will be out of bounds for serious races. Look for abstract close ups of detail on the cars, or arrangements of wheels. Use the telephoto to get candids of the drivers tinkering with the engines. Also, switch to wide angle - if you have a DSLR then fit the widest lens you've got. Compact owners with a 28mm equivalent setting should rejoice and use that. Get up close to the subject and use dramatic angles to make the car appear dramatic or menacing.


 in the pits
A telephoto lens was used to isolate this arrangement of cars in the testing area.

close up abstracts 
A close up abstract showing the lines and curves of the car.



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